Lawrence resident, Ken Bernabe, was inducted into National Wrestling Hall of Fame in January.
In 1961, at the age of 13, a high school freshman decided to join the wrestling team.
And after sticking with that commitment over the last 52 years, Lawrence’s Ken Bernabe earned the “Lifetime Service to Wrestling” Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in January.
“I think it’s a culmination of 50 years of a commitment to something that I strongly believe in and have a strong passion for,” he said, reflecting on the honor.
The award recognizes Bernabe for his career as a wrestler, coach and official. He competed as a member of the team at Bridgewater-Raritan East High School and served as head coach at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School, in addition to his time as an official.
Bernabe’s most significant achievements came during his time as a referee, including officiating the state finals three times.
As a match official he had several mentors, including Dick Matarante, a 2003 Hall of Fame inductee. He officiated his first JV match at the Lawrenceville School, and before long he was handling varsity matches.
Ed Glassheim, who officiated more than 7,200 bouts with Bernabe, said his partner “was a professional out on the mat. He knew the book A to Z, and being a teacher and a principal, he had that professionalism as an educator out on the mat and he had a calming sense.”
Ted Resnick, a Hall of Famer himself, said Bernabe has “always done things the right way, and there’s nothing negative you could say about Ken Bernabe.”
“I just worked really hard to prepare myself and train to, I know it might sound trite, be the best that I could be with the goal of someday officiating the state finals,” Bernabe said.
In 1999, he reached that goal.
“It’s exactly what they describe,” Bernabe said. “From walking from the locker room out onto the mat when it’s your turn is like, ‘Here I am; this is what I worked for.’ It’s a great feeling, just a wonderful feeling. To know that you worked so hard and to be rewarded with that honor, it’s difficult to articulate, it’s indescribable.”
While working toward the state finals — which he would officiate in 2003 and 2006 as well — Bernabe also reached other heights as well. He served as president of the NJWOA and of the Union/Essex Chapter of Wrestling Officials, was elected into the Region Five Hall of Fame, and received the Richard C. Mirshak Award, Official of the Year Award by the Greater Middlesex Conference Wrestling Coaches and “Honorary Life Membership” into the EIWOA.
Bernabe had first gotten involved in officiating as a way to stay involved in the sport he prepared to take his teaching career to the next level as a school administrator.
Before he began working as a referee, he had coached at both his old high school, where he taught social studies, and at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South.
Bernabe became an assistant coach at his old high school in 1969. He remembers getting $300 to coach, on top of his $7,000-a-year salary to teach social studies.
“I thought I was on top of the world,” he said. “I was sailing.”
He took over as head coach at the newly opened West Windsor-Plainsboro High School (now known as WWP-South) in 1973. Bernabe led the program for five years, compiling a coaching record of 54-16-2, winning the first Colonial Valley Conference title and finishing with a team ranking of No. 10 in Region 5 in 1977, despite being only a Group I school.
And although it was his decorated time as an official that was the most noteworthy portion of his wrestling career, Bernabe says the humble origin for his most recent award spawned from his pledge to join the Bridgewater-Raritan East’s wrestling team in the winter of his freshman year.
Bernabe remembers packing up his books at the end of a freshman English class when teacher Sam Crosby asked him if he was planning on playing a winter sport. Bernabe told Crosby he was planning to play basketball, but Crosby urged him to instead to join the school’s wrestling team where he “took his lumps.”
Despite his early struggles, Bernabe came to love the sport. After a modest high school career, Bernabe continued to wrestle collegiately at Rider University — the same place he will be honored as a member of the 2013 Hall of Fame class on August 4.
“I was happy that I had competed and finished all four years (in high school),” Bernabe said. “No great honors, no big splash, but it was four years of hard work. Enough to say to myself that I’d be interested in continuing.”
Bernabe is as proud of his election into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as he was by any other honors he has received in his career.
“The honor, the reward, the recognition is for a full-time commitment to the sport,” Bernabe reiterated. “I can’t think of anything better.”