Farewell Tribute to My Friend Frannie

Back in Switzerland, still mourning my dad’s death, I weep for the loss of my friend Frannie. If I could attend Fran’s funeral service today, I would stand up and say what we all know, “Every family, every team, every community needs a Frannie. Her life was a gift to mankind.”

Frannie with her long wing span and big hands enfolded us all in her arms. Tall and graceful with a charismatic smile, Fran could have been a runway model, instead she bestowed inner beauty, strolling the streets of Sterling spreading her love. During her career as a social worker in her home town, she saved lives.

Born on May 17, 1960 the daughter of Jessie and Barbara (Hereford) Smith, Frances “Fran” Marie Smith-Riney, died September 13, 2022. She left behind 2 daughters, a son, 2 foster sons, 2 stepsons, 1 step daughter, 18 grandchildren, several nieces and nephews, one sister, three brothers and hundreds of friends, who would swear they were somehow related too.

“Fran skipped into 4th grade with an engaging grin, head held high, taller and darker than any of the other children,” one of her classmates recounted. “It’s as if she was saying even back then `C’mon, we’re in this together, let’s laugh and party and learn to get along.”

She was a catalyst uniting people from every race, ethnicity and walk of life.
Whether planning a reunion for her 1978 high school class, a 40th anniversary celebration for her 1st state championship basketball team, or a Herford - Smith family gathering that included all of Wallace Street too, Fran connected everybody.

Three years my junior, I considered her my little sister, but she ended up more often looking after me. As center on my basketball team her freshman years, she cleared the lane, so I could drive the baseline at Sterling High School and Illinois State University. Though I moved to Europe; she settled in Sterling, so I saw her when I visited my folks.

Frannie was family.

The Smith and McKinzie households were intricately intertwined at a time in US history when blacks and whites lived on opposite sides of the train track in small town America. Through education, friendship and teamwork, we built bridges in our community and broke barriers.

My dad coached and taught Frannie and her older brothers at SHS; her brother, Phil, coached me. Together we started the first girls basketball camp in northern Illinois. Over time it was hard to distinguish where one lesson ended and another began, but together we shattered gender and racial stereotypes.

In 1977, my little sister, Karen, and Frannie made Illinois history becoming the 1st high school girls state basketball champions, coached by my dad and her brother.

A month ago, Phil, like a second son, spoke at a my father’s Memorial Service sharing stories about his former teacher, coach, colleague, mentor and friend for nearly 60 years.

“I am sorry I cannot be there attend Papa Mac’s Celebration of Life,” Fran texted us at that time from her hospital bed, “but he knew I loved him and he loved me, so we're all good.”

No words can capture what Frannie meant to so many. To me, she was a loyal little sister, an everlasting friend, a basketball buddy, a part of my history, a piece of my heart.

I loved you Frannie; you loved me.

So we’re all good too.

But I will always miss your hugs.

Farewell to my First Coach – My Dad, My Hero

Dad was my lighthouse, guiding me ashore when lost in life’s stormy sea. He died on August 8, 2022 just nine days shy of his 91st birthday. Without him I drift bereft.

My dad and I shared a special bond made stronger through a love of sports and our fierce determination to overcome obstacles.

My athleticism was a genetic gift; my fighting spirit part of the McKinzie bloodline.

Growing up, I never appreciated his athletic talents. He never boasted about his own accolades, but was always the first to applaud others’ achievements.

As a college athlete at Northern Illinois State University, he was a 3 sport division I athlete and MVP in 2 major sports. He was inducted into the NIU hall of fame three times, as an individual player and as a team member in the 1951 football and baseball teams. He was part of the NIU Century Basketball Team and Decade “50’s” football team.  As a coach, he was also inducted into the Sterling High School Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.

But he remained humble. His passion lay in helping others achieve their goals. He impacted countless young lives in his role as an educator, coach, and mentor.

He will be remembered for his kindness, generosity, tolerance, humor and compassion for the underdog. He treated everyone equally regardless of class, age, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation or gender identity. He also advocated for women’s right to participate in sports in the infancy of Title IX.

Fondly remembered as ‘Papa Mac’ for leading his daughter Karen and her “Golden Girl” teammates to the first girls State Basketball Championship in 1977, he also guided the 1979 third place and 1980 Elite 8 girls state basketball teams.

And he coached me.

At a time when women’s sports was taboo, his guidance made me an outstanding pioneer basketball player — one of the 1st female athletic scholarship recipients at Illinois State University, professional players in the USA and American women to play in Europe.
In one of our last visits, we reminisced about the hours we spent shooting baskets. I re-enacted how he taught me to drop into 3 point football stance and run a v-slant pattern with my fingertips stretched to the sky, ready to catch his perfect spiral pass.

“You also taught me how to swing a baseball bat, serve a volleyball, swish a hook shot!”

“I betcha I taught you all the ball games,” dad said and chuckled.

“You also showed me how to balance a check book, change a flat tire, catch a fish, ride a bike, drive a car.”

“You were a good learner,” he told me.

“You were the best teacher.”

Just ask his former campers at Camp Neyati Wisconsin or the hundreds of students and athletes whose lives he touched in his 35 year teaching/coaching — basketball, football, baseball, track — career. He served as a pillar of the community, a brick in the foundation of Sterling High School.

My dad, a man of integrity, walked the talk. He saw the best in each of us and then coached it out of us.

How many of his former students and athletes went on to dedicate their lives to teaching and coaching?

Like my grandfather, and my father, when my playing career ended, I became an ambassador of the game. I guided athletes on the global arena teaching and coaching 33 yrs in Europe. I passed on not only dad’s basketball expertise, but also his philosophy of life.

In a ripple effect, my dad’s ethos — honesty, acceptance and fair play — echoed around the world when my former international players returned to their passport countries to advocate for social justice.

Dad, I wish I could play my guitar for you one last time.

“I can’t sing on key to save my life,” dad would say as he whistled along.

You may not have had a musical bone in your body, dad, but your life was a rhapsody. Your spirit united the chorus of humanity.

You were a gifted artist.

Whether teaching city boys to appreciate nature at Camp Neyati, counseling teens on the playing fields and in the classrooms, painting landscapes for loved ones, or writing a letters of encouragement, your work comforted us all.

A hug from you could lift a soul for a lifetime.

As I reflect back on how hard it was to stand after my accidents, I hear your voice inspiring me to walk again. Whenever I hike the Swiss mountains or wander Wisconsin’s Northwoods, I remember you.

Every breath I take, every step I make, every word I speak, every kindness I share, I think of you.

Your light shines eternally as we offer our guidance to the next generation while whistling your song in our hearts.

You left the best kind of legacy.

Your love lives on.

A Memorial Service will be hosted on Sunday, August 28th at the Schilling Funeral Home in Sterling (visitation11-2 PM and service 2 PM.)   In lieu of flowers, his family requests donations be made in his name to Jim & Lenore McKinzie Scholarship Fund care of Sterling-Rock Falls Community Trust, (Midland States Bank, 302 1st Ave, Sterling, Il 61081) to help a deserving student going into education or to the  Sterling Schools Foundation (510 East Miller Rd, Sterling, Il 61081 www.sterlingschoolsfoundation.org

Cards to Lenore McKinzie 1424 W. 21st St. 61081 Sterling, IL USA

Illinois State University Celebrates Title IX 50th

As a girl, I was stuck on the sideline, watching boy’s basketball games, hoping that the ball would roll out of bounds so I could throw it back into play. I never fathomed girls would be allowed on center court one day.

50 years ago on June 23, 1972, Title IX passed. The federal civil rights law prohibited sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that received federal funding.

It opened doors to places I never knew existed.

Pillars of ISU Melinda Fischer, Linda Herman, Jill Hutchison

Illinois State University's legendary coaches, Linda Herman (30 plus years as esteemed volleyball coach and administrator) and Jill Hutchison (28 years at the helm of women’s basketball and also a successful international level coach) among others, played a major role in Title IX’s passage and assured its implementation for female athletes.

This June 25, 2022, ISU led the nation again by honoring the pioneers in its Title IX 50th Anniversary Celebration.

In 1976, I was one of the first females to be awarded an athletic scholarship to ISU. Back then, I didn’t even know what a scholarship was. No one realized the profound impact Title IX would have on our lives.

Today young female athletes grow up dreaming of being recruited and receiving athletic scholarships and all its perks just like their male counterparts.

During my visit back to the ISU campus for the first time in decades, I was blown away by the accommodations for female Redbird athletes including the opportunity to prepare in the state of the art Jill Hutchison Women’s Basketball Locker Room and play in Redbird Arena, 10, 200 seat capacity.

Many athletes of the current generation never heard of Title IX nor appreciate how we got here. ISU reminded us of the sacrifices in our journey by honoring the pioneers who paved the way

Linda and Jill opened the event by narrating a video of outlining the development of women’s collegiate sport back from the days when women sewed their own uniforms and drove campus station wagons cross country to compete until present times.

We heard firsthand how Title IX shaped the lives of ISU alumni like basketball star Cathy Boswell, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, to Jaci McCormick, a Native American player from the Nez Perce Reservation. Jaci went on to co found Rise Above, an organization that uses basketball to promote wellness on reservations.

Speakers also included Melinda Fischer, a former 3 sport athlete, basketball and softball coach with the winningest record at ISU and in the Missouri Valley Conference and Angie Taylor, who after a record-setting career in track and field became an illustrious international and collegiate coach. She also developed programs for Nigerian track and field teams.

Still others on the panel shared how they took the foundation and philosophy built at ISU and passed it on as coaches and administrators.

I was humbled and honored to be invited to speak and the share the stage with these legends. Most of you who follow my column know my story.

Basketball took me from ISU, to the women’s first pro league (WBL), to France, Germany and Switzerland. In the late 70s, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) failed, but we helped give birth to the WNBA in 1996.

After my American pro team went bankrupt, I flew to Paris as one of the 1st American women in European Basketball League, playing first in France and then in Germany.

When my player’s career ended instantly in a car accident abroad, I became a teacher and coach at international schools. For the next 3 decades I served as an ambassador of the game in Europe, guiding athletes from around the globe, first in France, then in Switzerland.

“No person in the United States shall,

on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in,

be denied the benefits of, or be subjected

to discrimination under any education program

or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Many of the players I coached pursued higher degrees before returning to their homelands to fight for social justice.

When I was a kid, women were banned from the playing fields. I didn’t know any female doctors, lawyers or CEOs.

We fought for the right to play ball and paved the way for our high-flying daughters today.

My own daughter, who I coached in Switzerland, came to USA where she played in a DIII Final 4 for UWSP, studied 11 years and reached her dream to become a pediatrician.

Many of our present day contemporaries never heard our history. I wrote Home Sweet Hardwood, A Title IX Trailblazer Breaks Barriers Through Basketball, to give a voice to the silent generation of women who battled so hard for the rights we have today.

Jill and Linda and other dedicated pioneers put together an amazing weekend to celebrate our past, to educate, and to inspire the next generation.

We can’t know who we are if we don’t know where we came from.

We are indebted to women who came before us .

From the sideline to Showtime! Thanks to Title IX, a girl grows up never questioning her right to be all she can be.

Happy Father’s Day to Title IX Dads Who Helped Us Make History

Happy Father’s Day to Title IX Dads Who Helped Us Make History

“What was it like making history becoming the first athletic scholarship recipient at Illinois State University during the groundbreaking implementation of Title IX?” asked journalists from my alma mater.

“You can’t know you are making history,”I said, “while it’s being made.”

It felt like another day. No one noticed back then.

Fifty years ago, no one could fathom the impact the passage of Title IX made in opening doors. This June 23, we celebrate the profound changes this amendment provided by mandating equal opportunity for women in education and sport. We applaud the sacrifices of those who came before us.

We wouldn’t be here with out our dads, too. Many fathers of that era have passed on, but they were there when we needed them. They taught us how to throw balls, catch passes and get up after being knocked down at a time in society when girls were supposed to sit and cheer, not play on the field and fight back.

My dad shaped my life. When I see him, I remind him again of his impact.

“Dad, remember all those hours we spent at the gym, all the baskets you rebounded for me.”

Dad, easily distracted in old age, suddenly focused, raised his right hand, cocked his wrist and he repeated the litany I grew up with. “Elbow in, ball in fingertips, follow through. Bend knees. Remember your power comes from your legs…”

“You made me a great ball player,” I said. “We thought we were shooting hoops, but we were making history. You taught me how to shoot a lay up, fake and drive, and swish a jump shot; I was ahead of other girls of my time.”

I became a prolific shooter, the first female athletic scholarship recipient at Illinois State University, a draftee into the first women’s professional basketball league, and one of first Americans to star overseas on European teams.

“It started with you, Dad. Believing in me. A girl!”

“I bet I taught you how to play all the ball games,” Dad said and chuckled.

“Yep, you showed me how to throw a football, pitch a softball, spike a volleyball. You broke the rules and taught me all the things girls weren’t supposed to be doing back in the 60s and 70s. Because you did, I never doubted that I had the right to be there in the gym like the boys.”

“As a coach at Sterling High School, you also provided opportunities for the next generation of female athletes including your youngest daughter. You guided her Golden Girls basketball team to the first Illinois High School Association (IHSA) state championship in 1977.”

“When I could no longer play,” I reminded him, “I became a good coach, just like you. I coached daughters and sons of world leaders who went on to fight for social justice in their homelands as civil rights lawyers, international diplomats, and medical practitioners. One of those girls I coached was your granddaughter, who became the first doctor in our family, a pediatrician.”

A half of century is a long time. Attitudes change slower than laws. For decades, many women, coaches, and administrators fought for equal funding - equipment, uniforms, gym space - and a place at the table.

We have a ways to go, but we are getting closer. It began with dads, like you, who believed that little girls could, should and would play ball one day.

Happy Father’s Day, Title IX Dad.

Thanks for the game

Living in 1800s Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains Switzerland

Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains SwitzerlandSurviving in our rustic little chalet chiseled out of the side of the Jura Mountains, a few miles from the French border, is challenging as we adjust to living in the 1800s.

In the morning I shiver under my duvet, while Gerald cleans out ashes and then starts a fire in our burning stove, which holds two, foot long logs at a time and provides our main heat.Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains Switzerland

From the outside our chalet looks cute, but inside I feel like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Nothing fits. I bump into furniture and hit my head on low hanging beams. The Swiss were short especially at the turn of the century.

A stone wall divides the main room, the size of box car, into a kitchen and living area. Our refrigerator is the size of one like in a college dormitory. Ditto for the freezer squeezed under the stairwell.

Fortunately, we have indoor plumbing at least downstairs. Our water closet, the size of a telephone booth, is as cold as an out house. If you perch too long on the porcelain stool, which feels like squatting on a block of ice, you end up chiseling icicles from your bottom.

Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains SwitzerlandThe staircase, so steep and narrow, must be navigated sideways and leads to 2 bedrooms. In our bedroom, the antique armoires are too narrow to hang things, so I rolled up our clothes and stored them in baskets under our bed.

Knotty pine walls and a wood beamed ceiling make it cozy. Two shuttered windows overlook the little red train track, where a 2 car train shuttles workers, skiers, hikers up and down from the mountains to Nyon in the valley.

The other room upstairs, used as a make shift office, has a bunkbed piled with junk awaiting our move. Between the rooms an open area with a ladder, gives access to an attic that we never enter for fear of stirring up ghosts or wild animals.

Upstairs, lacks plumbing. I cannot safely navigate the stairs a dozen times a night to the bathroom. Instead, I use a porta potty balancing on a crate in the closet sized nook at the top of the stairs. The seat, sized to accommodate a toddler’s butt, is so tiny, I fear I’ll tumble head first down stairs every time I pee.

Like in Laura Ingall’s Little House on the Prairie, in order to survive the winter, a local lumberjack dropped a truckload of timber outside our door. We stack 3 cords, a ton and half, of wood in precise neat piles like Jenga blocks. Now I understand why Swiss make wood piles so tidy. It’s to keep them from rolling down the mountainside.

Chores are endless living in the past century. Like laundry. I wash 5 articles at a time in our miniature machine. Then like pancakes on a griddle, I flip socks, long johns and t-shirts on racks in front of the wood burning stove.

We don’t have a phone line or TV, but we can access Netflix - limited over here - so we watch any international series available. We followed Scandinavian murder mysteries, Spanish dramas, Italian comedies. Last night, so desperate for entertainment, we tuned into an Egyptian soap opera with French subtitles.

But when I wake up in the morning and throw open my shutters, the view of sun rising above the evergreen covered mountainside is inspiring.

Part of the reason for moving here was for this… to drop right down smack dab in nature when walk outside our door.

We are living in a scene from Heidi.

The only way we could get closer to nature would be by camping out. Sometimes I think we are.

Bittersweet Pain Saying Goodbye to Family Home

How do you say goodbye to the house you fell in love with at first sight, where you raised a family, enjoyed a career, and appreciated the view outside each window?

We watched the sun rise over the Alps from the bedroom and living room and saw it set behind the Jura Mountains from the guest room and kitchen.

Here, we endured a quarter of a century of job pressures, personal losses, individual triumphs, petty arguments, home improvement projects.

We watched our children grow up shooting baskets in front of the carport and throwing footballs in the backyard across from golden rape seed fields. We commemorated birthdays and holidays, celebrated championships and graduations, and turned every visit from family and friends into a party.

We savored French favorites dining in front of winter fires and relished summer backyard barbecues, watching sailboats drift across the lake and the clouds float over the mountain range in the ever changing light.

Like our son said, “if only you could take the view with you.”

We sang and danced and played our way through our children’s growing up years. We read the Bernstein Bears, BoxCar Children, and Babysitter Club with grade schoolers, listened to Backstreet Boys and Beyonce with preteens, and watched Friends and The Wire with high schoolers.

When the kids went outside to play on the paved paths intersecting the farmers’ fields, we knew they could ride scooters, bikes and roller blade safely without the danger of speeding cars and deadly guns.

Many years ago, we boxed up the Electric Train Set, Play Mobile Toys, and Beanie Babies to donate. Instead they gathered dust under the stairwell because we could not bear to part with them.

In the process of packing up, we discovered memories tucked away in every attic nook, closet shelf and basement cupboards.

Our house, a compact twin, built on 3 levels, was big enough to store them all.

It was a quirky place. The master bathroom, bigger than the kitchen, had purple bathroom tiles and a tub big enough to swim in. Fifteen stairs between each flight kept us so fit, we never needed to join a health club. The hallway upstairs, which held 3 book shelves, was wide enough for a dining table

We never interior decorated. Yet each photograph and painting held special significance. Dad’s clown face paintings brightened the kids room and his landscapes enlightened the living room. Mom’s cross stitched wall hanging and homemade curtains made us think of family far away.

Cutlery, wine glasses and cooking-ware from Gerald’s folks, along with traditional French recipes, reminded us that the kitchen is the heart of the home.

I’ll never forget walking down the stairs from our bedroom and greeting Mt. Blanc every morning or seeing our son sliding across the hallway in his stocking feet every night.

I will always remember hollering downstairs to wake up our teenage daughter, who adored the independence of a basement room, like I once did.

The sound of a basketball bouncing outside my kitchen window became the background beat measuring our days.

We bid farewell not only to a house, but to our neighborhood, to our international school, to the time of our lives when so much happened, so fast, we wish could turn back time for a moment just once to sit the bench for one more ball game.

It’s been a good house.

It sheltered our souls from crushing setbacks, helped us endure painful transitions, warmed our hearts with good times and gave us the space to learn to forgive and go forward.

Here, we survived heartbreaks and disappointments. We healed from a broken collar bone, an ankle, 2 fingers and umpteen sprains, and recovered illness - pneumonia, mononucleous,viruses. We recovered from accidents, learned to get back up and to keep going.

Our house offered comfort and warmth, shelter and shade.

How do you say goodbye to the home that shaped you?

You don’t. You take it with you.

Every memory, every souvenir, every remembrance.