The long ago Bronx-to-’Zoo journey of Herb Lipschultz ’56 was by train, literally, and by football, figuratively. At age 80, the former New Yorker remains in the Midwest and on the gridiron.

Bronx to ’Zoo

To get from the Bronx to Kalamazoo College in the fall of 1952, Herb Lipschultz ’56 traveled by train. But the real ticket to his attending K was football. He’d been the captain of the team at Dewitt Clinton High School and he wanted to keep playing.

Herb Lipshultz ’56 during his Hornet playing days

“If I hadn’t played football I wouldn’t have gone to college,” Lipschultz admits. “That was the real reason I went—just to keep playing.”

And play he did, often on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Barring injury, he started every contest from the third game of his freshman year to the end of his four seasons at K.

When he graduated the question became how could he remain in the game? Coaching was an obvious answer, and he did that for many years. But the most effective path to gridiron longevity was becoming a football referee.

Lipschultz first put on a striped shirt the autumn of 1956, and he’s never stopped. This past fall, at age 80, marked the 59th year he’s spent his autumns throwing yellow flags and blowing a whistle.

“He’s been one of our top officials for a long, long time,” says Mark Uyl of the Michigan High School Athletic Association. So good, in fact, that Lipschultz was named the winner of the 2001 “Vern Norris Award,” an honor given to one official each year.

“I just enjoy being with the kids,” says Lipschultz, who has lived in Portage since 1960. “Football has been a big part of my life.”

And a busy refereeing life it is. From late August through October he typically works middle school games on Wednesdays, junior varsity games on Thursday, varsity match-ups on Friday, and Rocket football on Saturday.

Football is clearly Lipschultz’s first love, but it hasn’t been the only sport he’s officiated. Until he was 60 years old, winters meant refereeing boys’ basketball, which Lipschultz did for 38 years. He has umpired girls’ softball even longer: the spring of 2015 will mark his 41st year.

Has he ever been hurt while officiating? “Oh, I’ve been knocked down a few times in football games. But the only time I was really injured was in a girls’ softball game in 2013. A foul tip came back and hit me on my collarbone. Broke it. I ended up missing half of my football season that fall.”

His long presence on those Southwest Michigan football fields seemed unlikely 60 years ago. In fact, until a chance conversation with a high school friend, the likelihood Lipschultz would attend K and make Kalamazoo his home was essentially zero. “There was a guy ahead of me at Clinton High who mentioned he was going to K. I thought he was kidding. All I knew of Kalamazoo was the song. I wasn’t sure it was even a real place. Of course, for me it turned out I really did have ‘a gal in Kalamazoo’ because that’s where I met my wife.”

The idea of attending K quickly dissipated after that chance conversation. If fact, as late as mid-August following his senior year at Clinton, Lipschultz had no intention of coming west.

“No, I was going to Rhode Island,” says Lipschultz. “I had a full ride scholarship to play football there, and I was all set to go. But I had a friend, Donny Isaacson, who was going to K and he said it’d be nice if the two of us went to the same school. So I sent in my transcript to K, but that was mostly just a lark. I wasn’t seriously thinking about going there.

“But then the day after Labor Day,” he adds, “I got a phone call from K’s football coach, Dob Grow. He encouraged me to come, and the College offered $300 in academic financial aid. I talked to my dad about it and even though I wasn’t going to have to pay a penny to go to Rhode Island, he encouraged me to at least think about K. So I thought, ‘What the heck, I’ll go to K.’”

Two days later Lipschultz was on a train to Kalamazoo. Two days after that was K’s first football game of the season. He didn’t play a down. He was okay with that, but he most definitely was not okay with never leaving the bench in the second game.

“I was kind of cocky then, and I thought, ‘I’m out of here!’” Lipschultz recalls. “But our quarterback calmed me down and said I should at least finish the semester.” That proved to be good advice; by the third game Lipschultz was starting.  And unless he was injured he started every game for the next three and a half years.

Lipschultz also came to appreciate his first year coach. “Dob Grow was one of the finest men I have ever met. I put him second behind my father for having an influence on me.”

Lipschultz had more than a few adjustments to make after arriving at K. His high school was all male and was considerably larger than K, which he recalls as having only about 550 students at the time. Certainly moving from the Bronx to a small Midwestern town was a change.

“I honestly remember the crickets keeping me awake at night.”

“I was used to cars honking and the elevated lines making a lot of noise all hours of the night. But in Kalamazoo it was so quiet. I honestly remember the crickets keeping me awake at night.”

Lipschultz admits football was a different game in the 1950’s. “Almost all of our linemen were under 200 pounds. And I didn’t have a facemask on my helmet until my senior year. We called them ‘birdcages.’”

His facemask consisted of a single bar, and even that was never used in a game.  During a preseason practice it broke and gashed Lipschultz’s face. “I said, ‘To heck with that’ and never used a facemask again.”

While at K, Lipschultz went by his birth name of Lipschitz. That was an uncommon name in Michigan, but, “There were a lot of Lipschitzes in the Bronx back then. Three full pages in the phone book.” But because the name’s second syllable provided fodder for teasing, he and his wife, Laverne (who goes by the nickname “Toots”) changed the name to Lipschultz just before their first child started school.

Another Clinton High grad made a similar change. “There was a guy a year or two behind me named Ralph Lifshitz. He later changed his name to Ralph Lauren.” Two other students of note who attended Clinton during Lipschultz’s time: actor/writer Garry Marshall and actor Judd Hirsch.

After Lipschultz graduated from K, he took a job with Oakwood Schools as a physical education teacher. “Oakwood was a separate system back then. Grades K through 9. But it merged with the Kalamazoo system the next year.”

He remained with the system for 40 years, retiring in 1996. During that time he was involved in the athletic lives of thousands of middle schoolers—teaching, coaching and serving as athletic director.

Lipschultz can display an amazing memory for people and events. About games played decades in the past, he can remember the score and who made the big play. About former students, he can often recall an anecdote.

Recalling his early years in the schools, he says, “It was a different world back then. The kids didn’t do any weight training because we didn’t have any weights. I had to convince the administration to buy some. Our basketball team would take taxis to the other schools because we didn’t have school buses. If a basketball game went into double overtime, it was sudden death. And middle school football was touch, not tackle.”

Another change related to taking showers. “Until about 1980 the kids took showers; always after football or basketball practice and a usually after gym classes. But then they stopped taking them. Even after football practice, when they were all dirty and sweaty, they’d just put on their street clothes and go home. For a while I made them shower, but the administration told me they couldn’t back me up on that so I stopped.”

A change he considers unfortunate: “Over the years teachers got less and less support from the parents. And the kids knew it.”

Kick off means this octogenarian is off and running.

Lipschultz’s ability to remain so active is due in no small part to his passion for fitness. Virtually every day involves some type of workout. Three or four times a week he goes to the YMCA, where he waterjogs, lifts weights, rides a spin bike, and  uses kettlebells.  He took up golf when he was 63 and still plays up to four times a week when weather permits.

His activities have allowed him to keep his weight under control. “I was 166 pounds when I showed up at K; I’m a little less than that now.”

Managing his height has been a different story. “I’ve gotten shorter,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve gone from about 5’ 8” to 5’ 4”.  My wife complains that she can’t wear her highest high heels anymore because they make her taller than me.”

Herb and Toots have four children, one of whom, Tyler, graduated from K in 1989 (and, naturally, played football). They also have seven grandchildren, some of whom are twice as old as the football players Herb referees.

All of her husband’s officiating has meant some level of sacrifice for Toots. “He’s gone a lot. And it sometimes means having dinner either real early or real late.”

But she’s also gotten a few laughs along the way. “I remember being at a basketball game he was working. I was there with the wife of his partner, and the man behind us starting yelling at the refs. I finally turned around and told him we were the refs’ wives. He didn’t say a word after that.” |

When asked how much longer he plans on refereeing, Lipschultz smiles. “I’m just taking it a year at time.”