Kinder, gentler

“When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

-Fred Rogers

He could still walk in elementary school.

To be honest, I don’t remember exactly when he went from being a boy who walked to one who came to school in a wheelchair.  My friend Criss, who has the best memory, will know. She remembers such things.What I do remember with certainty is that even when he could still walk, it looked like a tremendous amount of work. There are tiny snapshots on the shelves of my mind of the sandy-haired boy with the arched back. How he took small, careful, steps. How his legs seemed to operate separate from his torso and how he swung his arms to help him keep his balance. The rest of us were careful around him, not wanting to knock him down accidentally as we ran and played on the playground at recess. He made us more gentle. More aware.

This was in the early 1970’s, decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and public spaces like schools had to be handicapped accessible. Years before elevators were the norm in public elementary and high schools. I remember the big study hall on the top floor of the old high school with the concrete spiral staircase the led from the top floor to the ground floor down the hall. How other boys in our class picked up that boy and his wheelchair daily to move him from the top of the school to the bottom down that staircase. This would never happen today. There would be numerous meetings and discussions about “liability” and “safety concerns” and “compliance” instead of discussions about who would pick the boy in the wheelchair up and help him. It usually took two or three boys to move the boy and his chair.  Strong boys who spent their time outside of school on the football field and basketball court and climbing deer stands. If there was a rush between classes and they were on the spiral stairs, the rest of us waited, out of the way. He made us more patient. More tolerant.

We all graduated from high school. Said our goodbyes and went our separate ways into the world to places that had stoplights. He passed away some years later. While he was fighting for his life, the rest of us were busy learning and growing and trying to make ends meet. We were falling in and out of love and reaching milestones that lucky young adults meet. His life, and premature death, made us appreciate what we had just a little more.

I think of him now and then.  How he was just one of us in a class of less than a hundred kids in a tiny town without a single stop light. A town that others passed through on their way to some place else. I wonder who he’d be today, had he lived.

I wonder who the rest of us would be today, had he not been a part of our lives.



He was a giant of a man, as I recall.  A giant.

Okay, well maybe not physically, in the ways that people often think a “giant” might be. In fact, in terms of his physical appearance, he was fairly average in height and build.

But that voice that echoed through the high school hallway down by the locker rooms or shouted plays from the bench or side line was deep and loud. He was quick to raise it with the boys he taught in Phy Ed or coached who didn’t listen to his directions. His favorite expression, when dealing with such boys was “Bean Head.” Sometimes that was preceded by an expletive.  I read in his obituary that, as a young man, he’d served in the Navy. This, more than anything else, would explain why he spent all of those years trying to pound discipline into the young men he taught. He made it his mission to turn them into people who were not Bean Heads.

It was the mid 1970’s, a time when teachers could still call a student a (insert expletive) Bean Head. Back then, if a boy came home and told his father that his teacher or coach had called him a Bean Head in front of his friends, the father would most likely have shrugged and said, “Gus is absolutely right. You ARE a Bean Head. So stop acting like one.” This is because nobody’s parents had time for fragile egos in those days.

Gus coached junior high girls basketball the first year that girls playing basketball competitively became a reality, thanks to Title 9. This was decades before feeder programs, clinics, and camps had little girls learning the basics of the game in elementary school, the way they do now. As the coach, it was his job to teach a bunch of hormonal teen girls the fundamentals of a sport we’d, up to that point, spent our childhoods only watching from the bleachers unless you count the games of HORSE or PIG we played with our brothers.

Gus had coached a lot of boys, but we were a whole new ball game. We had a lot to learn that first year. A few of us were naturals. The rest of us tried to make up in enthusiasm what we lacked in basic skills. Some of us only lasted a season before we went on to activities that involved less running and sweating. I was in that third group, but it was nice to have the choice. Many of the women I know from that first team went on to raise daughters  who have grown up taking for granted the fact that they could choose to be basketball, volleyball, softball, and soccer players. Really good ones. We’ve come a long way when it comes to girls and athletics, haven’t we?

A giant of a man with a whistle and a bark that was worse than his bite helped make that happen for a group of pep club girls and cheerleaders in a small town in the 1970’s. We are better people, stronger women, for having been coached by him.  I hope he knew that.

Rest in Peace, Gus.