If the measure of a man's success can be judged by the numbers of friends he had and the lives he changed for the better, then Perry Lee Reese Jr. died a wealthy man.
Reese was a Canton native who never played high-school basketall. He graduated from Timken High School and Muskingum College, and, in 1984, he arrived in Berlin, Ohio, to teach and coach basketball at Hiland High School.
At the time, he was the only African-American Catholic in Holmes County, which was home to the world's largest settlement of Amish and Mennonites. But there was somethng else about Reese that made him different.
"Perry didn't see color — everybody was the same to him, and he made you feel like you were the only person in the world," said Patricia Huebner, director of religious education at Millersburg St. Peter Church. Reese had been a parishioner there for about two decades.
Reese was blind to race and religion. Instead, he saw the best part of people's humanity, often by bringing it out of them himself.
Reese was one of five children. Growing up in Canton, "he had a love for young people even when he was younger. He took them under his wing. He was the big brother of the neighborhood," said Jennifer Betha, Reese's sister.
"He didn't see color back then either. We weren't raised black or white, we were just raised as kids, and everybody played together. He had a strong faith in God. It was God who sent him there to Berlin. He was tall in stature — a big man — but he was like a giant how he tested the lives of people," she said.
Despite numerous other job opportunities, Reese stayed at Hiland, where he coached as well as taught American history and curent events. In addition to compiling a 304-85 career record, Reese led Hiland to its only state championship in 1992 and guided the Hawks as they advanced to their third consecutive semifinal last season.
This past spring, Reese was urged by fellow faculty members to visit the hospital after experiencing memory losses. In June, doctors found an inoperable malignant tumor behind Reese's left eye-socket and gave him six months to live. At age 48, Reese brought the entire community to its knees when he died of brain cancer on Nov. 22, 2000.
"Perry had a lot of people who would consider him their best friend. I don't think I know anybody who had more friends than he had. It's a hard loss for all the school and community," said Matt Johnson, principal at Hiland.
"Perry was like the Catholic Will Rogers — he never met a man he didn't like," said Father Ronald J. Aubry, pastor at St. Peter. "He was the best thing that ever happened to ecumenical relationships between Catholics and Amish and Mennonites. When he first came here to Holmes County, there was considerable prejudice against blacks and Catholics. He alleviated a lot of it. His legacy is going to live on in terms of relationships between various groups in this county — to not sit in judgment of one another — by his example," said Father Aubry.
"There was something about him that attracted people to him. He was so secure in himself. He knew who he was. He had respect for himself and other people," he added.
In life, Reese's farmhouse was constantly filled with friends, students and players. When he got sick, it practically had a revolving door.
His hospital room had shifts of visitors, his room at the nursing home was jammed with well-wishers, and, at his funeral, St. Peter Church was packed beyond capacity. His basketball players all came wearing white shirts, ties and jeans, an ensemble that Reese himself enforced on game days.
Todd Rock, basketball coach at Bishop Rosecrans High School in Zanesville, said of his friendly rival, "There must be a team up there that needs a great coach, because he called one of the best."
So devoted were Reese's former players, that many came back to Hiland during their breaks from college to play with the team and help out at practices. Some even came back to stay.
"A lot of people know him for the coaching and the records, but that was not what he was about," said Keith Troyer, a former player under Reese who was also assistant coach for the past three years. "It's not what he did as a coach, but the fact that, everyone he came in contact with, he made feel special in their own way — and not just the players, all the kids in the school."
Troyer, the fourth-grade teacher at Winesburg Elementary School agreed to serve as head basketball coach at Hiland just for this year. "I look at it as he gave me a lot the last 10 years, I'm just returning the favor as a friend," said Troyer.
Craig Hershberger, guidance counselor at Hiland, knew Reese for about 16 years. "He had a commitment to people, not just to the kids. We all miss him more than anything else," said Hershberger.
"He took a lot of pride in what he did as a teacher. He was a difficult teacher, and students respected him. As much as he challenged his basketball players on the court, he challenged his students in the classroom on their views and ideas," he added.
Peg Brand is one of the secretaries at Hiland and a parent of one of Reese's students. "Perry had an ability to make you feel like you were his special friend. He brightened up the room when he walked in," said Brand.
"We miss not having him around to stir things up and get things going. He had this way of thinking and looking at things and carrying himself. I never met anybody else like him. He broadened our minds and kept us on our toes on the way we looked at the world," she added.
As a parent, Brand said that Reese "was an excellent teacher who made kids look at things in a different way He made them think."
Cliff Sprang is an 18-year-old senior at Hiland. Sprang was one of Reese's players as well as one of his students.
Sprang said that Reese would "do anything for you. He was like a second father. He'd take you out to the movies and talk to you about problems, just like one of your best friends. You could open up to him, and it would be just between you two. He was the same as a coach."
What made Reese such a good coach were the same things that made him such an effective teacher. He was a friend and a mentor who taught love and discipline.
"He was one of a kind. There will never be anyone like him ever to come into this community again," said Sprang. "To be here so long and have such an impact—it's just unreal. He succeeded in life — he succeeded in everything."
Every one at Hiland will miss Reese's legendary sense of humor and constant presence. Whether he was grabbing one of his players in a headlock or leaning against the door sucking on a lollipop, "He always made sure you knew he was in the hallway," said Sprang.
Audrey Johnson is another of Reese's sisters. She said, "Perry didn't do things for people to love him; he did things without expecting anything in return."
His progression to Holmes County, Berlin and Hiland High School was "natural — like the Lord had his hand on him — opening up doors and closing doors — getting to the door God wanted him," said Johnson.
"One person can make a difference — can change things and make a difference in people's lives. Barriers are going to be broken, families draw together. Perry's purpose is still going to be done. He was an instrument that God used. He was a gift from God."
When people ask Johnson if Reese had any children, she says, "Yeah. About 1,000 or more."
Even in death, Reese was still taking care of his children. Before he died, Reese requested that a scholarship fund be established, and, in lieu of flowers for his funeral, he asked that donations be made to the Perry Reese Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund, in care of Hiland Academic Booster Club.
A humble and private person, if Reese knew all the commotion he caused, he would probably say in his trademark way, "Unbelievable."