When did my first students all get so old?
By Tim M. Churchill

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Pensacola, Florida, to meet with a bunch of my “kids.” It was their 50th class reunion as graduates of the Kentucky Military Institute Class of 1968.

All of those students looked as if they were getting, nay make that had gotten, old. After all, they were in the 68-69 year old category; however, they were almost more my equals than my students.

Let me explain. Because I was not able to afford to attend Bowling Green State University for a full four years upon high school graduation, I attended summer school immediately after graduation, did the same the next year, then served an internship at the Cincinnati Post & Times-Star my third summer.

All this led up to my being graduated from BGSU just three days after my 21st birthday. I had already signed on to teach at KMI following graduation, despite not having taken a single College of Education course.

KMI sent me to summer school that summer – I took 15 credit hours, three more than usually allowed – then did the same thing the following summer. I ended up with the requisite number of education hours, along with completing a dual major in journalism and English.

Signed contract at age 20

When KMI invited me to join their faculty, I was actually 20 years old. Most of the incoming seniors were 17 or 18 years old – some of the “post-grads” or 13th year students – were already 18-19 years old!

Now I did not have a single one of the seniors in the classroom, but I did have them on the football team (I was one of two assistant coaches, but that is yet another story), as well as on my soccer team, and on the golf team for which I served as a volunteer assistant coach.

In any event, the Cadet Major, the highest ranking student at KMI, contacted me last fall to announce the upcoming reunion; then he told me that I would be there, and that I would be one of the keynote speakers at the banquet. How could I refuse?

Also in Major Leon Hirsch's plans was an “invitation” to the other assistant football coach, Larry Williamson, affectionately known as “Phooey.” (He would not have cursed if his life had depended on it.  Instead, he would simply shout, “Phooey!”) The head coach was also invited, but due to his wife's recent diagnosis of two types of cancer, he had to turn down the Major's request.

My tech skills get tested

So, I shopped around to find the least expensive flight from Toledo to Pensacola, at least that was my objective. As many of you know, I am not the most technologically gifted person in the world, although word processing seems to come to me relatively easily.

In any event, I finally got my tickets. I could not “pull the trigger” to get the lowest price. I was too unsure of myself.

Getting a room was a much less stressful story. Leon had negotiated a deal with the Grand Hotel, saving us more than $200 a night on our rooms. That was pretty nice, and the hotel was quite elegant. So, leaving Toledo at 38 degrees and with snow on the ground from an overnight flurry, I landed in 79 degree heat and sand on the ground.

The hotel shuttle picked me up shortly after landing and took me to the Grand. As I disembarked from the shuttle, a number of men and their ladies were standing on the steps awaiting a shuttle. I thought perhaps they were KMI grads, but I had not seen any of them in seven or eight years, so I wasn't sure.  As I stepped up to the check-in desk, I asked about the crowd out front, and sure enough, they were KMI cadets. I figured I would catch up with them in the lounge later.

First contact with cadets

A couple of hours later, I went down to the lounge where a number of the cadets had already assembled, completely out of uniform, of course, and doing what probably would have added up to at least 25 demerits.

One of the very first former football and soccer players (he actually also helped me coach the soccer team his “post-grad” year) I encountered was Danny Sullivan, the Indy car driver who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1985, despite a 360 degree spin between turns one and two. He was as thin as in his racing days, but his dimples would have given him away even if he had put on some weight, as most of the other cadets had done.

In the same group of cadets were a couple of former football players, and I recognized them pretty quickly. I looked at the first one and said, “How you doing, Number 23?” He stared back at me and said “What?” I explained that he should recognize his old football number; he was one our fastest halfbacks.  Then I turned to the other football player. I called him “Number 53.” He stared at me and asked, “How did you remember my number?” I replied that for some reason, those two numbers have stuck with me for more than half a century.

Dimples are real give-aways

More stories and lies were swapped in the lounge, until another former football player and soccer player came up. Like Danny Sullivan, his dimples gave him away. “Hey, Ward Irvin, how the heck are you?” (Ward has authored a book about Kentucky high school basketball, ala Hoosiers.)

Again, that startled expression showed up, but so did a big grin. He asked if I remembered setting up a scrimmage with the Chicago Mustangs professional soccer team who were in Sarasota for off-season training. I answered, “Of course. They had us down 8-0 in about four minutes and never kicked a ball into the net. Only scored on headers.”

Several other soccer players chimed in about the rest of the scrimmage. Chicago's coach and his team graciously invited us to split our squads, half pros, half kids, for the rest of the scrimmage. What a great time! Unfortunately, one of our players took out a Mustang on a sliding tackle, and he had to be helped off the field.

More cadets, more stories, and it was only the first night of the reunion.

NASM and Banquet

As the weekend progressed, there was time spent at the Naval Aviation and Space Museum on the Naval Air Base in Pensacola Beach (an amazing trip, including a Blue Angels simulator that took my breath away), a tour of Pensacola, a banquet, and more story swapping than one can imagine.  While waiting for the banquet to begin, I was chatting with some cadets in the hallway when a member of all four of my soccer teams came toward us. I recognized him immediately, Mike Williams, originally from Mexico City.

Just as he was about to pass by to my right, I loudly said, “Hey, Mike, aren't you going to say 'Hello' to your old coach?” He came up short, looked, looked again, and looked once more, a true tripletake.  He practically ran across the hallway, and we embraced like long-lost brothers, not just coach and player.

Coach Williamson tells of big upset

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend was the banquet and the talks afterward. Coach Williamson was called up to speak first, and he relayed some memorable moments from his years at KMI, including the night he, the other assistant coach, and the head coach promised the football team that they would walk back to campus if KMI beat the host Iroquois High School team.

Lo and behold, KMI won in a huge upset, and after stopping for the players to eat, the coaches told the players they would see them back in Lyndon. Fifteen miles (most of them along the Watterson Expressway) and nearly six hours later, they walked up the quarter-mile, tree-lined drive at KMI. Good to their word.

I was surprised to learn that Coach Williamson is also the author of three books, two historical fiction and one a series of columns about southern Alabama, his stomping grounds as a kid (I have read the first two, and they are quite good). He has another fourth book coming out in September. Coach Williamson is now 80 years old, but looks 60. His writing exploits have spurred me to shake the cobwebs loose in my brain, where I have a couple of books of my own brewing. I have since outlined the first and have bounced a lot of ideas around this empty head about the other.

Bring on “the kid”

Then came my turn at the dais. After adjusting the microphone (Why do they always set them so high that only tall people can use them?), I spoke about a harrowing drive from Venice, Florida (we had a winter campus there until the winter of 1970-71), to New Orleans over spring break. Having a bit of car trouble, I managed to roll into a country bar and asked to use the phone – this was a long time before cell phones.

The bartender replied, “We ain't go no phone, but we know somebody what does.” Not too encouraging, but what options did I have? One of the patrons gave me a ride in his old pick-up truck to a quarry, drove down into the quarry, opened the foreman's shed at the bottom, and pointed to the phone.  I was beginning to wonder if my body would ever be found. Anyway, the call was made, and someone from the local auto supply came out and replaced the broken belt on my car. I paid him then went inside to thank the patrons for their help. One of them commented, “Y'all are lucky. We've had a lot of people getting robbed, beaten, even killed along this here stretch of road.”

I mentally checked to see that my body was still here. As I was about to leave, I looked at the bartender and ordered a round of drinks for the patrons, all four of them, then turned to leave. One of the patrons hollered, “Thanks! Where y'all from?”

Tompkinsville Terrors

I answered that I was a teacher and a coach at KMI, hoping they did not hate teachers. One of the patrons chuckled, “KMI, huh? I'm from Tompkinsville, Kentucky, and we whupped your butts last fall!” It was something like a 35-point loss! That's a whuppin', I guess.

Oh, boy, I had survived breaking down on the highway, survived the quarry, and had almost made it out the door, then this. You see, Tompkinsville was very rough, very rural, and had a very physical football team. The fans were worse. The field actually had barbed wire around it to keep spectators off the field, thus keeping the visiting team–us–relatively safe.

Was I safe? I wasn't sure. As quickly as I could, without raising suspicion, I turned, went to the parking lot, started my car, and left for anywhere far away from there! My body made it to New Orleans the next morning. It did not disappear. I was pretty happy with that.

After a few more stories, I went to re-take my seat, only to be stopped by Leon. He also called Coach Williamson up, and much to both of our surprises, he presented us with commissions from the governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, commissioning us as members of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Nothing to sneeze at. Few non-political, non-famous people are so recognized.  Ironically, it was my second commission, having been commissioned in 1969, also through a student at KMI. I have no idea how many people have more than one commission, but I doubt that it is a large number.

Probably the only negative point during the weekend was leaving Sunday morning. My flight took off at 5:45 a.m., and we (a cadet from southern Ohio who had a 6 a.m. flight) had a taxi pick us up at 4:15. I was extremely happy that my wife was waiting at Toledo Express to pick me up at 1:30. I was glad to be home.

I was tired, but extremely happy that I was able to attend. In fact, members of the class of 1971, the freshman class when I started at KMI, informed me that they expected me at their 50th reunion in three years. God willing and the creek don't rise, I will be there.

Tim Churchill lives in Delta, and he served as a teacher and counselor for more than 40 years.
He lives by the motto of “Live well, Laugh often, Love much.”
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