The Women of Coffee

If you have read many of my blogs, you know I grew up in a little Nebraska community. That small town was Clatonia. It had all of 220 people according to the 1960 census report. Despite the small body count, it has many very unusual traits. The one that pertains to me and basketball is three college coaches have come from this community and a fourth college coach was raised only seven miles to the west. I really hadn’t thought about it much until recently.

On memorial weekend, Sam, my 10-year old son, Jacob, my 12-year old grandson and I went back to Clatonia to put some flowers on graves of relatives. I visited a couple of people that made me want to take a look at why that 1.3 percent of the population of Clatonia in 1960 either was or became a college basketball coach. We all know that females have a tendency to out-live their male partners. That’s true in my hometown, so I decided to take a look at the “Coffee Women” of Clatonia.

Basically, six women meet in the Coyotes Den at 10 a.m. each morning. Some are too immobile to brave icy or windy conditions, but if the weather is right, at least these six show up to check notes on everything from grandchildren to politics. I want to introduce the Coffee Women to you.

Of course my favorite of the six is my aunt who we have always called Aunt Tootie. The locals call her Tootie or Virginia, her God-given name. This is an amazing woman. It’s amazing she can still go to coffee. In the 1960s, a serious car accident almost killed her. In the 1980s, Legionnaire’s Disease came close to taking her life. A bout with breast cancer was supposed to end her life three years ago. Even a pick-up truck that ran her over a couple of years ago could not keep her from her proper place at the coffee table.

Aunt Tootie was a school teacher. She was my music teacher. If you have ever heard me sing, you would think I was one of her failures. However, I can still sing every word of the last verse of “Jimmy Crack-Corn.” Her most successful subject was English. Thank goodness computers now give spell and vocabulary checks. I could never get away with a double negative with Aunt Tootie. Many of her former students still call her Mrs. Else. However, the most impressive display of respect came from a hardened criminal.

In 1973, I was working at the Boys Training School in Kearney, Neb. One of the incarcerated youths was a high school boy from Crete. He told me his goal in life was to commit a crime so bad he would end up in an adult prison. He was residing in the only lock-down dorm at the training school and I was in charge of watching him exercise. He didn’t like me much until I asked him if he ever had an English teacher by the name of Virginia Else. He immediate asked about “Mrs. Else” and his attitude changed towards me. You could see that my aunt had made one of the few positive influences on his life.

My uncle, Gene Else, was one of the three college coaches that came from Clatonia. He died four years ago, but you can begin to see a little of the pattern that led the other two of us to college coaching. Aunt Tootie forced me to attend college. It had to be one with low acceptance standards. I lived and died my uncle’s games, even as a pre-teen. He almost had two high school teams win state titles and coached the nation’s leading scorer one year in college. The scorer’s name was Gene “Boom-Boom” Veloff. My aunt predicted I would have a lot of sleepless nights if I pursued coaching. She was dead-on.

I wrote a lot about the matriarch of the Clatonia Coffee Women, Aunt Tootie. I’ll be briefer with the other five. Carol is one of the youngest three. She is computer literate and makes sure the coffee group gets my blog most weeks. She is a tremendous help to my aunt. Carol’s life has not always been easy, but she now has a wonderful husband. She is very generous with her time and a huge help to my aunt.

Dorothy is another of the younger members of the coffee group. She is a retired school teacher, like my aunt. Dorothy raised her family on my grandfather’s farm. Dorothy and her husband, Dennis, bought the land from my grandfather. Dennis had a chronically bad heart. One day, he passed away while Dorothy and her daughter were away at school. Dennis’s brother, Darrell, is the reason I never smoked. In the early 1960s, a right of passage was buying your own pack of Camels and sneaking smokes when your parents were away. Darrell, however, never smoked. One of my friends asked him why. He said he didn’t like the taste. I didn’t either, but I was afraid to admit it. Not after Darrell paved the way.

Janie is the third of the young coffee drinkers. I should mention that all three of the young coffee drinkers are still over 60-years old. I’m just not going to say how much over. Janie is a second cousin to me (I think). Her father was my grandfather’s brother. Janie never got much of her appearance from her father, Herman. I am just guessing here, but I think Janie not only got her looks but her toughness from her mother, Dutch. No one could be tougher than Dutch. Janie’s mom was small in stature, but she scared the hell out of me and my friends when we were kids. Dutch didn’t take real good care of herself. Between her smoking, an occasional adult beverage and bossing Herman around, Dutch cut a wide berth. Janie certainly isn’t feared like her mother. She’s extremely nice. However, I have a feeling the toughness she inherited from her mother is just behind the scene.

I’m not sure how old Jean is, but she certainly doesn’t show her age. Jean’s husband, Orville, ran the feed store in Clatonia. Orville was a navy veteran from World War II. He had a small lake and a cabin that we visited frequently when we were teenagers. Jean had three daughters and a son. The son is my age. The oldest daughter was tragically killed in a car accident many years ago. She was a very talented musician. The other two daughters are twins. One of the twins was Bob Kerry’s secretary. At the time, Bob Kerry was the governor of Nebraska. Probably most noteworthy was Governor Kerry’s personal relationship with actress Debra Winger. One of my favorite stories is having Jean tell about the weekend when Governor Kerry and Ms. Winger came to the Orville and Jean’s lake to watch the sun rise. I think it was a little more cynical than that, but I accept Jean’s version. Orville and Jean later came to the cabin that morning to fix their celebrity visitors breakfast. Jean proclaims, “Debra even pitched in and did dishes.”

The final member of the Coffee Women is Lucie. Lucie has never been a real popular member of this group, but she keeps forcing her way in. They just don’t have the heart to ban her from morning coffee. Two stories set Lucie aside. Her husband, Sam, and Lucie had two beautiful daughters. They were both older than me. Many people in Clatonia belong to a sportsman club that had a large farm pound they stocked with bass. One afternoon, my brother, a friend and I put a homemade raft on the club’s pond. We didn’t bring swimming trunks, so when it got too hot; we just stripped and went skinny-dipping. About that time, Sam, Lucie and the daughters show up to fish. The three of us had to hide behind the pond’s dam completely naked until Sam finally retrieved our clothes. The bugs were biting that day.

Lucie’s also a sucker for a good garage sale. My mom always had the largest annual garage sale in the area. Lucie never failed to show up and made a very strange purchase. What really irritated Lucie is my mom, who used to be a member of the coffee group, would show up and brag how much money she made on Lucie’s purchase. Lucie hated it but kept showing up at the garage sale every year.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some very interesting men who will invade the women’s coffee group. Russ owns a welding shop, and is one of the most intelligent people that ever grew up in Clatonia. He travels with his welding skills all over the area. He also leads his friends on yearly adventures all over the world. Russ also is the unofficial protector of my Aunt Tootie.

Another life-long resident of Clatonia is Dick. Dick is the former owner of the bar that hosts the women’s coffee group. This is a very interesting man who can do about whatever he puts his mind to. Not always know for his excellent physical condition, Dick once worked himself into such great shape, he ran a marathon. He sold the bar, but lives just across the street, making a living on e-bay, among other interesting ventures. Dick also takes great care of my Aunt Tootie.

Almost everyone in Nebraska has heard of John DeCamp. He is a former member of the Nebraska Unicameral. He has made and lost millions of dollars many times over. John has written books on controversial issues. He is an attorney that has defended some very notorious figures. What most people in Nebraska are not aware of is John lives in Clatonia. He has definitely added to the lively flavor of this small community over the past 20 years of so.

Now that you know the characters, you should just drop by the Coyote Den some morning in Clatonia. Be ready to defend your politics. There is a definite Republican flavor to this group, although one of them may be a closet Democrat. I think one of them even voted for President Obama. You better be in favor of better schools and don’t say “me” when the correct English is “I”. You can catch up on Russ’s latest travels, or Dick’s latest money making scheme, or even the latest wheeling-dealing of John. How this has influenced three college basketball coaches, I have no idea. I do know I never miss coffee when I come to town. However, I do try to avoid Lucie.

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Gene Steinmeyer

About Gene Steinmeyer

Gene Steinmeyer coached the Northwest Missouri State women’s basketball team for 13 seasons before retiring after 26 years as a collegiate head coach after the 2011-12 season. He retired as the second winningest women’s basketball coach at Northwest as his 2010-11 team won both the MIAA Regular Season and Tournament Championship advancing to the NCAA National Semifinals one game shy of the national championship game.