In this Feb. 24, 2018 file photo Tom Handrick, right, watches Rhinelander’s Jacob DeMeyer and Sparta’s Brett Von Ruden grapple at the WIAA state high school wrestling meet at the Kohl Center in Madison. Handrick, a loyal supporter of wrestling in the Northwoods passed away March 7 at the age of 55. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
3/13/2018 7:31:00 AM Handrick's passing leaves void in Northwoods wrestling community
Lakeland Union High School activities director Don Scharbarth summed up Tom Handrick best by saying, "If you didn't know Tommy when you walked into the room, you knew him by the end of the night."
Handrick was one of Minocqua's most well-known residents and his passion was wrestling. He became an integral part of not only the Northwoods wrestling community, but across the entire state.
There is now a gaping hole in the local wrestling world as Handrick passed away Wednesday at the age of 55 after the skid-steer he was operating fell through the ice during a job in Watersmeet, Mich.
Over the years, Handrick has been one of the most visible faces in wrestling, serving as an assistant coach for Lakeland Union High School, as well as Rhinelander, along with serving as the president of the Lakeland Wrestling Club from 2006-2012. He also lent his services to The Northwoods River News and The Lakeland Times as a photographer for the WIAA championships in Madison on several occasions.
"You never went to a Minocqua event and Tommy was not there," Scharbarth said. "Tommy was at every single event that was important to our community and it's going to be really, really different not seeing him at everything we go to in our community. He was just a tireless worker with every committee he was involved in."
Handrick competed for Lakeland as a wrestler in high school and continued into adulthood, competing in several tournaments into his 50s.
In 2014, he took second place in the 130-kilogram weight class in the Veterans Nationals at age 51. He also won the Greco-Roman tournament in 2007 and won the Badger State Games in the Masters Folk in 2011.
"He's got the record for pinning percentage at Lakeland, he said. He pinned 12 guys and got pinned 12 times," Rhinelander head coach Paul Ellenbecker joked. "That was one of his favorite lines. He wrestled in nationals and got a stop sign, which is (the award given to) a national champion. We used to mess with him because he wrestled in an old timer's thing and he's got his name on the board for Lakeland for winning a national championship. It was old timer's, there was only two guys in the bracket, but it's kind of cool. Not many people can get a stop sign. That's usually your elite wrestlers and Tommy found a way to get one."
Handrick became an assistant coach for his alma mater in the mid-1990s and stayed until the 2000s, serving under head coaches Rick Ernst and Adam Bremer.
During his time with the Thunderbirds, Handrick worked closely with three-time WIAA place winner and recent Wall of Fame inductee Nathan Piasecki, along with the heavyweights.
"Tom was a volunteer and that's what he did with the Lakeland wrestling program," Ernst said. "He was a huge volunteer with the kids' program, the junior high program and the high school program. Tom loved wrestling and he loved being around the wrestlers. He loved being around the coaches and he volunteered. He didn't get paid a dime and he put in as much time, if not more than some of the paid coaches on staff. I know the kids loved him and he was just a big kid himself. That's what Tommy was and that was what he loved to do. He was really in his element when we would go tournaments - the state tournament, regional tournaments. Anything that had to do with competition or wrestling, Tommy was right there."
His volunteer work in wrestling was no different than what he did in a variety of other organizations or events.
Handrick was willing to lend a hand in anyway he could, regardless of difficulty or cost.
"Tommy was the kind of guy where kids came first," Bremer said. "We actually had a wrestler that had a stroke while he was competing. Just after he got off the mat, he actually suffered a stroke right in front of us and he had to be taken down to Marshfield, spending the better part of two months down there. Tommy dropped everything and made sure that wrestler and his family had everything they needed and everything was taken care of. To me that was the best representation of who Tommy was. When it came to wrestling Xs and Os, I'm not sure that he was head and shoulders above everyone else, but when it came to caring about kids, he was at the top. He put himself out to make sure that one of these kids felt treated well or cared about. That's something you can't replace."
There is always a reason or story behind why someone cares so strongly for something, but the simple reason for Handrick was his love for the community.
Not only did he love Minocqua and everything about it, but he loved wrestling and it was something that pulled at his heartstrings.
"Tom grew up in Minocqua, he's a local boy, he loved Lakeland, he loved Minocqua and he'd do anything for anybody in our community and wrestling was no different," Ernst said. "He loved those kids. Wrestling's a sport that demands a lot out of athletes. They have to cut weight, they have to be in great shape, it's a one-on-one match and Tommy was just drawn to that type of atmosphere and the kids reciprocated in that they loved him. He just wanted to be part of something that really reflected who Tom was."
It wasn't just the Lakeland wrestling community that felt Handrick's impact.
Current Rhinelander coach Paul Ellenbecker met him while serving as head coach at Wausau East. They began a close friendship, spending time at various tournaments and eventually led to Ellenbecker offering Handrick a job as an assistant when he took over for the Hodags seven years ago.
Handrick agreed and drove 45 minutes to practice each day until the travel became too much. Still, he remained around the team as a supporter in recent years.
"When he came into the practice room, kids rallied around him because he was fun," Ellenbecker said. "He had a good time. He worked with the upper weights. He was really good with connections and getting us into tournaments. As a head coach, it's nice to have a guy on your staff to go up to and talk to. Tom was my main confidant. He was a guy I could talk to about anything and ask him about a kid, a family or what he thinks. I could bounce ideas off of him and I knew I was going to get an honest answer all the time. In my younger coaching days I had a bit of reputation of getting after it and getting a little fired up and Tommy was a calming influence on me. Just a good guy to have around a program. There's not a program that's going to suffer having him be part of it."
Handrick had a reputation for being opinionated and had his detractors, but he always made an attempt to see things from a different perspective.
He had a jovial personality and it didn't take long for him to get comfortable around a stranger.
"Tommy has the largest personality of anybody I've ever met," Scharbarth said. "When he walks into a place where there's people, he can walk to every person and have something in common or something he knows about that person. I've never seen anybody with the ability to just be able to talk to every single person. It didn't matter what walk of life they came from. Tommy would always acknowledge everybody that was in the building."
Nick Sabato may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NickSabatoLT.
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