REGIONAL— For Lon Lamppa, known affectionately as “Lonnie” to his many friends, the memories of a lifetime spent coaching kids have largely faded away— except for in the minds …
REGIONAL— For Lon Lamppa, known affectionately as “Lonnie” to his many friends, the memories of a lifetime spent coaching kids have largely faded away— except for in the minds of the countless young people whose lives he touched over the years.
Lonnie wasn’t just a coach to the many athletes he worked with beginning in the 1980s until his retirement in 2015. He was a mentor, a friend, and, to some, like a second father.
He had a different approach to coaching and sports that went well beyond imparting the knowledge and skills of the game, recalls Brian Larsen, who Lonnie coached in both baseball and basketball at Tower-Soudan. “It was a different kind of relationship,” said Larsen, who years later still recognizes Lonnie’s influence and how it’s encouraged him to be more active in the lives of his own children and their own sports programs at school.
“Lonnie took a broader, maybe a more worldly view of sports,” said Larsen. “He saw it as about improving the lives of the people involved. And he built a real community.”
Lonnie and his wife Ann both played a role in building that community, which included opening their house to players and their families. “It was like my second home,” remembers Larsen, who spent hours at the Lamppa’s house in Tower, hanging out with the Lamppa’s three boys, all of whom, like Larsen, excelled in sports.
Ann Lamppa said it wasn’t an accident that when she and Lonnie decided to move from a lake place into town, they bought a large, newer house right across the street from the Tower-Soudan School’s athletic fields. Before and after practices or games, the students and their families naturally gathered at the Lamppa’s, where the garage was usually open and the beer and other snacks were in the cooler.
“My dad and mom were very conscious of having people at the house, before and after the games,” remembers Justin Lamppa, Ann and Lonnie’s oldest son. “For my dad, it wasn’t a job, it was a lifestyle. He understood that a lot of kids needed a place to belong and he opened up our house to everyone.”
While Lonnie recognized the importance of building character in those he coached, he also liked to win and took steps to attract the kind of talent that could make that happen. Paul McDonald, the son of Bob McDonald, the winningest coach in Minnesota high school sports, remembers getting a call from Lonnie back in the 1980s about a coaching and athletic director position open in Tower. McDonald, who is now a St. Louis County Commissioner, applied and got the job and Lonnie spent years as an assistant coach working under McDonald.
“I always said we were the perfect pair,” recalls McDonald,. “I would get after them, and he would put his arm around them to bring them back. He was a genuine, caring person.
Whether you were the best player or a benchwarmer, you were the same to Lonnie.
He always stressed the importance of developing quality relationships with everyone.”
When McDonald was later hired to coach basketball at Vermilion Community College, Lonnie found a role to play there as well, mostly using his skills as a physical therapist, only later as an assistant coach. “He would come up to the college, and work with students who had injuries,” recalls McDonald. “He would come after work or over the noon hour. He didn’t have to, but he just loved the kids. He could see if an injury was causing them anxiety and he would calmly explain how they would get better. He could really calm them down.”
Steve Svatos was one of those athletes, who first got to know Lonnie well when Svatos underwent knee surgery in ninth grade. Lonnie, who worked at the Ely hospital, would pick Svatos up in Tower to bring him to his therapy. “He’s always been so willing to help,” said Svatos. “He volunteered thousands of hours to do whatever he could to help the athletes, in both boys and girls sports. Whether it was Little League or high school, his approach was the same, said Svatos. “He was very humble about it all. He never looked for any recognition. It was just who he was.”
Lonnie grew up in the Finnish enclave of Embarrass, where his parents Ernie and Lyna Lamppa helped operate Lamppa’s Store with his uncle Alvin. As a young man, Lonnie also worked at times at the store, which sold groceries, household goods and appliances to residents of the community.
While Ann Lamppa said she’s not sure what about his upbringing made Lonnie the person he became, she said it was obvious from the beginning that he saw the value in mentoring young people.
“We went to college to be a teacher, first at VCC, then at Bemidji,” said Ann. After receiving his teaching certificate he got his first job at the Cherry School, where he taught at the high school level and head coached football and basketball. “He came home every night and said he didn’t think he could do it,” recalls Ann. “He loved the coaching but didn’t like all the drama in the classroom. I told him if he didn’t like it, he had to change now.”
He left that job and spent a few months working at his parents’ store before deciding to go back to school to learn physical therapy, which eventually became his career. He would never serve as a head coach again, which is just the way that he liked it, according to Svatos. Lonnie preferred to leave the politics and the headlines to others.
Lonnie’s humble nature made it hard bestow recognition in any form. Greg “Dusty” Dostert said he had planned to retire Lonnie’s jersey during a Little League ceremony this past summer that was ultimately canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. There was another hitch as well. “We couldn’t figure out what number jersey he wore,” said Dostert. In fact, as old photos attest, Lonnie wore various numbers over the years, most likely wearing whatever jerseys were available at the time.
For so many of the young people who came up under Lonnie’s mentoring, the lessons he taught them keep making a difference in their own lives. Jeb Kotzian, a Tower-Soudan alum who played with both Brian Larsen and Justin Lamppa, recalls how Lonnie’s methods stood out from most other coaches and teachers of that era. “He knew how to motivate and inspire people in a way that was very calming,” said Kotzian. “At a time when some other adults could seem threatening at times or use harsh language, he never yelled. He just talked about how we owed our best to our team.”
Kotzian is a member of the Army Reserve, who recently returned from a year-long stint commanding a mobile surgical team in Afghanistan. And he said he regularly tries to utilize the lessons and methods that Lonnie taught him as he leads his own team under the challenging conditions of a war zone.
For Svatos, who lives in Grand Rapids, his relationship with Lonnie has remained tight through the years. Lonnie even served as best man at his and his wife Jennifer’s wedding in 2003. “We’ve had a lifelong bond,” said Svatos. “He’s been a big influence in a lot of things that I’ve done.”
McDonald said one the surest signs of Lonnie’s influence was during a high school baseball game in Tower. “I was the coach and John Kemppainen was the umpire. John called our runner out at first base and it was very apparent he was safe. Lonnie, who was normally so quiet, said something this time, and he was pretty exercised about it. He said something to Kemppainen about it, who decided that if Lonnie was complaining about it, it must be legitimate, so he reversed himself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before or since. It showed the quiet influence that Lonnie had with everybody.”
Signs of trouble arrived shortly after Lonnie retired. He was 2015, and with extra time on their hands, Lonnie and Ann spent a summer upgrading the family hunting shack, which was second only to sports as a family pastime. At first it was small things, like Lonnie forgetting measurements, that caught Ann’s attention. Others who came to help with the work, also made note to Ann that Lonnie seemed to be slipping, even though he was still in his mid-60s at the time. His loss of memory accelerated and eventually they visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where Lonnie was diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s, even though scans of his brain did not show the usual signs of Alzheimer’s. After returning for more tests in late 2017, they learned that the left side of Lonnie’s brain was not getting the glucose it needs to function. It was a mystery to the doctors, who have since enrolled Lonnie in a research program. Two years later, in June 2019, when they tested Lonnie again, Ann said they were stunned at how fast he had deteriorated. “They said it was totally new.”
The good news, said Ann, is the doctors don’t believe Lonnie’s impairment is genetic, so it’s not likely to plague their children in the future. Ann has a theory of her own. “None of the doctors will say it, but I believe it could be due to head injuries that Lonnie experienced in football,” said Ann. “In those days, you could get a concussion and they’d put you right back in.”
Now just 71, Lonnie should be enjoying an active retirement with family and friends. Instead, last April, after his care needs eventually became too much, he was moved into a small memory care facility in Eveleth. “He does fine there,” said Ann. “He gets a lot of individual attention.”
Despite all that he has lost, Lonnie has never complained, according to Ann. While he now shies away from groups, even in family settings, signs of the old Lonnie, still emerge at times, although more and more it’s the lessons that he taught so many young people over the years that linger. “I find that the older I get, the more I find myself asking ‘what would my dad do?’” said Justin.
Larsen agrees, noting that, after his parents, Lonnie was the most influential person in his life.
“I can never repay all that he did for me,” he said.