A call and a letter lured me; a need to escape too many responsibilities pushed me into dropping out of Illinois during the first week of October. I live in a world of gray. A part of me is delighted that I took the time to go, but another part says, "never again." I miss my younger days when the world was black and white, when an act was either all good or all bad. Hoping for a glimpse into those days motivated me to go south.
I attended (and played soccer for) a junior college, Warren Wilson, located in the western mountains of North Carolina, from the fall of 1962 until I earned my Associates of Arts degree in 1964. The school lies in the Swannanoa Valley eight miles or so west of Asheville in one of the most beautiful settings for a college campus I've ever seen.
I'd been out of high school for a year, working on our small dairy farm and in a local factory long enough to know I didn't want to live with my parents forever and to realize it would be hard to build a solid future without more than a high school diploma. Future wife Judy, who graduated from high school a year after I, remarked in passing that she'd never marry anyone who didn't have a college degree.
She and I were good friends only. We attended the same rural Presbyterian Church and her brother and I were good friends, but neither of us had romantic interest in the other at the time (I thought she was too far above me socially and economically). Others, teachers from high school, had told my parents I should consider a good school. Dad's response was, "We don't have the money." Still, my growing realization that I wasn't content, Judy's comment, and the teachers' urging had my mind open for suggestions.
A traveling WWC rep/recruiter visited our church in March of 1962. Our parish minister had a daughter attending the school, which was supported by the Presbyterian National Board of Missions, so it was a church-related school. When Judy, half-joking, said she would go if I would (she was interested because of the lower cost–thanks to the work program–Danny was going to Penn State, Joan to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and two younger sisters expected to be educated), I committed.
Once on campus, I was recruited for the soccer team because I could run. We were timed in the 40 in a P.E. class. Sam Miller, the fiery Irish coach who doubled as the heating plant engineer, was blunt when he approached me. "We have plenty of players, but we don't have enough Americans. Other schools don't want to schedule us because we have so many international players. Join us, and I'll teach you the game; pass on what I teach to others after you leave here." He didn't promise me playing time, just a chance to be an intercollegiate athlete if I came to practice every day. I was to become a token American.
In that era, because of its Mission School status, roughly 20 percent of the student body were from another country. At least 20 of them were lads who had played soccer from the cradle.
They were talented. Skill-wise, I didn't belong on the same pitch with them, but Coach Miller liked me. "Liked" to him meant he felt comfortable criticizing most everything I did. At the first practice of my sophomore year, he felt comfortable enough to stand on my stomach during leg lifts while commenting about how hard some of us would have to work to regain playing shape. When he was displeased, he'd roll his eyes and his R's to shout, "That's garbage, Ron." I heard that so often I thought "garbage" was my first name.
The players were from Lebanon, Asia, Kenya, Mexico, Syria and Turkey. I tried to be friendly to all of them, something the southern whites struggled to do. Slowly I was accepted by both factions, not a small feat in North Carolina in the early '60s. Three Americans made the traveling team: the goalie from Washington DC, an outside forward from New England, and "that strong farm kid from somewhere in Pennsylvania with the funny name." It was Marwan Jadeed who identified me that way; how anyone named Marwan could think my name was funny was beyond me.
When I was a freshman, we lost two matches–to Guilford College 2-1, and to the University of North Carolina freshmen, 6-4. We tied the Duke Frosh 4-4, and we won the other seven, easily. Except for the Friday/Saturday contests in Raleigh and Durham, we only played on Saturday afternoons.
Over the summer I assumed I had a chance to start as a sophomore (a good number of players had moved on), but when I met the new freshmen recruits that fall, I knew better.
Among them were Aydin Gonulsen (from Turkey) and Nigerian Cyprian Ezike. Both were All-Americans that season. Ezike later played professionally with the Cleveland Stokers and, according to Jadeed, played against Pele when he was featured with his Brazilian teammates on a country-wide tour in the '70s. Ezike featured the fastest, hardest shot I've ever witnessed. He'd laugh at me when I was assigned to defend him in practice, but it was a friendly laugh.
That season we Owls were 10-0; in fact only two teams scored on us during the regular season. I was gifted with playing time when our lead was safe, and the road trips in the Owl bus over mountain roads (the interstate system was not yet complete) were memorable. We bonded as a group more than any other group with which I've been associated, though the Phillips, Kasten, Black, Hess, Golitko, Tolle, Navik, Dorf, Krummel, Major freshmen team here (25-0) came close. Work wise, the years Mrs. Hewitt, Mrs. Brink, and I team-taught freshman English also came close.
We were 17-2-1 over the two grandiose seasons, and as a result of the undefeated year, WWC was invited to the National Junior College Tournament in Buffalo, NY. We traveled by station wagon (three of them–two owned and driven by the coaches, the third by a WWC fan) because the school couldn't afford to fly us and the Owl bus couldn't be trusted. On the way Gonulsen was kicked out of the Miller station wagon because of incessant questions; I assume Miller knew Dr. Kline would pick him up, though it crowded us.
Our first match was scheduled for the afternoon we arrived, and we were rather stiff. Trenton (NJ) shocked us 5-0. The next day for third place we beat Hudson Valley (NY) 6-1. Miller offered to play Trenton again, but they declined; they'd beaten Florissant Valley (St. Louis) for the title.
Gonulsen and Ezicke earned a return trip for the team in 1964, and they finished second, losing a close match in the finals. I played for Berea College (KY) that fall. Miller typically sent players to Berea or to Blackburn, other schools with work and soccer programs.
Much has changed since then. I've grown old, fat and immobile in Hillsboro. WWC became a four year school in 1969, the second year I taught here. The affiliation with the church is not as strong now. Their basketball team has earned distinction lately, as the 2012-2013 squad won the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association (Division II) national championship in a 10-team tournament played in Uniontown, PA, so the recruiting emphasis is there. WWC followed Title IX guidelines and now fields female teams; the homecoming games were against Berea. The players on both squads were 90 percent American produced.
Coach Miller later won acclaim as he introduced soccer as a sport to the UNC-Asheville campus. He and assistant coach Dr. William Klein have died, as has Ezike.
I've visited with Gonulsen a few times. Judy and I met him wandering on a path in Allerton Park (near Monticello) shortly after he began his job directing the Springfield YMCA's youth soccer program. I also visited with him when he coached Sangamon State's team to championship results in the NAIA.
Ten years ago or so he came to a clinic in Nokomis sponsored by Denny Umberger. He asked me to pass the ball with him in a spur-of-the-moment demonstration for the mothers who were present. Afterward I reminded him he'd seldom pass the ball to me during a match. His response was coach-direct. "If I kept it and dribbled, I had a chance to score; if I passed it back, chances were you'd lose it."
I'd returned to WWC twice, but never for homecoming. When daughter Dawn was a junior, her mom and I made the trek to North Carolina with her in hopes she'd go there and find the peace and purpose in life we had found. She visited a math class and came back with her nose in the air. "Mr. Reeves is a much better teacher than that guy." (I suspect there aren't many who could pass the Mr. Reeves litmus test).
When Kaylyn was driving on her permit, we visited the school and my sister, who now lives in nearby Hendersonville, because I wanted to make contact with Ernst Laurson, my farm crew supervisor, the basketball coach then for whom I kept score and the gymnastics coach when I dabbled in that sport. Next to my father and Judy's father, Mr. Laursen was the male who had the most influence in my formative years. He probably had the most influence as I transformed from a kid into a man.
I had never returned for any of the October homecomings, though, because I always had duties at that time of year. Part of the WWC mantra was to serve, to do whatever needs doing whenever it needs to be done, and I've always tried to be dependable. This year wasn't different, duty wise, but . . .
In June I received the aforementioned call from one of Judy's WWC friends, Nancy Allen. Actually, Pavel here at the newspaper office was her first contact. I think he's still chuckling about that conversation. She explained a new program the school had established for "Teams of Merit," and she said the '63 and '64 soccer teams were to be honored. She asked if I could come since I was retired. A letter from the school explaining the program and making the same request soon followed.
In early July I bought Amtrak tickets through Pegasus as a commitment to myself that I would go. Just as I was having second thoughts, Jadeed called to be sure I was coming, so I left Carlinville Tuesday morning, Oct. 1. My sister and her husband picked me up in Greenville, SC (as close to Asheville as Amtrak goes) early Thursday, Oct. 3. I had a day to visit with them and two days to spend at WWC before I left Greenville at 11 p.m Saturday to head back to my truck in Carlinville early Monday evening.
I missed daily responsibilities, like ferrying Kam-ryn hither and yon and feeding the kids' critters. I missed keeping stats on and reporting the Vandalia football game (thanks, Coach Hart and Coach Burke for covering). Since 1970 I'd missed only one other varsity football game when I was hospitalized with kidney stones. I missed one LLCC class, church, checking papers and three committee meetings. I haven't caught up yet.
Also on the negative side, not many of us showed up for the ceremonies. Some have passed, inevitably, in the last 50 years. Many live back in their native lands (Marwan's wife returned to Syria to be with her family, and now she's trapped there). Some are too old, or too infirm, to travel. (I'm rapidly approaching that status). Undoubtedly some were too busy, as I could/should have been.
Despite that, I'm glad I went. George Saba, who played at Blackburn after WWC was there. Our manager, Solamon Hamway, flew to Asheville from Lebanon. Jadeed and Doug Miller were there. We shared stories about those who weren't there.
Enough of us congregated at the alumni breakfast that we were politely asked to leave the alumni meeting that followed because our catching up on old times was disruptive. It wasn't the first time we'd been asked to leave an establishment.
On Friday I joined a tour of the campus, now know for its greenness as well as its self-sufficiency. The tour was led by a clear-eyed, no-nonsense envisionary who began by saying, "I have no fears for Mother Earth; she's withstood worse than we can do. It's the survival of the human race that concerns me." If I were just starting as a college freshman, I'd be drawn again to the spirit of that campus sheltered by the mountains.
I missed the induction banquet. It was delayed for an hour, and I was afraid I'd miss the train back to Illinois. Even at 70, and even as much as I enjoyed the trip back to where I spent magic days 50 years ago, I find it more productive to look to the future.
In the end, duty won after all.