Friday, April 8, 2016

50 Years of Benton Community -- VanEtten Impact

How do you thank a man who helped define part of who you think you are as a person?  My best effort is to honor his investment in me by sharing part of his story and acting in ways that make him proud that I'm still a "BOBCAT".

I'm fortunate in my lifetime; I've had many people as role models.  Jim VanEtten has been one of those persons for me since 1976 when I walked into his classroom - the Benton Community Jr. High gymnasium in Newhall, where I also played high school basketball.  
1982 Yearbook photo
(I did not have a lot of BB talent -- so I think it is quite interesting my picture was in the yearbook actually "playing".)
From the earliest memories of deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up -- I knew I wanted to be a Physical Education Teacher.  In elementary I had two fantastic physical education teachers at Blairstown:  Paula Vaughn & Carol Post.  In high school I was blessed with three other fantastic physical education teachers:  Reece Morgan, Jerry Eckenrod and Melinda Krumm.  

When I went to Junior High in Newhall, Mr. VanEtten became my physical education teacher and someone who challenged me to be better every day.  He introduced us to a variety of activities in PE that worked our minds and bodies.  He connected every activity to a purpose and made sure we were not only able to preform the skill, but he tested (yes in PE -- he tested us) on the rules and procedures of the activities he was teaching us.   We ran the bleachers, play table tennis (not ping pong), lifted weights, learned how to line & disco dance, played badminton, flag football and were outside whenever the weather permitted.

Mr. VanEtten taught and coached at BC for a total of 43 years and his legacy spanned part of six different decades and all six superintendents that BC has had to date.  When we met to discuss the 50 years of Benton Community, Jim told me, "This is home and that's why we stayed."  He taught all grade levels in the Keystone, Atkins and the Newhall buildings before moving to the new MS/HS building.  But one constant was that each of the 43 years he taught at Benton he taught 7th and 8th graders.   

I know a strong connection we have is we both love working with the middle level age student.  We were table tennis partners during Activity Period many years we worked together at the Middle School.  I'm proud to say in that time we were undefeated as partners!  Jim is a great table tennis player and he credits his time at UNI with improving his game.  I credit my table tennis skills to Jim and my dad.  They are both wicked with the paddle and applying "english" to the ball.

Mr. VanEtten grew up in Quasqueton, Iowa area and graduated from East Buchanan High School.  He shares stories of his days at "Quasky" and his family cabin on the Wapsipinicon River.  Mr. VanEtten's Varsity Basketball Coach at East Buchanan was Darwin Oelherich (a Keystone, Iowa native).  Yet another connection Jim and I have is I kayak and he canoes the Wapsi.   

He attended and graduated from the University of Northern Iowa (another great connection between us) and had his interview with Don Andrews, (Keystone Principal) for his first teaching job at Benton in the seats of the Old Auditorium on the campus of UNI.  

Old Aud on UNI Campus
Picture Source
When he came to Benton, he taught 7th grade math and physical education in Keystone for grades K-9.  His teaching partner for that first job was Darwin Oelherich, his former coach.  Another connection -- his former teacher became his teaching partner, just like Jim and I.

His wife, Pam, also worked for the district as a building secretary for several years and was a huge supporter of Jim being so involved in the district.  He has every contract he ever signed to work for Benton, and knows his own kids, at some point, will enjoy looking through all the artifacts he's saved over the years.  His first contract was for $5800 plus a couple hundred for coaching some junior high events.  

Funds were tight in their early days of their marriage, so he also drove the activity bus for events.  When radios were put onto the buses, he made a decision that he was not going to turn it on, on the way to the event, and maybe just possibly, he'd turn it on the return ride home.  His recollection was that the radio's just made the buses noisier.  He also did summer maintenance for the school for many years.

Jim coached many activities over the course of his career at Benton Community and was also a member of the Newhall Fire Department for 20 years.  His coaching assignments over the years include the following:
  • Junior High Football for 30 years
    • He remembers a few of those seasons they were undefeated!
  • Boys' Basketball for 21 years and now 4 years at Williamsburg (coaching with his son.)
  • Girls' Track for 26 years & 9 years with Jr. High Boys
    • He was my distance coach and I loved working for him.  He was great about giving feedback to make my workouts more effective in a way that made me want to listen to him (which I wasn't real good at as a teenager - just ask my parents).
  • Girl's Golf 4 years
  • Jr. High wrestling for 2 years
    • One year he coached junior high wrestling - sent the wrestlers home on the early shuttle and then jumped off the stage at Keystone and started coaching boys' basketball until the late shuttle came. 
As he spoke of his time with the Newhall Fire Department he shared a few stories.  One of them involved how he felt after one particular call.  He said he left the house and cried because he was so grief-stricken for the family.  I never told Jim, and I'm not sure he knows, but I attended his mom's funeral and I cried uncontrollably during the ceremony.  I had heard many stories about Jim's parents and I was grief-stricken for him.  Another connection -- we care deeply and show it.
Ray Manship was the Activities Director early in Mr. VanEtten's coaching career.  Jim remembers one activity meeting, Manship commented, "All you young guys I see wearing college sweatshirts at Benton practices should get rid of those and you should be wearing some type of Benton apparel."  That message stuck with him about the importance of promoting what it means to be a "Bobcat" both by your actions and your words.

As we talk about his coaching, he rattles off former player's names and their strengths like he just left practice.  He told me he didn't know what town kids came from, but they were all Benton kids and athletes.  That's just the way he thought.

When we talked about his teaching, I told him I have always marveled at the way he earned students respect.  His response to this was "We usually get what we expect.  If you don't expect it, you aren't going to get it."  In his career he doesn't think he sent kids to the office or the hallway for the entire class period.  He expected them to be in class and completing the learning activities and for the most part that happened.  When it didn't, students got a 1:1 conversation with him in the hallway and then returned to class.  

He organized activities for the staff and students to interact in together.  These activities helped build relationships between staff and students that revolved around a common purpose of teamwork and learning to be "Bobcats".
    Volleyball Challenge Outfit
    He sports it well!

    Two of the most memorable moments of his tenure at BC stick out for him.  One is from the summer of 1982.  This was the summer the move took place from the "old" high school to the "new" middle/high school.  He said he walked into the new gym and thought "this is going to be heaven".  

    The second most memorable event was when he walked out the door of the MS/HS for the last time as an employee of the district.  For the first year of retirement he missed the students, but mostly the people he worked with.  When his son Mike asked him to come and coach basketball with him that second year of retirement, he didn't bat an eye -- he was ready to interact with kids and enjoys going to practices and games.  The other benefit of that gig is being able to coach his grandsons with his son. 

    The VanEtten's consider Benton home and never seriously considered looking elsewhere for employment.  They both like small towns and being close to family.  Jim also does not like stoplights and big cities.  (That almost sounds like he is describing me).   He taught me so much by being a beacon of positivism.  He was always looking for solutions and sharing the importance of family.  He stayed current in his field over those 43 years and was always trying to find ways to connect the student learning to what was relevant to the students he had in his classroom each and every year. 

    Jim would teach the entire PK -12 staff CPR at the beginning of every year before the students came back during pre-service days.   During his CPR presentation, he'd slip in a little of what he loves -- family stories, music and dancing.  Over the years we learned how to dance the YMCA, Macarena and danced to "She thinks my tractor's sexy" as he shared stories of his family trips to the Black Hills (one of his favorite places) and his family, especially his grandchildren.  He's very proud of ALL of them!

    I became Jim's principal in his last few years of his teaching career.  He taught me so much about leading.  He was great about finding me in the hallway, classroom or office and saying, "Hey boss, have you thought about..."  His purpose was to set the system up for success and he made sure that he was looking out for the best interest of everyone.  Two of his best lines he repeated frequently, just at the right time, to those of us who were blessed with sharing his space were:  "I've got calluses on my feet that are older than you!" and "Your Christmas bonus check is in your mailbox."  

    Mr. VanEtten and myself
    As we were ending our time together, he said "I didn't complete one part of my job when I retired -- I'm sure there were some dirty towels somewhere!" and then gave me one of the best hugs I ever received from a co-worker, role model, motivator and former teacher:)  I'm so honored to be connected with Mr. VanEtten as "Bobcats".

    Mr. VanEtten as captured by Mike Embretson

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