By Ron Pesch
Benjamin Gaylord ‘Bennie’ Oosterbaan had returned to his hometown as guest speaker for the 1948 Elks gridiron banquet when he spoke those words. An annual event honoring Greater Muskegon football players, the gathering always featured a nationally recognized guest of honor. And in the fall of 1948, certainly, no public figure was as well-known to local sports fans as Bennie.
Over the years, Muskegon High School’s greatest athlete had established himself as one of the all-time greats in college football history. A three-time All-American on the historic gridiron at the University of Michigan back in the late twenties, Oosterbaan was also a two-time All-American basketball player for the Wolverines and a star on the baseball diamond. Following graduation, he spurred opportunities to play professional football and baseball to stay at Michigan as an assistant coach. In 1939, he was named Michigan’s head basketball coach, holding the position through the 1945-46 season. In the middle of March of 1948, Bennie succeeded Herbert O. ‘Fritz’ Crisler as U of M’s varsity football coach.
In his first year at the helm, Bennie led the Wolverines to the pinnacle of college sports – a national title. In return, he was selected to receive the ultimate recognition, college football’s ‘Coach of the Year.”
After years of bringing fame to the city he considered home, a grateful community decided to thank a favorite son. A committee was formed by the Chamber of Commerce to appropriately recognize the legendary athlete. Monday, February 7, 1949, was declared “Bennie Oosterbaan Appreciation Day” and arrangements were made to bring the coach home for a special program, hosted in his honor at Muskegon High School’s central campus auditorium. Tickets for the event were distributed to athletic teams at Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, North Muskegon, and St. Mary’s high schools. Special invitations were sent to Bennie’s mother, Hattie Oosterbaan, and his two sisters in Muskegon. Nearly 2,000 local businesses and residents had donated toward the purchase of a special gift for their distinguished guest.
LeRoy A. Prescott, chairman of the committee, presided over the event. Prescott had served as team manager during Bennie’s days at the local high school. Paul Goebel, an All-American end at Michigan from Grand Rapids and a former member of the university’s Board of Athletic Control, was the evening’s principal speaker. Dominic Tomasi, a football and baseball star at Flint Northern High School, and captain and MVP of the national champion Wolverines, and teammate Wally Teninga (later the vice chairman and chief financial officer of the Kmart Corporation) joined their coach on the stage and gave short presentations.
Teninga, a star halfback from Chicago’s Morgan Park High School, played two years for Oosterbaan.
“He was a fantastic guy,” recalled Teninga, over 50 years later. “He always said that we should have fun when we played. Of course, his idea of fun was hitting a guy with intensity.”
Russell Fitzgerald and George ‘Shorty’ Rojan, members of championship Muskegon squads during Bennie’s days at the high school, recalled their time together. Rojan, a former quarterback and team captain at Northwestern, remembered the days when Oosterbaan, a natural athlete, could beat the entire neighborhood in any sport from skiing to swimming.
“He kept my dad poor buying me marbles,” declared Rojan to the delight of the crowd.
Muskegon Heights gridiron legends Jack Weisenburger, John Regeczi, and Milo Sukup also paid tribute to their college coach, praising his skill in guiding their athletic and academic careers at Michigan.
Pandemonium reigned over the event as Prescott presented the coach with the community’s gift – the keys to a new Cadillac automobile. According to Muskegon Chronicle sports editor Jimmy Henderson, who covered the event, “assembled fans stood for five minutes and applauded as the Michigan coach stood with a wide grin and blinking eyes, with tears not far behind them. Bennie was overwhelmed by the gift and the tribute from his ‘hometown folks’.”
The Big Red band, under the direction of William Stewart, erupted into a rousing version of the Michigan fight song, “The Victors” before Oosterbaan spoke.
From the podium, the modest coach recalled his time in Muskegon and his early days at Michigan “where Fielding H. Yost, Michigan’s ‘Grand Old Man’ taught him the meaning of ‘love’ in connection with athletics.” Again, Bennie spoke of the importance of the community in his life.
“When I doodle, I find myself writing in different ways and shapes of letters ‘M-H-S’. I’ve always regarded this as my home and always will.”
Prescott also presented Bennie with a scroll bearing the names of all that had donated to the fund. The committee announced that a surplus of funds would be offered to the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference for the purchase of a perpetual trophy to be held for a year by the league’s annual football champion.
The Cadillac, according to the Detroit Free Press, would replace Oosterbaan’s 1930 Chevrolet. Bennie had bought the car in 1938 from Crisler, who was now serving as U of M’s athletic director. “The ancient Chevrolet was Crisler’s property while he was coaching at Minnesota and Princeton more than 15 years ago.”
After renewing many old acquaintances, Oosterbaan returned to Ann Arbor. According to a Chronicle newspaper article that appeared following the local festivities, when Bennie arrived at the Michigan athletic office, he received an enthusiastic greeting from the entire coaching staff, football players, and members of the office staff. “All waved tickets in their hands.”
The tickets read, “Good for ONE FREE RIDE in Bennie’s Cadillac.”
More than 200 tickets had been issued to the coaches, players, and friends of the coach.
“Yes,” laughed Oosterbaan when asked about his many passengers, “I have been pestered with tickets holders since I returned. I will accommodate them all…”
The event certainly impressed Teninga.
“No wonder Bennie is always talking about Muskegon. What a town!”