THE MIGHTY QUINN

Just this morning, I learned that former Waunakee High School head football coach Gaylord Quinn, aka Coach Quinn, has died.  At this point, I don’t have the exact cause of death but word is, he’s been in poor health the past few years.

I was under Coach Quinn’s tutelage for my four years of high school but his teachings have been with me all the years since. I still hear his voice in my head to kick me in the butt if I start to lean towards the lazy in life.

He had been coaching high school football for so long, 37 years, that my father and four of my uncles had played under him. Hundreds and hundreds of players over the years were taught by him starting with his time as a coach at Azusa high in California through his many years at Waunakee High before he retired from coaching in 1993.

He counted 15 conference championships and three undefeated seasons during his tenure.  But, he measured success with each individual. He demanded your best effort and if you gave that, well, that’s the point for doing anything at all and really what success is.  Don’t get me wrong, he really liked to win but it wasn’t all about that to him.

Below is an excerpt from my book, No Bed or Roses, I dedicated to Coach Quinn.

Most importantly, Coach Quinn truly cared about his players as people more than players. We innately knew this, which is why so many of us abided by his strict doctrine.

Quinn taught his players to carry themselves with class and had us address all adults as “Sir” and “Ma’am.” I recall one game in high school where I had a bloody snot in my nose that I dispelled quickly over my right shoulder. The gob just missed hitting a referee. I responded, “I’m sorry, SIR.” I hoped the classy remark might redeem me from my grotesque gesture. It did.

In fact, our team’s decorum often impressed the referees enough to write letters to our school lauding the character of its football players. Quinn used to say he was more proud of that than our wins, and I sort of believed him.

Coach Quinn didn’t allow players to have long hair. He thought short hair made one look more respectable and argued pragmatically that the closer the helmet is to your head, the better it works. If a player didn’t have his hair cut by the time fall practice started, Quinn became his barber. He definitely was a better coach than a barber, but then Vidal Sassoon didn’t use a tape cutter to style hair.

Coach Quinn was old-fashioned, but his players respected and worked hard for him. He was a man’s man, a man of his word, and a man who believed that a handshake meant more than any legal document ever could. He was John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Knute Rockne all wrapped up in a mesh baseball cap and cardigan sweater with a football helmet insignia on it. He didn’t say much, so when he spoke you listened. He expected toughness, both mental and physical, from his players. He preached the importance of character. Coach Quinn emphasized discipline, pride, and hard work. His authority trumped all. I never questioned it, not even the time he berated me at practice in front of the whole team: “Kennedy! That’s not good enough! Run it again, boys.”

I was playing fullback, and my assignment on the play was to block the middle linebacker. I blocked him but didn’t move him very far, and the tailback, following my lead, tripped over my legs. Coach Quinn blew the whistle and made us run the play again. He demanded that I move the linebacker out of the way, so there’d be no chance of the tailback tripping over me. The linebacker was tough and didn’t want to let me do that to him. We ran the play again, and again I failed to move him far enough for Quinn. The linebacker grew tired so Quinn substituted another linebacker to replace him. I was pissed off.  Quinn then lined up four other linebackers to take me on one by one, and I had to block and move each of them.

By the time I got to the last guy, I was like a rabid pit bull. I was embarrassed and angry and frustrated and exhausted, but I summoned myself and drove the final guy almost off the practice field, continuing even after the whistle blew as my own form of protest. Biting down hard on my mouth guard, I turned and glared at Quinn through my face mask. Quinn just nodded with a slight smile, pointed his finger and said, “That’s how you should do it every time, now grab some water.” He set the standards high, and I couldn’t handle disappointing him.

But the most important lesson Coach Quinn taught me was off the field.  A conversation I had with him during my Freshman year in his cramped office tucked in the back of the industrial arts workshop.

Quinn called me in to discuss my poor report card. He squinted at me with a look of disbelief and a stare behind his glasses that seemed to magnify his disappointment. “You’re a smart kid. What’s this all about?” His meaty paw of left hand held up my report card.  I felt smaller than an ant.  I stammered a bit then searching my mind, I found an easy excuse.  I mentioned my parents were going through a divorce and things were tough and I couldn’t focus…which was mostly B.S. but figured I could play that card to buy me some sympathy.

Quinn knew my parents–he’d coached my mom in track and my dad in football while they were in high school–and their divorce. He set my report card on the table and with a look that somehow combined concern and anger said, “I know both your parents. I know they both love you very much.”  I nodded in agreement.

He went on. “Some people in life…will use anything they can as an excuse to not succeed. Some in your shoes would use the divorce as a ‘crutch.”  That’s not you, is it?”

“No, sir,” I responded, both of us knowing full well that’s exactly what I was trying to do.  That nipped it in the bud for me. I knew right then, I didn’t want that to be me. I would never use my parents divorce, or any other bad thing that has happened to me since, as an excuse to not be as successful as I could be.

“I’m going to do better,” I said. Quinn agreed, “I know you will. I’m here if you need anything.”

I did do better, got my grades up, got into the University of Wisconsin and got to play football there and use all of Quinn’s teachings to get me through that time of my life and all the times since.

I have borrowed Quinn’s words often as a coach myself and will certainly use them with my son, Cash as he grows up.

And now, Coach Quinn will no longer be with any of us.  Fortunately, for us who knew him, if we ever need anything, the lessons he embedded in us will always be there.

Rest in Peace, Coach.

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Glory be to the Grandfather

My paternal grandfather, Bernard Kennedy, raised things. Crops. Votes. Kids.

Dairy farmer, Town Chairman, Father of eleven.

Bernard worked and then took over the reins of the farm where he was raised and reigned over his 250+ acre dirt empire with admirable attention and affection. The farm buildings were straight and clean, the yard well kept, and animals well-fed.

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Despite back-bending, hard labor work his entire life, he carried himself with a regal dignity. Shoulders back, chest out, and eyes smiling.

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Bernard respected himself, his wife, Louise, his family, his church, his community, his work, and anyone he met.

He was comfortable and familiar with a tough day’s work. As if the upkeep and production of his dairy farm and large family wasn’t enough to cripple a healthy man, Bernard held two jobs outside of farming, parts at Carl F. Statz machinery, and odd jobs handyman to locals in the area. Later in life, he was a top repairman for his son David’s TV and appliance store, Kennedy-Hahn. Somehow he found the time to play on Waunakee’s Home Talent baseball team for many years and was very proud of the several championships he was a part of.

Bernard’s hands were gnarled like the roots of a tree as a result of handling the metals, machinery and tools of his trades. Getting a close look at his hands resting on the table one day, I asked him what was wrong with them. He shrugged his shoulders, “Oh. It happens when you get old.” No complaining, no flaunting, just straight forward, matter-of-fact responses.

Undaunted by his overloaded obligations, Bernard maintained a positive outlook on life. He often whistled and sang in his Irish tenor while he worked. The same on tune performances he would give in church on Sunday. An Irish Catholic who faithfully attended service every Sunday, sitting towards the front, in the characteristic persistence of his work and family life.

On his old, sore knees, he’d still humbly kneel down before the God he believed in.

Grandma and he said the rosary every night and on road trips.  As a young teen, I road along with them once to Cincinnati to see a play their son and my uncle Paul was performing in.  In the front seat, my grandparents would trade off between Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and Glory be to the Fathers. I would mumble along at times but mainly, just wishing for the decades of the rosary to be finished and for the radio to be turned on.  Though I admit to a sense of security I felt knowing that if we did get in an accident, God couldn’t help but put us on the express lane to Heaven.

Grandpa was 100 percent Irish and advertised it often. Always celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day by wearing his wool Irish cap.  Green was his favorite color. He painted his home accordingly and I’m hard-pressed to remember him in any clothing other than his green work uniform. The only fight I ever heard him getting in, outside of the sparing he did with his brothers, was when some loudmouth at the shop made a derogatory comment about the Irish, on St. Patrick’s Day to boot. Bernard had to put the man in his place–which happened to be pressed hard against a machine.

Should any of his seven sons scrap in his presence, he would intervene, “If you have that much extra energy, I have plenty of chores for you.” A peace accord soon followed.

Tough but fair, elected as the town chairman of Westport for over 27 years, Bernard Kennedy served his elected office with the same pride he took in his land and in his family.

When a resident called to complain at 11PM, he took the call and listened while my grandmother shook her head and wondered why someone would call the house so late. When his good friend on the board spoke out of turn, Grandpa stepped in to tell him to wait his turn and let the others be heard. When a substantial snowfall would blanket the area, Bernard instructed the truck drivers to plow his street last, after the rest of the community was taken care of, sometimes, he’d even helm the plows to help get the job done.  A shining example of what a “public servant” should be. I wish every politician would follow his example. In fact, the worst insult he would say about a cohort was with a disappointed head shake, “He’s…he’s a politician.”

The town’s administration building was erected some years ago and named after him. Deservedly so.

Often in my youth upon telling a local my name, the common response would be something like, “Kennedy? Related to Bernard?” Yes, he’s my grandpa. “Oh, known him for years. Your grandpa’s a good man. Salt o’ the Earth.”

With 22 aunts and uncles, thirty six other grandchildren, I found it impossible to get one on one time with my grandpa.  On a recent search, I couldn’t find any pictures of just he and I. Probably true for most of us grandchildren…and his children, for that matter. But, nevertheless, his influence was far and wide.  He and I share the physical tic of twisting our wrist to crack our arms, my sister likes to point out. Also, I swear Cash when he looks up at me with a certain look, he reminds me of my grandpa looking over his glasses with a scrunched brow. Their similar blue eyes, glimmering with curiosity.

Bernard Kennedy showed this same sort of servitude, loyalty, and respect as a husband to his beloved wife, Louise, of over 54 years.

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Grandma used to say the only way she knew Grandpa didn’t like one of the meals she’d prepared is that he wouldn’t ask for seconds. She also joked the reason they had so many kids was because Grandpa mumbled. He’d crawl into bed and say, “You wanna go to sleep or what?” She’d reply, “What?”

And grandpa took that to mean, well…eleven kids.

Bernard lost his other half in March of 2000. Louise was 77 and died of liver cancer.

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In her absence, he slid to life’s background.

He was still kind and cordial, but there was something missing in his eyes, in his voice, in his mind, in his heart. He was there but he just wasn’t.

His good health and sturdy genes forced him to stay in a world that no longer felt like it was his anymore. For eight years, he patiently waited to join Louise before finally joining her in 2008 at age 88.

Grandpa once said, “Young people may die, old people must.”

The “good man” was laid to rest in the cemetery behind the church he attended his whole life, next to his long-time wife, the other half.  Bernard never got over Louise.

Good thing, now he lays beside her.

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Bernard Kennedy-the salt of the earth-returned to it, hay in the barn…and the harvest of his family still growing strong…thanks to the man who raised things.

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Christmas 2014 – Bernard and Louise’s children, most grandchildren, most great-grandchildren…