Tasson receives 2020 U.P. Service Award
Longtime Ishpeming-area educator recognized for volunteer efforts at Clear Lake
ISHPEMING — Dennis Tasson has worn many hats over the years.
A longtime teacher, school administrator and volunteer, the Ishpeming native has certainly made his mark on the community.
That’s why he was recently recognized as one of the recipients of Grow & Lead: Community and Youth Development’s 2020 U.P. Service Awards.
GLCYD presents the awards annually to recognize exemplary volunteer and charitable efforts throughout the Upper Peninsula, according to a press release.
Awards are presented across five different categories including youth, adult, senior, volunteer program and business community leader.
Tasson is the recipient in the senior category, particularly for his volunteer efforts with the Clear Lake Education Center between Shingleton and Manistique.
Tasson worked in education for 37 years after graduating from Ishpeming High School and then Northern Michigan University. He started teaching math and algebra at the former National Mine Middle School before NICE Community Schools opened its K-8 Aspen Ridge building in 1997. Tasson moved on to Aspen Ridge serving as a part-time math/algebra teacher and part-time assistant principal and athletic director. He then served as the middle school principal for six of his final seven years, before taking on K-8 principal duties in his final year and retiring from the school district in 2011.
On top of it all, Tasson has been taking school groups to Clear Lake for 22 years. 2020 would’ve marked year 23, but COVID-19 said otherwise.
The trips, generally three days and two nights, are meant to serve as a fun, hands-on learning experience that gets students out of the classroom and into the fresh air of the Hiawatha National Forest. The students, typically seventh grade classes, learn about life sciences and preserving our planet through a series of lessons and activities. Students can also take on the on-site high ropes course and are guided through a series of other recreational activities.
“Clear Lake is all about life science, the ecosystems on our planet and how they function,” Tasson said. “There’s a great deal of instruction on how we preserve this planet that we live on. There’s orienteering, compass work, and obviously there’s the lake. Sometimes (students) study the critters in the lakes. There are a lot of fun activities besides the high ropes. There’s low ropes as well and lots of team building.”
Science is fun and all, but Tasson added his favorite part of putting the program together is seeing the students strengthen their bonds with one another.
“It didn’t take long for me to see that this camp provided greater lessons in life besides life sciences and the ecosystem,” he said. “These kids don’t get to pick who they stay in a cabin with, it’s all random draw. They also get reshuffled for the activity groups they work with all day.”
Clear Lake is owned by the U.S. Forest Service and was built in 1935 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps program. The camp has hosted various school groups and other groups over the years.
Three years ago, when funding for the camp was diminishing, Tasson and a few others formed the Clear Lake Stewards Group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to improving and continuing the camp program for years to come. Tasson has served as president of the Stewards Group since its formation.
“For lack of a better term, it’s like a booster club,” he said. “It’s about raising funds to make improvements at the camp and help support the programs held at the camp. Ever since its inception, I’ve been president of the group. Other communities and school districts who have a passion for Clear Lake also get involved. Some solicit funds, others work on projects at the camp. It’s really my work with the Stewards Group that led to my nomination for this award.”
The nomination was both surprising and humbling for Tasson. He was nominated by Mimi Klotz, the camp director at Clear Lake.
“It was a shock,” he said. “I was totally blown away when (Klotz) announced it at one of our Stewards Group meetings. The meetings had been held via Zoom since the virus started, but we were able to have our annual meeting at Clear Lake in August with social distancing and masks, and that’s when Mimi announced my nomination. Although everyone chuckled about the senior category, but what can you do? Once you’re a senior, you’re a senior.”
Tasson will turn 69 years young in December, and although his teaching days are now behind him, he hopes to continue coordinating Clear Lake trips for years to come.
“It’s something I enjoy doing with the kids, but it’s also a passion for the program,” he said. “Kids today are tied to their cell phones. Texting, scrolling and always looking at their phones. Clear Lake is about getting back to nature, studying the planet and how to preserve it. It’s the camaraderie of working in cooperative groups you may not have chosen to work with. There’s merit to the program above and beyond life science.
“Organizing a trip of this magnitude for 80-85 kids is a daunting task, but if I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t mess with it in retirement. We went two times last year with Aspen Ridge because it was such a big class. We couldn’t sleep everybody out there so we went twice, taking two groups of 45.”
Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency and Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District each hold permits to allow student groups to use the camp. Tasson said students do pay a fee, but try to keep it as minimal as possible through the support of local businesses and other methods of funding. Everyone who puts on the camp program are volunteers.
“I have a few small businesses and service organizations that I work with in case a student can’t come up with all or part of the camping fee,” he said. “We try to keep it as minimal as possible. One of the things we did, another teacher, a parent chaperone who’s been coming with us for 21 years, and myself, we all became certified on the high ropes course. The kids don’t have to pay for that instruction then, we volunteer. That’s no small issue for me because I’ll be 69 years old in December, and I can still pass the high ropes re-certification course.”
Aspen Ridge students typically attend the camp in September, but with coronavirus still having the world in a stranglehold, Tasson is hoping they can shoot for May.
“They can’t have groups right now,” he said. “A camp out there brings in quite a bit of revenue. What I did for this year’s class was reserve some May dates, so then the same kids that didn’t get to go this year will still be in seventh grade by that time. If (coronavirus) isn’t better in May, then I guess there will be a class that isn’t going to get to go.
“I’ve even looked at ways that we could modify and maybe just go for a full day. Obviously, everybody wouldn’t get to do every activity. Could parents drive and avoid the bus? Could we stay all morning and evening and not sleep in cabins? I’ve kind of been brainstorming in my head different ways we could still go. Obviously the high ropes course if very popular, and I would need all three days for kids to experience that.
“Safety wise, our school nurse always comes with, which is a real comfort to the kids. She’s a familiar face that’s been working at the school for many years. She knows the kids who have health issues.”
For now, it’s a game of wait and see, but Tasson swiftly seeking alternatives to give this year’s seventh grade class a chance to experience Clear Lake is only one of the many reasons he’s the senior recipient of the 2020 U.P. Service Award.
“I want to express my thanks to Mimi (Klotz) and the Clear Lake staff, as well as the folks at Grow & Lead: Community and Youth Development for recognizing my work. I also want to thank all of the students and parents who have come over the years to make it a very enjoyable experience for me.
“Last year at camp, I had a parent chaperone who had one time come as a seventh grader herself, and that’s going to begin to happen more and more.”
Melissa Santini of Ontonagon took the adult category honors for her volunteer efforts with Dial Help, Inc. in Houghton. Micaela Geborkoff, age 16 of Chassel, claimed the youth award for an array of volunteer work and service projects across Houghton County.
The Gulliver Historical Society won the volunteer program category for operating and maintaining the Seul Choix Pointe Lighthouse on Lake Michigan while Jacquart Fabric Products in Ironwood took home business community leader honors for its efforts in supporting frontline workers during COVID-19.
For more information on Grow & Lead: Community and Youth Development, visit www.glcyd.org or call 906-228-8919.
For more information on Clear Lake Education Center and the Clear Lake Stewards Group, visit www.clearlakeinfo.org
Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is