Vonderheide recalls playing days at Jasper, IUJune 26, 2020
BY COREY STOLZENBACH
JASPER — Sitting in a chair sipping a drink from a plastic foam cup in his office at city hall, Mayor Dean Vonderheide knows he would’ve laughed if someone told him from his days as a student-athlete at Jasper High School that he would one day be mayor of the town.
The 1971 graduate and mayor since 2018 has come a long way since his days as a youth. He grew up in Holland, and came to Jasper as a freshman. The town he would eventually preside over — that would become his home — daunted him at first.
“When I moved from Holland to Jasper, I was scared to death I was going to get lost in the big city,” Vonderheide said with a chuckle. “That’s how I looked at Jasper coming from Holland — lots of streets, but it was my exposure. My exposure was very limited back then.”
He remembers coming out for the football team his freshman year of high school at the urging of his cousin, Greg Krodel. Vonderheide moved to Jasper Aug. 14, with the first practice being the very next day. Krodel drove him to practice, and introduced him to legendary coach Jerry Brewer.
“Coach asked, ‘What position do you want to play?’” he said. “Well, I came from a place in Holland, Indiana, where we all took turns playing quarterback. I’m not even sure I knew any of the other positions on the team, and so I told Coach, ‘Well, quarterback,’ and he looked at me like, ‘Really?’ Because I was kind of clunky and awkward and growing like crazy at that time freshman year.
“So, he let me be quarterback for about one practice, maybe even half a practice and then he moved me to the line — the line position,” Vonderheide continued. “So, I played offensive tackle and defensive tackle all the way through high school.”
It took time for the future mayor to get a grasp of the game of football. He recalls he didn’t understand all of the rules until his sophomore year in college. Vonderheide remembers tackling the return man on a punt return before he got the ball on multiple occasions, and penalty flags ensued. He remembers teammate Lee Boehm, a 1970 graduate, telling him that he can’t do that.
Vonderheide nevertheless excelled at the sport. He earned honors on the All-Southern Indiana Athletic Conference squad his senior year in 1970. The Wildcats finished with a 7-3 record and were SIAC champs for the first time since 1967.
It doesn’t bother him that there was no football state tournament when he played. There was nothing he could do about it, but he thought Jasper would’ve been competitive in the tournament since the Wildcats made their games close, win or lose.
Football was one of multiple sports Vonderheide found success in. He retraced his roots to growing up in Holland, recalling his time playing basketball with others in the area. But he didn’t spend his winters at Jasper on the hardwood. Vonderheide spent them on the mat.
“(Basketball coach) Ed Schultheis pulled me aside after my freshman year, and said, ‘Vonderheide, I’ve got a 6-[foot]-6 center that’s going to play center and you’re not going to play,’” the mayor said. “‘Coach (Joe) Rohleder’s starting a wrestling team. Why don’t you go out for the wrestling team?’ So, he, as politely as he could, cut me from the team.”
He started out wrestling on the reserve team. Vonderheide competed in the heavyweight classification and wrestled behind football teammate Dave Dove in his class. He remembers how strong Dove was, and the technique work he had to do. Vonderheide learned to wrestle with his legs, which paid off his senior year.
Vonderheide developed a rivalry of some sort with Tell City’s Ralph Alvey, who got the better of the future mayor twice during the 1970-71 season, and then came tournament time.
He made history as the first individual wrestler in Jasper history to win a SIAC title, and he had to get through the top three seeds in the heavyweight class to do it. Vonderheide upset Alvey to reach the finals, and he pinned top-seeded Wilbur Hackner from Evansville Rex Mundi to claim the crown.
Vonderheide’s success didn’t end there. Bruce Seger became the first Jasper wrestler to win a sectional, doing so the year before in the 132-pound class. Vonderheide became the second. This time, he was the top seed, and he got the better of Alvey again for the sectional prize.
“Ralph was a very good wrestler, and I respected him highly,” Vonderheide said. “And he beat me twice during the season, so when I had the opportunity and I beat him, it was just ‘Yea!’ for the conference. Did I think I could repeat? I wasn’t sure. Three times we met. Twice he beat me. I beat him once, and in the sectional I was able to beat him again. That was quite a rivalry, and I’ve always respected Ralph.”
The mayor thrived on the gridiron, won individual championships on the wrestling mat and he also rewrote Jasper’s record book in the shot put — breaking his own record multiple times. He won sectional his junior year in 1970 with a throw of 54 feet, 101⁄2 inches that outdid his previous Jasper record of 54’6”. He qualified for state in the shot put both in 1970 and 1971.
Offers came in to continue his athletic career at the collegiate level in all three sports. Vonderheide chose to ink his letter of intent to play football at Indiana University. He found an increase in the commitment level as a student-athlete at IU. Vonderheide saw it as a full-time job between workouts, practice and team meetings, while also going to school early in the morning. He saw it as a tough life.
He had somewhat of a Jasper reunion with different IU football players. Vonderheide became teammates with Alan Dick, a 1968 graduate, and also was roommates with his former Jasper classmate, Jim Wenzel.
“Jim was an outstanding punter, and it’s unfortunate that he had a shoulder injury when he was in Texas, because that shoulder injury kept him from playing pro ball,” he said. “That’s the only thing that kept him from playing pro ball. I asked Jim. I said, ‘Why? Why don’t they want you?’ Well, if the ball would be snapped high, his reach with his arm wasn’t as high as it would be if it wouldn’t have been for that shoulder injury, and that happens quite frequently in pro ball, but his punting was outstanding.”
Vonderheide dealt with a coaching change during his tenure at IU. He went from the coach who recruited him, John Pont, to Lee Corso, and the mayor found a world of difference between the two of them. Vonderheide lauded Pont as a class act and a role model who cared about his athletes. However, he didn’t see eye to eye with Corso, who was playing his own recruits instead of Pont’s, and Vonderheide couldn’t understand it at the time.
He remembers being a team representative and having a conference with Corso that escalated to the point of raised voices for 45 minutes. It didn’t go well for Vonderheide, who learned of the ways he didn’t want to coach or lead other people in life.
“There are people that love Lee Corso, and I understand that — I get that,” Vonderheide said. “He did a lot of good for the program up there, but at the expense of those that John Pont had recruited, I feel.”
Vonderheide reflects fondly on being on the field and bonding with the team. He recalls sweating in IU’s old football facilities and the workouts in Assembly Hall. Vonderheide remembers playing against Charlie Davis of Texas Christian University, and had an unpleasant experience with the future Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“My first play from scrimmage, he took my head off and handed it to me,” he said. “I came off dazed. Coach Pont met me on the sideline and he said, ‘Welcome to the Big Ten,’ and I thought, ‘Wow. I better not stick my head out there. I better tuck it in like they told me.’”
He would’ve loved to have played football professionally, but he decided to focus on his studies at IU above all else. Vonderheide taught and coached at North Posey and Tell City, and spent decades at Kimball International.
In 2018, then-mayor Terry Seitz resigned to take a position when fellow Jasper resident Mike Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate, and, thus, a vacancy for the mayorship was born.
Vonderheide, who was retired and served on the council, started getting suggestions from people asking him to put his name in the hat for mayor. He was hesitant initially, and talked it over with his family. Vonderheide knew that if he was going to do it, he was going to finish out the former mayor’s term, plus run for election for his own term.
A Republican Precinct Caucus convened to elect the former Wildcat and Hoosier athlete as the 14th mayor of Jasper on Dec. 26, 2018. He was elected to a full term in November 2019.
“I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Vonderheide said. “And truly, I didn’t know what this role meant, or how complex it gets, and I’m learning every day. But I’ve got a year and a half under my belt. I feel pretty comfortable in the position.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, he didn’t just take a new job. Vonderheide learned from Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner that he took a new name. He was no longer Dean. He was no longer “Vondy,” as he was affectionately nicknamed in high school. He was now Mayor, and that’s what the majority of the people, even those who know him closely, call him these days.
He remains a devoted fan to IU football. The mayor has been a regular at Hoosier home games, missing just one in 30-plus years. The occasion? His brother, Kurt, got married. Dean jokes that he still holds a grudge because of that.
“There’s no doubt I would miss another game for a wedding like that, but most of the people in our family have learned to schedule around IU football games,” Dean said.
Dean is ever the optimist. Never once as an athlete did he think he was going to lose. If he did, he felt he was going to get back up. Not once does he believe IU is going to get blown out when he goes to a game, and he takes the same approach with his current position that he’ll get back up if he goes down.
Take a look at his desk, and you’ll see he’s tackling a lot of projects, all while trying to stay organized to execute well. He sees the biggest short-term challenge is the funding because of the impact COVID-19 will have on municipal budgets come 2021.
The mayor remains committed to fight the virus.
“When the governor came out with the stay-at-home orders, we complied really well,” he said while wearing a mask Tuesday afternoon. “We didn’t have to worry about the masks because we stayed at home. We didn’t have to worry about social distancing because we stayed at home. But when we started opening up the economy, we got a little lax. We started thinking, ‘Well, it’s back to the way it was,’ and we did a 180.
“We’re not as conservative about our health and exposure to others as we should be,” Dean continued. “That is the biggest concern that I have at this point in time, that we’re not taking it seriously, that there is a high risk and we’re ignoring the risk. I really feel like that’s where we are today. We’ve got to regroup. We’ve got to fight the fight, and that means people have got to get on board. It’s not about losing your freedoms. It’s about protecting your neighbor, your friends and your family. I’ll give up a little freedom. I’ll wear a mask if it means protecting. I just feel that way.”
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