Bernie Saggau, the Denison boy who came to Buena Vista in the 1940s and ended up directing the Iowa High School Athletic Association for 42 years, closed his 23-year tenure with the BVU Board of Trustees by accepting the Sir John Marks Templeton Life Trustee award this fall.
He did so in typical Saggau fashion. By speaking from the heart. By thanking every board member publicly and mentioning specifics about their contributions to his alma mater.
“I’ve been on the board 23 years and not once have I ever come away from a meeting with a negative thought. I either always learned something at the board meeting, or something I knew was reaffirmed,” he said. “I see such great things ahead for Buena Vista.”
Saggau, 91, was a three-sport athlete for the Beavers prior to his graduation in 1949, and one of the initial three Beaver football players inaugurated into the BVU Athletics Hall of Fame.
When he wasn’t zig-zagging across the football field, contributing for one year in basketball or setting sprinting standards in track, Saggau could be found busing tables at The Cobblestone Inn or officiating high school games around Storm Lake. (He would later spend 18 years officiating NCAA Division I football and basketball games across the United States.)
As a Beaver junior and senior, Saggau, who tipped the scales at 135 pounds, began circulating at small schools to deliver motivational talks to preps.
“I was small in stature, so I think the coaches and superintendents at the high schools figured their students could relate to me,” he says.
Athletics served as the teaser for his appearances. Each presentation soon gave way to themes surrounding Saggau’s faith; his belief in his parents, neither of whom attended college; and the importance a teacher, coach or mentor had in his life.
He would ultimately speak to more students in Iowa than any other person in the history of the state.
Saggau branched out and gave motivational speeches to schools and organizations in 45 states and throughout Europe.
Last spring marked the 30th year every Iowa high school presented The Bernie Saggau Award to the outstanding citizen-athlete of the senior class. The Iowa High School Athletic Association Board of Control established the prestigious award in 1989.
“We put 350 interviews on display at the Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines,” Saggau said of the center devoted to Iowa prep activities and more in Des Moines, one of the signature elements of IHSAA executive director’s storied leadership. “And in every one of those 350 interviews, the subject’s talk turns to God, the importance of school and how a teacher, or a coach, or their parents made a difference in their life.”
He shared an illustration by recalling how he missed a pair of free throws at the end of a high school basketball game one frigid Saturday night in Denison. He went home and felt discouraged for hours, believing he let his team down. That is, until a caller braved below-zero temperatures to knock on the door the following morning. It was his Latin teacher, Mrs. Hilda Catron.
“I answered the door and she told me she’d been at the game the previous night,” Saggau remembered. “She told me that if you do the best you can, that’s all that’s important.”
He invited her in and the two of them spent the afternoon playing cards and checkers before he walked her home, the two of them braving the chill in a 1-mile trek across town.
Mrs. Catron wasn’t necessarily the biggest basketball, or sports fan. She was a fan of young people, her students. And when one felt down, she acted, and moved herself to make a difference. In fact, she walked across town with the aid of her cane, just to reach Saggau’s home and let him know the sky wasn’t falling.
“You get to the kid’s heart,” Saggau said, noting he emulated that approach in his life and sees strong evidence of that kind of approach in BVU President Joshua Merchant, whose hiring might have been the most important task the BVU Board of Trustees completed in his time of service.
“He’s a Michigan farm boy,” Saggau said of Merchant. “And he knows how to work and how to reach our students at their level. That’s very important. BVU is going to make great strides moving forward because of our leadership and dedicated board members who have expertise in a variety of fields.”
Saggau remains bullish on the future because of the university’s leaders and its committed faculty, a detail he sees flowing in a variety of ways throughout BVU’s strategic plan, and in examples he’s noticed in person for years on campus. The university, he said, is blessed with faculty members who, as Mrs. Catron did for him, literally go the extra mile for their students.
“I remember giving the commencement speech back in 2002 and I was so excited to see the students rush and hug their professors after they received their diplomas,” he said. “Our faculty is as interested in our students’ success as is the Board of Trustees. You can see it; you can feel it. And, you know what? The kids know it.”