BY JOETTE KUNSE
Special to the Clarkston News
Mel Vaara was described as “one-of-a-kind as a human being and as an educator” at his funeral by his good friend, Bob Burek.
Vaara died August 26, 2021, at the age of 88.
Burek, who knew Vaara for over 30 years, shared some his old friend’s values, including his love of children and his advocacy as a school administrator for kids.
“He never backed down from making a tough decision and he wasn’t concerned about political considerations or what critics would say about him and he said many times, ‘I’ll take the heat,’” said Burek. “He was a humble man from humble beginnings. When things went right because of a position he took, or a decision he made, he would defer credit or recognition to others. If his action or decision went sideways, and everyone around him bailed, Vaara stood tall and said, ‘That’s on me, no one else.’
“Vaara was loyal to a fault. He was always there for friends and colleagues. When times got tough, one could count on Mel being there, and I always knew Mel had my back.”
Vaara was born in his grandparents’ farmhouse in Bessemer Township, near Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula.
His childhood with his three brothers and parents was spent in the Upper Peninsula and described as active with sports, schoolwork, and fishing, with many good times.
Vaara would say that the family was poor, but most families of that era were poor. Vaara was a child during the Depression years.
At Ironwood High School, Vaara ran track and cross country and was the manager of the varsity basketball team.
Basketball would become his lifetime love in sports, though there wasn’t a sport he didn’t enjoy watching.
After high school graduation, he attended Gogebic Community College and graduated from Northern Michigan University. He was proud to be a Wildcat alumnus from NMU and later received the Distinguished Alumni award.
Vaara had planned to teach in the Upper Peninsula but was interviewed and offered a contract by Dr. Lesley Greene, the first superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools, for $400 more than the $2,800 contract for Escanaba Schools offered.
Vaara turned down the contract for Clarkston. Greene returned home but sent a letter to Vaara offering him another $300 and Vaara accepted his first teaching position in the school district and community where he would spend the rest of his life.
In 1954, there was no Mackinac Bridge connecting the Michigan peninsulas so Vaara packed his car and took the ferry across the Straits of Mackinac and headed south for the upcoming school year to become the first male elementary sixth grade teacher at Clarkston Elementary School.
Once in Clarkston, Vaara rented a room in a home on Middle Lake Road for $10 a week which included breakfast and laundry.
It was his new neighbor, however, who caught his eye almost immediately.
Two doors down, Josephine (Jo) Nickora, another Clarkston teacher, resided.
Vaara often spoke about offering Jo a ride in his new 1956 red and white Chevrolet and six months later, they were engaged and had been married for 64 years at the time of his death.
Rising through the ranks of administration in Clarkston Schools, Vaara became the assistant principal and principal of Clarkston Junior High School.
He was picked to open the new Sashabaw Junior High School 52 years ago in 1969 where he was the first principal. Vaara oversaw the building of the school, created the curriculum, and hired the teachers.
In 1972, Vaara was promoted to assistant superintendent of schools with primary responsibility for curriculum and staffing, a post he held until his retirement 20 years later in 1992.
Along the way, Vaara served as Independence Township trustee and chairperson of the Planning Commission.
He was a 25-year member of the Clarkston Area Optimist Club for 25 years and a longtime member of Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church, serving on their first building committee.
Vaara also served for many years on the Senior Center Advisory Board and was there when the new senior center was built.
For over 20 years, he served as a high school basketball referee, having coached earlier during his days as a teacher at the junior high.
His love of sports continued to his last days.
Vaara is credited with the hiring of Dan Fife as the Clarkston High Varsity Basketball coach, and Kurt Richardson, Clarkston High School Varsity Football coach, who both led their Clarkston teams to state championships.
And if he was able, Vaara was there to cheer Clarkston on.
Vaara also paved the way for SCAMP, a summer camp for children with disabilities, when it began in the mid-1970s according to Bob Brumback, SCAMP founder. He made sure that the district was supportive of the summer camp for students with special needs as well as serving on the board for many years.
Mel and Jo had four daughters, Anne Marie, Lisa, Ingrid, and Tasha.
“We had a wonderful childhood because of my parents and with my Dad’s UP upbringing, our childhood vacations were in Ironwood where he grew up,” remembered Anne Marie.
“We cherished those trips. We thought all kids got to swim in Lake Superior and Lake Gogebic. We thought everyone ate pasties. It was part of our Sunday dinners after my mom crafted her own recipe. These were little unique happenings that were from his hometown that became the fabric of our life. We always ate dinner together. Dad would usually dash off to coach or referee a game after dinner. My sisters and I were proud to be Mel Vaara’s daughters. It came with perks like getting to go through the back janitor’s door to get into basketball games. It came with the understanding that we would behave. “The few rare times we didn’t (behave), my dad knew about it before we got a chance to tell him. It was punishment enough that we disappointed our dear old dad. We knew he was very proud of us.”
Many friends of Vaara remember the handwritten notes he would send for a job well done, a thank you for something, a retirement note, or just a note to check in on a person.
Current Clarkston Community Schools Superintendent Shawn Ryan shared a yearbook passage Vaara shared himself in one of the first Sashabaw Junior High School yearbooks:
“Words or monuments are too humble to convey the actual feeling we have for people or for a special place called Sashabaw Junior High…” and he ended the passage with a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longellow, “And departing we leave behind us, our footprints on the sands of time.”
Melvin LeRoy Vaara has left many footprints in many places in the Clarkston community over the last 70 plus years with his family by his side. He was a community minded person who came to Clarkston and served his community in so many ways to make it a better place to live.
PHOTO: Mel Vaara speaks at the the dedication of the Clarkston High School gymnasium in honor of longtime Clarkston basketball coach Dan Fife in December 2018. Photo by Larry Wright