Swimming is worth fighting for

April 23, 2009

“Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.”

— Clarence Darrow

 It was a little more than 10 years ago when I got my first head coaching job. It was as wrestling coach at a wonderful little Catholic high school in Leavenworth, Kan., called Immaculata (Go RAIDERS!!!). It was a program that constantly was struggling for numbers, constantly struggling for support and basically constantly struggling to stay alive.

Shortly after I got the job, one of the wrestling parents came up to me at a community function, and with a laugh handed me a small medal on a chain.

“This is St. Jude,” he said. “I know you’re not Catholic, but it’s the patron saint of desperate causes. With this program it’s not a bad idea to keep this around.”

I hung on to the medal, usually had it with me at most meets. It was kind of a good luck charm, and it paid off. In four years we went from a team that once lost a dual meet 84-0 to one that was pretty competitive in a tough conference and at the Regional and State levels by the time I was done.

I have always been a champion of the lost cause. I guess that is how I ended up as swimming coach at Vinton-Shellsburg High School. And I still have the medal.

Don’t get me wrong; swimming is not a lost cause. Actually it’s far from it. It is a great sport, it’s the greatest conditioning activity you can do, and frankly, it’s a lot of fun. I was always disappointed that we didn’t have high school swimming yet when I was in school; I may have done that instead of wrestle (I know I’d have been better at it).

For 30 years swimming has been at sport in Vinton. It hasn’t gotten the notice of a lot of sports, and many times it has had to be fought for in front of a school board meeting. But it has survived. Now it’s time for it to thrive.

Monday night we once again kept boys’ swimming alive. Yeah, I’m working for free next season. Someone tried to get me to that another time, but this time it was worth fighting for.

And I’m sure someone will be asking me every other day how many kids I have out, but we’re going to have a team and we’re going to have a season and that’s what matters the most.

Right now, I’m working on sign-up for our girls’ program that we share with our friends at Union High School. I’m hoping to have a couple of dozen young ladies swimming for VSU this fall. We made history last year by hosting the state’s first-ever outdoor high school meet and will do it even bigger and better Aug. 29, when we host the second Fun In The Sun Classic at the La Porte City Family Aquatic Center.

Why do I do this? I don’t know; you could probably question my sanity or judgment. But there is one very good reason: I love it (LOVE IT) when someone tells me I can’t do something.

When my wife, Angie, and I started the Vinton Eagle in 2005 (there’s irony for you), lots and lots of people told us we were crazy. Yet, we succeeded. Until the day we left, we put out a quality product and never lost sight of our journalistic values. If nothing else, we helped the Cedar Valley Daily Times get better. That’s we wanted – our hometown to have a good paper.

And that’s kind of the way I approach coaching swimming at Vinton-Shellsburg. There are a lot of people out there still telling me that swimming is a lost cause. “It’s not a WaMaC sport (I’m so sick of that argument); it’s getting in the way of other programs; Blah, Blah, Blah….”

Bring it on. From me and my swimmers and our supporters, we say bring it on. Tell us we can’t. Tell us we don’t belong. Tell us whatever you want. And keep telling us.

Next year, I’m sure I’ll be right back in front of the school board, making the same arguments again. I have no problem with that. I love to talk about my program and my kids and I love a good fight. The way I figure it, the higher the barrier someone puts in front of you, the sweeter the feeling when you clear it.

Eventually, our numbers will be big enough and our success will be good enough that we’ll outlast the people that want to get rid of us.

As Clarence Darrow so aptly put it, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. Darrow fought for causes that no lawyer in his right mind would fight for, and while he didn’t always win, he always fought.

And, we are inspired by the fight of our greatest champion, Vinton-Shellsburg school board member Megan Rickels, who carried our banner the highest. She knows something about fighting on herself. Thank you Megan, we won’t let you down.

So VSU and Vinton-Shellsburg swimmers, we fight on. And we fight because it’s worth fighting for.

Bring it on!


Young Angel’s death felt here in Eastern Iowa

April 11, 2009

My favorite professional sport has always been baseball. I was raised a Cardinal fan by father whose hero was Stan Musial. I became a Royals fan in the 1970s when I was stationed near Kansas City while I was in the Army and only reinforced that when we lived in the KC metro for seven years.

angels1But another team always fascinated me. Their name, their uniforms (the halos on top of their 1960s caps were awesome), and lately, their class as a team and organization is something I truly respect and admire. I am speaking of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

The Angels suffered a horrible tragedy Wednesday morning when Nick Adenhart, a 22-year old pitcher for the team, was killed along with two friends by drunk driver in Fullerton, CA. Adenhart’s death came just a few hours after he had made his fourth major league start and it was his best. Adenhart threw six shutout innings at the Oakland Athletics, and while his team lost the team, he and team officials were overjoyed with his performance.

But just hours later that joy turned to sorrow, as Adenhart passed from us too soon.

Local fans remember Adenhart. It was just a few years ago that he was a member of the Cedar Rapids Kernels, who are one of the Angels’ Class A farm clubs. As is the case with many major leaguers, Adenhart grew an army of fans as he passed through the Angels farm system.

I remember back in the mid-1990s when Cedar Rapids first created a working agreement with the Angels, I thought it was a strange fit. It’s usually nice to have the parent club of a farm club to be somewhere in the area. But the Cardinals, Twins, White Sox, Brewers, Royals, and Cubs had other commitments, so here came the Angels.

But while it might have seemed like a strange fit at the time, it has turned out to be good one for the Angels, the Kernels and baseball fans of this area. Under the Angels guidance, the Kernels and their fans have been treated to good baseball, a new ballpark and one of the classiest groups of young athletes imaginable. They contributed to the community in a positive way, made public appearances and always have time for their young fans.

adenhart1Many former Kernels have made it the majors, including many that have been part of the club’s recent years of success with a slew of division titles and the 2002 World Series. In fact, the Angels won the Series just weeks before our son Sage was born, so they will always be his World Championship team.

The quality of the individuals playing in that organization, was so evident last summer, when many current Angels recorded messages to the local media of support and concern for their one-time summer home. Many contributed money and other donations to the flood relief.

During the early aftershocks of Nick Adenhart’s tragic death Wednesday morning, ESPN’s Buster Onley commented on how the Angels create such a family atmosphere in their organization and how closely the big-league team follows the progress of every player in the farm system. They aren’t just roster names, they are individuals to the Angels and that is far from common in today’s business of baseball.

Nick Adenhart was a member of that family. Despite only four years in the organization and just making his fourth big-league start, it was evident that his death deeply affected every member of the team in a very personal way.

We are lucky that our area’s professional baseball team, the Cedar Rapids Kernels, is part of such a class act organization. And this summer, I hope that everyone in the area will, while supporting their favorite team, also pull a little but for the Angels, for Nick Adenhart and for a class-act of an organization that is going through a tough time.

They did it for us; we can do it for them.

Continuing to learn during Autism Awareness Month

April 3, 2009

April is Autism Awareness Month, and Thursday was World Autism Awareness Day. In our family, both the day and the month are important ones.

 autism-ribbon2When our son Sage was diagnosed at age 3 with Pervasive Development Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (the highest functioning form of the disorder) in 2006, we, as parents went through the whole gambit of emotions.

 Our son was now “labeled.” He would now be known as different. He would be in special education. He would be (as one of the special education professionals from Grant Wood AEA put it) “one of the retards on the short bus.”

 But we realized that for Sage to get the help and support he needed, we had to do this; we needed to get him into special education and we needed to get him the support that – try as we might – we can’t always give him.

And as we head into the third year of the diagnosis, we have come to learn something. While we obviously wish Sage did not have the developmental struggles he has, we have discovered that he is at the same time truly unique and wonderful in his own special way.

He is one of the most loving children I have ever met. Not just to his family, but to his friends, his teachers – everyone. He loves to give hugs and tell you to have a nice day. He loves to talk to people and while he has had issues over the years with parallel rather than playing with friends, he is getting better with that every day.

He is also a musical genius. Sage has an incredible aptitude for music, especially playing keyboards. He learns songs by ear, and has even begun to plunk out melodies of his own, which he has learned how to record into the memory of the keyboards. My son, American Idol, Season 20!

Sage, the ever-goofball, doing his impression of Jerry Lewis.

Sage, the ever-goofball, doing his impression of Jerry Lewis.

Sage also has an incredible sense of humor. He loves to laugh and make people around him laugh. His latest bit is getting my incredibly nerdy-looking reading glasses on, then doing kind of a Jerry Lewis/Professor Frink thing that will have you rolling the floor in seconds. And the more you laugh the more it delights him.

So where am I going with all of this? I’m really sure, other than to say this: the label of autism has come to mean many things, and the spectrum of it is vast and, at times, hard to totally understand.

But for Sage and for our family, while there are struggles at times, there are also many, many other times where it almost feels like a gift. We have been given a beautiful, intelligent, talented and loving child. And isn’t that what every parent wants?

That’s my boy…and I love to talk about him

March 17, 2009

I like to think of myself as an advocate. I’m an advocate for my political views, for my community, for my school district, for the teams I coach, and – most importantly – my family. My father has Alzheimer’s disease and my son is high-functioning autistic, so those are two of my greatest causes.

Sage and me relaxing at Christmas 2008.

Sage and me relaxing at Christmas 2008.

Today I performed a little of that advocacy in the case of my son. I was invited to speak to the high school Child Development class about Sage, his development, his autism and his life.

I love to talk about Sage, my beautiful boy. I sat in a room full of high school sophomores and told them the story of his life. I talked about him being five weeks early and not breathing for his 45 seconds of life. I talked about our early fears that he first could have been blind, then perhaps have cerebral palsy. I talked about his developmental delays and his struggles. I talked about the challenges he is going to face in life and how I hoped that the fact that his mother and I have always tried to be proactive and make sure whatever he needs to make his life the best it can be.

But I also talked about his beautiful spirit. I talked about his beaming smile, his incredible memory for amazing facts – he knows all 50 states and their capitals, he’s memorized several different countries and their capitals and he knows everyone in his extended family’s birthdays and anniversaries – his incredible musical talents, and his incredible capacity for love.

Having fun in the backyard in 2004.

Having fun in the backyard in 2004.

Sage loves to hug you. Once he’s met you, he’s your friend. He remembers the most random things. I told the kids today about last summer, when I was making up the program for the Regional softball tournament. I had a copy of our roster laying on the desk. Sage – as he does – picked it up and started rattling off things like “Brittany is number 1! Paige is number 4! Ashley is number 8!”

Back in December, when Paige broke her arm in basketball, I was telling my wife about what had happened. Sage was listening in and when Paige’s name came up, he chimed in, “You mean Paige that’s number 4 in softball?”

I looked at him a moment, did a double-take, then moved on. A while back I decided to stop being surprised by things when if comes to my son.

One of the kids in the class asked me later in the day if I got emotional a couple of times while I was talking. I did; I always do when I talk about Sage. But it isn’t because of his challenges. We all face challenges in life; they’re physical and mental and developmental and emotional and financial and personal and public. They run through every aspect of our lives and none of us ever escapes them.

No, I get emotional about Sage every time I talk about him, because of how much I love him and how proud I am every day of him. He gets up in the morning and faces life with a smile; for him most days are an opportunity to laugh and learn and play his keyboards and watch his programs. His days are spent with his friends and teachers at school and at Happy Time.

But at the end of the day, no matter how bad of day I’ve had, the whole thing is made for me when I walk into his Happy Time room, he looks up and sees me, that big smile comes across his face and he yells “DADDY!” as he runs to my arms.

I had a friend – a very good and well-meaning friend – say to me one time that it was too bad Sage wasn’t “normal.”

“He’s such a beautiful little boy,” they said. “It really is a shame.”

The thing is, Sage is normal; he’s Sage. He’s the Sage we’ve had since birth and he’s the only Sage we know and we love him so very, very much. I’m proud of him every day and wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the world, just the way he is. 

Tribute to a friend, and to a dream that has passed…

March 13, 2009

Ah, the absurdity of it all. Tuesday, The Vinton Eagle, my creation gone wrong, went wronger (yes, I realize that isn’t a word, but I’m out of practice). For reasons that make about as much sense as they did when I was deposed as publisher a year ago, the ownership of the Eagle elected to get rid of the most valuable member of their team when they fired sports editor Tom Lundvall.

Tom was a member of the Eagle before there was an Eagle. As the resident Mac-expert in town, he was the one that helped us set up our computer systems, first wiring up our Fifth Street location, then twice wiring up the current Eagle building, not once, but twice – pre and post Legion fire. He labored over our computers like they were children in his care. After the fire, he carefully examined, cleaned and upgraded each piece of equipment.

After a couple of years, I realized we needed a sports editor; another person to help bring the best of local news to Eagle readers. And while he was a full-blown novice at the job, I offered it to him and he jumped in with both feet. He covered Union and Center Point-Urbana with a passion and devotion that caught on quickly. And – the dirty rat – quickly became a good photographer; hard as it is to admit, better than me! So good, in fact, that he won a first-place plaque at the Iowa Newspaper Association convention this year for the best sports photo in the largest weekly division.

In March of last year, when my business partners decided to “go a different direction” and remove me as publisher and editor, Tom took over my job, and began doing what I did the first couple of years of the Eagle; namely everything in the day-to-day operations of putting out a newspaper. Of course, I had over a quarter of a century of experience in journalism, and my wife, who helped out at night and on her days off from her full-time job at The Gazette, had more than a decade of community journalism experience. But that didn’t matter as much to some people as their 40 years of experience as a reader.

While trying to juggle all of that plus his family, Tom flourished. He did a good job of news coverage, kept up with the sports coverage, and even did a good job of things when The Eagle made the decision to widen their scope by including Benton Community, which only added to his work load. He was the first journalist to find the missing section of Highway 150 during last year’s flooding and worked tirelessly through the entire crisis.

It wasn’t easy and was extremely time-consuming, but Tom drove on, trying to keep the tenants alive of what Angie and I envisioned when we created The Eagle, right up until Tuesday when he was let go. It was actually kind of ironic; 53 weeks before Tuesday, I was cut loose right before Union played in the State basketball tournament. Tom was cut loose the night before Benton played there.

It saddens me that it has all come to this. It saddens me that my friend lost his job and it saddens me that the paper that my wife and I envisioned, sitting on our deck one September night in 2004, has gone in an entirely different direction than we wanted.

You did a good job, my friend, and you deserved better for all of your hard work. 

Off the upside-down market

March 8, 2009

Since Angie and I were married in 1996, we’ve moved five-and-a-half times. The half-time was me moving from my house in Vinton to Angie’s duplex in Belle Plaine when we got married. That was actually one of our saner moves.


From there we moved three months later to Junction City, Kan., to a rental house that our boss picked out and we never saw for the first time until we actually moved into it. It was cute, small, but just big enough for the two of us and two cats.


Not long after that we moved to Leavenworth and into a cute split-level duplex. But it was a second-choice. I had a job already in Leavenworth, but Angie was convinced that she was going to be a big city girl, working in the Country Club Plaza in the downtown Kansas City, Mo., so living somewhere in between was the perfect solution.


Trouble was when we applied for a place at 78th Street and State Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., we got turned down, mainly because Angie didn’t have a job yet. So we ended up in Leavenworth. In the end it was better, because it turned out that the place we applied for was in the middle of gang activity and sometime in the first few weeks we were there, there was a shooting in that complex.


In June 2000, we bought what is still our dream house. A story-and-a-half with a finished basement, three bathrooms, fenced-in backyard and great location. We spent six months redoing the wallpaper and painting and fixing the place up. It was great. It where we lived when Sage was born, and where we had some of the best times of our life.


But in late 2003, with both of us working in Atchison, we sold our house and rented this massive, historic restored brick house, just blocks from the city’s riverfront. It was temporary, as we made plans to buy a new house soon. It was a great house too, but was too much house for us and far from the location we wanted.


But as it turned out, the house we bought and location we found was a long way from Atchison. In May 2004, Angie got her dream job at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, so our house and location became Vinton.


We bought a small, cute place, that for Angie and I and a then almost 2-year old Sage (and the cats of course), was a little small, but it was meant to be temporary at best. Worst part was that I picked it out without Angie, who was still in Kansas – guys, NEVER do that.


Well, it’s going on five years, and finances being what we are today, we’re upside down on it. Between refinancing to throw money down the Vinton Eagle’s drain, putting in central air and replacing the bathroom, we’re in the situation many Americans are in today.


We have perpetually had a “For Sale” sign in our front yard for four years as we hope against hope on finding that bigger house – sort of a Vinton version of the house we had in Leavenworth. The big thing is finding someone to buy this place, and second is to find the right place for us.


But after months (heck, years) of this process, we’ve kind of decided to back away from the process. First, our bankers kind of laughed at us when we discussed it with them recently. Second, we don’t know for sure what (or where) the future holds.


Angie is set at the Gazette, but I have six months or so left in graduate school. When I finish my master’s program in Special Education, my first choice is going to be to work here in the Vinton-Shellsburg school district, or at least close enough that it would be realistic to stay here in town.


But, if I got a job on the other side of Cedar Rapids or somewhere like that – somewhere that would make it unrealistic to stay in town, then we’d have to look at other options. It would be silly of us both to be commuting.


So, we are, in essence, off the market. We’re going to upgrade the furniture and an appliance or two, maybe paint here and there. We’re going to quit treating this house like a rental and a place to keep our stuff until the next place turns around.


Hopefully in a few months or years, the housing market will straighten out, we’ll get our dream house again and all will be right with the world. But for now we’re going to be patient and tolerant and see what happens. That’s about all we can do as a family, or as country.

Don’t stop Jenny, just stop the misinformation

March 2, 2009

As the parent of an autistic child, we have over the last three years spent a lot of time researching the condition, reading articles, looking at everything we could to understand the world our beautiful boy lives in.

Along the way, we read a lot of the articles about actress Jenny McCarthy and her son Evan, who has autism. It was sad to read how Evan’s father had abandoned them, being unable to handle Evan’s condition. But was even sadder was McCarthy’s assertation that autism was curable, and that it was caused by vaccines.

We are among that group of parents (thankfully, the majority) that recognizes the scientific facts (the real ones). We understand the fact that autism is not caused by anything other genetics. We understand that there is not a cure for it – not a diet or a drug or anything else – only therapies that can help Sage better develop into the best he can be.

Don’t get me wrong; I fully support McCarthy’s advocacy for her son. She would be less of a parent if she didn’t try something. But the trouble is that as a celebrity, McCarthy has her followers, and unfortunately she is filling them with misinformation.

There is no scientific research that supports the idea that Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccinations cause autism. There is no scientific research that shows that a gluten-free, dairy-free diet either prevents the symptoms of autism or cures it. Yet McCarthy holds to those beliefs and uses her celebrity to promote these mistaken beliefs. If you are going to be an advocate, at least be accurate.

As the parent of an autistic child, my whole life centers around my son and his well-being. Because of that, it is counterproductive when publicity centers around snake-oil cures and causes that don’t exist.

That’s just it. I don’t blame anything or anyone for Sage’s condition. The vaccine or diet crowd feels a need to blame someone or something. They cling to the idea it couldn’t be genetics, just as they likely do that the world is only 5,000 years old and flat. There is no blame; it happens.

I have never looked at Sage’s condition as something that needs “cured,” or needs to have “blame” attached to it. On the contrary, Sage is a joy to be around, just like any other 6-year old is. He is adorable, funny, a musical genius, has a photographic memory and loves to cuddle (like he’s trying to do right now). I would no more trade him than any of you would your own children.

There is a new Internet movement to stop McCarthy and her followers. The main site is www.stopjenny.com But there are tons of links when you get there.

The thing is that Jenny McCarthy is no different than any of the rest of us when it comes to caring for her child. But the problem is that her caring is misguided and the information she is promoting is misinformation.

Jenny, I admire your zeal, but what you’re telling people is wrong. Be an advocate, but advocate the truth. Please. For Evan and Sage and all of the other kids, please.

I’m just sitting here…

March 2, 2009

About a year ago, my main outlet for my love of writing got taken away (we’ll discuss that more in the future), but I’ve decided to go ahead and join the blogger world and bring back responsible commentary to local media. We call this little operation “Watching The Wheels” which will be the news commentary counterpart to v-ssportz.com.

Hope you enjoy it!