When I was eight years old, my mom died a week before the high school team played in the state tournament. That team was undefeated, and I suffered every time a team got within 20 points in the second half of one of their games.
My mother’s funeral was Monday and the tournament started on Friday.
At the Zion Lutheran Church, there was a tradition where the open casket would be placed at the front of the church. My dad must have figured my brother and I didn’t need to stare at my dead mother for the hour-long service. He asked Paul Heller to sit with us about eight rows behind the casket. All I could see was the open lid.
I thought that was pretty cool because Paul Heller was a member of that undefeated basketball team. He was a freshmen that only suited up for junior varsity games, but that didn’t matter to me. He was a hero to me and here he was sitting next to me. It took my mind off the somber proceedings.
That was far from my only experience with Paul Heller. Paul was a shirt-tail relative. His mother was my grandfather’s sister. The two couldn’t have been more different. LaSetta was a personable woman that was my Sunday School teacher. My grandfather was a frugal farmer that didn’t socialize much.
LaSetta didn’t like television preachers much. She didn’t like how they always wanted money. Her philosophy that stuck with me all these years was soup, soap and salvation. It meant feed the congregation, clean the congregation, then preach to them.
Clarence, Paul’s father, was a farmer, too. He was lay-back with his kids and the kids he hired to help him put up hay. LaSetta would bring us a great lunch and Clarence made us feel grown up by offering us a long-neck Falstaff beer. No one ever turned it down.
Paul’s family was one of a kind. Paul took that unique personality and attitude to a new level. He took it to his profession in education.
When Paul was in college, he was hired by the state of Nebraska to start to develop a new purchase that would eventually be turned into a state park. It’s now called Indian Cave State Park. It is located on the Missouri River just past Brownville, with an address of Shubert. The ruins of Nebraska’s first established town of St. Deroin lie within the boundaries of the park.
Paul led a group of juvenile delinquents that were just a couple of years younger than him in an effort to find boundaries and ruins that the park held hostage.
They worked four days a week. Paul told me on Friday’s, the youth group would visit nearby towns, gathering stories of the past.
One of the things they did was use prods to find fallen tombstones from a long-ignored cemetery. Someone found what looked like a broken table-top with scratching on it. They put them above ground, like they thought it looked originally.
One day, an elderly man drove by the cemetery, stopped and went to the table-tops. Paul went to talk to him. He saw the man drop to his knees and when Paul got to him, he was in tears. The man told Paul through his tears that the broken table-tops were markers for his two young sons that died of the influenza plaque of 1919. He thought he would never see the graves again. Later, that man put a permanent marker, but did not remove the table-tops. You could see the emotion in Paul’s face every time he told that story.
I remember Paul’s wedding to Glenna. I also recalled my dad saying he was really young to get married. Glenna was still at his side the last time I saw Paul in April. He provided some of his stories for a video history DVD of his hometown of Clatonia.
Paul and Glenna were both great educators. When I attended Kearney State College, the couple got a teaching job at Alma, not that far from Kearney. My first college roommate, Jim Duval, had Paul for a high school basketball coach at Bladen High School. To make a little spending money, Jim and I officiated high school basketball games. Paul told us if he wanted a sure win, he would hire Jim and me.
One characteristic of Paul was the legendary gags he pulled on people. One night, we showed up to officiate a game. There was a banner under one basket of a giant nose. Paul always made fun of Jim’s big nose. Only Jim knew the meaning of the banner.
There are too many gags to put into print. Probably his most famous gag happened at Christmas time at Clatonia with the help of his brother Ed and cousin, Jim. The bank had sponsored a Christmas lighting contest. The bank’s entry was a 12-foot high Christmas tree made of plywood. Elves were on the edges and the very top of the tree.
With only the imagination of a Paul Heller, the three Heller boys late the Friday night before the contest judging decorated the tree a little unconventional. The top elf’s bottom half was behind the tree with legs sticking out each side. The Heller boys attached a stretch sock at just the right location to provide a little more anatomical correct display. Use your imagination.
Paul hired me for my first high school coaching job at Wilber-Clatonia High School. With Paul’s help, that first year we did an overnight “Outdoor Education” trip to Indian Cave State Park. Paul gave the parents and students a slide show on what they could expect. Of course, he told the stories that he heard many years earlier.
Sadly for me, Paul left his principals position at Wilber-Clatonia after a dispute with a school board member. That board member had no idea the damage he did to the school district. Paul stayed in the community, purchasing a grocery and hardware store.
In my fourth year, my girls’ basketball team played for the state basketball tournament, just like his team did 25 years earlier. He had me stop by the store. He gave us a case of non-alcoholic champagne to celebrate our championship.
More importantly, Paul had Doris Florian working as his head meat cutter. Doris’ daughter, Brenda, had been on that team. Just before the season, they had found an aggressive cancer in her leg. Within a week, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic had amputated the leg.
Brenda had become as big of story as the team’s successes. She came back to join the team, keeping stats on the bench. Every championship the team won, they saved the final strands of the last net for Brenda.
Doris had mountains of medical bills. She felt she needed to work the Saturday of the state championship game. Paul disagreed and told her to be with her daughter at the game without deducting any pay. Brenda did indeed cut down that last net with her mother in tears in the stands.
Paul’s health had not been the best in recent years. His mischievous ways didn’t slow down. He regularly visited Legends Bar and Grill in Clatonia. The stories of his past gags and experiences filled the air.
Last week, Paul went in to have a pace maker place in his heart. Something went wrong. Paul died on the operating table. When I heard the news, all I could think was Paul was truly one of a kind.