Janis Berzins Jr., a Latvian native who became a Johns Hopkins University lacrosse star in the early 1960s, died Nov. 28 of an aortic dissection. The resident of Phoenix in Baltimore County was 71.
Mr. Berzins was born in Rezekne, Latvia, in February 1940, several months after the start of World War II. Four years later, his family fled their homeland and wound up living in displaced-persons camps in Germany for five years, said his son, Bradley Berzins of Lutherville.
"He had vivid, vivid memories of it until the day he died," his son said. "He treasured peaceful times."
The family came to the United States in 1949 after being sponsored by the Lutheran Church and Henry Kinder of Severna Park. For nearly two years, the Berzinses worked and lived on the Kinder Farm until they were able to afford a place of their own in the Severna Park neighborhood of Whitney's Landing, his son said.
Mr. Berzins graduated in 1959 from Annapolis High School, where he lettered in lacrosse and football. He was recruited by renowned lacrosse head coach Bob Scott to play defense at Hopkins.
"He was big and strong and fast and just a really tough competitor," said Mr. Scott. "He was certainly one of the leaders of our team."
Mr. Berzins, a member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, received several sports honors during his senior year in 1963. He played in the North-South All Star Game, which features the top senior players nationwide. He also received first-team All-American honors, the Sidney C. Erlanger Award for outstanding senior, the Turnbull-Reynolds Trophy for outstanding sportsmanship and leadership, the 1950 Morrill Award for most improved senior and was chosen for the All-Time Johns Hopkins Lacrosse Team.
Mr. Scott said of all those honors, the latter is the most special because only the "best of the best" are selected for the team.
"He certainly had a distinguished career and was such a good guy and extremely popular among our players," Mr. Scott said. "They appreciated his toughness. He was a guy that didn't have a lot of words, but he played tough and worked hard."
Mr. Berzins was drafted into the Army shortly after graduation. The Army at the time was launching a football team and Mr. Berzins made the team, which also included professional players, his son said.
"It underscored what an athlete he was," his son said. Along with his regular military duties, Mr. Berzins traveled throughout Europe playing in exhibition games.
He served two years before having to return home to care for his terminally ill father. Several years later, he completed officer candidate school and became a lieutenant in the Army Reserves, his son said.
Mr. Berzins started his career as an engineer at Western Electric, where he met his future wife, Sharon Gordon, a secretary at the company.
"My mom hoped he would ask her out, and he did," his son said. The couple married in 1967 and had two children.
But Mr. Berzins' lacrosse days weren't over. He played several years with the Carling Lacrosse Club and later launched the lacrosse program at Carroll Manor Recreation Council in Jacksonville in Baltimore County, his son said. He coached both of his children in lacrosse, and his daughter went on to play the sport at the University of Maryland, and his son at Hopkins.
Mr. Berzins spent 25 years as an engineer at Western Electric, and later worked at Lucent and LISN Inc.
He retired in 2004 and helped his son renovate a 100-year-old house in Locust Point. Mr. Berzins was a talented carpenter, a skill he picked up working construction jobs during the summers in high school and college, his son said.
"We had the time of our lives," his son said. "It was a chance for us to spend some time together."
Mr. Berzins occasionally returned to his native Latvia to visit relatives. In 2004, he took his two children there.
"It was one of the highlights of our lives," his son said, adding that the siblings left with an "even greater appreciation for what the family went through."
Funeral services were held Dec. 3.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Berzins is survived by his daughter, Kelly Muendel of Ruxton; his sister, Elga Bunk of Hartwell, Ga.; and four granddaughters, Maria, Ella, Liene and Molly.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun