'Larger-Than-Life' Pennfield AD Admired for Statewide Service

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

April 14, 2021

BATTLE CREEK — To many Battle Creek sports enthusiasts, Bernie Larson was known as “Mr. Pennfield.”

Southwest CorridorBut for two former athletes, twins Chris and Cam Larson, that was not the case.

“I never knew him or thought of him as Mr. Pennfield; he was Dad,” Chris said.

Larson, 78, who served as athletic director at Pennfield for 29 years, died March 14 after an extended illness.

A memorial service is being planned for May 15 at a time and place to be determined.

“A lot more remembrances come back when someone passes,” said Chris Larson, who lives in Virginia. “You hear so many stories from people who remember him, including former students and coaches.

“It’s great to hear the impact he had on so many people that you never knew about.”

Stories are plentiful when it comes to Bernie Larson.

“He was a heckuva golfer,” said Karen Leinaar, the current executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA) who during an early stop served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg, which with Pennfield for a time was part of the Kalamazoo Valley Association. “If you needed golf balls on the course, everyone said, ‘Just ask Bernie.’ He always had them.”

The reason?

“If he had one ball in his bag, he had 50 or 60 in his bag,” said Larry Wegener, former Battle Creek Central athletic director. “He had milk crates full of golf balls in his garage” that he found on the course or fished out of ponds.

Championship City

When Larson was named Pennfield’s athletic director in 1970, it became a family affair.

“I had no clue, no clue,” said Joni, Larson’s wife of 56 years. “We never trained to be wives of athletic directors. We learned the most from other wives.”

Bernie Larson familyShe became involved in the job, selling tickets at home games. When their sons were old enough, they helped out with the field.

“They knew where the flag was kept and how to play the national anthem. They learned how to keep score” and were active in playing sports, she recalled.

“Cam (who lives in Minnesota) played football, baseball and basketball,” Chris Larson said. “I played tennis, golf and basketball. We grew up playing little league baseball and football.”

One family favorite was the yearly athletic directors conference at Grand Traverse Resort.

“He was there for business; we kids were there for fun,” his son said. “As we got older, we went to the auditorium that was filled with booths with sports-related things.

“As a kid we went around and grabbed the swag. It was a kids of athletic directors thing.”

It was not all fun and games.

“Bernie Larson was instrumental putting Battle Creek on the map athletically,” Leinaar said. “Four of (the ADs), Bernie, Ralph Kenyon of Harper Creek, Glen Schulz of Lakeview and Larry Wegener of Central put on the tournaments and had crews of people every year right there helping.

“Their hard work and commitment to the MHSAA, running perfect tournaments, made Battle Creek a stop for athletics for many, many years. Many times, Bernie led the pack.”

In spite of his willingness to help others, there was a caveat, Leinaar said.

“He would say to me, ‘Karen, I’ll help you out however I can, but remember, Pennfield is going to win.’

“Pennfield joined the KVA in the late 1980s, so we saw each other quite a bit. Our football games were always barn burners as were track and field.”

Leinaar/WegenerWegener recalls those days full of tournaments and 65-hour work weeks.

“We did so many MHSAA events, I think a lot of people thought we were on the staff,” he said.

Those tournaments included more than 50 state championships in baseball and softball, team and individual wrestling, volleyball and girls basketball.

Brett Steele, Pennfield’s current AD, said Larson “was still a strong presence in the athletic department and community as a whole even after he retired.

“Up until last winter, Bernie still helped out at football and basketball games as our officials host. He knew most of the officials in those sports and was a familiar face to many when they worked games at Pennfield.”

Larson had served as an MHSAA basketball and baseball official. He also helped found and is a member of the Pennfield Hall of Fame and coached both girls and boys golf.

He received the MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 1997, the MHSAA’s Charles Forsythe Award in 1999 and was the MIAAA State Athletic Director of the Year for 1991-92.

All About Family

In spite of the hours spent with his job, Larson was a good family man, Wegener said.

“He spoke highly of his kids,” he said. “Chris and Cam were the pride of his life. Joni was a real good fit for him.”

Wegener said Larson was a larger-than-life guy.

“If you were going to run a tournament and you brought a notebook full of stuff for your tournament, Bernie brought a briefcase.

“If you brought a briefcase, Bernie brought a suitcase. He just believed in being prepared for everything.”

One thing the athletic directors did a lot was frequent restaurants, and Larson had his favorites.

“Perkins whenever he traveled, the Pancake House every Sunday and the Irish Pub,” Chris Larson said.

A person could always spot Larson. He was with one with the napkin tucked over his shirt.

“He always wore a suit and tie and would use a napkin as a bib because he was always spilling something on his necktie,” Joni Larson said.

Another thing her husband was famous for was his jokes.

“He always had a favorite joke that I’d hear 27 times,” she said, laughing. “It was like he had a joke of the week, and everybody had to hear it.”

During summers, Larson taught driver’s education at the school, something Chris Larson remembers well.

Bernie Larson family“I remember on the last day of driver’s ed, you drove for 45 minutes,” he said. “My brother and I and one other kid were in the car, and I drove to Lansing to the MHSAA and we sat in the parking lot while my dad went inside.

“I know the MHSAA through his eyes and through my own eyes.”

Larson’s love of sports transferred to his sons.

“We all share a love of golf and would play together any chance we got, but over the past years his health wouldn't allow him to play,” Chris Larson said. “I miss that very much.”

Another tradition is being carried on by his son, but it evolved in an unusual way.

The twins were a Christmas surprise for Bernie and Joni.

“They didn’t do ultrasounds routinely back then (1974) so we didn’t know,” Joni Larson said. “We had Bernie’s middle name, Leon, picked out as a first name,” Joni Larson said.

“When we found out there were twins, we gave Chris ‘Leon’ as his middle name and Cameron ‘Noel’ which is Leon backwards, so both had dad’s middle name.”

Chris Larson has continued the tradition, giving his oldest son, Joshua, Leon as a middle name.

Chris Larson echoed the thoughts of many who knew Mr. Pennfield as a people person.

“In my opinion, he was the most Christian man I knew. He lived a Christian life and he shared it with others,” Chris said.

“He was chaplain for some baseball and basketball teams. He knew somebody everywhere no matter where we went in the state.”

Chris Larson paid a special tribute to his father after the funeral.

“He had a parking spot in the circle of the old Pennfield High School right in front of his office,” he said. “His van was there all the time.

“One of the things I did after the funeral was just hang out there for a while.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at pamkzoo@aol.com with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Longtime Pennfield athletic director Bernie Larson also raised his family in the district, with sons Chris (left) and Cam among those to wear the uniform. (2) Bernie and Joni Larson were married 56 years. (3) Among Larson’s longtime colleagues were former Delton Kellogg athletic director Karen Leinaar and retired Battle Creek Central athletic director Larry Wegener. (4) The Larson family, more recently, from left: Cam, Joni, Bernie and Chris. (Family photos courtesy of the Larson family; head shots by Pam Shebest.)

2023 Forsythe Award Celebrates Leinaar's 40 Years Dedicated to School Sports

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

March 8, 2023

Few people in Michigan have had a longer-lasting influence on the rules and policies of educational athletics than Frankfort’s Karen Leinaar, who has served in several roles locally, statewide and nationally over more than 40 years contributing to the school sports community.

Thank you, Bill Baker.

The longtime teacher, coach, principal and superintendent during a career that stretched across multiple schools – including Leinaar’s growing up, Delton Kellogg – made an impression on the standout multi-sport athlete before she graduated from high school in 1977. Baker’s philosophy and work led Leinaar to study education at Michigan State University and then brought her back as Delton’s athletic director to begin four decades of making the same impact on children in her hometown and eventually in hometowns all over Michigan and beyond.

Baker died in 2009, but not before continuing to mentor Leinaar through many good times and tough ones.

“The man had two daughters that I grew up with, his wife was a teacher, and he demonstrated to all of us – he never missed an event – that we were important to him. That even though we weren’t his kids, we were his kids and athletics was a way to help kids become better people – and for some kids it was the only thing that they had positive in their life,” Leinaar said. “And he made it known just to that individual kid how important their participation was and their involvement, and how that helped them become the person that they were.

“That to me was such an example of how to help people be good people, that I just took that role on.”

It’s a role in which she continues to serve. Leinaar began her career as an athletic administrator in 1982, and as the interim athletic director currently at Frankfort High School is serving her fifth district in that position. Since June 2019, she also has served as executive director of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), the professional organization for school sports administrators in the state with a membership of nearly 700.

Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998. To recognize that longtime and continuing impact, Leinaar has been named the 2023 honoree for the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Charles E. Forsythe Award.

The annual award is in its 46th year and named after former MHSAA Executive Director Charles E. Forsythe, the Association's first full-time and longest-serving chief executive. Forsythe Award recipients are selected each year by the MHSAA Representative Council, based on an individual's outstanding contributions to the interscholastic athletics community.

Leinaar also served 22 years on the MHSAA’s Representative Council and a four-year term from 2009-13 on the Board of Directors for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), and just last week was named to the 2023 class of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

“It is impossible even to estimate the number of students, coaches, administrators and others who have been affected by the work Karen Leinaar has done to make school sports the best they can be – not only in her communities, but across Michigan and throughout the country,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “There are few who have equaled her dedication and her support and promotion of the ideals of school-based sports. She has always placed an emphasis on being in the room, on the field or at the arena, actively participating in her leadership roles, and our programs are better for it.”

Leinaar first served as athletic director at Delton Kellogg for nearly 17 years, from March 1982 through October 1998. She spent three years at Gaylord, then 8½ at Benzie Central before taking over at Bear Lake in November 2010 and spending the next decade organizing athletic programs for students in grades 5-12 before retiring in January 2021. She came out of retirement to return to the athletic director’s chair this past fall as interim AD at Frankfort. She has completed nearly four years as MIAAA executive director, moving into that position after previously serving nine years as an assistant to the executive.

Leinaar began her service on the Representative Council in Fall 1999 and completed her last term as a statewide at-large representative at the Fall 2021 meeting.

She has been honored several times for her contributions. She received the MHSAA’s Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998, a Citation from the NFHS in 2000, and she was named MIAAA Athletic Director of the Year in 2001. She received an MHSAA’s Allen W. Bush Award in 2014 – recognition given for work done generally behind the scenes and with little attention.

“This is the top of the mountain, per se. This one does mean so much,” Leinaar said of the Forsythe Award. “The names that are associated with this over the years, I never thought I’d be put in that group.”

Leinaar remains a continuous source of support at a multitude of MHSAA championship events, and during her time on Council was one of the most frequent representatives handing out trophies and medals to champions and runners-up at Finals events. She began while athletic director at Delton Kellogg hosting the MHSAA Volleyball Finals in Class B and Class C and continues to assist with those championships now played at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek.

She also hosted Competitive Cheer Finals at Delton Kellogg in 1996 and 1997, Ski Finals while at Gaylord, and many more championship events across the Lower Peninsula. She continues to assist at the MHSAA’s Lower Peninsula Cross Country and Track & Field Finals.

After attending Delton Kellogg High School, Leinaar earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education, health and recreation, with a minor in driver education, from MSU in 1982. She completed a master’s in athletic administration from Western Michigan University in 1994.

Leinaar has been a member for 40 years of both the MIAAA and NIAAA, and has served as chairperson of the MIAAA Annual Conference and awards chairperson for both the state and national bodies. She’s also served as chairperson of the MIAAA’s Exemplary Athletic Program.

Past recipients of the Charles E. Forsythe Award 

1978 - Brick Fowler, Port Huron; Paul Smarks, Warren 
1979 - Earl Messner, Reed City; Howard Beatty, Saginaw 
1980 - Max Carey, Freesoil 
1981 - Steven Sluka, Grand Haven; Samuel Madden, Detroit
1982 - Ernest Buckholz, Mt. Clemens; T. Arthur Treloar, Petoskey
1983 - Leroy Dues, Detroit; Richard Maher, Sturgis 
1984 - William Hart, Marquette; Donald Stamats, Caro
1985 - John Cotton, Farmington; Robert James, Warren 
1986 - William Robinson, Detroit; Irving Soderland, Norway 
1987 - Jack Streidl, Plainwell; Wayne Hellenga, Decatur 
1988 - Jack Johnson, Dearborn; Alan Williams, North Adams
1989 - Walter Bazylewicz, Berkley; Dennis Kiley, Jackson 
1990 - Webster Morrison, Pickford; Herbert Quade, Benton Harbor 
1991 - Clifford Buckmaster, Petoskey; Donald Domke, Northville 
1992 - William Maskill, Kalamazoo; Thomas G. McShannock, Muskegon 
1993 - Roy A. Allen Jr., Detroit; John Duncan, Cedarville 
1994 - Kermit Ambrose, Royal Oak 
1995 - Bob Perry, Lowell 
1996 - Charles H. Jones, Royal Oak 
1997 - Michael A. Foster, Richland; Robert G. Grimes, Battle Creek 
1998 - Lofton C. Greene, River Rouge; Joseph J. Todey, Essexville 
1999 - Bernie Larson, Battle Creek 
2000 - Blake Hagman, Kalamazoo; Jerry Cvengros, Escanaba 
2001 - Norm Johnson, Bangor; George Lovich, Canton 
2002 - John Fundukian, Novi 
2003 - Ken Semelsberger, Port Huron
2004 - Marco Marcet, Frankenmuth
2005 - Jim Feldkamp, Troy
2006 - Dan McShannock, Midland; Dail Prucka, Monroe
2007 - Keith Eldred, Williamston; Tom Hickman, Spring Lake
2008 - Jamie Gent, Haslett; William Newkirk, Sanford Meridian
2009 - Paul Ellinger, Cheboygan
2010 - Rudy Godefroidt, Hemlock; Mike Boyd, Waterford
2011 - Eric C. Federico, Trenton
2012 - Bill Mick, Midland
2013 - Jim Gilmore, Tecumseh; Dave Hutton, Grandville
2014 - Dan Flynn, Escanaba

2015 - Hugh Matson, Saginaw
2016 - Gary Hice, Petoskey; Gina Mazzolini, Lansing
2017 - Chuck Nurek, Rochester Hills
2018 - Gary Ellis, Allegan
2019 - Jim Derocher, Negaunee; Fredrick J. Smith, Stevensville
2020 - Michael Garvey, Lawton
2021 - Leroy Hackley Jr., Byron Center; Patti Tibaldi, Traverse City
2022 - Bruce Horsch, Houghton

PHOTOS (Top) Karen Leinaar, left, awards the 2022 Division 4 volleyball finalist trophy to Indian River Inland Lakes coach Nicole Moore. (Middle) Leinaar accepts the MHSAA's Women In Sports Leadership Award in 1998.