Longtime teacher, recreation director Paul Vardigan dies

ESCANABA – Paul Vardigan and Will Rogers never met, but there is no doubt Vardigan walked in the footsteps of the noted philosopher, humorist and vaudeville performer.

Vardigan, like Rogers, probably never met a man he didn’t like during his career as teacher and recreation director in Escanaba. Vardigan, 98, died Friday at Christian Park Nursing Home. He spent 43 years in the teaching field and also served in various recreational capacities from 1937-1977.

“He had a pleasant smile, and a kind word always came first,” said Paul Kangas Sunday. Kangas, a long-time teacher-coach in the Escanaba school system, worked under Vardigan in the recreation department for several summers. “He was a unique individual.

“There was always a sparkle in his eye. With his smile and happy demeanor, he passed that on without trying to. He was always around but never did anything to point a finger at himself. He always did his job.”

Vardigan, who began teaching in a two-room school in Delta County, concluded his career by spending 21 years teaching in the oral-deaf room in Escanaba before retiring in 1978.

A 46-year career in recreation began in 1931 as a volunteer playground leader, a role that expanded to Royce Park playground director and grew into taking over the “Diaper League” as leader of the city’s first youth center, Club 314 at the corner of South 14th St. and 3rd Avenue South.

He moved on to help develop the Catherine Bonifas Civic Center, the hub of today’s youth activities in Escanaba.

“The kids came first,” said Kangas, noting his vast involvement with youngsters while replying to an observation that his impact was similar to that of Karl Dickson in Escanaba and Don Pfotenhauer in Gladstone, men who were also heavily involved in youth activities during the same 1950-80s time frame.

“He was always pleasant and really liked kids,” Kangas said of Vardigan. “He was a background guy in the foreground.”

Vardigan was president of the Escanaba Basketball Association, the precursor to today’s City League, and was president of the now defunct Escanaba Softball Association. He was also a manager in the Babe Ruth League boys baseball program that grew into state-wide involvement, and was a huge promoter for that age 13-15 league as well as Little League, which was started in the U.P. by Dickson.

Unknown to many, he dipped into his own pocket many times to provide a big boost to the Babe Ruth League and other programs.

Under Vardigan’s direction, the Webster School wading pool, the lighted softball field at Bay College, ice skating at Ruth Butler Building, softball fields in the municipal recreation complex, lighted tennis courts in Ludington Park also came into operation.

A native of Wells, Vardigan and his wife Ora were the parents of five children, Ron, John, Tom, Bob and Bonnie (Miketinac). They all survive.