Tag Archives: Briarcliff Manor High School

A Janitor’s Work…

It started as a day laborer job. The folks who were the caretakers of “The Alamo” (our ancient high school building) were regularly trying to keep the place from falling down and needed a couple of young guys to carry fifty-pound cement bags and cinderblocks up three flights of stairs.

Football players proved to be just the ticket they needed. My brother John (who had the job before me) greased the skids with the janitor corps and before I knew it my buddy Pags and I were employed. And in those knuckleheaded days of our youth, we loved hauling cinderblocks. We carried two at a time, racing up the stairs to prove our worth. It was good, exhausting work; we were happy for the money; and we enjoyed the grown up banter of the workmen.

They were a jovial group with a somewhat jaded view of life and a penchant for dirty jokes. The top guy for the whole school district was Richard Collachio (I’m sure I’m spelling his name wrong). He was a red-haired Italian American who was always in such a hurry that he was perpetually out of breath and covered in sweat.

No one could move fast enough for Richard; he was always pushing our deadlines. But for all his hyper expectations, he always protected his “guys” (us) from the “folks upstairs” (the administration). And since most of the janitors hated dealing with the people who wore suits, they were happy for him to shoulder the burden.

Our immediate boss, Joe Bednar, was Richard’s polar opposite. Joe worked hard, but was done rushing around to impress anyone. He liked to enjoy life and was kind enough to bring doughnuts to our coffee break most days. And if we were having a slow one, sometimes he’d let those fifteen minutes slide into twenty, especially if we were having a good time.

He and Richard had a love/hate relationship. Richard was always pushing Joe to work harder, always sweating the details and Joe was as calm a cucumber as God could make. As cuss words go, their discussions were really impressive, but I always had the sense that they liked each other and much of what went on was for show. Joe always delivered the work on time, never said a cross word to us (save one time – but that’s a different story), and still found a way to smell the roses that crossed his path.

Our high school was an old behemoth of a building built in a by-gone era when people made things as a testament to their labor.

Our high school was an old behemoth of a building, built in a by-gone era when people made things as a testament to their labor.  Originally built in 1911, it was enlarged with a second building (united by a corridor between them) in 1928. It had Spanish style architecture, (hence the Alamo moniker), huge windows and a nice-sized auditorium.

To keep the place in shape for the six hundred or so students or who occupied it, (from grades seven through twelve) Pags and I were employed to work summers, holidays, and through every spring break. Most of the time, we spackled and painted our days away, as there was always something to spackle and paint. (Think of those hundreds of little gymnasium windows that every gym has. Guess who had to re-caulk and paint those insidious monsters? Yeah that was an entire summer).

But, we also were regularly tasked with janitorial duties: mopping the floors, oiling down the gymnasium floors, cleaning the bathrooms, incinerating the trash, (ah, the good old days), scraping gum off the underside of chairs and desks (my least favorite job) and washing the windows.

The bathrooms, too, were always challenging. The graffiti in the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms (yes, we had to clean both of them) always shocked me. The graphic nature of the caricatures, the commentary and – yes – the medium was almost always beyond my belief system.

It made me question the sanity (and the sexual predilections) of many of my classmates.

Some were funny (at least to the juvenile me). “Here I sit broken hearted, have to shit, but only farted.” Most, however, were just gross. It made me question the sanity (and the sexual predilections) of many of my classmates. People used everything: pen and ink, used tampons, and soiled toilet paper to perfect their art. And Pags and I had to clean it all up, sometimes painting the stalls over three and four times (those indelible ink markers showed through everything).

We kept those jobs all the way through high school and got to know all the ins and outs of the place. I knew, for example, just how to kick the boy’s locker room door from the outside to yank it open without a key. On our breaks, we hung out in the teachers lounge, explored the hidden passageways between buildings, and got to know all the janitors and administrative staff on a first-name basis.

Mid-way through my sophomore year, the school district opened a new high school. Sam Brown became head janitor of the high school.   He was a quiet soft-spoken man with a pencil thin mustache. Joe stayed at the Alamo (which had become the middle school), so Pags and I stayed with him. Over time, we took great ownership in the place.

Every fall, when the teachers arrived a week ahead of classes, I’d get a kick out of their reactions to the newly restored building. I remember the surprised look on their faces when we took off the walls of the library to give it, what today is called, an “open concept.”

As students, most kids start off resenting school. They are forced to get up early, take classes, in which, they have little choice, respond to bells like they are prison inmates, and are assigned homework that takes up whatever time is left in their day. The lucky ones find a coach, a teacher, or two who can inspire them, make them think, or awaken an unknown talent or interest. But rarely do students think about the administrative staff that also makes their education possible. It’s like they are on the other side of the looking glass. We know they are there, but that’s about it.

Pags and I had the rare opportunity to see the school from both sides of the glass.

Pags and I had the rare opportunity to see the school from both sides of the glass. We saw the effort required to keep an old building functioning while hundreds of students daily pushed it to its limits. We got to know the staff as good, kind-hearted people who earned their living each and every day. We saw the pride they took in keeping the place clean and the disdain they felt for the purposeful destruction of the property.

During the school year, Pags and I inevitably returned to the other side of the glass as students. The admin staff left us alone with our classmates. We were, once again, no longer part of their community, but of a community they served. Sure, they would smile or wink when we passed them in the hallway but it wasn’t the same.

Kids can be rebellious during their adolescence and I did a lot of things for which I am not proud (again, another story). But, for all the things I would do, I never left a mess in the cafeteria or trash on the school lawn. I never stuck gum to the underside of a desk or wrote graffiti on the bathroom walls – not because I might have to clean it up – but out of respect for those I knew who would.

Share this article:

Tin Soldiers

I grew up in a quiet little place called Briarcliff Manor. It was off the beaten track, a “village” dwarfed by three larger towns. Fewer than one hundred kids graduated high school with me and I’ll bet half were around twelve years earlier when I attended Miss Barnes first grade class.

Not much went on in Briarcliff and our parents liked it that way. We had a police force, but not much in the way of crime. We had a “main street,” but it had stores on only on one side of it. For the most part, during my formative years, days were filled with playing football, basketball or baseball (depending on the season), hanging out, reading comics, riding my bike and trying to figure out how to talk to girls.

Our high school stood in the center of town next to the community pool, the park and the library. It had a large green lawn, a flagpole and a circular driveway out front for the buses to come and go. It looked like a Spanish fort, with high stucco walls and an imposing facade. Everyone called it “The Alamo.” The Rec Center used to sho
w movies against its front wall during hot
summer nights and families would turn out, sit on blankets to watch, “The Mouse that Roared” and “War of the Worlds.

Oddly enough, The Alamo was an Briarcliff High School 1909 Number 2
appropriate name for 1970, when this story takes place, as most of our
parents were desperately trying to keep the outside world from invading the quiet life of our little village. Six years after the
Beatles had landed at JFK, the country had transformed itself into something unrecognizable to them.

Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Meatloaf were merely symbols of the type of change rocking the country. The Kennedy brothers had been assassinated; so had Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. People were marching in the streets for civil rights, women’s rights and against the Vietnam War.   With the invention of the pill, the sexual revolution was in full swing and our parents were more than a little worried.

You could see the change in school. Boys started wearing their hair long; everyone sported jeans and tie-dyed tee shirts. Drugs found their way into student lockers and everyone was talking about the Vietnam War. Congress had done away with the college deferment and instituted a lottery system for the draft. All 18-year old males, including those in that year’s senior class, were eligible.

Although, I loved the music, I was largely unaffected by the changes going on. The son of a Marine, my hair was still short and my politics, if you could call them that, were conservative. At the time, I was thinking of going to West Point. I found the changes that many of my friends were going through perplexing. I hung back, preferring the company of my football buddies, and kept my nose clean.

Critical to this story is Kevin Johnson, a junior at the time. Kevin scared the crap out of me. There was a nervous edge about him – an “I don’t give a shit” edge – that a straight-laced fourteen-year-old boy like me found incomprehensible. Making matters worse, he didn’t like me. If he walked into a room, I’d check for the location of all the nearest exits before I took my next breath.

It was in early May when our moment of truth arrived – a breach in The Alamo. It began with an announcement by President Nixon that the U.S. would bomb Cambodia (to stop the North Vietnamese from using that country to make end-run attacks on our troops). College campuses all across the country were in an uproar of protest, with sit-ins, marches and candlelight vigils.

One such protest was held at Kent State University. Although it started out peacefully, unruly behavior among the protestors and some poor decisions by the mayor of Kent caused the situation to escalate into violence. The mayor called on the governor to issue a state of emergency. The governor concurred and called in the National Guard.

A second day of protests started and the confrontation continued to mount. Someone set fire to the ROTC building and a thousand protestors surrounded the blaze to cheer. When police and fire fighters arrived at the scene, they were pelted with rocks. In the ensuing exchange a student was bayoneted. The governor called the protestors “un-American” and vowed to “eradicate the problem.”

Cooler heads among the students tried to prevail. Several showed up the next morning to clean up the mess from the riot but were ordered off the streets. The protestors tried a new tack, holding a sit-in in hopes of securing a meeting with the mayor and the university president. The National Guard used tear gas and fixed bayonets to disperse them and several more students were stabbed.

A fourth day of protest started and the Guard was ordered to clear the campus commons. After tear gas canisters were ineffective, the Guard again fixed bayonets and marched on the protesters. They succeeded in dispersing a majority of the students, but some remained on the steps of a nearby campus building. They heckled the Guardsman marching back through campus. One of the Guardsmen, a sergeant, turned and fired into the protestors. Twenty-nine members of his platoon turned and fired as well. In all 67 rounds were fired, killing four students and wounding nine others. Two of those who died were protesters; two – including one young man who had been in the ROTC – were simply on their way to class.

kent_state_shootingTheir deaths rocked the country. Back in Briarcliff, Doc. Pruitt suspended his lesson plan and opened our 9th grade history class to discussion. I was stunned by the vitriol of the opinions on both sides and I couldn’t believe anyone could see it differently than I did.

“Who started the violence?” I demanded. “Who torched the ROTC building?” The debate became heated and at one point I shouted a slogan used often back in the day. “If you don’t like our country, why don’t you leave it?”

After class the argument spilled out into the hallway. Everyone was angry. Kevin came around the corner with a look of exuberance on his face. “Someone lowered the flag to half-mast. It’s for the four students!”

“Well that’s not going to happen,” I said, and, without thinking, stormed off to the front lawn. Kevin followed, stalking my steps.

“What you going to do?” Menace poured from him.

“Raise it back up.” I kept my eyes ahead, afraid to look at him.

“Why?”

“It’s just not right.”

We went back and forth all the way to the flagpole. Kevin was so mad he was spitting. I untied the cord securing the flags but he grabbed it above my hands to stop me. Here it comes, I remember thinking. He’s going to beat the shit out of me.   But, I wasn’t backing down.

“What’s going on here?” Bob Prout, the dean of students, seemed to appear out of nowhere. And he wasn’t alone. My older brother Jim, Michael O’Hagan and Deryl Seemayer (three of the biggest guys on the football team) all stood behind him. My confidence was magically restored.

“Someone lowered the flag to half-mast. I came to raise it.”

“Go ahead.” Dean Prout folded his arms.

With a look of betrayal and fury Kevin flipped us the bird. “This is all bullshit!”

He stormed away as I pulled on the rope to lift the flag. I felt vindicated in my actions. I felt proud to have faced down my fear. And, I felt relieved that Kevin didn’t beat the shit out of me.

But, looking back on that moment, I see the world a little differently. Kevin was right. And I’m ashamed to say that it would not be the last time that I found myself on the wrong side of history.

Although there was plenty of blame to go around in the tragedy at Kent State, just as there is in the state of our politic today, I got caught up in the rhetoric.  I lost my perspective. It was a shameful day and a lesson in what happens when antagonists double down on their righteousness. Those students didn’t deserve to die and their death was a national tragedy. They deserved to have our flags lowered on their behalf. To function, democracy requires a unique talent – the ability to listen – especially by those in power, and especially if they carry guns.

No one was listening that day in Ohio on either side and we all paid the price for it, especially those four kids. They deserve our apology and, for my behavior that day, so does Kevin Johnson.

You were right, Kevin. It was all bullshit. And I’m sorry I wasn’t smart enough to see it. Maybe next time I will

Meā culpā, meā culpā,meā máximā culpā.

Share this article:

My Brother’s Trophy

I got my life-long wish during my freshman year in high school. I made the football team.

Although at thirteen I was technically IMG_1264ineligible to play, I could practice with the team until my fourteenth birthday in November and still play the last two games. I can still remember putting on my pads like they were plates of armor and heading out to the dusty field behind our high school. The start of practice always began the same way: the varsity and junior varsity ran through a defined set of calisthenics. Set up in eight rows of ten we barked out the count for each exercise, mimicking the movements of senior Captain Mike O’Hagan.

If Mike put his hands to his helmet and yelled, “Hunh,” we put our hands on our helmets and yelled, “Hunh!” If he clapped his hands and slapped his thigh pads to a syncopated beat, so did we. To adolescent boys, the percussive rhythm to this routine resonated with astounding power. We were part of something bigger and far cooler than ourselves. It was awesome.

I had two older brothers on the squad, Jim and John. I was not alone in this privilege. Briarcliff Manor had a number of families that produced children at a prodigious rate: the McCloskeys, the Borhos, the O’Hagans, the McFaddens, the Kennedys…at six kids, the Gleasons were considered a mid-sized family.

That year, my brother Jim was a senior and he had the distinction of being the most valuable player on the team. I know this, because he has a trophy to prove it.

We didn’t receive too many trophies back in those days. I think I had one from a third place finish in a basketball tournament from my sixth grade youth league. It was about an inch tall and little more than a tiny basketball on a tree stump. It was the only recognition I had ever received for sports throughout my childhood.

Jim’s trophy by comparison was twenty-four inches tall, a golden pilaster rising from a marble base. On its top, it featured a football player in mid-throw. It was awarded in front of the entire high school community on senior recognition day in the last week of school. Jim won it for playing fullback.

He didn’t always play at that position. In a surprise decision by Coach Ed Hoffman, Jim was moved from guard to fullback his senior year. At 220 lbs., he was a bruising blocker. In one of the first games of the season, he knocked out two defensive ends in successive plays. The game took forever to finish as the town only had one ambulance and we had to wait for it to return for the second injured boy. As the season unfolded, Coach Hoffman discovered that Jim could also carry the ball and my brother began to rack up 100+ yard games.

In hindsight the move to fullback was obvious. Briarcliff’s offensive line that year was huge. Anchored at center by Mike O’Hagan, the line featured two gargantuan tackles, Mike’s brother Gary and Scotty Mickelson, it also included my brother John and an uncharacteristically large sophomore named Deryl Seemayer.

In a huge upset, Briarcliff beat Pleasantville near the end of the season to clinch the league title. Pleasantville was a powerhouse of a team that hadn’t been beaten in nearly three years. The day after the game there was a front-page picture of Jim in the Citizen Register barreling through the Pleasantville defensive line to score the winning touchdown.

To my thirteen year-old mind, my brother had set a high bar for a perfect season: Play fullback, beat Pleasantville, lead the league and win the trophy.

I planned to achieve all of them.

For the next two and a half years, I dedicated myself to becoming the best football player in the school. I lifted weights year round, ran extra sprints after every practice, learned the playbook by heart and ate voraciously to gain weight.

Unfortunately, my senior year left a lot to be desired.

I didn’t play fullback. We didn’t win the league. (We didn’t even have a winning season). We lost to Pleasantville. And while there were many reasons why none of these things happened the way I had it planned, the hard truth always remained. I had failed. And if there was one thing I hated most in life, it was failure.

There was only one chance left for redemption: the trophy for most valuable player. Unfortunately, I had to wait until the last week of school to find out if I’d won it.

Months rolled by. Fall became winter. Winter became spring. College acceptance letters arrived. Our futures began to stretch out in front of us. The last week of school brought all the usual pomp and circumstance and with it came senior recognition day. I waited in the stands as the coaches went through the superlatives for each sport. The last sport recognized was always football and Coach Hoffman stood to award the prize. In his hand was the twenty-four inch golden trophy that my brother had won. I held my breath.

“This player is an exemplary young man,” Coach Hoffman began, but I couldn’t hear the rest because the sound of my heartbeat drowned out the pre-amble to the winner’s name. He stopped to give the award the appropriate drama it deserved.

“This year’s most valuable player award goes to…Bobby Kennedy.”

I stood to applaud with all my classmates, our parents and the entire school community. Bobby was one of my best friends. I was happy for him, but like everything else I had planned for that year, I had failed. I had to recognize that I just didn’t deserve it.

The final trophy of the day was the American Legion Sportsmanship Award. As Coach Hoffman began his soliloquy for it, a sense of dread stole into my mind. Before he even announced my name, I knew it was my consolation prize. I groaned.

Sportsmanship. The nice guy. The guy who congratulates the winner. I couldn’t stop thinking of Vince Lombardi. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

I was furious. With cheeks burning, I strode to the podium to accept the trophy. Sportsman that I was, I shook Coach Hoffman’s hand and smiled and waved to acknowledge the audience applause. But, in my heart, I was dejected. I had failed four for four. I went home, put the trophy in a box and set my mind on college.

Many years later, I was reminiscing with my older brother Jim about his senior year in high school. We talked about their safety, “Radar Rick” Webber and the team’s halfback, Ross Connolly.

“You know what I really regret?” Jim said.

I shook my head. I couldn’t think of a thing he might regret.

“I didn’t win the Sportsmanship Award my senior year.”

“But, you were Most Valuable Player.”

“Yeah, but the Legion trophy was always the big prize. That’s why it’s awarded last. Mike O’Hagan won it my senior year. I was really pissed off about that.”

It took some time for my adult brain to convince my adolescent brain to step aside so I could look at those events from a different perspective.

As an adult, I had brought my competitive nature to work. And over the course of my career, I succeeded and failed many times. Hard work, I found, was a precursor to success, but did not guarantee it. There were times when my best work was in the worst of my failures.

I took pride in giving a good day’s work for a good day’s pay and tried to align myself with people who brought the same enthusiasm to their jobs as I did. I treated people with respect, regardless of their job title or importance to me. I valued trust and competency and ethical behavior and was rewarded in kind by those who held similar standards.

Success has its merits (it really does), but when I think back on it, how we succeed is just as important. There is something to being able to live with the person you see in the mirror.

I have won many accolades and awards over the course of my professional career but only one trophy sits by my desk these days. It’s from American Legion Post 1054. A golden pilaster rises twenty-four inches up from a marble base. And on its top stands – not an athlete – but a human being.

Share this article:

How Bobby Thompson Changed My Life

I was a jock.

In Briarcliff Manor High School, this was not an altogether laudatory term in the four years between 1969-1973. The cultural/generational divide of the late sixties had a cascading effect on the years that followed, creating a backlash against all things conventional. Short hair was out; long hair was in. Dress codes were out; jeans and tie-dyed shirts were in. Following the rules was out; protests and sit-ins were in. Gin was out; smoking pot was in. Jocks were out; hippies were in.

imagesMuch to my consternation, I attended high school during the one brief moment in time when being on the football team did not enhance one’s social status.  Jocks were considered by many to be square, boring, and one-dimensional, if not intellectually slow.  I didn’t mind this too much.  I embraced the role of being a jock whole-heartedly and did nothing to defy the mold.  I played a sport every season (whether I was good at it or not) and was comfortable in my conventional-ness.  When Deryl Seemayer nominated me for student council president, he began his speech saying, “What’s wrong with a jock?  He works hard, ‘round the clock…”  (My speech wasn’t half as good as his and I lost in a landslide).

In part, being a conventional jock was a factor of my upbringing.  My dad was a Marine, a strict disciplinarian who had clear ideas about how my brothers and I should look and behave.  Every Saturday morning, when we were younger, my Dad would line us up in the kitchen to buzz-cut our hair.  The Gleasons played football.  We worshiped Vince Lombardi, a strong work ethic, and those who kept their noses to the grindstone.  My two older brothers were also a significant influence.  Although I never would have admitted it at the time, I revered them.  I wanted to be just like them.  To me, they were more than role models; they were larger than life.

So I became a jock and was happy to be one.  But I had a secret – one that I guarded religiously and never disclosed to my friends in high school.

I could sing.  

I don’t mean I could just carry a tune.  I could really sing.  When I was ten, I was invited to join the Columbus Boys Choir (think of it as the American version of the Vienna Boys Choir) one of two elite travelling boys choirs in the country.

Here is why it became a secret: 

In elementary school, our music teacher, Mrs. Kuch, recommended me to the Columbus Boys Choir and urged my parents to have me apply for admission. My parents had always encouraged musical endeavors, and so were happy to give me this opportunity. 

To be invited to the choir, aspirants attended a summer camp that served as a four-week tryout.  We sang eight hours a day, seven days a week and were drilled in unrelenting exercises to perfect our range, breathing and control.  One of those exercises was described like this, “Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips – so hot that if the tea touches you, it will scald.  I want you to breathe in and sing so carefully that you don’t disturb the tea.  It must never touch your lips.”  And then we’d practice our scales, breathing ever so carefully over our imaginary cups of tea. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”  We did this at the start of every practice, every day.

Two weeks into the term, we had parents’ day.  Having never lived away from home prior to this, I couldn’t wait to see my folks.  The school, of course, put on a show for them to demonstrate what we had learned under the choirmaster’s care.  My parents proudly sat in the front row of the audience, with my two older brothers seated next to them.

And then, disaster struck.  After performing two songs, the choirmaster turned to address the parents and started to describe our daily regimen of practice.  Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips…”  Staring out from my place in the third row, I could see my older brothers clearly and I knew what was coming.   A trickle of sweat rolled down my back and it wasn’t because the weather was warm.  The choirmaster turned to us to perform our scales and elevated his hand to match the rising pitch of our voices.  “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”   

My two older brothers fell off their chairs.  They howled with laughter.  To this day, they still tell this story, mimicking the choirmaster’s hand and singing in falsetto. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”   When I came home from camp, the misery was unrelenting.  By the end of the summer, I concluded that singing was not a manly thing to do and vowed never to sing again.   

And I didn’t.  I made my way through junior high and the first three years of high school without uttering a note.  Those who knew I could sing forgot and my two older brothers eventually went away to school.  

Which brings me to how Bobby Thompson changed my life.  Bobby Thompson went to Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire that one of my brothers attended the last two years of high school. I went to visit him for a weekend and got to meet his newfound friends, most of who were on the wrestling team.  Bobby Thompson was easily the most memorable.  An African American from Blueville, West Virginia, Bobby weighed 300 pounds and was rumored to have broken an opponent’s leg in the ring. 

In May of my junior year I attended my brother’s graduation from Exeter.  Bobby was the student selected to give the commencement speech.  He stood and, after some brief remarks for his teachers and classmates, acknowledged the benefactors who made his education possible and thanked them for the opportunity that it would provide him. And then, he did something unexpected. 

Bobby sang Amazing Grace.

St. Augustine is credited with saying, “He who sings prays twice.”  If that is true, Bobby’s hymn that day was worth a thousand prayers.  Big, full-throated, passionate, his voice swept the room away with him on journey that humbled everyone in its unabashed grace and humility.  He sang without accompaniment.  He sang from the heart.  And when he was done, the entire auditorium wept as one.

I had never experienced anything like it.  It wasn’t a performance; it was an act of love and gratitude.  I was riveted.  And I was ashamed.  Bobby’s hymn had laid bare for me my cowardice.  He had never been embarrassed – could never be embarrassed – by the gift he had been given.  In many ways it defined him, far more than his weight or his prowess in the wrestling ring.  His confidence and his joy transcended ridicule.  I, on the other hand, had been weak and afraid.

I returned home, went back to high school, and fell into my regular routine.  But I couldn’t escape the shame that dogged me.  I was so furious at how easily I had been cowed into silence.   I vowed to do something about it.

Every spring, Briarcliff had a student variety show.  It always was a funny mish-mash of talent featuring whatever the students that year could bring to bear.  In my years, there was a plethora of singing talent.  Billie Nininger, his sister Annie, Clay Callihan, Pat Moffett.  I wasn’t sure that I could measure up.  Their talents had progressed with the years. They played instruments.  I was stuck with what I had learned up to the age of ten.  My voice had changed.  Old fears filtered through my anger and I panicked.  My voice cracked during tryouts and I was so embarrassed that I stopped singing mid-song and walked away.

They let me in anyway.  Two weeks later I was standing on stage behind the curtain, just me and my demons.  It should be no surprise that I chose to sing the one song that had gotten me on that stage in the first place. I heard the announcer say, “And now Joe Gleason, singing Amazing Grace.” 

The curtain opened.  There was just me and a microphone.  And the crowd started to laugh.  I was a jock, after all, and jocks were supposed to be funny – they were not supposed to sing.  I took a deep breath, thought of Bobby Thompson, and hit the first note.  After a few more, no one was laughing.  And then I let myself go. I don’t remember much after that; it became more of a prayer for me than anything else. 

So, thank you, Bobby for redeeming me.  “I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind, but now I see.”

Share this article:

Do you have a minute?

I met Joe Kolman when I was in seventh grade. He was the track coach at Briarcliff Mimagesanor High School and he came out to watch the new crop of middle schoolers running around the field during gym class. I posted a particularly good time that day and he stepped up to introduce himself and invited me to consider cross-country and track. I declined, of course, thinking track was for losers. I played baseball.

Coach Kolman was also a history teacher who had gone to Dartmouth. A small, thin man, with short, black curly hair, he had a five o’clock shadow that seemed perpetually in place. During the turbulent sixties, he was one of the few teachers who could connect with the students.

“Do you have a minute?” he would ask in the hallway as if we had somewhere else to go. Sometimes he just had a question; at others he’d suggest participation in a school club or activity or ask our opinion about the news of the day. He appeared awkward at first, but I quickly realized he was just someone who chose his words with care. In a group, he often hesitated out of a concern that others should have an opportunity to say their piece. He was always polite, always soft-spoken.

I never had him for history, but those who did loved his course. He was known for motivating students to think and speak for themselves and encouraging them to consider other points of view – he often assigned homework that challenged students to argue the opposite side of an issue they supported.

I forgot our initial conversation until my junior year when I failed to make the varsity baseball team. This wasn’t much of a surprise, by then. I couldn’t hit. I couldn’t throw. In fact, I’m stunned they let me hang around as long as they did. With nothing left to do for the spring term, Steve Pagnotta and I went out for track.

We had a small team. One shot putter, a few sprinters, a few long distance runners. I ran the 220 and the 440 sprints. We did poorly in just about every meet because we couldn’t fill out all the events.

Pags and I lobbied the rest of the football team – at least those not otherwise engaged – to join the team for our senior year. Suddenly, Coach Kolman’s track team ballooned with competitors (that’s an overstatement – we ballooned with bodies. None of us yet had learned how to be competitive). We had a full weight team – including discus. We had long jumpers, triple jumpers, pole vaulters – you name it. He was very happy.

We still struggled competitively. We had good athletes, but were such a small school that we lacked depth and it showed during the competitions. I remember one county meet where I had to run the 220, the 440 and the 440 relay back-to-back-to back. After competing in the first two events, I made it about 400 of the 440 meters relay before the bear jumped on my back. I struggled to hand-off the baton and collapsed by the side of the track. I was so tired I couldn’t get up after the meet. I just lay there until Coach Kolman realized I wasn’t on the bus and came back to find me.

After that, I switched one event to high jump (which if you’ve ever seen me play basketball is rather amusing). Surprisingly, however, I could jump my height at five eleven.

Once, we had a meet against Irvington and as the afternoon unfolded, we were tied in points. The entire meet would be decided by the high jump, which usually was the last event of the day. I had made a mistake early on by warming up with the lower jumps. When the Irvington jumper and I both made 5’ 11,” he had fewer attempts. If we tied, I would lose. I had to jump a level higher than him to win.

We had three chances to try for 6’. By then, the entire roster of both teams had gathered around the high jump pit. Everyone knew what was on the line. The kid from Irvington missed the first jump. So did I. We retraced our steps and tried again. He missed the second jump. So did I. They reset the bar for the third and final attempt. He missed. So, it all came down to my final jump. If I made it, we would win the meet. If I missed –

“You can do it, ” a voice called from the crowd. Inside my head I remember thinking, “No, I can’t. I’ve never cleared six feet.”

Suddenly, Joe Kolman was there with his clipboard in hand. “Do you have a minute?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I just recalculated the score and realized that we’ve already won the meet. You don’t have to make the jump. We’ve got this, but it would be great to see you clear that bar.” He patted me on the shoulder and left me to the jump.

Relieved, I took a deep breath and let it out. I squared my shoulders, took my three long strides and jumped for all I was worth. My right foot leapt high over my head and I lay back and rolled, trying to keep my body as flat as possible. I cleared the height with room to spare and kicked my back leg out to avoid the bar. The crowd erupted as I fell into the mat. By the time I climbed out, I was mobbed.

“What a jump!”

“Unbelievable!”

That’s when I realized that Coach Kolman had lied. I looked over at him from the crush of bodies and he just shrugged, an impish smile stealing across on his face.

Coach Kolman died on December 26th of last year. I learned about it on a FaceBook page devoted to his memory by some 200 of his students. Some I knew, Barney Rush, Jack Connell, Lise Glazier, Rich Mandelbaum but most were strangers to me from his a forty-year career at Briarcliff Manor High School.

At first, I didn’t recognize him from some of their descriptions or even the photographs they posted. He was an older man, no longer thin. His hair was white and longer than I had remembered. He wore glasses.

The more I read, however, the more I realized their memories of him were my memories. And it was clear that his life’s work centered on teaching the youth of Briarcliff Manor to love history and to understand its relevance to events taking place today. But much of what we learned wasn’t in books. He taught us to be careful with our words, thoughtful of other points of view, and competitive in our life’s endeavors.

He was a very, very, good man.

Share this article: