By Ron Pesch
WHITEHALL–Every town has stories to tell. What they sometimes lack is a storyteller.
On November 12, 2011, a group of modern-day coaches and teachers stepped forward to fill that role, capturing a missing piece from their city’s history, then delivering a lasting gift for all to enjoy.
“The first annual Whitehall High School Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet was the culmination of 3 years of hard work by the Hall of Fame committee,” wrote the White Lake Beacon shortly after the formal gathering honoring the inaugural class of members at the White Lake VFW Post 3256. “The committee spent many hours accumulating historical records and searching for the top athletes who have played at Whitehall High School.”
Among the first group was Nate McLouth, a 2000 graduate, and arguably the most recognizable of past Viking athletes. He played 10 years of Major League Baseball, including being an MLB All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008.
But also honored that night were Don Witt, a 1964 Whitehall graduate, and Osie Rostic, the only African-American in the class of 1952.
Witt, a three-sport star who helped lead Whitehall to the state basketball quarterfinals in 1963, won a 120-yard hurdle state title in track in the spring of 1964 and earned a scholarship to play football at the University of Michigan.
With Rostic playing a primary role, the Vikings fell one point shy of capturing the 1952 Class C state track and field championship.
“Rostic won the 100, anchored the 880-yard relay team to victory and took second in the 220-yard dash,” recalled Jim Moyes, Michigan’s premier track historian in a pair of 2010 articles written for The Muskegon Chronicle. Moyes detailed Rostic’s compelling life story in “an era when racial acceptance was often the exception, not the rule.”
Another multi-sport performer for the Vikings, Rostic later starred in football at Augustana College in Rock Island, Il.
Jim “Red” Heeres, a father figure of sorts to thousands of Whitehall High School students through 48 years of service as a teacher and coach, was honored with the hall’s first Lifetime Service Award.
Kirk Mikkelson, vice president of the hall, credits Warren Zweigle with truly establishing the building blocks for honoring the school’s best of the best. Zweigle, was inducted into the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association (MHSBCA) Hall of Fame in 2012. He began coaching the Vikings during the 1994-95 school year.
“He had a vision of creating a program that recognized our outstanding athletes, teams, coaches and community members. A part of that spark was the fact that we lacked record-keeping for school records or all-state honors. One of our best basketball players, Jaren Edsall, scored well over 1,000 points and we believed he was the school record holder in career points, but we weren’t sure. So that was a part of the impetus. Warren also envisioned a connection between generations where our young athletes knew and were aware of the history of their school and sport.”
Since that time, the group has been very busy.
“There have been 43 individuals inducted into the hall of fame and 3 teams (the boys golf teams of 1959 and 1964, the first 2 state titles in school history, and the 1962 football team, our school’s only undefeated football team). Six of the individuals were for our Lifetime Service Award, the other 37 were WHS graduates (student/athletes) or Viking coaches.”
The fruit of their efforts is prominently displayed at the high school and meshes tightly with Zweigle’s vision of placing those achievements front and center for all to see.
“At the corner of the cafeteria, auditorium, and gym entry we have a Whitehall Sports Hall of Fame cove. We display the plaques of our inductees here along with three glass cabinets that contain our state trophies and some memorabilia from some of our inductees and benefactors. We also have a tile floor design that was paid for by the generous donations of the Zylstra family and the Hall of Fame. We have also added a lot of trophy cases so that each and every sport has a (place) to display trophies and other important memorabilia for their sport.”
Among the most eye-catching exhibits are those that line the walls entering the gym lobby area.
“We honor any athlete who competes at the collegiate level at a Division 1 NCAA school,” added Mikkelson, “When we receive a jersey from a graduate who competed at a Division 1 college, we have the jersey professionally framed, presented to the athlete at our annual banquet and hang it in our entryway to the gymnasium.”
Connecting Old with New
“We do require the inductees to have been out of high school for a minimum of 10 years, which is a pretty normal prerequisite for a Hall of Fame. Next, we evaluate the nominee’s high school resume in terms of participation (we give a lot of weight to three-sport athletes), honors for all-conference/all-area/all-state, leadership, and citizenship. If a nominee also went on to play at the collegiate level or even professionally, that also goes in the selection process.
“We solicit nominations from our community and beyond, research those nominees, make a list, check it twice, then choose an induction class from that list. To be honest, the first classes were the easiest since the very best were very well known and easy to find information on. Warren spent a couple of years scouring the record books for any worthy candidates, which gave us a great starting point. The verification process is difficult at times, especially for athletes prior to the 1970s.”
The banquet itself includes participation by current high school athletes, who “greet, seat, and serve the guests.”
“This helps our generations to make a connection and form a bond that we hope will last. It’s a really special moment when the inductees of yesteryear share stories with the next group of great athletes.”
After a year off because of COVID, the hall of fame returned this past November to honor their 10th Class of Honorees.
Greg Boughton – who coached the boys’ golf team for 50 years (and the girls’ team for seven seasons) again served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening. More than 130 people gathered at the White Lake Eagles to honor Dr. Yvette M. Resto, Jack Belinger, John Furlough, Coach Ken Jahn, and their third team – that 1964 men’s golf squad. Outside the prominent displays at the high school, the committee hosts a community page on Facebook, filled with photos, links, and details from past inductions.
“We have been looking at a kiosk system to display the history of the organization, our athletes, and teams,” added Mikkelson, who recently completed his 27th year as track and field coach with the Vikings and was honored by the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association (MITCA) with induction into their Hall of Fame in 2018.
“That is probably next on our list, we just need to secure the financial end of that.”