BERLIN, Ohio — When this community learned its beloved high school basketball coach had a cancerous brain tumor, the news hit hard.
Within days, hundreds of people crowded hospital corridors waiting for a chance to talk to Perry Reese Jr., known affectionately as "Coach. Former players flew in from Atlanta, Chicago, South Carolina, even Germany. And a prayer vigil drew 800 people, many who quietly cried as they reflected on the man who inspired their children.
"Other than God, he's probably the most loved person in Holmes County," said Doug Klar, who met Reese 16 years ago while selling athletic equipment to Berlin Hiland High School.
The outpouring of love and support for Reese would be out of the ordinary in many communities. But what makes the display even more noteworthy is the fact that Reese is the only black living in the middle of the world's largest settlement of Amish, a deeply religious group that shuns modern conveniences such as electricity, telephones and cars.
"From the very start, the community has been accepting of him," said Dave Schlabach, coach of the high school girls basketball team. "Here you've got a black Catholic man in a white Amish/Mennonite area — that didn't matter."
Reese fits in as coach and social studies teacher because he extols the virtues of the community: hard work, discipline and respect, said Schlabach. He called Reese the perfect match for a high school where about half of the roughly 250 students' backgrounds are Amish or Mennonite — a less strict sect of the Amish.
Reese, who is also a social studies teacher, turned the small farming town of about 1,000 into a basketball community. Over the past 16 years, he has compiled a 304-85 record and led Hiland to its only state championship in 1992. The Hawks advanced to their third consecutive semifinal this past season.
"Hiland was put on the athletic map because of Perry," said Schlabach as he walked through the new high school gym that was funded by $1.3 million in private donations. Basketball is so hot that 900 of the gym's 1,600 seats are for season ticket holders and some people put in their wills who will get the tickets.
Reese, who had been suffering from memory loss, found out June 28 that doctors found an inoperable malignant tumor behind his left eye socket. His prognosis is bleak, and it is unclear how long he may live.
Jason Mishler, 18, who was one of the team's stars last season and considers Reese a "second father," was devastated.
"When you have someone who wants you to succeed, you can't help but admire him," Mishler said. "Everything about him is so sincere. That's what makes him so unique. I would do anything for him."
Reese said he feels uncomfortable about all the attention and wouldn't talk about his life other than to thank the hundreds of people who have visited him and sent cards.
"There's been a lot of community support and I appreciate and respect that but I prefer to stay away from (the attention)," he said from his farmhouse in nearby Mt. Hope on Thursday.