There are some moments in life when you just have to pull off to the side of the road. Either that, or cause a 12-car pileup on a major highway.
Ken Bernabe had such an experience last year. Driving from his Lawrence home to Chesterfield to see one of his grandson’s baseball games, Bernabe was on Route 295 with another grandson, 8-year-old Jameson, in the backseat.
Suddenly the phone rang and it was Howie O’Neill, the New Jersey State Wrestling Tournament Director. He was giving Bernabe the good news that he would be receiving the 2019 Harry E. Lake Award for his contributions to wrestling, which he was presented with on March 2 at the state tournament in Atlantic City.
“I swear to God I had to grip the steering wheel even tighter,” Bernabe said. “I welled up, and my grandson was concerned about me. He said ‘Pop are you OK?’ I said, ‘Jameson I gotta pull off to the side of the road,’ because I couldn’t talk, it was just overwhelming. I told Jameson I would explain everything after I finished the phone call and I told Howie ‘I gotta take a moment to gather myself up, because this is incredible.’ It was an epiphany.”
A well-deserved epiphany for a man who made the Garden State a better place to wrestle. It doesn’t get much better than this award, as Harry E. Lake is considered the Father of High School Wrestling in New Jersey. Lake was the former Athletic Director at Union High School and Director of the NJSIAA state tournaments from 1934 until his untimely death in 1959. He organized the New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association in 1934 and is considered one of the premier promoters of New Jersey high school wrestling.
“If Mr. Lake were to walk by me as an aberration or come down in a time capsule, I wouldn’t be able to describe him because I never met him,” Bernabe said. “But I know he’s got a heavy reputation. For them to give me an award named after him, these are things you dream about. It is a monster award, it is the highest award that can be given in the state for recognizing a person in this sport.”
His college coach and close friend of 50 years, Barry Burtnett, felt it was well-earned recognition.
“Ken is very deserving of this prestigious award,” said Burtnett, who recently played host to Bernabe and his wife at his Florida home in The Villages. “I have been involved with wrestling for over 60-plus years, and can honestly say that he has dedicated his life to the sport.”
It’s not as if Bernabe, a Lawrence Township resident for 30 years, hasn’t been honored before. In 2013, he received the Lifetime Service to Wrestling Award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in Stillwater, Oklahoma. But because this came from within the state to which the 71-year-old donated his talents for over 50 years, it has extra meaning.
Bernabe wrestled for the Bridgewater-Raritan East team in high school before competing on the first Rider College (now University) squad in 1968-69 under Burtnett.
“He was responsible, along with many wrestlers, for getting our program off the ground,” Burtnett said. “When I first started the program, Ken was an average wrestler, but he helped me recruit other former high school wrestlers on campus to come out for a new team and the rest was history.”
When Bernabe was finished with competition, his major contributions to wrestling were just beginning. After graduating he was an assistant wrestling coach at B-R East. In 1973 he began teaching at the newly opened West Windsor-Plainsboro High School (now WW-P South) and guided the wrestling team to 54-16-2 record through 1979. The small school was ranked No. 10 in the region in 1977. He leaned heavily on Burtnett for advice during those times.
“We had a wonderful opportunity to build a program at West Windsor,” Bernabe said. “Aside from creating a program, we took on the responsibility of educating the parents to the sport. We felt it was critical to get parents together to talk about weight management and explain what the rules were and how to interpret the rules so they would be educated and not yell so much at coaches and refs. We felt parents were integral parts of the program. We built them into the program and took care of their kids, which was their most important concern.”
In 1980, he became a principal at Delsea High School before moving on to the Springfield-Union County school district, where he was a middle school principal for seven years and an elementary school principal for 11. At one of his job interviews, Bernabe was asked what qualified him to be a principal.
“I said ‘My participation at seeding meetings as a coach,’” he said. “They said ‘Excuse me?’ Here I am with board members, teachers. They said ‘You have to explain that.’ I told them you’re in there fighting for your kid, trying to get the best seed for your kid who has worked hard all year. So while what I said may have sounded strange, there’s a degree of merit behind that. You always want what’s best for your kids.”
When he became a principal, Bernabe also got into officiating, which is where he made his biggest mark. He handled the state finals three times, and put to work his lessons from numerous teachers.
“I had a bunch of mentors in my career,” he said. “If they did anything, they schooled me correctly, they took me under their wing. They taught me all of the important things about the profession. They taught me the demeanor. They taught me about composure, the poise, the respect you need when you’re officiating.
“They talked about the responsibility of listening to the coaches, and if they had a concern or a question; how to respond to them. Because I was in their shoes at one time. How to deal with the coach who maybe needed to have a reinterpretation of the rules for him and the way in which you do it, so that you’re not asserting yourself as ‘Hey, I’m the boss here, this is how it’s gonna be.’ You do it in a quiet manner. I always felt the best officials see everything but are seldom seen themselves. It’s almost like ‘Who was that masked man?’”
Burtnett felt, unequivocally, that “Ken’s biggest contribution to wrestling was his officiating.”
Bernabe retired from education in 2005 but continued to officiate for the next five years. He looked forward to focusing completely on wrestling without a full-time job pulling him in different directions.
“I commuted from Lawrenceville to Springfield for 18 years, that was like 62 miles each way,” he said. “I’d finish at quarter to five, walking out the door; I’d get a cell call from a parent and I’m on my way to do Hunterdon Central-DelVal. You always take the job with you. So I officiated for five years being able to enjoy retirement and also experience it without being a master to another enterprise. I was in the twilight of my career those last five years, but just being able to relax before I went to a meet, to be able to enjoy that was a great feeling.”
Since hanging up the striped shirt in 2010, Bernabe continues to be involved in the sport.
“He helped myself and Frank Mosier to establish the National Hall of Fame’s New Jersey Chapter some 20-plus years ago,” Burtnett said. “He presently serves as the master of ceremonies at the chapter’s annual awards ceremony and he is also the chairman of the nominating committee.”
Bernabe still attends matches at Lawrence High and the Lawrenceville School, as well as some of the marquee matches around the state and in his home county of Somerset. Several years ago he served as Chris Lynn’s assistant for the Cardinals wrestling team. He performs volunteer work in Lawrenceville, Mercer County and his church, and is on the Rider alumni board.
Like most participants from another era, Bernabe feels that parental interference has become an issue in high school sports, saying, “Today, everybody’s an expert.” He also understands that club wrestling in addition to high school wrestling can be beneficial, but also confusing because two coaches are telling one wrestler two different things.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with getting extra instruction, but that puts a kid in a tough situation,” he said. “He has his head coach telling him one thing and his club coach telling him another, who does he listen to?”
Weight management has also become an extremely important subject.
“You need to hire an assistant coach just to deal with weight management,” Bernabe said with a laugh. “You make one mistake in this day and age that disqualifies a kid and look out. You better get a train ticket to Siberia… or they’ll have a train ticket for you. The demands are so much more on coaches these days.”
As they are on officials.
“I give officials these days a lot of credit,” he said. “Every single year there is some kind of rule change. Aside from knowing the rules and exercising the rules; when you’re being challenged you’ve got to know how to respond. You’ve got to be in shape. You’ve got to have a good endurance level.
“If you want to improve and enhance your skills you’ve gotta do the big matches. That’s where you’ll cut your eye teeth if you want to go to the next level. Because those high quality meets are where the crowd is into it and the crowd is trying to yell louder than you or yell louder at you. I liked officiating in an audience where I couldn’t hear anything. Because if someone was calling me a bad name I didn’t hear them anyway.”
The good names far outweighed the bad when it came to Bernabe, whose love of wrestling made him loved by those in wrestling.
“It’s just an unbelievable sport,” he said. “It’s about one’s ability to compete, to improve. There’s really no one else to blame but yourself. When you stop and think about all the things that are unique to the sport—the weight management, the skill level, it’s amazing. (Legendary Iowa coach) Dan Gable said it best. ‘Once you have wrestled, everything else in life is easy.’”
No matter how difficult the sport gets, it is always embraced warmly by Bernabe.
“Everybody should have had the principalship I had, the coaching career I had or the officiating career I had,” he said. “I’m a lucky man. I’m blessed.”
And wrestling is blessed to have him.