The Town I Almost Didn’t Find

In the spring of 1973, I had just completed student teaching for Mrs. Helen Johnson.  Mrs. Johnson was retiring as the sixth-grade teacher at Central Elementary School in Kearney, Nebraska.

There was a reason I had been placed at Central Elementary.  The principal, Don Clark, had been my high school football, basketball and track coach at Clatonia High School.  He had allowed me to do internships at Central and finally student teach for a retiring teacher.  I had been offered the sixth-grade position for the next fall term.

I loved Kearney.  I had spent the past five years in college, growing up and learning from some real good people.  It was the perfect scenario except for one thing; I wouldn’t be allowed to coach.  I loved teaching, but my dream job was to coach.  I asked if I could join either the high school or junior high coaching staff but had been told elementary teachers weren’t allowed to coach.

I was disappointed, so I kept looking for openings that included teaching and coaching.  I found an opening at a small community in southeast Nebraska.  That community was Humboldt.  I put on my only sports coat, a brown corduroy with patches on the sleeves.  I owned one brown tie and a pair of scuffed brown loafers that needed new heels.

The car I was driving had the bearings going out.  There were some hills where the car’s speed would dip below 50 miles per hour.  I had stopped for a drink in Campbell.  On the way out of town, some guy at a gas station was showing off his shotgun to a friend.  He saw me drive by and pointed it at me.  Thank goodness he was just trying to scare me.  I puttered out of town with my engine functioning at about 50%.  I thought about turning around.

As I got close to Humboldt, I ran into a detour.  I had no idea where the detour took me.  By the time I crested the hill outside of Humboldt, I was 30 minutes late for my noon interview.  I was sure there was no chance I could convince Mr. Montgomery, the superintendent, to hire me.

I got lucky.  I was one of a very few male elementary teachers in 1973.  It was a plus for a smaller school like Humboldt to find anyone who wanted to coach.  Humboldt had just over a 1,000 people that lived in town.  It was no Kearney, but I was ready to call it home.

My coaching duties were simple.  I would be the assistant boys’ basketball coach.  At that time, girls’ basketball hadn’t become a high school sport.  It was time for Nebraska to wake up to girls’ sports.  I had a sixth-grade girl, Paula Sue, that could beat any boy in basketball.  The boys wouldn’t let her play with them at recess, so Paula Sue and I shot together on a side basket.

Paula Sue would play a big role in my career at Humboldt and later.  Teaching and coaching paid less than $10,000, so I needed summer employment.  There was a summer recreation job available.  I would coach the boys’ baseball team, the girls’ softball team and be in charge of a summer recreation program that ran three times a week.  Also, I would run the concession stand, split the profits with the city and get the ball field ready for the nightly games.

I was looking forward to the baseball.  I would have to put up with the rest.  As it turned out, I coached a baseball team to mediocracy.  However, a 20-loss softball team turned into a 20-game winner.  I put Paula Sue on the high school team.  The whole team practiced hard and listened to my crazy ideas of pitch-outs and bunting situations.

I had a fire-ball pitcher who had trouble throwing strikes, a slow pitcher who never walked a batter in Ann and then there was left-handed Paula Sue.  We won a lot of games, entered some tournaments with the best softball teams in Nebraska and had a great summer.

My coaching desires had been met, but not in anyway I could have imagined.  My best successes were with that girls’ softball team.  I would spend most of the next 39 years coaching basketball for my female athletes.  Nebraska woke up and put in the sport of girls’ basketball.  The first district championship my team at Wilber-Clatonia won was over Humboldt, who was led by Paula Sue.  I ran a box and one defense to stop her.

This week, someone put a picture of my second year sixth-grade class on Facebook.  I have a lot of friends from my time at Humboldt.  I had trouble recognizing any of the students or even the teacher in a pair of flair pants and a turtle neck sweater.  That was me.

Stories started coming in from students in that picture.  I was made out to be a lot better teacher than I really had been.  Time helps memories turn from average to outstanding and I was the benedictory of those enhanced memories.

One of those memories I really enjoyed came from Eve.  Things started to come back to me as she told the story.  It’s one of those stories that turn out positive by accident.  I was given way too much credit, but it is a neat story.

Eve admits she wasn’t a good softball player.  I wasn’t sure why she played, but she explained this week she wanted to be close to her friends.  Eve and I came to an agreement, the best way she could help the team was to become our official scorekeeper.

Eve was a sharp kid.  She picked up quickly how to use the scorebook.  I never had to try and get a parent to volunteer to keep score.  I had Eve and she spent time with her friends.  It was working out for everyone.

Eve proved her worth in more ways than keeping score.  It was one of those tournaments we entered once we realized the team was pretty good.  An opposing player had a big hit in a crucial time of the game.  It looked a hit that might be the difference in a win or loss.

I am telling this story as Eve told me on Facebook.   I don’t want to take credit for something that has faded from my memory.  As the player was rounding the bases, I heard Eve yell at me that the player had missed second base.  I walked Paula Sue through the appeal prpcess.  Eve was right.  The player had missed second base and was called out.  Eve’s observation had won Humboldt a softball game.

After the game, we huddled like we always did, win or lose.  To honor Eve, I presented her the game ball.  Please remember, I’m only telling this story on Eve’s memory of the event.  The greatest part of the story is Eve passed that story to her children.  She also told me it helped with her self-esteem.

I would love to say I tried very hard to help all my athletes.  However, that would be a bald-faced lie.  I loved coaching those Humboldt softball girls.  It was their attitudes and willingness to accept coaching that led me to a career in coaching high school and college basketball.  It’s about time I stopped taking credit and thanked that bunch of girls from a town I almost didn’t find.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × 5 =