TRAVERSE CITY — A big part of the North American Vasa passed away Friday.
One day before the 38th annual cross-country ski race, co-founder Roy Theodore “Ted” Okerstrom died at age 92.
George Kuhn, who has raced in all but five of the 38 Vasa races, said Okerstrom was a “visionary.”
“I was involved with the Okerstroms socially and then when he was manager at the Park Place,” Kuhn said. “He was a visionary type of person. He worked very hard at accomplishing some goals, particularly the Vasa. He was a pioneer in a sense when he started the Vasa. He had a lot of obstacles. ... He was very instrumental in initiating the Vasa ski race.”
The 81-year-old was the race manager from 1990-2000, served on the race board for several years and is now involved with registration.
“He was very sociable, very friendly,” Kuhn said. “He was just a good guy, as far as I was concerned.”
Vasa co-founder Vojin Baic recalls how Okerstrom played an integral part in getting the race off the ground.
“(Traverse City) wouldn’t give us any money,” Baic said. “I approached Okerstrom, who was director of the Park Place (Hotel). I explained to him what can be done and he said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ So that’s how it started.”
Baic handled mainly the ski aspects, while Okerstrom focused on the financial portion.
“I was very appreciative,” Baic said. “I needed someone to take the finance part and do what’s necessary. ... He was right there.”
The race made its debut in 1976 — and it’s been a mainstay every year since.
Both Okerstrom and Baic had European roots — Okerstrom was Swedish while Baic was a member of the 1948 Yugoslavian Olympic Nordic Team. Both came from Wisconsin to Traverse City.
“He was a good person,” Baic said. “He saw cross-country skiing was going to go good places.”
George Lombard, who designed and help build the VASA ski trail system, agreed.
“He had this inspiration and idea for the Vasa,” Lombard said of Okerstrom. “The problem was, they didn’t have a permanent trail. That’s where I came in..”
It was Okerstrom’s Swedish roots that inspired the race’s name, which was shortened from Sweden’s 85-kilometer Vasaloppet event held every year since 1922.
A full obituary can be seen on Page 8A.