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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

Happy 90th Birthday to my Pioneer Dad

If I pursued a career unheard of for women, moved abroad and rewrote my script after my dream collapsed in an accident, it is because of you, my pioneer dad, who believed in me every step of the way.

I inherited the McKinzie iron will, a drive to pursue lofty ideals in spite of obstacles.

In the controversial years of Title IX’s infancy, when girls and ball games were non compatible entities, your adamant belief in women’s right to participate in sports would empower all your daughters. Especially me.

Fifty years ago, dads teaching daughters jump shots were anomalies. Fathers discouraged daughters from playing ball games society deemed unladylike.

Yet, you fought for equal rights and shaped values in the athletes you mentored during your 33-year career at Sterling High School where you earned the affectionate title of Papa Mac while racking up Illinois’ 1st ever girls state basketball championship title, a 3rd place finish and an Elite Eight appearance. But what made you proudest was seeing how your athletic “daughters” grew up to contribute to society as principals, teachers and leading members of their communities.

No one felt your influence more greatly than me. When my slender frame took a beating on basketball courts at ever elite levels, you never said, “You’re too small to go pro.” Instead you helped develop my potential. When my American pro team folded, I stated, “I’m going to France to play.”

“What if you get hurt?” You tried your darnest to dissuade me. Then after the shock subsided, you offered your support and returned to the gym to rebound.

When I announced, “I’m engaged to a Frenchman,” you were the first to accept a foreigner into the family and remained my most faithful correspondent, sending manila envelopes to Europe. Rather than disowning me, you sacrificed time and money to make 18 trips across the Atlantic to be part of your gandchildren’s lives.

Though you never visited Scotland, the home of your fore-bearers, it is as if clan bloodlines transcended generations. Like your father and forefathers, you became a leader of men and women. You taught us a code of honor, respect for our fellowman, and fierce loyalty toward family.

Our resilient constitution, strength of character, love of nature, and reverence for honest work may have been virtues passed on from our ancestry, but we developed them by modeling your behavior in a life where you treated everyone equal.

As the head of our McKinzie clan, you set the finest example of what it means to be an honorable leader, a strong chief, and a benevolent father.

I grew up during an era when athletic girls felt shunned without role models. You encouraged me to be myself even when it meant being different and pursuing a career usually sought by men.

It was not easy being a modern day daughter, marrying a Frenchman and raising children abroad. Nor was it easy to be an up-to-date dad, whose dedicated coaching developed the talent that took his daughter away.

I was a selfish, smart-aleck kid; you were too overprotective. You grew up under the “work ethic” when it was a man’s world, only, yet you learned to accept a modern, do-it-herself daughter who lived by the “experience ethic.”

You leaned right; I left. Too much alike in temperament and too different in ideologies to always get along, yet our differences, spurred growth. I loved you enough to let you be a blundering father. You let me be a belligerent daughter. Through headstrong outbursts, we learned to compromise, to live modern dreams without losing old-fashioned values.

You were not a perfect dad, nor I, a perfect daughter. But our love was.

You taught me to shoot a jump shot, swim a lake, drive a car, balance a checkbook, but the greatest lesson I learned from you was “never give up!”

Thirty-five years ago, that fighting spirit helped me recover from a career ending, near fatal car accident 4,000 miles away from home. More recently that same resiliency helped me survive a life altering fall that resulted in a broken cheek bone, eye socket, jaw, nose and skull that led to a 5 hour brain surgery and over a year of rehabilitation. With no end in sight.

I may never play my guitar, type a blog post or swim again pain free.

Everyday as I struggled in physical therapy to squeeze my hand, raise my left arm, and walk without stumbling I think of you and repeat the mantra you ingrained through hours of practice spent correcting my jump shot, “Keep fighting!”

Every night when I called you reminded me,“I am proud of you sweetie.”

And you ended every conversation with these words,

“I think of you everyday and love you more each minute.”

Me too, dad, me too.

Happy Birthday to my 90 year old hero!

Sophie Giraffe Favorite French Toy Turns 60

The little red Radio Flyer wagon, Lincoln logs, Matchbox cars each generation had their favorite toys, but the all time favorite French toy is Sophie la giraffe

May 25th, 2021 on St.Sophie Day, Sophie La Girafe turns 60.

Vulli, a company based in Rumilly in the Haute-Savoie region of France, not far from where we live outside of Geneva, has kept the highly guarded secret of how Sopie la Girafe is made. The rubber, used by Vulli to make Sophie, comes exclusively from the hevea trees growing in Malaysia.

Surprisingly such a simple toy has a complex process of production. To create Sophie la girafe, Vulli first heats the latex using a special process involving a technique called "rotomoulding" and then performs a series of 14 manual operations, which are still used today..
Unlike modern toys, which do everything except cook dinner and change nappies, and may be too sophisticated to foster learning, Sophie, a teething toy, was designed to stimulate all 5 senses from the babies’ age of 3 months.

Though Sophie’s squeaker may drive parents crazy, the sound the giraffe makes when squeezed stimulates the baby’s hearing and helps him to understand the link between cause and effect.
The giraffe’s dark spots captures baby's eyesight, which is still limited in the early months, and can only make out high contrasts.

Developed from latex, made from the natural rubber of the Hevea tree, Sophie has a distinct scent which makes the giraffe easy for babies to identify amongst other toys.
At an age when baby puts everything in her mouth, Sophie, made of 100% natural rubber, was a toy designed to chew. Akin to the nipple of a feeding-bottle, Sophie’s soft textured, chewable ears, horns, and legs makes her perfect for soothing baby's sore gums during teething.

Sophie’s texture feels soft, like baby's mother's skin, which stimulates physiological and emotional responses that soothe the baby and promote healthy growth and well-being.
Her shape - long legs and neck and her size, 18cm - makes it easy for baby to grip.

When my children were babies, Sophie was their favorite toy, so when I gave one to my niece, Marie, when she was born and it became her beloved toy.

When Marie had her first baby, Hadley, I sent her a Sophie original from France. But Hadley’s grandma, my sister Karen, beat me to it. Sophie la Girafe is no longer found only in France, she can be purchased in 80 different countries and is sold at your nearest Target.

Sophie’s, popularity, which once spread by word of mouth, has now reached sales of over 50 million. She has become such a commercial success that she has her own brand, website and blog.

Like all celebrities, Sophie even joined a good cause and partnered with Girafe Conservation Foundation (GFS) to conserve the future for giraffes in Africa

Sophie la girafe, timeless and cross generational, loved by parents and children alike, still brings baby biggest smiles.

Happy Father’s Day June 21, 2020

Father’s DaySo many of our fathers have passed on, but the lessons they taught remain ingrained. I have been blessed to be surrounded by good men from my husband who has been a wonderful father to our 2 children, to Father’s Daymy big brother, Doug, to my brothers- in- law, Cliff and Dick, to the first man I ever loved, my dad. Papa Mac was a father figure to so many students and athletes who traversed the halls of Sterling high School.He was hard working, loyal, a strong leader and a role model in his community.

My dad taught me to drive a car, shoot hoops, catch frogs, paddle a canoe, and swim laps. When I was just a hyperactive little kid, he tired of shooing me off the “dangerous” dock. Finally, he reasoned it would safer to teach me to swim than to keep track of my free spirited meanderings near the lake and in the woods.

He held my hand as I stepped off the sandy beach into the icy lake. Together we walked out over my head. While my dad’s strong arms held me afloat, I put my face in the water and blew bubbles. He taught me the crawl stroke, flutter kick and to cup my hands. “Reach forward, pull back.” He helped me master the trickiest part – how to breathe without swallowing half the lake.

Though I never had a near drowning experience, after a bad bike crash and later a debilitating car accident, I became trapped in a body that no longer worked quite right. My hoop dreams disintegrated. My aspirations of skiing down mountainsides and running marathons dissolved. I hung up my high tops, tennis racket, baseball glove; I set aside my football, basketball, volleyball.swimming saved my life

I was condemned to the pool where the buoyancy of the water kept me from further injuring my spine and joints. Early on, I became a has-been athlete plagued with bad feet, bad knees and a broken back. The scars of my past calamities never really left me; the sharp twinges and shooting, throbbing, stabbing aches remained.

But weightless in water, I became pain free.

To an athlete being confined to a pool seemed like a death sentence. Yet, after every misfortune, I retreated to the healing waters. Swimming became my solace, my meditation, my prayer.

As a child I learned to swim at my grandparents Camp Ney-A-Ti on Summit Lake. In my teens, I swam through summers at the old Emerald Hill pool. In adulthood, when pregnant – and ordered to bed rest for 3 months to prevent premature births – I begged the doctor to let me swim. In a Parisian pool, I bonded with my unborn child, gliding in sync alongside the baby kicking inside me.

Over the years, I even saved a few lives as a lifeguard. And I once dragged the semi conscious high school quarterback from the pump room when he became asphyxiated from the chlorine. But the real hero of my swimming story was my dad. He taught me to believe that no matter how rough the seas or how high the waters, I would never sink.

With each stroke of my arm and kick of my leg,Dad thought he was showing me the frog kick, freestyle, and breaststroke, but really he was teaching me how to survive.

As a child, my dad let go, so I could take my first strokes solo. As an adult I swam from one side of the lake to the other.
But after my serious accident this past April I am not sure when I will able to swim again. And I won’t be swimming in my beloved Summit Lake this summer because of the coronavirus Europeans are not allowed to fly to the USA.

Everyday as I struggle in physical therapy to squeeze my hand, raise my left arm over my head and regain the use of the left side of my body, I think of my dad and repeat the mantra he ingrained through hours spent correcting my jump shot, tweaking my swim stroke “Never give up.”

Though separated by the pandemic and my health issues, I can’t visit my dad in person right now, I look forward to seeing him every night when I call on face time and he says.“I sure am proud of you sweetie.You are a real warrior.”

With a twinkle in his blue eyes, he ends every conversation by saying, “I think of you everyday and love you more each minute.”

Father’s Day

Though many women will miss being with their daddies on this special day, may we all find comfort knowing a father’s love for a daughter lasts for eternity.

Good Neighbors Add Allure to Summit Lake Wisconsin

Summit LakeWe used to be the only cabin on our side of the lake and I liked it that way, but when people built cottages next door, I discovered Summit Lake’s beauty magnifies when shared.

In 1952 my grandparents bought the log lodge peeking out from behind the pines on the point across from the island. They turned it into Camp Ney-A-Ti Boys’ Camp. The camp used to be the only sign of civilization on the western side of the lake.

In 1964, when my grandparents sold the camp and 40 acres, they had the foresight to save a 125 feet of lake front property on the far edge of their land. Then they built our little red cabin. On some else’s land. They were shocked to find out someone else owned that lot, so they lifted the wooden cottage and moved it over 50 feet.Summit Lake cabin

That landowner build a cottage on his land and generations later, we became friends with his grandchildren’s children. Then our children grew up together over lazy, fun-filled summers. The path through the woods between our cabins remains well worn. Instead of playing hide and seek of childhood, the “kids” sit on the screened in porch debating solutions to problems of the adult world.

We are the only flatlanders (Illinoisans) amongst the Wisconsinites; they accept us as long as we wear our Greenbay Packer caps.

A deputy sheriff lives on one side of us and a lawyer on the other. If we get in trouble with the lawman on our left, we could seek counsel with our neighbor on the right side to bail us out. But as grandchildren of Coach Mac, we would never consider breaking the rules.

Surprisingly, as much as I liked the idea of being alone in the woods, I discovered it is nice to have neighbors.

We hail from different cities and walks of life, but Up North no one cares where you come from or how much money you make, as long as you share the same values – respect for nature and community spirit.

kids of the lakeThe lake ‘hood children have grown up becoming doctors, nurses, plumbers, firemen and teachers. If the “kids” were ever Up North at that same time, we would have a “cabin” town of skilled professionals to cope with any illness, injury, wildfire, flooded basement, or backed up toilet.

With trees and foliage growing so thick, you don’t have to see your neighbors, who are never nosey, but if you do need anything they will be there.

At one time or other everyone has rescued my Frenchman when his catamaran capsized. All the neighbors have a story to tell about how they towed the yellow sailboat safely to shore behind their pontoon sailing Summit Lakeboat.sailing Summit Lake

Another time a neighbor helped jump-start my sister’s car at dawn in the dead of winter. And if you need to borrow a chainsaw, a shovel or a cup of sugar, just ask. Neighbors willingly share, sometimes even offering beds in their cabin when your own overflows with friends and relatives.

“You know the rule,” the guy next door says, “if my boat is out, and you want to ride or ski c’mon on over.”touring Summit Lake

Summer folks. Summer friends. Good neighbors. Good people.

Along with the wilderness and wildlife, human beings are part of the Northwood’s blessings too.Grandparents & kids

65 Years Ago Dad Married His College Sweetheart

On August 29th sixty-five years ago, my dad married his college sweetheart in Chicago, Illinois and from that day forth Jim and Lenore vowed to commit their lives to one another. For six and a half decades they walked the walk and exemplified what makes a good marriage.

Their love story started at Northern Illinois University, when my dad saw my mom strolling across campus and fell head over heels. Though Lenore was more vigilant, her girl friends swooned and told her « Jim is the catch of the campus. » He wooed her with poems and sketches showing a tender side to this tough, All-American athlete.

After they married, family became the focus of their lives.

Despite busy careers as teachers, they found time to foster each of their 4 children’s interests. They never missed choral performances, basketball games and track meets.

Even more remarkably, they had love left over to share with other people’s children – the countless number of neighborhood kids, school friends and teammates that tramped through the homestead on E. 19th street.

Though on occasion they squabbled like any married couple, they rarely fought.

However Lenore refereed many arguments between Jim and his feisty eldest daughter who inherited his intensity and temperament.

They shared a love of travel and enjoyed many trips to visit their children and grandchildren in Germany, France, Switzerland and Australia. On visits abroad, they also reconnected with Norwegian relatives living above the Arctic Circle. In retirement, as snow bunnies, they enjoyed several years wintering in Arizona.

They both have a creative streak – my mom an exceptional seamstress; dad a gifted athlete and skilled artist of landscape paintings. They passed onto their children a love of music, books, and sports.

But their real art was in education, whether they were showing campers how to swim, kindergarteners how to write their names, or high school athletes how to shoot a perfect jump shot.

After a rewarding career teaching Sterling’s youth, they remained a part of the community by raising money in church bazaars and quilt auctions, and by volunteering at food pantries.

Throughout their union, they supported each others passions. Lenore shivered on hard bleachers through countless cold football seasons cheering for Jim, first as an athlete and then as a coach.

Jim couldn’t sew a stitch to save his life, but he patiently drove Lenore across the Midwest to visit quilt shops. While she filled her shopping basket with new sewing projects, he sat in the car reading detective novels.

The best testimony to their love is its resiliency. Instead of tearing them apart, crisis only strengthened their bond. Dad helped mom endure the loss of her own father at age 18. They comforted one another when their daughter fought to recover from a life threatening car accident in a foreign country 4,000 miles away. They supported each other as they cared for aging parents, and later, as they faced their own health challenges.

They rejoiced in celebrations – weddings, graduations, and grandchildren’s births.

Through their actions and deeds, they passed on to their children respect for others and the value of integrity.

They sent countless letters, made umpteen phone calls, drove endless miles, and flew across time zones to stay connected. Though family extended across 3 continents and 4 different states lines, they remained a part of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives.

During sixty-five Summit Lake summers at Camp Ney-a-ti and the little red cabin in Wisconsin, they carved time out of busy schedules to slow down and appreciate nature’s splendor, renew vows for one other and nurture their love of family.

By their example, they gave everyone who knew them a blue print of how to create a marriage filled of kindness, compromise, tolerance, generosity and trust.

By opening their home and hearts over the years, their union taught us that true love is gift. The more you give it away, the greater your own blessings.

I should know. I had the good fortune to be born an Olson-McKinzie.

Happy 65th Anniversary Mom and Dad