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Dan Spilde was a state champion wrestler and a member of Stoughton coach LaVerne Pieper’s final state championship team in 1988.

Then, after college, Spilde returned to serve as an assistant for Pieper.

The impact Pieper had on Spilde, the Vikings’ wrestling program and the Stoughton community was immense, said Spilde, co-coach with Bob Empey of the Stoughton wrestling program.

“Outside of my own father, he was as important a male figure as I’ve had to date in my life,” Spilde said Monday. “He had that effect on a lot of people. He was a positive role model and a great human being. He always did the right things and did the right things at the right time.”

Pieper, a member of the Wisconsin and national wrestling halls of fame and the architect of the successful Stoughton wrestling program, died Sunday in Stoughton at the age of 81.

“The memories are so powerful,” said Spilde, who won an individual state title at 132 pounds in 1987. “So, there are good feelings. But thinking about him not being with us anymore is so sad. He left such an impact on me. You can’t help but be proud of what he did for me and others.”

The Vikings claimed seven team titles during Pieper's 33-year reign as coach: 1968, 1972, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1987 and 1988. Russ Hellickson and Andy Rein were among the multitude of wrestlers coached by Pieper, who earned state coach of the year honors and served as president of the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association.

Stoughton athletic director Mel Dow said Pieper was a not only a local legend, but a state and national legend in the sport of wrestling. Few individuals contributed to the sport with such capacity and passion as he did, Dow said.

Dow said he met regularly with Pieper to discuss the Stoughton community and the school’s athletics and activities. They had a standing appointment at 2:45 p.m. each Monday to talk, though they met less frequently recently when Pieper was ill. Spilde said Pieper had been battling cancer.

“He truly was an incredibly dedicated man to not only the sport but to the kids and those who surrounded him,” Dow said.

Dave Black, the chairman of the Wisconsin Wrestling Federation for the past 20 years, shared with Dow a document from 1969 that Pieper wrote to start the federation that has shaped Wisconsin wrestling.

Black, 64, who lives in River Falls, said Monday night that Pieper was one of the founding fathers of the state’s wrestling federation, calling him the “godfather” of it. Pieper was the first president (or chairman) of the federation, Black said.

“It is pretty amazing that `Vern' was the one who was instrumental in all of that getting started,” Dow said, adding that the work of Pieper and others in the state helped build USA Wrestling.

Black said he enjoyed his interactions with Pieper.

“He always was very pleasant and always a gentleman,” Black said.

Spilde, a former Big Ten Conference champion for the University of Wisconsin, was an assistant for one year under Pieper and then became Stoughton’s head coach in the 1994-95 school year, Spilde said. Four years later, Empey got a job in the school district and friends Spilde and Empey agreed to become co-coaches.

Spilde said he and Empey tried to model the Vikings’ program after Pieper’s program.

“We thought, `If it’s not broke, why fix it?’ ” Spilde said.

Spilde recalled that when he was a wrestler at Stoughton, Pieper strived to see in what way each individual could be motivated best. Pieper and wife Beverly put in a lot of time with the student-athletes and created a family atmosphere, Spilde said.

When Spilde returned to Stoughton as an assistant after college, he said he learned much from Pieper.

“When I finished college and started coaching with him, the first year was really fun,” Spilde said. “I learned a lot about coaching. I thought I knew wrestling fairly well but the coaching took time, and I’m still learning every year. He took me under his wing and that first year he showed me the ropes, for sure.”

Spilde said he initially was interested in primarily working with the top wrestlers. But Spilde said Pieper taught him, “`Don’t forget about the ones with less experience. You need them. You have to take everybody with you.’ That stuck with me.’’

Pieper died at home Sunday. He was born July 5, 1936, in Caledonia, Minnesota, the son of Milton and Lorena (Krick) Pieper, according to the obituary that appeared on the Stoughton wrestling program's website. Pieper married Beverly J. Krieger on June 14, 1958.

Pieper was graduated from Winona State University, where he played football and wrestled. He was a teacher and coach in Richland Center before coming to Stoughton in the early 1960s (he became wrestling coach in 1961-62, and handed the reins over to Spilde after the 1994-95 season).

Funeral services are scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday at Good Shepherd By The Lake, 1860 U.S. Highway 51, in Stoughton. Visitation will be 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Cress Funeral Home, 206 W. Prospect Street, in Stoughton. Additional visitation will be from 10 a.m. Friday until the service begins Friday at the church. Burial will be at Lutheran Cemetery South in Stoughton. After the services, family and friends are invited to attend a meal at the church fellowship hall.

Dow and Spilde each said a large turnout of Pieper’s friends locally and nationally is anticipated for the services.

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.