GOSHEN RELAYS: Nafziger to lead 81st Goshen Relays as honorary referee

Apr. 17—GOSHEN — Lowell Nafziger has been volunteering at the Goshen Relays for a good portion of the event's history.

When the 81st edition of the Goshen Relays begins Saturday morning at Goshen High School, Nafziger will be in his usual spot, helping volunteer at the long jump. This time, he'll be holding the distinction of honorary referee.

His reaction when learning about the honor was like many others to hold the title before him: humble.

"My thoughts were that they must have made a mistake because this is the last thing I've ever expected," said Nafziger, who will be making his 38th appearance at the Relays Saturday. "Never in my wildest imagination did I think I'd be invited or asked to be that."

The Relays will also have a different look to it this year. Athletic Director Jim Pickard was behind the change which hopes to attract more teams, especially on the girls side, than in years passed.

This year, the boys and girls will run on the same day. It's the 81st running for the boys, the 34th for the girls. Of the 34 teams on the boys side, 16 will be placed in Class A. The remaining 18 will be slid into Class B. In the girls competition, 16 teams are split evenly between the two classes. There were 30 boys teams and 12 girls teams last year.

Nafziger may have tried to stay humble, deflecting his honor onto others who he thought deserved the recognition more than him, but his actions in the community make it hard for his argument to stick.

The Goshen resident moved to the Maple City in 1973. His brother-in-law invited him to join the team at Leatherman Supply. Nafziger accepted and his wife Diane and two young children packed up their things to make the move from Archbold, Ohio.

Eventually Nafziger reached co-owner status at Leatherman but he also latched on to another role in Elkhart County.

"I look back now and wonder how in the world did I do that," Nafziger said about his time as a volunteer fireman at Elkhart Township starting in 1975.

Nafziger volunteered the first three Tuesdays of each month, completing extra training, helping out at the station as well as getting put in action. It led him down a path that focused on helping others in the community.

"That probably helped me be more willing to help others when they needed help because I saw how important it was when someone needed help and when their house or barn are burning or when they're in a car accident and they need help," Nafziger said. "That helped me realize this is something that I can continue doing."

While on his path of volunteering, he also had a family to raise with Diane. With children Lisa and Tony, he watched as the two grew on to success and are fortunate to now have five grandchildren with both his children living nearby. One of those grandchildren, Mason, was a member of the 2014 Goshen state champion soccer team.

When it comes to his view on the Relays, Nafziger expressed his appreciation for the participating teams.

"The one thing that I've really been impressed with, especially when they did the boys relays and girls relays, was all the coaches are extremely courteous, polite and the same with the athletes," Nafziger said. "Many of them after the meet is over come up and thank us for doing a good job and really appreciate it."

He remembers also being "nervous" when former Goshen Athletic Director Larry Kissinger switched him from working the shot put to his current position at long jump. Nafziger said he didn't know much about that event and what was entailed at the time, but as his wife usually works with him by measuring each jump, he came to get used to hanging around the sand pits.

Retiring in 2008, one of Nafziger's more impressive feats during his time in the community came shortly after.

One of Nafziger's first ideas upon retirement was that he wanted to be a mentor to elementary school kids. He made it happen.

"When I went to school I didn't understand the importance of an education," Nafziger said, adding that he didn't get very good grades but didn't care too much about it. "All the kids I mentored heard my story of how ridiculous it was my attitude, and I tried to tell them 'don't be like me.'"

One of those kids he mentored was Alex Parga, a student at Chamberlain nearly 10 years ago. Getting permission from parents, Nafziger would drive the children in his yellow Corvette convertible every once in a while to lunch at area eateries such as Olympia Candy Kitchen.

At Planet Fitness nearly three months ago, Parga noticed Nafziger and came up to say hi.

"He asked me if I still had my convertible, and I thought 'how in the world did he remember all that,'" Nafziger said.

In a more emotional story from his years as a mentor, Nafziger told the time he was working with a young girl in kindergarten. His goal: teach this girl her ABCs. There was just one problem, the letter Q.

"I held the Q up and said, 'Look at this letter and say "Q" 10 times slowly,'" Nafziger said, relaying how the student followed the instructions perfectly. "Then I showed her a card. 'A' [she said]. I showed her another one. 'D'. She was right. I showed her the Q and she would say 'S' or something else."

Nafziger expressed his frustration with the process. Such a simple assignment was turning out to be not so easy.

He mentioned that about three different times he grew close to walking to the principal's office saying, "Look, I'm wasting my time. I'm not helping her. Just give me another student." Instead, he talked himself out of pressing abort. "So, you want to be a quitter huh," Nafziger thought to himself. "No, I'm not going to be a quitter."

Fighting back tears, Nafziger recalled a moment when the two crossed paths for the first time since his mentorship with the young girl ended.

"Two years later I went to a Goshen scrimmage football game," Nafziger said. "I got inside the gate and I heard somebody yell and it was her. She was over by the fence. She came running over and grabbed me around my legs and hung on and said "I miss you; I miss you so much."

"It's good to hear sometimes that you've made a difference in someone else's life and that's the most important thing to do," Nafziger said.

Nafziger's heart is clearly focused on helping those around him. While a volunteer to his core, he is also a mentor, a helper, and someone who has made quite the footprint in the county.

He'll be watching jumpers make their footprints in the sand Saturday, but there won't be a question whose will stand out the most. It'll be Nafziger, who has made his mark on the community and now gets to add "Goshen Relays honorary referee" to his dense catalog of milestones.

Reach Matt Lucas at 574-533-2151, ext. 240325, or at