Every family has Christmas traditions. I always remember as a kid going to my grandparents for Christmas Day Dinner, which was served promptly at noon. Sure there was plenty of turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, but what I remember the most is the chocolate “wooden” shoes that my Grandmother had bought from a specialty store. The chocolates were imported from Belgium. When I became an adult with my own family, I thought I would carry on the tradition, but I could never find that chocolate. My basketball team once traveled to Belgium on a pre-Christmas trip, and I still couldn’t find that specialty.
When I became a basketball coach 26 years ago, I quickly learned that each Christmas often was very unique. Sometimes, we had time to spend with family. Sometimes, the team traveled up to Christmas or right after Christmas, and normal traditions were put aside.
I became a college basketball coach in June of 1986. Doane College hired me after I had coached five years at a high school. That August, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Treatments didn’t slow down the progress of the cancer and at about Thanksgiving time, my mother requested to come home to die.
In order to make that happen, my two brothers and myself had to spend nights at the house. My dad’s health wasn’t the best and he couldn’t do it on his own. My mom was the toughest person I ever met. If she acknowledged pain, it was much worse than pain for a normal person. She really loved the fact her sons would spend a lot of time with her during the final days of her life. However, she realized how important it was for me to recruit. I had inherited a team without much talent. I needed to be on the road every night we didn’t play. However, I was prepared to put that aside until the cancer had run its course. My mom wouldn’t allow that to happen. The schedule had me staying three to four nights a week at the house. She demanded I go recruiting and then return to the house. While everyone slept, we talked about my recruiting trip and college coaching.
My mom died on Sunday morning, December 23. Of course, it was a very sad moment for the whole family. Two things came from that month in 1986 that has always helped me as a college coach. Mae Steinmeyer taught me that family and coaching could go together just fine. Both parties had to give a little, but families could survive. The other lesson I learned was about living and dying. As horrible as those 30 days were for the family, they were probably the most educational I had ever experienced, thank to one very tough lady.
I was once married to a woman that had three girls (that was an education in itself). I sent the Doane basketball team home for Christmas and on December 23rd, the whole family went shopping in Lincoln. Just as we were heading for home, the wind picked up to 30 to 40 miles per hour. There were several inches of fluffy snow on the ground and it created a ground blizzard. The two youngest girls, their mother and I took off for home, 30 miles from Lincoln. We lived on an acreage, about a mile and a half off the highway. The oldest daughter left earlier with her boyfriend and promised to meet us at home.
I was never a fan of my oldest daughter’s boyfriends. This guy was nice enough, but I am very stubborn and I didn’t like any of them. We had a car that wasn’t very good in snow and we had to ram our way through snow drifts once we left the highway. We barely made it home, turned into the lane, and almost ran right into the boyfriend’s car. It was stuck very tightly in a snow drift. We couldn’t drive in the lane or around his car. Worse than that, the boyfriend had to spend the night. To make things even more miserable, we lost power. The only warm place in the house was the basement, where we had a wood burning stove. After a less than exciting night of board games under candlelight with a boyfriend I refused to acknowledge, we all camped out in the basement for the strangest slumber party of all time. At least I knew there was no funny business going on with the boyfriend.
Finally, about 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, the county snow plow came through. With shovels in hand, I made sure the boyfriend made it out of the drift, onto the road and home for Christmas. We packed all our presents and headed to my dad’s house where hopefully I would never see another board game. My dad had a tough time after my mom died. He had horrible arthritis and had trouble getting around. By this time, I was dating Michele. Dad and Michele soon became fast friends. The Doane team took a trip to the Bahamas, and Michele was going with the team and me. She demanded dad go with us. I wasn’t so sure. Dad had really slowed down and he didn’t understand all the responsibilities of a college coach on a trip like this one.
However, I didn’t have a thing to worry about. Michele became the personal attendant to my dad. They went everywhere together. As I was preparing scouting reports or lining up team meals, they scouted out all the hottest spots on the island. It was the last trip out of Nebraska my dad would ever take. We still have pictures at our house of dad and Michele exploring the island.
A few years ago, our basketball team at Northwest went to Hawaii for a pre-Christmas tournament. Our compliance officer, senior women’s administrator, and assistant athletic director, Dr. Sue Reinders, came with us. It looked like a great trip for everyone. However, just before we left, Dr. Sue’s old, beloved cat fell ill and looked like he wouldn’t make it until we got back. As we arrived in Hawaii, the prognosis for Dr. Sue’s cat improved and we all enjoyed our five nights, six days stay on Oahu. As we were leaving for the redeye home on December 22, a snow storm was hitting the Maryville – Kansas City area. Our plane was delayed, we had to change flights and it looked like we wouldn’t make it home until Christmas Eve. Dr. Sue was great. She took charge, worked very firmly with the airlines to make sure we would get on the earliest flight and made sure we all had the proper documentation for the new flight.
When we arrived in Kansas City, the bus couldn’t pick us up because of the snow storm. Dr. Sue was understandably worried about her old cat. Now, she would have to wait another night to find her way back to Maryville. Matt and Sherry Gaarder then came to the rescue. Matt had broadcast on KNIM our games from Honolulu. Sherry, his wife, had gone along to celebrate their anniversary. They had gotten married the last time our team had gone to Hawaii. Matt had a car at the airport and they were going home, hell or high water. They agreed to take Dr. Sue with them. Dr. Sue picked up her very ill cat on Christmas Eve. The cat passed away the next day, but Dr. Sue felt much better since she was with her beloved cat, thanks to the kindness of Matt and Sherry. Dr. Sue is now an administrator at the University of Texas – Pan Am. Every Christmas, I think of her, administrating a great trip to Hawaii and how Christmas was saved for her by Matt and Sherry.
The Christmas of 2009 has already had its significant snow storm. Ashley Thayer and her father survived a head-on crash on an off road in St. Joseph. Jennifer Jasinski and her father took two days to travel through the blizzards from Michigan to Missouri. They arrived in Maryville on Christmas Day. I am now headed to HyVee. My Christmas tradition to the team is to invite them to the house for a team meal. I cater in most everything, but I make the desserts. The most popular dessert is “Mae Steinmeyer’s Heavenly Fluff”. The “Heavenly” comes from the fact it has a crumbled up angel food cake as its main ingredient. Maybe heavenly comes from something else. Merry Christmas!