By Liz Verley, Staff Writer
While he had not planned to retire quite yet, Ken Solarz took advantage of the Rule of 90 to retire from the Upsala School District, following an automobile accident. The accident left him with several fractured ribs, four vertebrae fractures, collapsed lungs, a concussion and three weeks in the hospital.
The accident happened May 13, Mother’s Day. Solarz said, “We went to St. Cloud to have dinner. Our son Bobby was with us. We were making a left turn at the lights by Fleet Farm when we were T-boned by a driver who ran a red light.” His wife, Ruth, spent three days in the hospital and suffers from back and neck injuries. Bobby was treated and released.
Solarz served two years in the Army from April 1969 to March 1971, He said, “I thought I would be going to Vietnam after basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Lewis, Wash. But I was sent to Fort Carson, Colo. for one year and Fort Hood, Texas for six months where I served as a MP.”
Following his discharge, he attended Hibbing Community College for two years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin, Superior. While at the University of Wisconsin he played both college football and baseball. While he attending college he married his wife Ruth in June 1971.
Solarz, who attended and graduated from the Upsala School District, had been with the district for 28 years and two months.
In that time he taught a business law class for four years and became the accountant/bookkeeper/athletic director/business manager. He spent 28 years as the head volleyball coach and 21 as head baseball coach. He was junior high and assistant varsity girls basketball coach for 15 years and spent several summers coaching summer Little League and Little Six baseball. He also played with the town team until he was in his late 30s.
“Upsala did not have a junior high baseball team when I started. I volunteered at the program and eventually was hired as assistant baseball coach and eventually went on to become the head baseball coach,” said Solarz. “Coaching is something I love. I have my favorite sports, volleyball and baseball, but I am willing to give anything a try.”
He ended his career as head volleyball coach with 464 wins, 10 conference titles and a trip to the state volleyball tournament.
At one time the volleyball teamed claimed the conference title five years in a row. The first year was in 1993, Last year a new run began as the team took the conference championship for the second year in a row.
The 2000 volleyball team was the first sports team in Upsala to make it too the state tournament. “I think it opened the door to success for Upsala teams. It showed it could be done,” said Solarz.
Having never coached volleyball, Solarz had to learn all the aspects of the game from the ground up.
“Wherever they needed me I would go. Each sport has its basic elements and I am very grateful the people in the community and the Upsala School District let me coach my way. I had some amazing athletes to work with in the volleyball program,” he said.
“I had a very good rapport with my players and it is important to me to have fun while coaching. As a coach I needed that. The players wanted to come to practice and they worked hard. They had such good attitudes,” said Solarz.
His baseball coaching career ended with 302 wins and back-to-back trips to the state tournament in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, the team was undefeated and ranked number one going into the tournament.
A great plus to the baseball program is the past players that come back to help with the team.
Solarz said, “We have three coaches hired for our baseball program and every day at least two past players came by to help. It was a great plus to the program to be able to have that one-on-one help.”
The town baseball team also has a great interest in the baseball players and the team.
The worst time during his career with district was the summer months. “There was not enough activity. I love it when the school is full of students and teachers and games are going on,” he said.
The best times were the relationships developed over the years with other coaches, athletic directors and players, “That is what is all about,” he said. “As a coach and athletic director it was the assistance I got from players when they came back and helped with the programs.”
Ruth said, “I really miss watching our kids playing in sports. Ken had the opportunity to coach all three of them. They always enjoyed watching their dad coach and now our granddaughter Savannah, 6, tells us she wants her ‘papa’ to coach her.”
Ken and Ruth have three children who all attended and graduated from Upsala. Tana is married to Jessie Johnson and is a special education teacher in Brainerd. They have one daughter, Savannah. Their two sons are Dustin, who lives in Hawaii and Bobby who recently relocated from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Seattle, Wash.
Solarz said, “I am really going to miss it. I am still going to volunteer my time. I can’t just walk away from it. Upsala is a great place to raise a family. I always enjoyed coaching and working in the Upsala School District.”
Retirement will now allow Solarz to spend more time landscaping and working in the couple’s yard. Plans also call for some traveling, volunteering and getting involved in organizations and other things that pop up.
“Retiring will open other doors to experience other things I want to do. I have a lot of ideas but, nothing firm at this time. While I will miss the job, I am excited to explore what is out there for me. Retirement will also give me time to heal from my accident. The prognosis for us all is good. It is just a matter of taking the time to heal,” he said.
“I want people to know that none of what I accomplished could have been done without the great support I got from Ruth. I am so appreciative of having a wife the would put up with my long hours and being gone so much. She has always be so supportive,” Solarz said.