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.

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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

86th Birthday Mom’s Child raising Advice Still Spot On

Even though I have lived abroad for nearly 4 decades, due to covid making travel from Europe impossible, I couldn’t be with my mom at the family cabin to celebrate her birthday for the first time ever.

Fortunately, last Christmas before we heard of social distancing and couldn’t begin to imagine a pandemic separating us from loved ones, my daughter gave her gift called, Storyworth, a computer program to record photographs and memories. My mom, Lenore, is having fun recapturing wonderful memories, recording history of days gone by and creating a priceless treasure for generations to come. Every week, Storyworth sends a question to trigger her memories and she writes her answer and sends it back to them to be published into a book. https://welcome.storyworth.com/

With the covid epidemic and no timeline for when we will be able see loved ones again, discovering family history, recording historical events and reconnecting with long distance relatives reminds us we need our stories more than ever to suture those connections between generations .

Lenore was only 19 years old and just graduating with her elementary education degree, when she began raising a family, 4 children within a span of 6 years. This was back in the day before child raising gurus and the self help motherhood books were popular. When her last little one went off to school, l my mom went back to the classroom, too, where she taught kindergarten for 25 years.

Lenore instilled the love of stories in me. First she read storybooks to me and later passed on that love to her grandchildren

As we reminisce on the phone and my mom tells her stories, I realize that although I flew far from the nest long ago, her philosophy of life has always been a part of me. Today, her reflections on raising children are still spot on, so I wanted to share her answer to the Storyworth question of this week.

“What is the best advice you would give about raising children?”

“The best advice I would give about raising children would be to love your child unconditionally, appreciate their uniqueness and know there is NO such thing as a “perfect parent”. The best parents are always willing to learn, change and improve their skills as well as allow their child to take small risks and let them make decisions on their own. That means there will be falls, scrapes and injuries”.

“Let your parent strategies build on mutual respect and a natural drive to get through the day smoothly. Be patient and persuade your child to calm down and cooperate. Work toward self discipline and allow them failure because a child will learn from his/her mistakes. Think of yourself as your child’s trusted and effective guide, not their dictator. Learn what is age appropriate so you won’t be expecting too much or too little.”

”Let them know how very precious he/she is to you and how much you love them. Tell them what it is you love about them. Enjoy every stage because time goes very fast. Encourage and praise and when very young (toddler age) try using distraction to avoid always saying No! Be playful and especially loving when (the child is) having a “meltdown” if possible. Remember you will make mistakes and that is OK. It is best if both parents agree and stand firm.”

My sister, who is a kindergarten teacher, wants to share this with her parents. My daughter, a pediatrician, imparts that message to the families she works with and in my role as a mother, teacher and coach it was the principles with which I tried to guide my charges.

As a young mother, my mom was wise beyond her years and even now on her 86th birthday she is sharp enough to continue imparting that wisdom. Her message is timeless. It shaped my life. It shaped the lives of my children. And it will probably continue to influence the way my eldest niece raises my mom’s first great grandchild.

Punting in Cambridge To Celebrate Special Occasions

When my son’s British fiancé told us we were celebrating their engagement by going punting in Cambridge, I imagined kicking the pigskin around a ballpark. But the English don’t play American football. Then I thought it must have something to do with rugby, as her brother-in-law is an avid rugby man.

Well, what a surprise! Punting has nothing to do with playing ball on a pitch (field), but instead involves a boat on a river.

Imagine skimming across the water in a “punt.” Picture a Venetian gondola that is shaped like a flat-bottomed, mini-barge.

In Cambridge punting along River Cam leads you past the famous colleges of the University of Cambridge. Founded as far back as 800 years ago, each contains its own history, architecture and stories.

The punt, dating back to medieval times, allowed navigation in shallow water areas. Until recently commercial fishermen used punts to work the fens of East Anglia. In 1870 punting for pleasure began, becoming more common in the 1900s and today is considered a part of the Cambridge experience.

A person navigates by standing on the till (known as the deck) at the back, not paddling, but poling. It looks easy. It’s not. Imagine trying to propel a dozen hefty passengers forward by pushing off the river bottom with a pole vault stick.

Poles, usually made of spruce 12-16 feet long, have a shoe, a rounded lump of metal on one end in the shape of swallow’s tail. Without a rudder, the punt is difficult to steer and the pole can get stuck in the river bottom.

Our next dilemma was who was going to pole the punt?

I assumed David would guide us down the River Cam, but sidelined by a rugby injury, he couldn’t even bend his knee enough to climb into the boat.

Fortunately Larissa and her sister, Charlotte, had the foresight to barter for tickets that included a guide. From the Quayside Punting Station near Magdalene Bridge, we clambered into the low seats of the punt.

Like a modern day Huck Finn, a handsome, young man in khakis and a white shirt stood in the stern grasping his pole. In the voice of a great orator, he recounted the history and legends surrounding the colleges of Cambridge during our 45-minute ride up one side of the Cam and then down the other.

“The Backs refers to a one-mile stretch past the rear sides of some of England’s most prestigious and oldest universities,” our guide said. “A few of the famous colleges, which we will be passing include Trinity College, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546; Trinity Hall, where scientist Stephen Hawking studied; and St. Johns College, which was attended by poet William Wordsworth.”

Along the riverbank people dined at outdoor cafes, college co-eds lounged on lush lawns under weeping willows and boatloads of tourists drank beer celebrating the arrival of spring. A carnival like atmosphere prevailed. Punting was like being in an amusement park on bumper boat ride and sure enough another boat slammed into our side, jarring my back.

While the skilled college guides maneuvered between boats, amateur punters spun in circles and crashed into other vessels.

“On your right is St. John’s,” our guide said, “one of the oldest and most celebrated colleges in Cambridge.”

As we passed under the city’s famous Bridge of Sighs, named after the one in Venice, the scene felt surreal.

When we opened champagne and raised our glasses to Nic and Larissa, I thought, what are the odds of small town girl from Illinois marrying a French boy from Normandy and raising a Franco-American son who’s falls in love with a beautiful English/Irish-Ukrainian girl.

How extraordinary the fate uniting our families as we celebrate toasting to their future by punting in Cambridge.

Fell into Jackson Hole for a Week of Fun

Jackson Hole

Mormon Row

When I was a kid I wanted to be a cowboy so badly that I wore saddle shoes until high school thinking they had something to do with horses and the Wild West. Last July 4th, I fell into Jackson Hole and landed in the cowboy country of my childhood dreams.

The name hole, which means valley, refers to a sumptuous valley 48 miles long and between 8 and 15 miles wide, surrounded by spectacular mountain ranges. The area in the northwest corner of Wyoming is known as “the last and best of the Old West.” And mercy be, I felt like cowgirl just being here.

Jackson Hole

Downtown Jackson Hole

Jackson, settled in 1894, was established when homesteaders staked out land and struggled to eek out a living in the rugged land. The town, retaining its old charm in wooden boardwalks along Western store fronts, boasts of 80 different eateries, bi-weekly rodeos, chuck wagon shows, shoot outs and a Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, but the land itself is the biggest draw.

Situated at the gateway to Yellowstone and Grand Teton Parks the local population of 23,000 expands during summer and winter ski season to accommodate 4 million visitors every year.

If you are a cowgirl at heart like me, you will want to check out the not so touristy spots that reveal the history of west like Mormon Row, where Mormons established homesteads in the late 1800s known as Gros Ventre.

Jackson Hole

Menor’s general store

Just inside Grand Teton park, you can visit Menor’s Ferry, the area homesteaded by Bill Menor in 1892-94. Menor ran a river ferry crossing the Snake River near the present-day Moose, Wyoming. You can visit the restored home, barn, store, and ice sheds. Stepping into the white washed log store with artifacts from the turn of the century like sarsaparilla bottles make you feel like you are stepping into the past century.

Jackson Hole

inside the Historical Society Museum

Another overlooked spot may be The Historical Society Museum in Jackson Hole, which shows small displays of artifacts from Jenny Leigh homesteaders’ settlers’ life and details of Native American history.

No trip to the Wild West would be complete without a Wrangler show and Bar J Chuckwagon supper show serves up a real treat re enacting the cattle drive chuck wagon tents of yesteryear. Bar J cowboys, who have performed nationwide, serenade guests and tell jokes while you dine on simple, wholesome fare – steaks, BBQ chicken and beef, baked potato, apple sauce, biscuit and sheet cake washed down with coffee or lemonade. Walking through the chow line while cowboys slap a steak on your tin tray makes you feel like you are dining at a cowboy camp.

Jackson Hole

Bar J cowboys performing

But by far the greatest drawing point is the park itself.

The true beauty of the land can be best seen by foot on the hundreds of miles of park trails that lope up and down and alongside the Grand Tetons.

So saddle up with me and hit the trail. Join me next week for a hike where we met up face to face with a bear and live to tell.

Opening Up About Depression – Mental Illness Awareness Week

DepressionMillions of people suffer from mental illness and I am one of them. Millions more are affected because a friend or loved one suffers from a disease that may be difficult to diagnose, and even harder to endure. This October 7-13th, under the theme of Cure the Stigma, the National Alliance on Mental Illness urges everyone to get involved because whether we are willing to admit it or not everyone is involved.

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In the US alone, one out of five adults and children will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.

Members of my extended family on both sides of the Atlantic have struggled with mental disorders. In addition to genetic factors, chronic illness, death of loved ones, natural disasters and traumatic stress, any extenuating circumstance can tip the fragile brain chemistry.

Mental IllnessThough anxiety and depression may be the most common disorders, there are dozens of others from personality disorders, PSTD, dissociative disorders, psychosis and schizophrenia to name just a few.

My maternal great grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, lost his 8-year-old daughter, when she died from an illness 2 weeks after arriving on Ellis Island. Three months later, his wife died giving birth to my grandmother. Living in a new country with no support system, he sank into a depression and never recovered.

Though perhaps part of my genetic make up, my depression is more likely a result of living with a chronic illness. Clinical depression will be triggered in an estimated one third of people with serious medical conditions especially in those with a biological vulnerability to a mood disorder.

Depression becomes a common component of diabetes, heart disease, lupus, fibromyalgia, Parkinson, cancer, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and others illnesses where reoccurring symptoms wreak havoc with one’s life. Some illnesses like Lyme neuroborreliosis, MS and other inflammatory diseases attack brain tissue. With no cure in sight, the end result can be a spiral of despair.

Ever the athlete, I blamed myself. I thought that I should be mentally tougher and physically stronger to overcome the pain, illness and depression, but self-blame serves no purpose.

The toxic stigma associated with mental illness causes shame and fear. Many people continue to suffer in silence preventing them from seeking help.Mental Illness

Eventually through research, I finally found a doctor who could treat my medical condition, which greatly improved my mental state. I sought solace on-line in the words of strangers, who were coping with the same nightmare disease.

Even though chronic illness has no quick fix, knowledge can be empowering. The more I understand my disease, the better I was able to accept and learn to live within the limitations it puts on my life.

Society scorns vulnerability, so we hide our weaknesses and suffer in silence.

Many illnesses involve stigma and shame, especially mental illness. Don’t buy into it. The only people who truly know what you are going through are those people who suffer from or live with a loved one who is suffering from a mental disorder.

Pain, suffering, and a sense of hopeless zaps our energy, so take baby steps to bring you peace. If you are the caretaker give yourself a break. If you are the patient take a time-out. Walk in the woods, work in your garden, read a good book, watch a funny movie, stretch your limbs.

So many times I have felt like I cannot go on. When I can bear it no longer, I cry. Then I pick myself up off the floor and go back to battle. On my worst days, I don’t look too far ahead. I tell myself I only have to make it through the next few moments. Then minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, I survive.Mental Illness

You will too because you still have so much to offer your family, your friends, your community!

Reach out. Speak up. Help Cure Stigma.

You are not alone.

Nostalgia for Teaching and Things Kids Say

Nostalgia for Teaching After retiring two years ago, the thing I miss most about teaching is the kids especially in September when it’s back to school time. Even on my worst days, students would say or do something to make me smile.

Once my adult daughter came to help me at basketball practice and when I introduced her to my young athletes one of them exclaimed, “Wow, you look just like your sister!”

Another time years before the age of retirement, my sixth grade student ran from the primary building to the gym. She loved PE.

“You look just like my grandma!” she blurted out with a huge smile of enthusiasm

Taken aback for I never considered myself the age of a grandma, I foolishly asked,

“Really? How old is your grandma?”

“Seventy-five like you. Tall and fit. And she still plays basketball every week.”

Go, granny go.

I burst out laughing. Should I be insulted that she saw me as old enough to be a granny or proud to know she considers me fit enough to still play my favorite game?

Another day a graduating student told me she remembers having me in first grade PE. Ah yes, in my early days at our school I had to teach every grade between year one and twelve.

I taught long enough to be one of the elders. When students I had in class returned to our campus to for student teacher training, I felt proud. This year one of my best student/athletes returned to school to teach and now coaches with me.

Nostalgia for Teaching Students also offer some of the sweetest gifts of appreciation.

One of my favorites was handmade – sort of. A boy gave me a plastic Scandinavian Airline travel pouch used by under age children when traveling unaccompagnied. In permanent black marker he wrote on the front of it – Old Timer Comin’ Through. Now every time I fly I carry my passport, glasses and blindfold in that bag on a lanyard around my neck. As I wait in the endless security check lines, I think of my former student – now at Cambridge – and chuckle.

Chalkboards are obsolete now replaced by white boards, electronic tablets and laptop computers. Over the years the means of communication changed immensely.

This one was one of the funniest notes from a student that I worked with in the learning support department, which became a safe haven for so many including me.

The way we connect may change, but the message remains the same. Teachers do make a difference. Every. Day.