Every summer, I run into one of the first players I ever coached. His name is Paul Heim. Paul is in the equipment restoration business and he stops by to see what business our football team has for his company. His family and mine became connected in the two years I spent at the first teaching job I took out of college. Paul was from Dawson, Neb., but his family sent him to Humboldt where they had an outstanding music program run by Bob Williamson. Paul also was an excellent athlete and that caused controversy. It’s a little ironic about education. If Dawson lost a promising, young singer to a neighbor school, hardly anyone noticed. However, if that singer happened to be a great athlete, all hell broke out.
My coaching career began in Humboldt, Neb. Humboldt stole, through a music program, Paul Heim from the Dawson School District. However, I’m getting way ahead of myself. The Paul Heim connection ended my time at Humboldt. The way it began was truly a humble beginning in Humboldt.
I had a chance to take a teaching-only job as a sixth-grade teacher in Kearney, Neb., right out of college. The trouble with that fine job is there was no coaching. I had spent five years and two summers at Kearney State College to get a teaching degree so I could do one thing – coach. That wasn’t possible at Central Elementary in Kearney. So I searched the state for openings that applied to middle school teachers. I found a sixth-grade opening in Humboldt. The boys’ assistant basketball coaching job was open, too. Perfect! Not only could I make about $8,000 teaching, but I could supplement my income with the $200 extra I received for being an assistant boys’ basketball coach. However, first I had to convince the administrators in Humboldt I was right for the job.
The day of the interview was eventful. At the time, I was driving an eight-year old Mustang that needed a valve job. Humboldt was about three hours from Kearney, so I took off around 7 a.m. for the 11 a.m. interview. About 45 minutes outside of Kearney, I stopped at Campbell, Neb., for a soda. I had something happen in my 10 minutes in Campbell I have never had happen before nor since. As I drove by the local gas station, a man in a pick-up was showing his shotgun to a friend. He looked up and saw a stranger chugging by in a beat up sports car. I have no idea why, but he turned and aimed the gun at me. Maybe it was my long hair and he was a redneck. I always thought if that happened I would duck to avoid losing brain matter. However, in the face of this 12 gauge, I stared at it like some idiot facing a firing squad. I’m sure it was just a prank, but my day was not off to a great start.
Transportation became the next problem. With the Mustang engine on life support, I crawled up hills at 35 miles per hour and sped down the hills as fast as I could generate speed. The time for the interview was quickly approaching. I had a quick stop for gas in Beatrice, Neb., and it looked like I might just make it on time. Then the unthinkable happened – a road construction detour. I had no idea where I was at or how I would find my way to Humboldt. In 1973, there were no GPS systems and my maps didn’t show detours. Embarrassed, I finally found the high school about 11:30 a.m., a half an hour late for my interview.
The athletic director, a man by the name of Montgomery and the principal, Don Overfield, must have expected my problems. Both stated they were surprised I made it as fast as I did. I interviewed for an hour or so. I thought they might take me to lunch, but I came away with something better – my first coaching job and teaching duties with the sixth grade. The sixth grade was no picnic, either. Nothing I had done in all my classes and student teaching prepared me for eight hours a day with 23 sixth graders. If you have forgotten, in sixth grade, the girls are really cool. They are mature because they have their eye on the eighth grade boys. Some even wear bras! No one would dare look at a boy from their own sixth-grade class. Sixth-grade boys are all very nerdy according to sixth-grade girls. Only junior high boys would wear jock straps!
That was never as true as with the case of my toughest student, Willie. If Willie were in sixth grade today, I’m sure he would be diagnosed with ADD and several other acronyms. However, in 1973, Willie was just called a handful. I still smile today when I remember the biggest crisis for Willie (and me) during that first year of teaching at Humboldt. Willie was definitely a nerd according to all the cool sixth-grade girls. Poor Willie received a lot of teasing, but he could dish it back. One day, he showed up with a hole in his pants. The hole was located just below the zipper. I hope you visualize how this fashion malfunction looked. I didn’t say anything to Willie, because I didn’t want him to feel bad about wearing a worn-out pair of corduroys to school. As it turned out, that was a huge mistake.
During the noon hour recess, some of the girls teased Willie, suggesting that if they peaked in the hole in his pants, they would find a body part that looked more like a catcher’s mitt that a baseball bat. I was impressed with the girls’ analogy with our nation’s pastime, baseball. Willie wasn’t impressed. He decided to show the teasing, sixth-grade girls that he did have a baseball bat just inside the hole in his pants. The trouble is the fifth-grade teacher saw it, too. Willie was in deep, deep, trouble. Today, poor Willie would probably be arrested and labeled a sex offender. However, in 1973 it meant a trip to the school counselor. The counselor’s main interest was raising coon dogs. Being a school counselor was just a way to feed his coon dogs. I’m not sure he was ready to deal with Willie’s equipment problems. I must admit I had to leave the room before I laughed out loud as Willie explained how he had no choice in dealing with the high and mighty sixth-grade girls.
The basketball team had its problems, too. The head coach was a rookie like me and we were in way over our heads. After a last-second win against Tecumseh in our first game, we immediate lost 10 in a row. Our best player hurt his knee and missed those 10 games. When he recovered, the team played pretty well. We actually won our way to the district championship against Falls City Sacred Heart. However, no one beat Sacred Heart. The damage of the 10-game losing streak was too great and the head coach was fired. Thank goodness, they let the assistant coach keep his job.
Overfield took over as the head coach. We added Paul Heim, my friend who transferred from Dawson. With five seniors and Paul, we won 20 games and reached the district finals one more time. However, we lost again. It was my last basketball game at Humboldt High School. It wasn’t this experience that really propelled me into female athletics. It was a sixth-grade girl that didn’t run with the cool, high and mighty sixth-grade girls. Her name is Paul Sue Blecka.
When the sixth graders went to recess in the gym, the boys went to the baskets to shoot. The girls went who knows where. However, Paula Sue and I shot baskets by ourselves at a side basket. The boys wouldn’t let Paula Sue play. She was a lot better than any of them, although they sure didn’t want to admit it. Poor Paula Sue; each recess she’s stuck with the teacher because I was the only one who would shoot hoops with her.
Each of the two summers I spent in Humboldt, I spent as the recreation director. For $800, I was in charge of boys’ high school baseball, girls’ junior and high school softball, lining the fields for all the teams and handled a summer recreation program every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It was the girls’ softball teams and Paula Sue Blecka that turned my head toward female sports. The boys’ baseball team went about .500. That was a disappointment to me and the community. No one expected much with the girls’ softball team. They had only won about six games the year before. When I ran a baseball practice, about half of the boys would show up. When I had the girls at softball practice, almost everyone showed up, including Paula Sue.
I had a pair of sisters that were pretty good softball players. The older one, a junior in high school, was the catcher. She was really good. Her younger sister, Sandy, was the pitcher. She could really throw smoke, but she had no control in most games. Barb was my shortstop and a really good one. I moved Paula Sue up from the junior team to play center field for the older team. The softball team started winning a lot of games. I even thought we could win our league. Then Barb, our shortstop, broke her thumb. Paula Sue, who is left handed, moved to shortstop and played almost flawless softball. The only problem was Sandy couldn’t find the strike zone. I had to have a second pitcher. I turned to the soon to be seventh grader, Paula Sue. She was terrific.
The second summer found a more mature softball team winning games like crazy. I thought coaching these girls was really easy. They were anxious to learn and win. The Humboldt Cardinal team did just that; win. I had decided to leave Humboldt at the end of the summer for a new job at Milford, Neb. There was no way I would leave my improving softball team early. I now had a third pitcher, Ann, whose dad owned Dick’s Bar that served great catfish and carp every Friday night (This is a silly memory, but I remember Ann’s favorite singer was Mack Davis). Ann wasn’t fast, but she threw strikes. Paula could do about anything and Sandy kept missing the strike zone. We had a great season. The league named Paula Sue and our catcher, Sandy’s sister, to the All-League team. That spelled big trouble. Before the season-ending conference tournament, the sisters’ mother approached me. I thought she was excited for her oldest daughter’s All-League award. Boy, was I wrong. “I heard you were leaving Humboldt,” she said. “I’m glad you’re leaving and I hope you never come back!” I guess she was mad Sandy had to take a backseat to Paula Sue. That’s how I was welcomed out of Humboldt.
Don’t get me wrong, some of the greatest people I’ve ever met were from Humboldt. Harriet Leach, the fifth-grade teacher who saw too much of Willie’s anatomy, was one of the most caring teachers I have ever known. Bob Williamson, the great music teacher from Humboldt that tempted Paul to the bigger school, was the best music instructor I can ever imagine. I still wish we had put on the melodrama in his barn during that last summer in Humboldt. Paula Sue changed my coaching path single-handedly. The tomboy sixth graders that the boys wouldn’t allow to play turned out to be a great high school basketball and softball player. An outstanding art teacher, Rich Bacon, took over the softball program and it went to heights that I couldn’t have imagined. In April, I ran into another of my Humboldt basketball players, Les Drake. His boy was playing in our youth tournament at Northwest. I have to mention the Hays family that hired and helped me create a really good recreation program during those hot, Humboldt summers. I couldn’t have had a more humble and helpful beginning to my coaching career than in Humboldt. Paul Heim reminds me of those times every time he stops by Northwest.