In 1879, O.A. Cooper and two other investors opened a flour mill in the town of Humboldt, Nebraska. The mill grew and diversified. Cooper knew what he was doing. The O. A. Cooper Company expanded to Beatrice and Cozad. More mills were built in South Sioux City, Oklahoma City and finally Abilene, Kansas. Through all the growth, Humboldt remained the home office of this huge corporation.
In 1944, a larger mill and grain elevator was constructed in Humboldt. Times were good in Humboldt when I took my first teaching job in 1973. A decedent of O. A. Cooper still owned all the mills, grain elevators, and other diversities. He ran his operation from Humboldt.
It was the perfect place for me to start my teaching and coaching career. That first year had a few bumps in the road, though. Another first year person was hired to teach Social Studies and take over as the head boys’ basketball coach. I was hired as the sixth grade teacher and the assistant boys’ basketball coach.
I didn’t want to be the head coach. My uncle, a successful high school and college coach, advised against jumping right into a head coaching position. He told me I had to pay my dues. It was good advice.
With two rookies at the helm, boys’ basketball started with a bang and quickly went to a whisper. Humboldt won their first game against Tecumseh on a last second shot off a missed free throw at the buzzer. Our post player hit the winning shot. At Monday’s practice, our post player hurt his knee and missed the next 10 games.
We lost all 10 of those games and our record was an unthinkable 1 – 10. One member of the school board paid us a visit before a practice. He accused us of starting only city kids. By my count, three country kids started but the board member reminded me a home on just a few acres does not constitute a farm kid.
The post player came back healthy and we started winning. We had momentum going into a home game against state ranked Falls City Sacred Heart. The head coach came down with the flu and I was now the head coach.
Two things I remember about that game is the post player called the first time out when Sacred Heart went on a run. I guess he figured I was a little shell-shocked. I was a little embarrassed. The second thing is the game wasn’t close. I was 0 – 1 in my coaching career and all the momentum was gone.
We rallied to win two games in the district tournament, but it couldn’t save the first year head coach. He was fired and it basically ended his coaching career. I was allowed to stay and assist the new head coach, the principal.
It was during the summer I discovered the real Humboldt. I found it was a great community that rewarded hard work. A fellow teacher told me there was a summer job open through Humboldt’s Recreation Department. I didn’t even know they had a Recreation Department.
I applied and got the job, mostly since I was the only candidate. This is where the seeds to my coaching career began. Had it not been for that summer job, I’m not sure how things would have gone for me.
The first person I dealt with was Humboldt’s official recreation director, Geri Hays. Please forgive me if I misspell names or even leave names out. It’s been a long time ago. Geri told me I had a small kid’s summer recreation program that ran every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I would coach the Junior Legion boys’ team and the girls’ softball team.
The boys had a decent year the summer before and expected no less. The girls had lost 20 games the summer before and expected no less or no more. I had to line the fields for all summer games which included men’s slow pitch. As a final job, I ran the concession stand and split the profits 50-50.
To start the summer, I paid a visit to Geri Hays for marching orders. Geri was the head of the print shop for O.A. Cooper Company. I soon found out that Geri Hays ran the show, both for the city recreation program and in the print shop. If I wanted something, Geri was the one to ask. I almost always got what I asked for.
That first summer was three months of heat and dust. Geri told me she could call out the volunteer fire department any time I thought necessary to water down the dusty dirt infield. A volunteer firefighter would come out an hour before the game to settle down the dust. If we had two games, they would show up between games and even gave the fans a cooling mist of water.
We ran the conference tournament that year. Geri printed up the fanciest bracket sheet I’ve ever seen. She printed so many sheets, I could give all the teams a bundle of posters to distribute in their communities. The poster gave all the details for the conference tournament, the teams and times of games.
There was never a fee for any printings, thanks to the O. A. Cooper Company. I could run fliers about anything we did with the recreation program. Geri would just print them up like it was her personal shop.
For two summers, I never had support like I received from Geri Hays. Geri didn’t even live in town, but no one cared that she was in charge of the summer recreation. I took advantage of the resources Geri gave me. I put articles in the newspaper and had special days for my summer rec kids.
There was a lake in Humboldt City Park and I sponsored a fishing contest. We didn’t catch many fish but the smallest fisherman almost was drug into the lake by a real large carp. He survived and so did the summer programs.
Thanks to the O. A. Cooper Company, all I needed to do was work hard and I had the keys to the castle. Geri Hays made sure of that. I loved that little town of Humboldt. My boys’ baseball teams never won a lot of games, but my girls’ softball team went crazy. Thanks to a left-handed seventh grader and a great defense, each summer we won over 20 games. The seeds were planted for my future. Female sports were where I was destined to land.
I really didn’t want to leave Humboldt, but a situation with my wife’s employment at Dawson-Verdon Schools pretty much demanded we move to another school district. With regret, I said goodbye to Geri Hays and Humboldt.
The move was good for my coaching career, but never again did I find anyone like Geri Hays and the O.A. Cooper Company. I had been a 23 year old rookie teacher knowing I had a lot of lessons to learn. Those lessons were made easier thanks to Geri and the town made vibrant by the O. A. Copper Company.
In 1980, the O. A. Cooper Company fell victim to a takeover bid by the Central Soya Company of Indiana. That was the end of a very long and productive era in Humboldt. The mill stayed active for a while producing flour, but that ended, too.
The remains of the O. A. Cooper home office, mill and grain elevator have since been revenged by fires. It’s too bad for Humboldt. It also was too bad for the teachers and coaches like me who had many lessons to learn and needed an O. A. Cooper Company and a Geri Hays to ease them through it.