Tom Soper on a treadmill in Glen Oaks Fitness-Wellness Center.

Glen Oaks athletics to salute Tom Soper at January 22 game

Tom Soper is a legendary figure at Glen Oaks Community College. Not only was he one of the first instructors when the college started in 1967, but he also coached one of the first athletic teams. On Saturday, January 22, the athletic department will pay special tribute to the former cross country coach and fitness/wellness program founder at approximately 2:50 p.m., between the women’s and men’s conference basketball game against Muskegon Community College. Soper served 32 years at Glen Oaks when he retired in 1999 as Acting Dean of Instruction. Over the years the Sturgis resident taught English Composition, Journalism, Art Appreciation, coached running and initiated the Fitness/Wellness classes at Glen Oaks. Since then he has continued to work part-time in the Fitness-Wellness Center. Soper, a longtime runner, held a second major in PE in college. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, and his master of arts at Notre Dame. He performed graduate work at both the University of Iowa and Indiana University.

Soper is being recognized by the college for his pioneering efforts in sports at Glen Oaks. “Tom Soper is one of the founding fathers of Glen Oaks and his influence on the college and athletics is immense. I, like so many others who worked alongside Tom, admire him for his great leadership as well as his many accomplishments. He positively influenced all those around him and he helped make Glen Oaks a viable institution,” said Steve Proefrock, Athletic Director and Head Basketball Coach.

Soper was coach of the first cross country team, 1967-1968, as the college was being built outside Centreville and classes were held at the old White Pigeon High School. “Ken Schuler and I were the first coaches. The cross country team had six members and we trained at a nearby gravel pit and on country roads. We never had a home meet. The team had to train in bad conditions,” recalled Soper. Glen Oaks hired a new cross country coach in 1968, but in the 1970’s cross country ceased. Soper and others then formed the Viking Striders running club to keep the sport alive. The club was composed of students and community residents. Later Cross Country was reinstated at Glen Oaks as an intercollegiate sport.

“That first team had a lot to prove. They wanted so badly to see the sport succeed,” explained Soper. Several from the first team are still in the area: Mike Miller became a teacher and coach at Bronson and Sturgis Schools, Brian Fieberkorn went into skilled trades with Burr Oak Tool, and Steve Reed became a successful area businessman. Other team members were Mike Hunjo, Rick Traverse, and John Jackey. In the 1980’s, Glen Oaks students dominated road races in the area and several went on to Division I colleges. Chuck Cline went to Western Michigan University, Dan Jones went to Adams State in Colorado, and Abby Soper (Tom’s daughter) went to Western Michigan University.

The Fitness/Wellness Center at Glen Oaks was the result of a 1986 sabbatical Soper performed at Southeastern Louisiana University to study exercise physiology and employee health assistance programs. Upon his return to Glen Oaks, Soper established the Fitness/Wellness courses. Another achievement was the annual Fall Fitness Festival. The weeklong program was capped the last week in September by a 5K run. Speakers during the week included doctors talking about the value of exercise, hospital nutritionists discussing proper diet for runners, and someone from Gazelle Sports about buying proper running shoes. Other familiar events like the Halloween Hustle, Turkey Trot and Santa Shuffle began at that time. “The 1980’s were a time of running at Glen Oaks. When local high school cross country teams compete here at Glen Oaks they are using the same course we ran on back then,” said Soper. For several years the Muscular Dystrophy Association held an 8K run each spring cosponsored by GOCC and over 300 runners took part.

Soper continues to stay in shape, however he doesn’t run as much as earlier in his career. He actually enjoyed the later years of running more than the earlier. A highlight was taking fourth place in the Chicago Marathon Master’s category in 1983 (40 to 55 age group). Soper continued to compete in senior competition specializing in the 10K races and won the Sports Med Run at South Bend twice and second place a couple of times. In 1988, Soper took second in the Men’s Senior Race at Columbus, Ohio. “I’m pretty much done with marathons. The competition and training is pretty keen at that level, but I try to stay fit,” Soper said.

Soper and wife Lucy Zimmerman have four grown children. Professor Zimmerman just retired from Glen Oaks after 30 years in the classroom. Soper said his hope upon hearing the Glen Oaks Athletic Department wanted to honor him on January 22nd “is that some of the former students and runners I’ve helped come back to say hello. This is as much an honor for them and the way they paved the way for future GOCC athletes as it is for me.”