BERLIN — The news hit hard and fast: the community's beloved high school basketball coach had a cancerous brain tumor.
Within days, hundreds of people crowded in hospital corridors waiting to talk to coach Perry Reese Jr. His former players flew in from Atlanta, Chicago, South Carolina, even Germany.
When Reese, 47, returned home, well-wishers stood in line outside his farmhouse in nearby Mount Hope. A prayer vigil drew 800 people, and many 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.
Klar and others said they're amazed how Reese, who is black and from Canton, was able to capture the heart of a community that is located 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.
Reese fits in as coach and social studies teacher because he extols the virtues of the community: hard work, discipline and respect, said Dave Schlabach, coach of the high school girls basketball team. He said Reese is the perfect match for a high school where about half of the roughly 250 students have roots in the Amish or related but less strict Mennonite sects.
"He's about the only black man in the county. From the very start, the community has been accepting of him," said Schlabach, 33. "Here you've got a black Catholic man in a white Amish/Mennonite area — that didn't matter."
Reese also has turned the small farming town of about 1,000 people 64 miles south of Cleveland into a basketball community. Over the past 16 years, he has complied 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 where they lost to eventual state champion Fort Jennings.
"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 will who will get the tickets.
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," he said from his home Thursday.
Reese, who had been suffering from memory loss, found out June 28 that doctors found an inoperable malignant tumor behind his left eye socket.
"That was the toughest few minutes of my life. Perry probably took it better than all of us," said Schlabach, who was with Reese when the diagnosis came back.
Jason Mishler, 18, who was one of the team's stars last season, was devastated by the news about the man he considers to be his second father. for a while he thought about delaying starting classes at West Liberty State College in Wheeling, WV,. to help watch over Reese. But he knew his coach would never go for that.
"If there's one thing he wants me to do is to go to school, play ball and get a degree," he said.
Like many youngsters, Mishler first met Reese in the fifth grade when he started playing basketball. He bonded immediately with the man who would become his best friend and teach him about life on and off the basketball court.
"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."
During a game or practice, Reese screams at his players, just inches from their faces. But Mishler said the students don't mind because they know it's the coach's way of showing he cares.
"No matter whatever took place in a game and how upset he might have been, when the game was over, they knew he was their best friend," said Hiland Athletics Director Colin Mishler.
Reese, who never married, has been in dozens of weddings, including Schlabach's five years ago.
"These kids are his family," said Schlabach, who was a senior when Reese became an assistant coach for the 1984-85 season. "Perry said he felt that if he got married, he couldn't be the type of coach he needed to be for the kids."