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Varsity S Club Celebrates Its 100th Anniversary

Sept. 15, 2015

By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen

When former Michigan State track and field star Mel Buschman lost the opportunity to compete as a decathlete in the 1944 London Olympics, which were canceled due to World War II, he turned to members of the Varsity S Club for support.

After returning home with his third Purple Heart from fighting with the 91st Infantry Division in Italy, fellow Spartans were there for him as he recovered from two broken legs. Lt. Buschman sustained the injuries when he used his track skills to jump off the second floor of a shelled building that was crumbling beneath him and "hobble-run" 50 yards to elude machine gun fire coming from an enemy tank.

And throughout his own storied life, which included working as the principal at East Grand Rapids High School and as a professor and the director of admissions at MSU, Buschman has paid it forward through countless interactions with Spartan athletes, coaches and administrators.

At 94, Mel Buschman (Class of 1943) is the embodiment of the spirit, tradition and mission of the Varsity S Club, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a special banquet, events and football tailgates this fall.

"That tank thing took me out and I came out of the military disabled as a retired officer," a spry Buschman said in the living room of his East Lansing home, six blocks north of campus. "During my recovery I needed a little encouragement, and they made it to be a little more real -- keeping connected."

In return, he has continued to bring breathe life into many of the revered MSC sports figures younger generations of Spartans know by name only.

"I'm still trying," Buschman said. "Always a Spartan and a loyal one."

There's the story about how track coach Ralph Young entered Buschman, his best hurdler, in seven to eight events almost every meet, including javelin, discus and shot put, "because we were always short somewhere." Head football coach Charlie Bachman didn't take Buschman on Michigan State's first postseason football trip, to play Auburn in the 1938 Orange Bowl, because he was injured, but a fellow freshman end named Jack Breslin did go.

Then there was the time as a student worker when Buschman helped move furnishings into newly completed Jenison Field House in 1939 and he remembers how former Spartan and four-time NCAA boxing champ Chuck Davey had his streak of 39 professional wins -- and dreams of the welterweight title -- ended by a technical knockout against Kid Gavilan in 1953.

"Chuck was a very good longtime friend of mine," Buschman said. "There probably isn't a name of somebody at Michigan State you can say that I haven't met. Oh, Scott Skiles? I helped him quite a bit."

Buschman can spin endless yarn about how he ran Duffy Daugherty's coaching clinics in Grand Rapids, what kind of character "Bubba" Smith truly was, how magical it was watching Earvin Johnson on the hardcourt and what a rugged two-sport competitor Kirk Gibson was. And, oh by the way, Gibson's mother was Buschman's student when he was a teacher at East Lansing High School.

"I still feel like I'm part of the team. Whenever there's a function like a tennis banquet, or something like that, they make sure I get a ticket and they'll put me at a table with the coaches. They want me there for the experiences I've had with all of them, and I enjoy telling them about it all the time."
-Varsity S Club member Mel Buschman

"Jud Heathcote was another good friend of mine," Buschman said. "I'd go to his office and when he saw me coming in the door, he'd call me a senior citizen because I was older than he was."

Just imagine the folks Buschman has shaken hands with, from: pioneering Michigan State President John Hannah, "who knew all the good athletes," to current President Lou Anna K. Simon, who he remembers as an MSU undergrad, to Mateen Cleaves and Kirk Cousins, to Tom Izzo and Mark Dantonio, to Leah O'Connor, whom he recently watched win three Big Ten Track and Field Championships at the Ralph Young Track named for his former coach.

"She's as good as any athlete as has ever come to Michigan State in any sport," Buschman said. The point is, decades after competing for Michigan State as an athlete he is still an active participant in Spartan athletics because of his involvement with the Varsity S Club.

"I still feel like I'm part of the team," Buschman said. "Whenever there's a function like a tennis banquet, or something like that, they make sure I get a ticket and they'll put me at a table with the coaches. They want me there for the experiences I've had with all of them, and I enjoy telling them about it all the time. I think I'm one of (the S Club's) better recruiters.

"I've probably been around here longer than any other person and I spend time telling (today's letterwinners) to keep in contact with their departments if you can, because it's not easy for some of them from a long way away. And any time you can get back, do it."

It's much the same, to varying degrees, for the 1,672 active Varsity S Club members who have their own stories to tell.

Founded in 1915 with charter membership that included such Michigan Agricultural College luminaries as Gideon Smith, the school's first African-American varsity athlete, football star Carp Julian, the school's first All-American, and George "The Wolverine Killer" Gauthier.

Former All-America Spartan sprinter, MSU Athletics Hall of Fame inductee and past Varsity S Club President Cheryl Gilliam presided over the club in 2012 when under the direction of Athletics Director Mark Hollis it made the transition from being an independent, self-funded organization to an ambitious arm of the Athletic Department. The organization had been run entirely by volunteers who kept letterwinners connected through various events such as annual fund-raising golf outing at the Forest Akers Golf Course, reunions and football tailgates.

"As we were doing research with other clubs throughout the United States, it just seemed that the letterwinner club should be with the Athletic Department because we are one family," Gilliam said. "We're Spartans for life, kind of like from the cradle to the grave.

"When you step on campus and earn that letter, you're part of the family. That's like the cradle and we're with each other until the grave -- and beyond."

The re-imagined Varsity S Club has expanded its reach into career services that begin with student-athletes still in school -- who now receive their letter jackets each fall in a formal ceremony at the Passant Theater instead of unceremoniously from their respective equipment managers -- to former athletes who may be networking for a new job.

"We have a lot of great programs now and one of my passions is blending the generations," Gilliam said. "It's great when you blend the new letterwinners with the older ones. We have about four or five living letterwinners from World War II. When you get somebody like Dr. Buschman, who should have been at the Olympic Games but instead was getting shot in Italy, together with some of these young track athletes, they share their stories and it's wonderful to see.

"We're so excited about our 100th year."

Current President Paul Vance, who played soccer for MSU from 1997-2001, said that the ease of staying connected through social media has caused the Varsity S Club to change its focus.

"You don't need the letterwinners club to stay in contact with a teammate because you can be Facebook friends with him and see pictures of their family, etc.," Vance said. "We try to show value to our membership by throwing events, like our golf outing, and community outreach.

"We like to give back to our former student-athletes through career-development activities, after you've been disconnected from the university in some respects. It's still a way to stay involved with MSU and take some ownership of Spartan athletics."

The Varsity S Club's practical, non-social application is making a difference in the lives of former student-athletes.

"Our current membership makes up a large network of individuals and we can connect you, especially younger graduates, with older members of the club who may be more established in their professions," Vance said. "This helps with job-searching and career networking. This works for someone who finds themselves out of work for the first time in 25 years or someone who owns their own company, and is looking for some good, young employees.

Paul Vance, who played soccer at MSU under former head coach Joe Baum, is the current Varsity S Club President.

"They can call the club and say, `I'm looking for criminal justice major who's a former letterwinner for this position.' We can make that connection. Secondly, it's a way to have a voice within the Athletics Department. Mark Hollis has been tremendous in supporting the club and addressing some of our concerns and supporting some of our initiatives. Our motto is: honoring the past, celebrating the present and supporting the future."

Anybody who won a Michigan State varsity letter is automatically eligible to join Varsity S Club, and the organization has made a priority of scouring media guide, game programs and yearbooks to locate former competitors missing from its data base.

"Our membership numbers pale in comparison to the actual number of former letterwinners," Vance said. "That is a challenge for a lot of similar clubs and the goal moving forward to make sure when our student-athletes use up their eligibility, we keep in contact with them, we maintain that relationship and we don't lose them.

"With regard to our 100th anniversary, we want to honor the past and all our former letterwinners, but we also want to use this historic event as a way to galvanize our membership for the future and recruit potential members, so they can see all the good going on with the Varsity S Club."

Senior Associate Athletics Director and former Spartan football player Alan Haller, who became the Varsity S Club's first executive director in January 2013, said the organization is working in conjunction with the MSU Alumni Association, to target former athletes and student-managers.

"A new focus now is going to be, what happens after your student-athlete experience," he said. "The big picture is to create this network of former letterwinners, similar to LinkedIn (the professional social networking website), where we're all connected, so if I move to California, I know there are 150 letterwinners out there.

"We really want to get technology involved and connect people who can't get back to the university and help each other. We have so many letterwinners who are doing great things around the country and the ones I have talked to want that attachment and ability to help out a Spartan letterwinner. We want to expand."

With the potential for a membership of more than 4,000, the club also wants to include athletes who may not have lettered due to injury or didn't qualify as walk-ons, former cheerleaders and dance team members.

"We have recently expanded our associate membership," Haller said. "There are a lot of student-athletes out there that maybe didn't earn a letter but were on the practice squad. We opened it up so they can be in the Varsity S Club, because there wouldn't have been a 2015 Cotton Bowl Championship for MSU without the scout team."

As a graduate assistant in the Varsity S Club office, Denzel Drone, who lettered in football from 2010-13, is introducing current football and basketball players to the alumni benefits of being a member.

"I'm introducing them to what the club is and how it works," said Drone, who's pursuing a master's degree in education. "There's more to it than just saying I'm a member of an alumni club. It's more, we're a brotherhood and we're here to help each other in every aspect of life, so how can we do it?

Denzel Drone helped the Spartans win the 2014 Rose Bowl vs. Stanford, and is now a graduate assistant with the Varsity S Club as he pursues his master's degree in education.

"It's simply about working with others, having a common goal to be successful in life and know it's not just about you but our brotherhood as Spartans. You come here as a kid and your main goal is to make it to the NFL or whatever, and it's all about you as a person. As you go through the Spartan experience, you learn that it's not just about me. It's about me, the guy next to me and everyone that's dependent on Spartans to make it through.

"It was about me, but now it's about us."

Drone delights in watching former student-athletes who were too preoccupied with classes and their own careers while at MSU to get to know the classmates they may have watched compete in Spartan Stadium, the Breslin Center, Jenison, the Old College Field complex or the Ralph Young track and turf field get acquainted during various events.

"At our tailgates, it's so great when you see two people from two opposite ends of the world, say a swimmer and a football player, having a casual conversation about life and what they can do to help each other down the road," Drone said. "It's like wow, just imagine if this was started earlier where people would be at now."

Social events remain important to club members. Gilliam noted how letterwinners, wearing their letter jackets, form a human corridor for the football team's traditional pre-game walk from the Kellogg Center to Spartan Stadium for one game each year.

There is also the Varsity Club Room, where former letterwinners gather before, during and after football games. Decorated with memorabilia, championship banners and pictures paying tribute to MSU's greatest teams, the room was furnished and decorated with $200,000, and other donations, raised by past Varsity S Club President and 1960 hockey MVP Eldon VanSprybook.

The wooden front door to the previous clubhouse, originally provided by legendary head football coach and Athletics Director Biggie Munn and bearing an amazing carved likeness of "The Spartan" statue, hangs in the front office.

Despite extensive research, the artist remains anonymous. VanSpryBrook has received numerous monetary offers for the door, but it's priceless as far as he's concerned and one of the must-sees, as is the solid oak table top featuring the names engraved by the members of the club's charter class. The room is often filled to its 175-person capacity on game day, according to VanSprybrook.

"It's awesome to see because we never used to have very many people in here," VanSprybrook said. "It was a well-kept secret. There have been a lot of fantastic people who have passed through here from football, basketball, hockey and all the sports."

The Varsity S Club holds its 100-Year Celebration during Reunion Weekend in a semi-formal banquet (black tie optional) at the Kellogg Center on Sept. 18, the night before the football team plays host to Air Force. Special tailgate events will also be held throughout the season. Check for details.

Buschman, whose green, custom-built 1953 Packard parade convertible -- he rescued it from a junk heap under a tree near Eaton Rapids and it was painstakingly restored by his son, Bill -- is prominently featured in the Homecoming Parade, plans to keep pressing the flesh with fellow letterwinners and reaping the benefits of membership for as long as possible.

"It keeps me young," he said. "It sure has. Absolutely."

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