'Iowa boy' Offenburger chronicles Saggau, IHSAA in new book

Thursday, October 13, 2005

GREENE COUNTY, Iowa - Famed Iowa writer Chuck Offenburger remembers the first time he saw and heard Bernie Saggau speak.

Saggau was addressing a group of seniors during graduation day in the mid 1960s at Hamburg High in southeast Iowa, near Offenburger's hometown of Shenendoah.

"I had heard that this guy was a real dynamo," Offenburger told the Pilot Tribune from his home here Tuesday night about 40 miles to the west and south of Des Moines.

Whomever had offered that opinion on Saggau certainly got it right, as Offenburger found out.

"Bernie was so animated while he spoke that there wasn't a kid in the audience who wasn't focused on his message," Offenburger said. "I've seen him give a half dozen or so speeches since, and he's even better at it now. He's a spellbinder of a speaker."

In the mid-60s, Saggau was an assistant executive director at the Iowa High School Athletic Association, a job he took because of his abiding faith in the value of extracurricular activities in high school.

He was offered the assistant's job with the idea that he would eventually take over the IHSAA's top spot from Lyle T. Quinn, who was nearing retirement.

Saggau took over for Quinn in September of 1967, and the rest is history. He presided over the IHSAA for the next 38 years before retiring last January. In the process, he became the most recognized - and most effective - athletic administrator in the country.

Offenburger, who is best-known for his "Iowa Boy" columns in the Des Moines Register from the 1970s until 1998, was chosen by the IHSAA to chronicle the organization's history.

His book, "Bernie Saggau and the Iowa Boys - The Centennial History of the (IHSAA)," covers a wide range of subjects, all with an Iowa flavor.

It's not only a biography of Saggau, but also a history of Iowa's notable athletes, teams, coaches, teachers and referees of the past 100 years.

Offenburger said he originally envisioned interviewing about 150 people for the book, which he thought would wind up about 300 pages in length.

Because of Iowa's rich history in boys high school sports, he said, the project ballooned in scope. He spent over two years compiling information from 400 sources for a book that weighs in at 500 pages.

As Offenburger writes in the preface, "the stories just kept coming."

And many of them revolve around Saggau, a living Iowa legend whose leadership made the IHSAA one of the "most important organizations in Iowa," Offenburger said.

Both Saggau and Offenburger have close ties to Storm Lake. Saggau, whose formative years growing up in Denison are colorfully chronicled in the book, attended Buena Vista University just after World War II.

Though just over 5-foot-6 in stature, he was a standout for BVU football and track teams of that era.

After graduating from BV, Saggau would come back to Storm Lake to officiate Tornado football and basketball games. Saggau was as good at officiating as he was at administrating; during his career as referee, he routinely worked Big Eight basketball games. He was later recognized as being one of the top college basketball referees in the country.

One of the chapters of the book chronicles Saggau's years at BVU and Storm Lake. When BVU began its football Hall of Fame, Saggau was one of three original inductees.

According to Offenburger, Saggau pulls no punches when it comes to his football career at BVU.

"I think the reason they put me in there was as a token, as a representative of all the athletes who were average in talent but who gave 110 percent," Saggau later said. "Honestly, I was an average football player, maybe a little better than some expected just because of my size, but very average."

Offenburger, meanwhile, became familiar with Storm Lake and the surrounding area through his columns in the Register.

For two years in the late 1990s, Offenburger was a writer-in-residence at BVU, where he taught journalism and writing courses.

"(Storm Lake) is a wonderful place, and with BV, there's always a lot going on for a city that size," he said. He said he's always admired how Storm Lake has welcomed an influx of immigrants over the past decade or so.

"The way it has dealt with its increasing diversity is a model for Iowa cities and towns that are experiencing the same thing," he said. "And Storm Lake High has been a part of that, with a lot of minority students involved in sports and other activities."

If Offenburger enjoys reminiscing about his days teaching at BVU, he also relishes talking about Saggau and his passion for high school sports and Iowa's communities.

There are countless stories in the book about Saggau, from his formative years growing up in Denison, to his days at BVU, to his refereeing and leadership of the IHSAA.

When Saggau addresses a group of students, coaches, teachers or communities, Offenburger said, several themes are constant.

"He's very passionate that high school sports and other extra-curricular activities remain a part of secondary educational programs," Offenburger said.

"He's a firm believer that students learn important lessons through sports," he said. "Bernie believes that sportsmanship is one of the most important values.

"And when he talks to audiences, he stresses the importance of enjoying what you do for a living," he said. "A lot of people in America, maybe most, don't enjoy going to work each day.

"One of the things Bernie says in the book is that during his time at the IHSAA, he enjoyed getting up and going to work for all but 20 days. And those 20 days was when he was in court."

No, Saggau was never in trouble with the law. But some of the tough decisions he made with the IHSAA were challenged legally.

"Bernie brought the IHSAA into the modern era, through a period of years when there was a lot of change in Iowa and the rest of the country," Offenburger said.

Early in his tenure, for instance, he oversaw the "classification" of Iowa boys prep sports, making sure small schools competed against schools of their own size with large schools doing the same.

In 1970, Saggau took considerable flak for spearheading the move of the prep state wrestling tournament from Waterloo to Des Moines. Eventually, the Iowa State Wrestling Tournament became famous nationwide by drawing 90,000 fans a year.

In 1982, Iowa became the first state in the country to integrate the three-point shot into boys high school basketball, a rule that was later adopted by the NCAA and by other states across the nation.

"Bernie wasn't afraid to make controversial decisions that he felt were needed," Offenburger said. "He always told people, 'I get paid to make the tough decisions.'"

Saggau learned to face and conquer adversity early in his life, growing up in Denison during the 1930s, the days of the "Great Depression."

He was prevented one year from playing junior high school football because of his small size. Instead of playing on the gridiron that year, he channeled his energy into being one of the team's cheerleaders.

Later, Saggau saw varsity football action as a sophomore and junior at Denison High, and was starting quarterback his senior season. He was a starter for several years on Denison basketball, baseball and track teams, and wound up being recruited by BVU coaches for football.

Nevertheless, Saggau never had faced the type of adversity he would experience later in his life.

In 1976, Saggau's son Jeff was fatally injured in a car accident while on a skiing trip with his girlfriend Rachel Robinson.

According to Offenburger's account, Saggau and his wife Lois knew they would always feel the pain of the loss. But they also knew they had to move on.

In a Christmas newsletter he sent out to family and friends, Saggau concluded with this: "Every year, I try to end with something I think it is important to the people we love. To protect oneself from ever having a broken heart, just don't love, but oh, what a price to pay. Too high a price, to say the least."

"I think Jeff's death changed Bernie in some ways," Offenburger said. "He spent more time with his family, and he also reached out to many other parents who were either having difficulty with a child or had lost one.

"He wrote a lot of letters to people who has suffered the same tragedy."

Over the years, Saggau gained countless honors for his dynamic leadership of the IHSAA. In 1993, for instance, he was inducted to the National Federation of State High School Association's Hall of Fame.

According to IHSAA Information Specialist Budd Legg, Saggau "is regarded as one of the most influential figures in prep sports in the U.S."

"In Iowa," Offenburger wrote, "high school extracurricular activities - especially sports - hold a higher place in the local culture than those activities do in other states,"

He added over the phone that "there isn't a better place to be a high school athlete than Iowa. That's because there is so much support from small, rural communities where high school sports are the main form of entertainment."

Over the years, Saggau has continued his much-in-demand speaking appearances. Through all the drastic change in America, particularly changes in the country's popular culture, Saggau's firm faith in the power of education, prep sports, music and other extracurriculars, remains steadfast.

He knows each has the power to change young peoples' lives for the better. It can also change communities for the better, in Iowa and elsewhere.

During one speaking engagement, Offenburger wrote, Saggau showed that he is not only a proponent of time-tested values, but is forward-looking as well.

Saggau said this in a recent speech: "...The key is getting our kids involved in something, and we've done a pretty good job of that in Iowa, because 80 percent of our high school students are involved in at least one extracurricular activity.

"You know, we have too much 'I' and not enough 'we' in our society today, and it's in our school activities where we really teach the 'we's' - the teamwork that society needs."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: