25 Years Later, Scholar Athletes Shine On

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

October 3, 2013

Jennifer Bissell and Scott Kieser had ideas how their futures might unfold when they stepped onto the Pontiac Silverdome turf to accept the inaugural Michigan High School Athletic Association Scholar-Athlete awards on Nov. 25, 1989.  

Bissell’s bio in the MHSAA Football Finals program mentioned the Vestaburg senior planned to attend Grand Valley State University and study broadcasting and public relations. Kieser, a senior at Unionville-Sebewaing, was set to attend Michigan Tech University and major in secondary education.

Inevitably when high school students are deciding on careers, some of those plans changed.

Kieser’s didn’t much; he did attend Michigan Tech, and after considering engineering during his first year stuck with education and is now a teacher and coach at Bay City Western High School. Bissell – now Dr. Jennifer Forrest – ended up with destinations different, nearby and then afar. She attended Central Michigan University on her way to becoming an orthopedic surgeon in Durango, Colo.

But the impact of high school sports – and what it meant to be named the MHSAA’s first Scholar Athletes – is not lost on either nearly a quarter century later.

“I vaguely remember ... watching the game from the booth, going out onto the field and the announcement,” Forrest recalled this week. “(But) I was very honored to get that award. It looked at both how well you did in school and participation in sports.”

“To walk on the field, shake Mr. (Jack) Roberts’ hand, see the award, it was a great honor,” Kieser said. “I was very lucky to have a lot of coaches in high school that inspired me and made me enjoy the learning in the classroom and all of the great life lessons I learned on the field, the basketball court and those arenas.”

The MHSAA has been fortunate as well to have Farm Bureau Insurance as its sponsor for all 24 years of the Scholar-Athlete Award. The program has evolved substantially from 1989-90 – when two students were recognized during the fall, winter and spring seasons – to this winter’s 25th celebration, during which Farm Bureau will award $1,000 scholarships to 32 student athletes based on their achievements both academic and athletic.

Each month building up to March's presentation, Second Half will catch up with some of the hundreds who have earned Scholar-Athlete Awards. 

Now both 40 years old, the first winners certainly fit the bill. Forrest was a three-sport athlete participating in cross country, volleyball and softball and was president of Vestaburg’s student council. Kieser was co-captain of USA’s football and basketball teams, vice-president of his school’s student council and a member of the Tuscola County Leadership Forum.

And they’ve made good on the promise they showed and the awards they received as their futures lay ahead of them that Thanksgiving weekend. 

Lists of exceptional accomplishments

The record board at Vestaburg High School still lists “J. Bissell” for fastest 5K time – at least one sign that Forrest’s legacy lives on in her little hometown.

One of her two older siblings still live there, her sister-in-law is a teacher at the high school and her niece Jaycee cracks up when people occasionally think the name on the leaderboard is hers.

During her days walking those same school halls, Forrest never pictured herself in an operating room. In fact, she never wanted to picture the possibility.

Forrest babysat for a doctor while in high school and decided she wanted no part of the doctor lifestyle with its unpredictable schedule and 80-hour work weeks. But she was interested in physical therapy, and despite her early leanings toward studying communications settled on CMU and its sports medicine program.

She spent three hours in the CMU training room most afternoons her freshman year, helping with the gymnastics and track and field teams among others. As a sophomore she worked in a physical therapy office, which she found to be a little monotonous – and so she started considering that occupation she figured was out of the question only a few years before.

Forrest did end up in medical school, at Wayne State University, but figured she’d become an emergency room doctor and definitely never a surgeon. And then she changed her mind on that one too – Forrest ended up going into orthopedic surgery, did a residency at University of California-Irvine, married another doctor from northern California and eventually ended up in Durango – a destination that seems meant to be for a family that loves biking and snow sports.

Each Memorial weekend Forrest races in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, which pits competitors against a steam engine traveling 50 miles (and climbing 5,500 feet) from Durango to Silverton.

“Partly because of my background in sports, I gravitated toward sports-related injuries,” Forrest said. “I enjoyed being in sports in high school, and I’m still a road cyclist, still into sports myself.”

Forrest’s bio now on the Animas Orthopedic Associates website lists her as practicing general orthopedics with special interests in arthritis management, joint replacement surgery, hand surgery, pediatric orthopedics and orthopedics trauma.  

She and her husband have three daughters ages 6-9 who also are active athletically, and they make the trip back to Michigan at least once every few summers.

While her continued appearance on the Vestaburg record book surprised Forrest at first, her name also appears on another impressive list – among the CMU Admissions Office’s “notable CMU alumni” alongside CBS sportscaster Dick Enberg, various NFL and NBA players and the author of “Marley & Me.”

“I don’t think of myself as that,” Forrest said.

“I really liked science and medicine, and in the long run it all worked out fine.”

Back to school to make a difference

Kieser remembers being in sixth and seventh grade and dreaming of being on the varsity football and basketball teams. When he got his chance, he understood the importance of setting the right example for the younger hopefuls looking up to him.

He continued to do the same at Michigan Tech and has made guiding young athletes and students his life’s work at Bay City Western.

Kieser was the starting quarterback at Michigan Tech in 1993 and 1995 (missing 1994 with a broken foot) and was ranked among the top 50 nationally in Division 2 for total offense per game and passing efficiency. He decided to go out for the basketball team as a junior and started as a senior while earning the team’s scholastic achievement award with a 3.65 grade-point average while studying mathematics.

He also received both teams’ sportsmanship award, and was recognized by Burger King during his senior year as a Burger King National Scholar Athlete Award winner (the announcement appeared during the broadcast of the University of Michigan/Notre Dame game that fall). Tech’s football program received $25,000 for that accomplishment, and a scholarship in Kieser’s name is given to this day to an incoming freshman football player.

“Now that I reflect on it, that honor I won in high school really motivated me to continue that through college,” he said.

And beyond. Kieser teaches calculus and geometry at Bay City Western and is the junior varsity football coach. He hired in at the school right out of college in 1996 both as a teacher and the boys basketball varsity coach, a post he manned for seven seasons. All told, he’s coached some sport – track and field, soccer, baseball, football, basketball – at the high school, middle school or youth levels every year since he graduated at Tech.

He did consider engineering and the heftier paycheck that likely would’ve followed. But, “as I got a little bit older, I realized ... you’re not working for money (as a teacher). You’re working to help kids become the best they can be. Playing sports in college helped me mature, and I wanted to help as many other kids as possible reach their potential.”

He tries to teach his players to have pride in doing things the right away, respecting their opponents and the officials even despite the heated situations that arise in every game – the lessons he learned growing up across Saginaw Bay.

“I feel like the luckiest person in the world teaching and coaching and being involved I athletics,” Kieser said, “trying to encourage more kids to get involved, go out for a sport, do the best they can in the classroom, being the best they can be.”

PHOTO: MHSAA Executive Director Jack Roberts (far left) presents Scott Kieser with his Scholar-Athlete Award in 1989 at the Pontiac Silverdome, while Jennifer Bissell receives hers from Larry Thomas, the then-executive vice president of Farm Bureau Insurance.

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.