Two Teachers: People Who Touch Our Lives in Ways Big and Small

Last month I was scanning the obituary pages of the San Jose Mercury News, our local paper. This is a new habit for me, albeit only an occasional one. My wife has long made it a point to regularly check the obit pages; I never did…until the last few years. I have come to understand the rationale: There are so many abbreviated life-stories on display. I always check the birthdate of the deceased, but only after looking at the picture first, when present. When the birthdate is in the 1920’s or the early 1930’s, I feel a sense of reassurance (I was born in 1940) that I still have some living left – at least statistically. But I focus more on the faces in the pictures; it is often easy to identify those who presumably led happy, productive lives by studying the images, especially when the deceased is portrayed both in the bloom of youth and the later years when life has left its imprint. The written obit, of course, fills-in the blanks, typically revealing lives well-lived, but not exceptional stories. Once in a while there are major surprises like the kindly old face looking out from the page who, as a strapping young man, flew 20 B-17 bombing missions over Nazi Germany in World War Two. The obituary pages provided me with one of those surprises of which I speak just last month.

Two People – Both Teachers – Whose Recent Passing
 Re-kindled Good Memories for Me

Two former teachers of mine passed away recently. The second of the two touched my life, but briefly. I was casually scanning the obituaries last month when I encountered a rather poorly reproduced black and white picture of an attractive middle-aged woman. (The color version and the younger picture used here are from the website obituary). The write-up which followed related that this woman was, for twenty-seven years, a dance instructor at San Jose State College, located just south of here. I looked intently at the picture and thought, “No, it can’t be,” but it was.

Carol Smith - SJS_2

At that time, she was Mrs. Smith, my social dance class instructor at the college in my freshman or sophomore year – way back in 1958 /59. As an engineering major at San Jose State, I fortunately enrolled in Mrs. Smith’s class to 1: Learn to dance well (came in handy), and 2: To meet some coeds. It all worked according to plan! I had a chance to meet young women (noticeably absent in engineering and math classes in those days!) and to dance with them. It was such a great class experience that I made it a point to enroll in social dance class every term after transferring to Stanford University for my junior year. In one of those classes, I met a girl who I dated on a regular basis during my last year at Stanford. It sounds funny to speak of “dating” in this day and age; it was a whole other world back then!

I recall Mrs. Smith (her married name at the time) as a vibrant, personable, and attractive young woman with the grace, figure, and long-legs of a dancer – which she truly was. She had red hair and a freckled complexion…and she had style.

 The obituary noted that she died in a Utah nursing facility at the age of 80.

I was enrolled in her dance class for only one or two terms, but stumbling upon her obituary in the paper by chance really set me back on my heels. She was a fine dance instructor whose teaching and personality made that class period one of my many happy experiences at San Jose State.

I tried to visualize her at eighty years of age and in a nursing home; it was difficult when viewed in the light of my memory of her as a young woman. The situation crystallized the reality we all ultimately face; I am no stranger to the thought of our mortality, but the particular chance experience of recalling Mrs. Smith after so many years and in such a contrasting light did shake me a bit, causing me to stop and seriously reflect.

Carol Smith - SJS_1

I went to my den shelves and pulled out one of the many notebooks from my considerable stash of college materials I have saved for lo, these many years. It was a social dance class spiral notebook which I compiled during the course. I tried to apply some humor in the form of brief quips to the “footstep pattern sequences” which I had diagrammed for the various dances such as the foxtrot, tango, waltz, etc. At the front of the book, I made references to the then-famous dance instructor, Arthur Murray, by writing with tongue-in-cheek, “My deepest thanks to Arthur Murray without whose assistance, I could never have written this book.” Just above that on the front page, Mrs. Smith assigned me a course grade of A- and, in red ink, wrote,

“My deepest thanks to Al Kubitz without whom (& people of similar ilk) teaching could become quite ordinary.” That meant a lot to me at the time.

Dance Notebook_1Dance Notebook_2

A few years back, I tried to cull-out some of the many memorabilia I had saved from my college years. I paused as I held that little notebook over the trash can…and decided to hold on to it. I am so glad that I did.

Carl “Berny” Wagner: San Mateo High School and Track
A Person and Coach Who Changed Young Lives

San Mateo High School’s senior class of 1958 sat through countless lessons during the four years spent inside that venerable, old brick building which dated from 1924. We learned history, we learned to diagram sentences, we learned some Spanish, French, and German, and we learned about angles and triangles in geometry. As important as those classroom lessons were to our futures, the most valuable lessons I took away were those that I learned on the athletic fields. I wrote at length about those athletic experiences in my blog post of February 2, 2014, Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports. What I have to say about our track and field coach, Berny Wagner, in this post will have much more clarity if you have read that piece on sports (available in the blog archives).

Coach Berny Wagner

Berny Wagner, just  as I remember him at San Mateo High – 1957

I sadly noted Berny’s obituary last year in The Stanford Magazine, Stanford University’s alumni magazine. Beside the many insights he provided me personally as I worked to become a proficient hurdler on his varsity track teams, the lasting lesson I learned from Berny was the importance of class and excellence in athletics and in life. Those of us young lads who were fortunate enough to come under Berny’s tutelage learned, first hand, how to be a “winner” in athletics. Yes, he taught us how to compete successfully – to win – but he also taught us how to compete fairly with grace, dignity, and class.

Coach Wagner was infallible when it came to highlighting those personal and athletic traits which distinguish winners from “losers.”

As a runner on Berny’s track team, you learned to NEVER slow down three or four yards from the finish line of a race no matter how exhausted you felt – even in a distance event and even though the victory  is clearly yours. You always ran through the tape at the finish line. In the short, quick sprints, you had better not be seen showboating, breasting the tape at the finish with hands held high overhead in a “victory salute.” Coach emphasized that only a fool would relinquish a victory in a close finish by not leaning hard into the tape and thereby gaining precious inches which could have been the winning margin.

I will never forget one of his pet peeves as a track coach and a specific illustration of his insistence on competing with class. One spring day early in the season, as the entire track team was assembled for a brief meeting on the infield grass, Coach Wagner made clear that he never wanted to see any of his athletes competing in track spikes wearing argyle street socks as opposed to athletic “sweat socks” (or no socks). Coach did not need to tell me that…but there are always a few who just don’t get it, so he made that quite clear to us all. I distinctly recall him saying, “If you don’t care enough about your sport and your event to show up at a meet properly equipped, you have no business being out there in the first place!” Amen. He and I were totally on the same page in all such things. Sure enough, I saw them out there during our track meets, kids from the other teams competing in spikes and gaily-colored street socks; those competitors rarely placed well in their events, and they looked ridiculous next to Berny’s boys.

Coaching track and cross-country, even at the high school level, was not a sideline duty for Berny; it was the major part of his role on the faculty. He was a dedicated and intelligent student of the sport of track and field and held B.A. and M.A. degrees in education from Stanford University. His coaching career began at the high school level and took him to a ten-year stint as head track and cross-country coach at Oregon State University; it was there that he developed the gold-medal winner in the high jump at the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury. Fosbury had perfected the then-unique-to-him high jumping style famously known as “the Fosbury Flop” and revolutionized the high jump event using it. It has long been the universally-used technique. Later in his career, Coach Wagner coached two Olympic squads and settled into executive positions within the governing bodies of track and field in the U.S.A.

Berny’s multiple talents were evident even to us young lads on his 1958 championship track and field varsity team at San Mateo High School. He had great goals and plans for his young athletes, and he executed them with precision and discipline. He ran a great program. Everyone knew the practice plan for each day’s workouts and each event. There was no uncertainty, no confusion. Observing some of the league’s other coaches in action, we sensed how fortunate we were at San Mateo. Time would amply validate our good fortune as Coach Wagner went on to bigger and better things. His greatest coaching thrills were yet to come.

Coach Wagner and my indebtedness to him had been on my mind for many, many years after graduation. I knew of his later successes, but had not seen him since high school. I was not even sure how to locate him in June of 2011 when I finally decided to make an all-out effort to thank him for all he did for us boys. It was not so easy locating him; I wrote letters and made phone calls. Finally, I learned that he had suffered a very severe stroke several years prior, was partially immobilized, and was in an assisted-living facility in Corvallis, Oregon. I sent him the following letter: 

Dear Coach Wagner,                                                    June 17, 2011

 Do you recall your championship San Mateo High School track team of 1958? This is your senior high hurdler (and lows, too) from that team, Al Kubitz. So many years have passed, yet I remember vividly those days at San Mateo High, particularly my experiences on the track team and the great good fortune I had to be coached by you. You were the most influential of all my teachers – I felt it then, and the years since have amply verified it.

 You were the perfect mentor for us young guys; you were respected for your coaching competence and organized approach and well-liked for your obvious dedication to us student athletes. The lessons I learned in the process of striving for and achieving my goals in track and through our association have guided me throughout my life. I wanted you to know that!

 I am enclosing some pictures that I hope will bring back pleasant memories. A few are from my scrapbook and 1958 yearbook. In addition, I am sending you an excerpt written some time back as part of my unfinished memoirs. It is an account of my experiences with track and why they meant so much to me. I thought you might find some of it interesting; at any rate, please be sure to read the last two pages.

 After San Mateo, I graduated from Stanford University in 1963 in electrical engineering; I retired from that great career in 2001. Linda and I have two daughters and four grandchildren. I am hoping that one of my two young grandsons will have long legs and a knack for hurdling – who knows?

 I learned … that you have been battling some medical challenges the past few years. I wish you all the best in that regard and want to thank you again for all you have done for so many of us who had the great good fortune to cross paths with you through sports.

I followed up that letter with a phone call so that I could thank him and wish him well “in-person.” I am so glad that I did that when I did. There exist many similar, personal testimonials to Coach Wagner: He truly left his mark while training boys to be men.

2 thoughts on “Two Teachers: People Who Touch Our Lives in Ways Big and Small

  1. These are such touching reminiscences. I am tearing up as I read them; as a teacher myself, I can only hope that I’m making this kind of impact.

    Not being athletic myself, I find the coach/player relationship very fascinating. From what I’ve observed, it seems like the best coaches inspire their players not only to be better athletes, but also to be better human beings. It sounds like Berny Wagner did that.

    • Thanks, Ginny. Teachers and coaches do have a great opportunity to make a difference. Lucky are the students who happen upon the great ones. I know how hard those professions can be (first-hand witness, as you know!), but the legacy that the good ones leave behind can literally affect future generations. That knowledge should be of great satisfaction to those engaged with youngsters…like you. I recall a comment from Coach Wagner made late in his career which I can only paraphrase, here: “I didn’t make much money, but it [coaching] was a great life!” I know that he received many testimonials (like mine) from his former athletes; that had to make him feel good and that he made a difference.

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