Coach McKinzie, A College Ball Field, Teammates ‘til the End of Time

Coach Mac - 1950

Coach Mac – 1950

Anyone affiliated with sport knows that team connections can last lifetimes; lessons learned on the field have an everlasting impact. I witnessed this with the teams I played for and coached. However few teams can compare to the extraordinary bond created by the 1950-51 back-to-back Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship baseball team that my grandfather coached at Northern Illinois University.

At that time no one could imagine that seven decades later those same ball players would stay in contact, reuniting annually to play golf, swap stories over a meal and commemorate their time as Huskies playing baseball for Coach Mac. “The tradition has gone on for 40 some years,” Grant Cummings, an outfielder, said, “We have been getting together for so long no one can remember when we held our first of the first reunions.”

“We revered your grandpa,” Bill Eiserman, First Team All Interstate Athletic Conference catcher and captain, told me. “We won a lot of games, but he taught us that being a good person is more important than winning. He built character.”

“He taught a lot of lessons,” Bill continued. “But that was the greatest. I tried to impart that in all the teams that I coached. Everybody loves to win – not every team has the talent to win – but everyone can still take that valuable lesson away from the game.”

McKinzie, a seven time Hall of Fame Coach served as head basketball coach where he also won 3 state conferences in 8 years, before becoming head baseball coach. He also served as tennis, track and field coach, as well as an assistant football coach and athletic trainer at NIU from 1940-63. Though he officially retired from NIU in 1963, he continued coaching football into his nineties at his own alma mater, Eureka College.

Every year until my grandpa’s death at the age of 96, my dad, a dedicated son also part of that team, made sure Coach Mac made it to the annual baseball reunion.

NIU-baseball-team-1950-51

NIU-baseball-team-1950-51

Once a year the guys rally past personal setbacks, the loss of loved ones, and limitations due to declining health, to gather in celebration of not so much their ol’ double plays and home runs, but to honor the memory of the coach who shaped their lives and the camaraderie that developed under his leadership.

“Every spring we drove down to New Orleans for a tournament, stopping to play games along the way,” Cummings told me, a trip that I found remarkable for that time period.

“I wasn’t a drinker,” my dad said, “so I ordered a coke on our night out on the town. The guys still razz me; my coke cost more than those fancy cocktails everybody else was drinking.”

Typically, college stadiums are named for big-time alumni donors. My grandpa, son of a tenet farmer, lived modestly even donating his coaching salary back to Eureka College in his later years. He never made a fortune coaching, but he sure made friends.

In the late 80s, fueled by Bill Eiserman, Jack Brumm, Bud Nangle, former SID at NIU, and including the support of my grandpa’s Eureka College football player, President Ronald Reagan, the 1950-51 NIU team instigated naming the NIU baseball diamond, Ralph McKinzie Field. Mike Korcek, who can still recount the win-loss record of every team during his tenure as NIU’s sports information director, and Cary Groth, one of the first female large college athletic directors were also instrumental in the process.

On May 8, 1993, at the dedication ceremonies, my dad threw the game-opening pitch. “Poor Bill scooped my pitch out of the dirt,” my dad said and chuckled. “Bill kept me from looking bad, my pitch never made it cross the plate. I was an outfielder, not a pitcher.”

NIU Hall of Fame induction 10.10.2007 Front-Kranz, Moreno, Brumm, Neukirch, Giudici, Meath, Leon, Eiserman Back-Davis, McKinzie, Wasco, Cummings, Stap, Bedrosian

NIU Hall of Fame induction 10.10.2007
Front-Kranz, Moreno, Brumm, Neukirch, Giudici, Meath, Leon, Eiserman
Back-Davis, McKinzie, Wasco, Cummings, Stap, Bedrosian

My grandpa won countless honors; the NIU baseball field and Eureka College football field bear his name. But accolades aside, what made my Coach Mac proudest, was seeing what kind of men his players became.

Each member of the 1950-51 NIU team became successful in his own field, as high school and college teachers, coaches and athletic directors and exemplary civic leaders in business and education.

My grandpa also played a key role in my life. I miss him to this day, so I find comfort knowing his name lives on in the hearts of his former athletes.

These ol’ ball players have done him proud in turn by serving their family, community and country. The field may bear Ralph McKinzie’s name, but it carries the spirit of the 1950-51 ball team.

Athletes that step up to the plate at NIU today have no idea who Coach Mac was, still I hope that my grandpa’s moral standards seep into their souls through the diamond dust on that field of dreams.

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Where are all our heroes?

Jackie Robinson, a true heroe from yesteryears

Jackie Robinson, a true hero from yesteryear

When I asked my freshman English class students who they admired most, they said themselves. This should come as no surprise from the Millennial Generation but still, folks my age wonder. When pressed isn’t there anyone they look up to? My students confessed, “No we don’t have heroes.”

Is it no wonder? Sports icons fall short. The most reputable coach in football, the late Papa Joe Patterno fell off his pedestal when he covered up pedophilia at Penn State, tarnishing his record.

Lance Armstrong was stripped of 7 Tour de France medals for performance enhancing drug usage. Apparently, he did not defy odds as a human miracle beating cancer then rising to top of his game again.

Tiger Woods, following in the footsteps of political icons like Bill Clinton, French DSK, Italian Berlusconi, cheated on his wife, and then lied about it under oath. Classy.

American athletes are not the only ones disappointing the public. Around the globe, similar headlines make the front page. In a traditionally clean sport, French handball stars were charged with game fixing. Every time a European soccer idol breaks a record, another one makes the headlines for spouse abuse, drugs, or gambling. South African hero, Paralympics’ poster child, Oscar Pistorius was accused of murdering his girlfriend model, Reeva Steenkamp.

Politicians? Un huh, the very nature of the job makes their integrity questionable.

Surprisingly, you don’t hear about women cheating in relationships, business deals, or sports. You still just don’t hear much about women. Period. Especially athletic women. Title IX did not stipulate equal media coverage, which is still lacking, only 8% of media coverage is about women. Are athletic women yet to capture media eye? Or maybe women are less likely to make the same poor decisions?

Unfortunately, the media does find female athletes newsworthy when scandal arrives. Former WNBA star, Chamique Holdsclaw, one of the best female basketball players of all time, was arrested in a domestic dispute. In a rags to riches tale, this ghetto girl made it big at Tennessee winning 3 consecutive titles. She was the first female athlete recruited to go professional while still in college because the opportunity was available. Now her life accomplishments will be tarnished by scandal after she assaulted her ex girlfriend Jennifer Lacy, Tulsa Shock player.

Bad press for the WNBA, which gets only limited print. The articles never mentioned Chamique’s underlying psychological issues – depression and attempted suicide in 2006 – revealed in her autobiography. For all her accolades on the hardwood, as a gay, black, inner-city female basketball player the cards were stacked against her. What I am wondering is why only scandal makes the headlines?

Like Suzi Favor Hamilton, the world class run runner from Wisconsin, a wife and mom, who doubled as a high flying call girl. She made “breaking news” which by the way, ran in Swiss newspapers with full-page photo layout, no less.

So who can we admire?

Famous people are under suspicion, as if fame itself corrupts or perhaps the money behind it. Maybe our children should ignore the big names, and instead emulate everyday role models.

A favorite educator, a respected coach, a kind neighbor. Little people tackle the mundane jobs of keeping kids on track without 6 digit salaries, 5 car garages, million dollar shoe endorsements, thousand dollar speaking appearances and Oprah interviews.

Hear! Hear! For the teachers, coaches, moms, dads, grandmas.

How about featuring one of those stars the headlines? What do you think?

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Reinventing Myself, Growing Stronger in Spirit

Women'sBasketball_Mar1978_K29V-3-78_ACCESSAs a child in the Land of Lincoln, I grew up emulating Wilt the Stilt, the 7-foot African American NBA star, and dreamed that one day girls would be allowed to play basketball. As a first generation Title IX athlete, I came of age in 1972 along with the law that revolutionized women’s sports by mandating equal opportunity for girls in publicly funded schools.

I fought so hard to be recognized as an athlete that it didn’t seem fair that my professional team in the USA declared bankruptcy, my French club banned foreigners, and when I finally found a home playing ball in Germany, a car accident ended my career in instant.

I have fought back from broken bones, shattered dreams and dashed hopes and cried a river of tears over lost abilities. I never ran down court again; instead, I paced on the sideline as a coach.

When I was growing up, I dreamed of having five children, a whole starting line-up.  I carried two babies safely into the world, but lost three en route.  Instead of becoming bitter, I did what my grandfather and father did, I coached other people’s kids.

When my professional basketball career ended, I intended to run marathons, climb mountains, sail the seas, but with busted knees, a wrecked back and bad karma, my body failed me.  So instead I teach teenagers, read books, navigate the Internet.

And I rewrite my story. One. Word. At. A. Time.

I intended to conquer the world straight up, instead I spend an inordinate amount of time flat on my back. I can no longer run, jump, play, but ever the athlete, I still walk, swim, stretch.IMG_2184

Every morning as I face a new day, I pray for strength, patience, resilience, faith, and hope. Faith abides. Hope trumps all. Hope endures.

Pain makes me set my jaw, as my eyes become glassy with anxiety. How long will it last? How can I minimize the intensity? Pain interrupts my best-laid plans and interferes with my long held dreams. Pain rules.

Yet I roll out of bed every morning and move. One. Step. Forward.

Chronic pain may subside temporarily, but it comes back to haunt me. Over time it wears down resistance, breaks spirit, zaps energy, steals joy, robs the soul.

With pain as a partner, only a fine line separates triumph and despair. A warm hug, a strong handshake, a kind word makes all the difference. I reach out to my global community in Switzerland for inspiration drawing strength from the student who greets me with a genuine grin, the colleague who offers a cup of tea, the sister who calls long distance just to say, “thinking about you today.”

Endurance is an attitude. In spite of setbacks and losses, I am in this for the long haul. Instead of focusing on myself, I concentrate on others. I write a note to the friend who lost her mother, I cheer for the girl who made a basket, and I console the student who failed his math exam.

Every time I am knocked to my knees AGAIN, I pray for the courage to keep on, keepin’ on.  I whisper my worries to the wind and shout thanks to the skies because I know without doubt,

“My peeps, got my back!”

Bring it on, LIFE!

The girl who dreamed of slam dunking, now lives above the rim, suspended in air over the Atlantic with one foot in both worlds.Image 33

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World’s Largest, Oldest International School Provides a Global Education

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courtesy of Ecolint

Too tall, too smart, too athletic as a girl I felt too big to squeeze into the gender constraints of the 60s until Title IX (1972) opened doors providing equal opportunity in education and sport in America’s schools. In pursuit of a dream once denied in my homeland, I moved abroad three decades ago. After a globetrotting athletic career, I found a home at the world’s oldest and largest international school at the Ecole Internationale de Genève (Ecolint), a bilingual school with instruction in French and English.

Founded in 1924, the school grew from its humble beginnings of 8 students, 3 teachers and a rabbit to  3 large campuses: La Grand Boissière and Campus des Nations (2005) in Geneva, and La Châtaigneraie (1970) in the Canton Vaud. Our 4,380 students represent a world record of 135 different nationalities speaking 84 different mother tongues.

“In 1920-1921, the League of Nations and the International Labour Office (ILO) established their headquarters in Geneva with staff drawn from many countries. This created the need to cater for students with a diversity of cultures preparing them for university education in their home countries.”

Our tenets are imbedded with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) theories of education.

Arthur Sweetser, an American war correspondent during WWI, who became the unofficial ambassador to the League of Nations (1919-39), advocated for international education in conjunction with Adolphe Ferriere and Elisabeth Rotten. Dr. Ludwig Rajchman (Poland), William Rappard, Rector of the University of Geneva, and Sir Arthur Salter, a senior official of the League of Nations were also involved in the creation of the school.

Another American, Robert Leach (1916-2004) a social studies teacher, became the father of the International Baccalaureate designed to help students develop their intellectual, personal, emotional, and social abilities. The acclaimed diploma, once considered a pie-in-the-sky idea, is now recognized worldwide. One million students are enrolled in its programs and over a 100,000 students sit the exams. Yet, few schools can match our school’s 96% graduation rate.

The Ecolint code we uphold that speaks loudest to me is Article 4 point 4 of our charter.

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courtesy of Ecolint

“The activity of school in all fields and especially in the field of pedagogy shall be based on the principles of equality and solidarity among all peoples and of the equal value of all human beings without any distinction of nationality, race, sex, language or religion.”

As Vicky Tuck, our General Director, states on our website, “We seek to give all our students the opportunity to experience a unique international education and to acquire the personal attributes, outlook and knowledge that will equip them to play an active part in the construction of tomorrow’s world.”

Many of our former students went onto make a global impact in the arts, sciences and diplomacy such as Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) former Prime Minister of India. Michael Douglas, an Oscar-winning and Emmy Award-nominated American actor and producer, Elizabeth Frank, Pulitzer Prize winning author: Norman Schwarzkopf  commander in chief of US and coalition troops, Operation Desert Storm, and Joakim Noah – NCAA division 1 basketball MVP of the final four 2006 and NBA star for the Chicago Bulls for the past 4 seasons, all have made an impact in their fields. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and Macalester College alumni, served on the Ecolint board from 1981-83.

Each day as I walk into a classroom filled with students reflecting faces of the world, I am humbled by the magnitude of our mission. Though I am the teacher, I learn just as much from by my global-minded students, who speak multiple languages, carry several passports and have lived on different continents before entering secondary school.

Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas meet on the campus' court

Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas meet on the campus’ court

As a Norwegian-American married to a Frenchman, raising our kids with an international education in the bucolic countryside of a neutral country was idyllic. Like so many of our alumni, my own children, one a pediatrician advocating for healthcare for underprivileged children in the St.Paul-Minneapolis area and the other an educator in the making, pay it forward in their own lives. Unlike students who attend school in homogenous communities, international education taught tolerance by exposing them to pupils of other cultural beliefs and traditions, who then became friends. Today, Nathalie understands her Somali refugee patients, and not only because she speaks French. Nic is especially sensitive to the needs of his African American, Hmong and Latino students.

Ecolint sets high standards for its staff and students in an attempt to uphold such lofty ideals in a tenuous time of world unrest and conflicting ideologies. We do our best to meet the challenge of contributing to a better world, one child at a time.

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Summer Memories Last A Lifetime

It is that bittersweet time of year when school starts and we must bid a fond farewell to summer. 2013 will be marked as one of the finest even though I am exhausted from the whirlwind of festivities.

  • Book tour in my hometown where I saw old neighbors, teachers, friends who touched my life at each stage of my childhood.
  • The wedding of my best friend’s daughter, a cosmopolitan girl that I taught, coached and mentored, the beautiful, marathon running, Community Wellness Director who married a charming dairy farmer in Winona Minnesota.
  • Special guest of the McKinzie family in Shaker Heights – my brother provided fascinating tours of Cleveland as he chauffeured me to my Senior National Games speaking engagements.
  • Connecting with basketball playing and promoting aficionados across the continents – NSWBA, NOVA United, NSAA – and the chance to be a part of the Senior National Games even though I am no longer physically able to compete.
  • The craziness of running a B & B on Summit Lake that caters to special diets, erratic schedules and the idiosyncrasies of 5 families, 3 generations and their various friends.
  • Endless hours swapping stories around a campfire, floating on the raft, sharing meals, laughing at Kizzie’s antics, reconnecting with loved ones and creating lifelong memories.
  • Swimming to the island with my 22 year-old-son and his college mates. Woo hoo, I can still keep up with the kids!
  • Commemorating passages, the loss of a dear family friend, a carpenter extraordinaire, who bought my grandparents ol’ boys camp preserving its history with every log.
  • Enduring ze Frenchman’s middle age crisis – the purchase of a new (used) boat, so he can ski with the kids. You go, G-Man.
  • Sixtieth wedding celebration of Jim and Lenore, a remarkable couple who I am blessed to have as parents.
  • The 50th anniversary of Little Camp Ney-A-Ti, our family cabin, a magical playground in the Northwoods where we put aside our problems to share the beauty of nature, the bond of family and the blessing of friendships.

As I look back on an extraordinary summer, I want to shout out my gratitude to family, friends, and folks who went out of their way to make my stay in the States so special.

The best part about living between worlds is that even though my heart is filled with sadness as I say farewell to folks back home, I can hear the mountains calling, see my students smiling, and feel my international community’s warm embrace. Welcome back to Switzerland, Missy Ex-Pat.

Granny’s Got Game

The real reward in speaking at the National Senior Games in Cleveland on behalf of the National Senior Basketball Association was not the chance to tell my tale, but to hear everyone else’s story.

One of the other speakers also was Angela Gorsica Alford, who played for the top-ranked women’s basketball team at Vanderbilt (1994-1997) and represented USA Basketball in international tournaments. She began her career as a software engineer for Motorola & Sony-Ericsson, and re invented herself after her children’s births by starting her own video production company in 2007.  A year ago, she launched Granny’s Got Game an inspiring documentary about the Fabulous 70s, a competitive senior women’s basketball team in North Carolina that battles physical limitations and social stigma to keep doing what they love. Who says girls can’t play ball? These grandmas defy age and gender stereotypes by dishing and driving into their seventies all the while racking up medals every step of the way. Liz still has an unstoppable, quick first step and Mary’s mastered a deadly left-handed hook.

“Just like so many younger sports teams, this one includes a bossy captain, a guard who never runs the plays correctly, a tentative post-player, and a bench warmer who wants to play more than anyone. As teammates and friends, they support each other off the court through the difficulties that accompany aging, such as breast cancer and widowhood.”

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Rose Boyd, Marilyn Asay, Bev Beck,Mary Ellen Philen, Brenda Taylor, Linda Burke

But the ladies I found most enchanting were the North Carolina women in the 65-69 category whose claim to fame was that they served as practice dummies for the fabulous 70s team featured in Granny’s Got Game.

« We helped them get good, » forward/center Marilyn Asay said.

In the gym, I watched the Scrappy Swishers from Raleigh fight. They had to be scrappy; they had no height.

The Swishers battled it out with the best of them even though one player (also the Fabulous 70s team coach) missed part of the basketball competition because she was off placing 3rd, the bronze medal in 65+ golf this year at the national games.

Members of the Swishers attended high school from 1958-62 (pre Title IX) and played 6-aside, 3 on each end of half court and were limited to only had 2 dribbles before they had to pass or shoot. A player was designated either a guard (defense) or forward (offense.)

« We resumed our basketball career after retirement at age 65 years. We hadn’t played for approximately 40 years, » Marilyn explained. «We are geographically ecumenical- Swishers recruited 2 players from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, who play with the team at local and state competitions. »

And get this.

« Two teammates host the team’s BBC (Beach Basketball Camp) twice each year, » Marilyn says with the enthusiasm of a teenager at a rock concert. « Our motto is fun, food, fellowship. Oh, and also practice, sun, sand, and surf.

During one of the Swishers games against the powerful Maine team, I watched Bev Beck all of 5-foot-2, 100 lbs. set a pick on a center twice her size for 72-year-old Marilyn who cut backdoor to the basket. The ladies huddled around Coach Angela at the time out and the referee gave also offered pointers. Every action reflected the spirit of the games. Fun, fitness, friendship, competition, comraderie, community.

While our present day sport stars are making the front page for domestic disputes, betting scandals and alleged homicides, our real heroes are playing ball in the shadows after having contributed to society as mothers, educators, hard workers, and beloved community members.

Like the filmy subtitle claims, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”

Give me five, Granny. You may be wearing support hose, knee braces and platinum hips, but you still got game!

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