A few months ago, I wrote a column about the shocking and untimely death of one of my former assistant basketball coaches at Wittenberg University, Larry Hunter. I recounted that he had passed away just a couple of months after his retirement as head coach at Western Carolina University and how thankful I was about my last “conversation” with him. Via text, I had thanked him for all he had done for me. I told him I was proud to have been associated with him, blessed that I could call him my friend and coach, and that I appreciated the dignity with which he always carried himself throughout his career. I wanted him to know how much of an impact he had had on my life.
In his response, he told me how much he appreciated my text, and he ended by saying,“Love ya! Coach.” Knowing how widely respected he was, I’m certain he heard from hundreds of former players and coaching peers and that we all received similar responses. That’s just the kind of man he was.
That article apparently resonated with a lot of you, because many readers shared that they were reminded to take time to thank someone who had played an important role in your life. Some even shared their specific stories.
Since Coach Hunter’s passing, I have often thought about how thankful I am that that was my final communication with him. In fact, I have kept our texts. I only wish I had taken my own advice with one other mentor I had at Wittenberg.
When I entered college, I was like most other teenagers in that I wasn’t certain what I wanted to be when I grew up. However, it wasn’t long before I encountered a professor by the name of Dr. Virginia Lucas, who was a teacher in the Special Education Department. She was regarded as a pioneer in the development of programs and services for children with disabilities in the Miami Valley. Thanks in large part to her expertise, kindness, and compassion, it wasn’t long before I knew that working with young people with special needs was what I wanted to do.
As a direct result of her influence, I became a special education teacher. Even after I left the classroom to pursue education administration, her teachings resonated with me. She was universally respected, and she inspired me, along with my classmates, to dedicate ourselves to helping children in need. She was a superlative teacher because she didn’t just stand in front us and regurgitate information that she would test us on later. She showed us the best teachers did so much more than that, and that may have been her greatest gift to her students. In other words, she walked the talk.
She challenged us to think, she gave us real-life experiences working with children with disabilities, and she allowed us to engage in spirited debates about what we were learning. This freedom resulted in many “meaning of life discussions” among those in her classes. She was what all teachers should aspire to be.
It was during those years that I first remember consciously thinking our most important responsibility as adults is to take care of children — ALL children. It is also where I first learned that success comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and that true success is defined as achieving as close to one’s own potential as possible.
I am positive she was aware of how important she was in shaping her students’ lives, because she was treated so respectfully by all of her students. In fact, I never heard an unkind word said about her. It is hard to imagine how many young people’s lives she positively impacted. She had to know that, right?
I saw her a few times after my graduation, and our discussions were always about what and how each of us was doing. Nothing too deep.
After leaving Springfield and moving along in my career, I thought about her regularly, wondered how long she kept teaching, what she had done after retirement, etc. I lost track of her like many of us do with our teachers and mentors from our earlier years. I often considered trying to look her up to give her the proper thank you for the role she had played in my success as an educator. But, as often happens, life always seemed to get in the way.
Spurred by the suddenness of Coach Hunter’s passing, I decided in earnest to see if I could locate her to give my proper thanks. Soon into my search, I discovered that she had passed away in January of 2016 from complications from Alzheimer’s. In other words, I had missed my opportunity, and a certain sadness fell over me for my inaction.
None of us gets where we want to go without the helping hands of lots of people. In many cases, those people are teachers and/or coaches who went well beyond the call of duty to help us reach our goals, or, even more importantly, to determine what our goals should be. I have been blessed to have had many such mentors in my life, and Dr. Virginia Lucas was certainly one of the them.
I know Dr. Lucas is watching over all of us whose lives she impacted so greatly, and I can only hope that she died knowing how much she is appreciated by all of us.
But I surely wish I would have told her myself.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.