Keeping The Campfires Burning ... Part II

Jerry Sullivan, a native of Ashland,
WI, was a pioneer for youth
camps in the state.
(Getty Images)

February 26, 2007
by Truman Reed / special to

Ray Patterson, Ron Blomberg, Jerry Sullivan, Tom Hawley and Jack Nagle are recognized as the founding fathers of the Milwaukee Bucks Basketball Camps, which would enjoy a successful 32-year run throughout the Midwest and the Great Plains.

But the camps would not have found the cutting edge if the founding fathers had not planted a forest of coaching family trees.

Before the Milwaukee Bucks were even born, the camp directors recruited a long line of top college and high school coaches to offer their campers fundamental instruction that was second-to-none.

Once the Bucks became established and their coaches and players became involved in the camps, their popularity soared. But the camp directors realize that the college and prep coaches who got on board during the camps’ formative years and stayed there made the whole concept work as well as it did.

“Ray Patterson, who became the first president of the Milwaukee Bucks, wanted Ron Blomberg to set up a boarding and day camp program in the Midwest at small colleges for youngsters ages 9 to 18,” Sullivan said. “Ray wanted a program that had youngsters that age coached by junior high coaches and high school coaches, along with headliners from major college programs like John Wooden from UCLA, Adolph Rupp from Kentucky, George King from Purdue and Lou Henson from New Mexico State.

“The bottom-line thinking of Ray Patterson was that the idea of exposing these young campers to every phase of the game of basketball from grade school coaches to high school coaches and the college and pro level would create a wonderful fan base of young campers, their parents and families that would come to see the young, new Bucks Team for years to come.”

Blomberg and Sullivan did not have to go far to find a first-rate staff of prep and college coaches.

These were several of the individuals who became mainstays of the camp network as directors:

  • Don Harmeling – A former coach at Waterford High School, he served the camps in a variety of capacities for 29 years.

  • Dorm Grams – A former coach at Salem Central (now Westosha Central) High School, he brought 35 years of coaching experience to the table and spent 27 years in the Bucks program

  • Pat Sullivan – The athletic director and head men’s basketball coach at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, Ill., he possessed 23 years of coaching experience and was renowned for his tireless efforts and leadership qualities.

  • Bob Kies – A successful prep coach in both Burlington and Beloit, he became athletic director at Marian Central Catholic High School of Woodstock, Ill.. He lent his outstanding organizational skills to the Bucks camps for 16 years

  • Bob Foss – Another WBCA Hall-of-Famer, he became one of the most integral directors the camp program had during its four-decade run.

  • Dave Collins – The athletic director at Suring High School and commissioner of the M & O Conference, he had 26 years of camp experience.

  • Jim Smallins – The coach of Milwaukee Lincoln High School’s powerhouse teams, Smallins was known for his excellent motivational and teaching techniques, and spent over 30 years in the Bucks’ camp program. His wife, Roberta, a teacher in the Milwaukee Public School System, was a key contributor to the success of the Bucks’ boys and girls camps.

  • John Wickstrom – An original member of the Bucks camp staff, Wickstrom coached at both Ripon College and Ripon High School. He became known for his superior knowledge of the game and his great organizational skills.

  • Dan Sullivan – The son of Jerry Sullivan and the starting point guard on South Milwaukee High School’s 1976 WIAA Class A state championship team, he entered the Bucks camp program as a camper and climbed the ladder to a director position. He served as head boys basketball coach and athletic director at Prairieville (Ill.) High School before continuing his career in those posts at Princeville (Ill.) High School.

  • Keith Brandstetter – Spent 16 years as a grade school, junior varsity and varsity high school coach, primarily at Mukwonago High School. He was known for his teaching skills and as a builder of teams and individuals.

  • Pete Hassemer – He established Cudahy High School as a Suburban Conference basketball power and guided the Packers to their first state tournament appearance. Like many members of the camp staff, he is now a member of the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.

  • Wayne Meyer – Meyer was Hassemer’s varsity assistant at Cudahy High School, and has been a fixture in the school’s athletic programs for parts of three decades. He also became a fixture as a Bucks camp director, working the camps for nearly 20 years. He went on to become athletic director at the school, and is currently the Packers’ varsity boys basketball coach.

  • Terry Benka – A standout player at Cudahy High School, he went on to enjoy an outstanding career at Drake University before returning to the area to become a teacher and coach at St. Francis High School.

  • Eugene Graham – Presently the head girls basketball coach at Bay View High School, Graham played for Jim Smallins at Lincoln High School and spent more than 10 years as a Bucks camp director.

  • Lindy Kemp – Known for building a powerhouse girls basketball program at Brookfield East High School, Kemp spent over 20 years on the Bucks camp staff, coming aboard in the first year of the girls program. She coached many championship teams at East and was recently inducted into the WBCA Hall of Fame.

  • Sue Hansen – A three-sport letterwinner at the University of Nebraska, Hansen achieved coaching success at both the high school and college levels, and worked as a Bucks camp director while serving as women’s basketball coach at Waukesha’s Carroll College. The Bucks camps would eventually set up their headquarters there.

  • Heidi Blomberg-Michaelis – The daughter of Ron Blomberg, she was an all-state player at Prentice (Wis.) High School and went on to become a four-year starter at point guard and captain at Miami (Ohio University. Like Dan Sullivan, she climbed the camp ladder as a camper, counselor and coach, and is now heading up a powerhouse girls program at Marshfield (Wis.) High School.

  • Kathy Coenen – A member of a state runner-up team during her playing career at Neenah (Wis.) High School, Coenen became an NCAA Division III All-American at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She went on to coach at Leland (Ill.) and at Neenah and specialized in coaching post players at the Bucks girls camps for 10 years.

  • John Chekouras – Chekouras, who just passed away last year, enjoyed a highly successful coaching career in Rockford (Ill.) and at Mequon’s Homestead High School. He was known as an excellent fundamentalist, organizer and combined sensitivity with consistent discipline to become an ideal camp director.

  • Dave VanderMeulen – He coached the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to two NCAA Division III national championships, establishing one of the premier D-III programs in the entire country. VanderMeulen specialized in coaching post players during his years of association with the Bucks camps.

  • Dick Bennett & Jack Bennett – Sullivan’s association with Dick Bennett began when his South Milwaukee team faced Bennett’s Eau Claire Memorial team in the 1976 state title game. The Bennett brothers became very active in the Bucks camps in the years to follow, establishing a day camp in New London and another at Ripon College. Dick coached UW-Stevens Point to a national runner-up finish, and continued to gain national prominence during highly successful stints at UW-Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State. Jack Bennett, who developed Rhinelander High School into a state power, later succeeded his brother at UW-Stevens Point and guided the Pointers to back-to-back NCAA Division III titles.

    “Ron Blomberg once figured that during the 32 years of the camp program, we had over 500 different coaches involved,” Sullivan said. “And they deserve so much credit for the success the camps enjoyed.”

    The honor roll of coaches included a long line of Hall-of-Famers: Ron Einerson, Dick Emanuel, John McGuire, Bernie Barkin, Paul Sherry, Don Gruber, Clyde Rusk, Jim Meyers, Eli Crogan, LaVern Luebstorf, Brian Shaw, Jim Rebholz, Katie Rebholz, Fred Kestly, Woody Wilson, Bob Jaskulski, Rich Vokoun, Gene Pieper, Bill Graf, Norb Wishowski, Tom Reigel, and many, many more.

    “Ron Blomberg deserves so much credit for heading up the idea of bringing in junior high school and high school coaches in to teach the kids,” Sullivan said, “and then he brought in the college coaches as headliners. He was such a master of organization and such a gentleman that all of the coaches he brought in went the extra mile for him.”

    As the camps expanded and spread out into other states, the staff would expand to include some of the luminaries of the coaching world. Be sure to read Part III of "Keeping the campfires burning".