By RJ Walters / Daily News Sports Editor
As published in the Hillsdale Daily News on April 8, 2009
For more than three decades, Jack Kerspilo and Fred Bowers have been as recognizable as the Reading Ranger and Waldron Spartan logos they represent.
They have been fixtures in their communities, on the sidelines, in the classroom and behind the scenes more than sports fans know — and recently the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association took notice, honoring them with Dedicated Service awards at the annual conference at Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City on March 23.
Kerspilo has served as the Reading athletic director for 35 years, tied for the longest tenure of any AD in the state with Al Martus of Goodrich, and is still going strong.
Bowers is a certifiable “lifer” as well, earning recognition for 30 years at the helm as the Spartans’ athletic director, and he has nearly 40 years of experience in the Waldron Area School District. But the end of his tenure is near, just a little over two months to be exact.
At the last board of education meeting he officially resigned from the position, saying, “At some point and time you have to turn the reigns over to someone else and now was the right time.”
Bowers said with tighter budgets mandated and schools statewide downsizing it was the right time to exit left.
The finish line may be in plain view for one of these two men, but both will be highly revered by the schools and athletic departments they transformed and took care of long after they are gone.
As a young man Kerspilo had his sights set on being the head football coach at Reading among other things, but a vacancy in the athletic department caught his attention because the Rangers already had well-established coaches in most of their sports. When he took over President Nixon was in the midst of an historic scandal — and after balancing a Ranger athletic budget that was in the red when he was hired, coaching the 1981 Reading baseball team to a state championship, and touching numerous lives — the country is under the administration of its first-ever black president and Kerspilo still sits in the AD office at John E. Owens Junior Senior High School.
And, as close confidant, and the coach who guided the school to another state championship on the diamond in 2007, Rick Bailey will tell you, not a whole lot has changed with “Coach K”:
“There are two things that come to mind right away when you talk about Jack. First, he always talks about doing the right thing; you know right from wrong and don’t waver in that. Sometimes that means there will be tough decisions to make, but you have to do things the right way. And then with him, you always have consistency. You know when you go to “Coach K” you won’t always like what he has to say, but he will be honest with you and tell you what he thinks is best.”
When Waldron residents talk about Bowers, many of them talk about his ability to get the job done with hardly any background noise and he is widely known as someone who has always had the students best interests at hand.
As Kerspilo put it, Bowers is a counterpart he’s glad to have known over the years.
“Make sure you mention Fred now, he’s a good man,” he said. “Both of us sat with our wives together for dinner that night (in Traverse City) and it is special to have people like him around the area.”
Bowers has been a man of many hats, albeit a man who has always worn a Spartan hat.
He was a teacher for 27 years, the school principal for five years and even took on the role of interim superintendent at one point; on the athletics side he was the head football coach for 27 years, a track and field coach for 20 seasons, and the leader of the boy’s basketball program for yet another 10 years.
He was named the Regional Athletic Director of the Year in 1998, an award Kerspilo was honored with four years prior.
Bowers said initially he kind of just “assumed” the athletic director duties, because as the school principal that was part of the job description at the time.
Soon enough though the position took on a title all its own, one that Bowers thinks people still have a hard time fully understanding.
“Most people don’t really understand what an athletic director does. They just think that we come to the game and if it goes smoothly everything is a success,” he said. “The work behind the scenes is the bulk of it; getting the officials, the ticket-takers, concessions volunteers — and of course all of the scheduling.”
He said he always saw himself as sort of intermediary between the MHSAA and his coaches and players, something that wasn’t always easy, but necessary nonetheless.
Kerspilo agreed that enforcing the rules isn’t always a simple matter of right and wrong, because it often affects the entire athletic department.
But as Bailey put it, Kerspilo’s ability to justly handle the problems that have arisen over the years has gained him the ultimate respect as an authority figure.
“He has served as a mentor to all us when we were early on in our coaching careers. But he let us all grow and he doesn’t mettle,” he said. “He says here are the guidelines, now work within them and do the best you can.”
Kerpsilo has made such an impact in his community that the board of education decided to name the school gymnasium after him several years ago, something that the strong-willed, soft-hearted AD said means the world to him.
“You never envision (seeing your name on it) and sometimes even when I go by it still seems unexpected. It’s great though to be able to have that when you’re still around, instead of just to celebrate your life when you’re gone,” he said. “That is right up there for the most special things to me, probably right there with being the commencement speaker at graduation one year.”
When asked about how long he intends to stick around, “Coach K” just chuckles a little, but Bailey said he has ideas about how long Kerspilo should stay put.
“I’m still hoping to beat him out of here. He’s not showing signs of slowing down,” Bailey said. “I can’t imagine our athletic program without him.”
While Reading faithful seemingly still have time before they have to search for Kerspilo’s predecessor, the same process has already started in Waldron.
Bowers said he has not been asked to be part of the undertaking and he is not at liberty to say what direction the Spartans’ program is headed in, but if the school ever wanted his input or assistance he would be glad to share what he knows.
As for life after being an AD? Bowers, a Pittsford High School graduate, envisions it as somewhat simple, with many evenings still spent at ball fields and area gyms.
“I guess I’ll have more time to hunt and fish,” he said. “And I’ll still watch a lot of athletic contests — especially with some grandkids coming through the Hillsdale school system.”