The Power of One
by Laurel Park, May. 24, 2001
The Power of One
There is no question that the most precious things I've gained through running are not victories and prizes, but rather the rich array of people who have come into my life. Some of them have become close friends, some have touched me only briefly, while others fall in between. All of them have made me a better person. Nothing underscores the importance of these people like losing one of them, particularly when it's unexpected.
On Saturday, May 19, my husband's college cross-country coach died of a heart attack. Although he had been battling cancer for several years, the death was a shock, particularly because he had been making good progress in his recovery from a bone marrow transplant in February. We knew we had him on borrowed time, but we had no idea the terms of the loan would be so short.
Compared with my husband and the other athletes he coached in his 31-year career at Bucknell, I didn't know "Coach" all that well. I'd heard many stories, of course, and since his cancer was first diagnosed shortly after my husband and I started dating, we always made it a point to participate in alumni gatherings or travel to important races. Slowly over the course of eight years, through a combination of remembrances, various interactions, and simple observation, I came to know a very special person.
In some respects, Coach was relatively unremarkable. He spent his career working at a small, somewhat obscure school which did not offer athletic scholarships. He never received much publicity, and while his runners claimed numerous conference and regional honors, they rarely achieved the laurels familiar to Stanford, Villanova or Arkansas. He wasn't flashy, wasn't a polished or eloquent speaker, and carried the physique of the wrestler he once was rather than the runners he trained. Youthful behavior (of which he spoke very little) rendered him permanently ineligible for sainthood of any type. He didn't get along with everyone, and his manner could be brusque bordering on curt. He did not possess a particularly flexible personality. Although many alumni revered him, there were a few who walked away and didn't look back. Despite parenting five daughters, he never quite figured out how to coach women.
What Coach did so well was take runners that the "blue chip" programs didn't want and mold them into tough, dedicated, confident competitors. He preached the values of common sense, hard work and team unity. He brought together a group of guys and taught them to work together towards a common goal; to motivate and depend on each other. He convinced them that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. There were very few individual stars on the Bucknell teams, yet they won more than their legitimate share of conference and regional titles.
More importantly, Coach managed to instill a sense of loyalty, dedication and friendship amongst his runners that I have yet to witness in any other program. Bucknell alumni remain remarkably close years after graduation; the sense of pride and of belonging to a very special family endures across time and distance. It takes a special talent to bring those feelings to the fore and sustain them throughout the years. I once asked my husband what it was about Coach that infused such a sense of camaraderie in his runners. After muttering something about unity in the face of tyranny, he had to admit that he really didn't know. It had something to do with earning the respect of your teammates and of Coach through hard work and dedication. Coach knew that while victories and PRs are temporary, respect endures. It is the tie that binds generations of alumni with each other, with Coach, and with Bucknell.
This weekend my husband and I will drive to the tiny campus nestled in the Pennsylvania foothills, where we'll laugh and cry and reminisce with alumni and friends spanning 30 years. It will be bittersweet. The Bucknell fieldhouse is a darker place now, and visits to campus won't be quite as special. We'll grieve because we all wanted him for at least a little longer. We'll grieve because the unifying force of Bucknell cross-country has been extinguished forever. But mostly we'll grieve for the loss of someone who so ably nurtured the qualities that are essential for a fulfilling and prosperous life.
I never ran for him, but I am a better person for having known him. And like so many others, my life is richer for the lessons he left behind.