That is what the people who knew Perry Reese Jr. called the man who overcame some incredible odds as a Catholic black man trying to fit into an all-white, conservative Mennonite and Amish community.
Reese survived ridicule, arrogance, hatred and racism by some as he took over the beloved Hiland boys basketball program following the retirement of Charlie Huggins after the 1983-84 season. All Reese did after taking over the program was fashion a stunning 304-85 record during his 16-year career, going to the State tournament six times, and assembling an unforgettable march to a quite improbable State title in 1992.
Yes, Reese certainly earned the moniker Coach.
But if you could turn back the hands of time, and ask the man who did so much on the floor what he felt an appropriate nickname was, he undoubtedly would have preferred the name Teacher.
That is what Reese seemed to be doing at every turn, at every stop, in every game, on every day, in every opportunity... teaching.
Reese was a relentless teacher. He taught in his history classroom at school. He taught on the court during practice or on game day. He taught in his quaint little house in Berlin, where, after Reese had caused the walls of bigotry to come crumbling down in East Holmes, he had a non-stop parade of students, players, fans and friends coming and going at all hours of the day and night. He taught when it came to taking under his wing players who found themselves struggling in life. Whether it was hoops, relationships or lessons in life, Reese was in constant teaching mode.
Yes, Coach was his nickname, but teaching was Reese's true calling.
One decade ago, the man called Coach passed from this world to his eternal home. Reese passed away Nov. 22, 2000, succumbing to an inoperable brain tumor. With sobs of grief, and questions as to why a man who meant so much to so many would be taken far too early in life, the community gathered at a memorial service in the very gymnasium where Reese had made his name. The man called Coach was ready to move on. The community was not.
During his time in Holmes County, Reese changed the way people thought about the color of a person's skin. He knocked down barriers and misconceptions, and turned around the hearts of many of those he touched during his lifetime.
But how has time treated the groundwork Reese laid in this rural community, which knew little of the black community before Reese arrived? Ten years later, what kind of legacy and lasting impact has the man called Coach left behind?
Everyone's best friend
Rick and Peg Brand were about as close as anyone could be to Coach, who was a friend to all, but let very few people into his personal life. Both look back fondly over the years they spent with Reese, and both have spoken often about how unfortunate it is that the youth of today won't get to experience the joy of knowing the man for who he was.
"I feel for the kids who will never have the chance to realize how caring he was and how special he was," said Peg Brand. "Knowing Perry was a life-changing experience, because no matter who you were, he always made you feel special. He had a real knack at that. There was this trust that came with Perry when it came to dealing with kids, and it was far greater in the classroom than it was even on the basketball court. He wasn't afraid to get kids to open up about things... things that they wouldn't even talk to their parents about. He had this kind heart that was always reaching out to others. He just had this ability to make people so willing to trust him, to confide in him.
"He was constantly just trying to make each one of the kids a better person, and his impact on kids in particular was amazing. He made each one feel special."
Brand, a long-time secretary at Hiland and the assistant athletic director for years, said that it seemed like every time she turned around, there was another student talking about how they had this special bond with Coach, only to realize that he had that effect on just about every student. Tiny, mundane details about each student were never far from the recesses of Reese's mind, and he could recall them at a moment's notice.
Following the Regional final win at Canton in 2000, an elderly gentleman approached Reese while in the midst of a mob of well-wishers and reporters. The elderly man sheepishly and quietly wished Coach the best of luck and told Reese his name, not expecting him to recognize him from their encounter years earlier. It was as though all of the hoopla dissipated, and the raucous throng disappeared, and all that as left was two good friends, hashing out the good old days.
To the man's surprise, Reese did recall his name, as well where they had met and what they had talked about. That was Coach being Coach... making the people he was near feel like they were the only person that mattered to him at that moment.
That same night Reese's friend, Doug Klar, had a similar experience. Klar had invited Dover football coach Dan Ifft to the game, and following the victory quickly went to introduce him to Reese. He recalled that elderly gentleman, and also was mesmerized when Reese began gushing over Ifft, rather than talking up his own very recent glories.
"Coach just kept talking to Dan about how much he admired the way he went about his coaching tasks," said Klar. "No matter what was going on around him, Perry had this way of making people feel special. Perry was a great coach, but he was an even better man. His wins paved the way to acceptance as a black man in a very white community, but eventually it was the man himself who won people's hearts over."
Klar said that Reese's biggest victory was not in any State title or championship, but his victory came in his death. "He was ready to go, because he had great faith," said Klar. "He was far more ready to go than all of those around him. We all still miss him. Rarely a day goes by that something doesn't remind me of him. That's the kind of impact he had on people."
"I'm not afraid to die"
Reese attended Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Millersburg. As though being a black man in the midst of lily-white Amish Country weren't enough of a challenge, he was also a Catholic man situated in the heart of Mennonite Central, which is why he eventually found his way to Millersburg, under the pastoral care of Father Ron Aubry.
Aubry said that Reese's faith was quite substantial, and one of the final times Aubry spoke with Reese, not long before his passing, he was amazed and awed at how ready Reese was to move on from this life.
"Here was Perry, undergoing tests galore, and all of these people were around him just almost inconsolable," said Aubry. "I was in his room, and a nurse was getting ready to take him in for more tests, and he looked at me so resolutely and said, "I am not afraid to die. I know where I'm going.
"There was so much power, so much peace. I still think that Perry's greatest impact on those he touched during his life weren't even Catholic. They were everyday people in the community, and even those in his family who weren't Catholic. He had a way of moving beyond religion to the core of faith. He bore a positive witness and tried to uplift others in his life. Those are qualities we should all be fortunate to have in our own lives."
Pat Huebner, who was the Sunday School director when Reese taught the junior high classes, called him an angel on earth to those he met. "He lived his faith, and was always very humble and never wanted to take credit for anything," said Huebner. "He just wanted to put others first."
"I'll never teach again"
Gerald Miller watched his friend tromp up and down the sideline during the weeknight basketball games, then saw him in action at work at Berlin Wood throughout the week.
Miller had the blessing of spending an in-depth amount of time with Reese during his final summer of sickness. As time began to run out for Reese, he began to forget many details, which was once something he was so good at. Because of that, he was not allowed to drive himself anywhere. Always the renegade, one day Reese drove himself to Hiland High School, where he wandered down to his classroom, cleaned out his desk, and went home.
Upon his arrival back home, Miller asked Coach where he had been. With tears in his eyes, Reese replied that he had gone to school to clean out his desk. "He looked at me and said, 'I'll never teach again'," said Miller, becoming choked up 10 years later recalling the moment. "It wasn't coaching, but teaching. He always thought of himself as a teacher more than a coach. To Perry, everything was always about building relationships. He taught people how to love others for who they were, and he found the good in people. Even as an outsider, he found the best in others in the community quicker than many of us who have lived here our whole lives."
Miller said that one of Reese's best qualities was one which made him so accessible to others. According to Miller, Reese truly considered himself a sinner in God's eyes, a man who had plenty of imperfections. Perhaps that is why he was so willing to see past the flaws of others.
"Never once did he say he was perfect," said Miller. "He was who he was, flaws and all, and he was OK with that. He was the picture of what we should be like to everyone else, regardless of what color they may be."
The lessons need to carry on
Jason Mishler was Reese's point guard from 1998-2000. While there aren't a lot of photos of Reese, who abhorred getting his picture taken, there is about a 74 percent chance that if you do have his picture, it involved him going nose-to-nose with Mishler during a game. Mishler encompassed everything that Reese asked of his players. He was hard-nosed, ferocious and relentless on both ends of the floor, and was a serious gym rat.
Now back at Hiland as an assistant coach, Mishler grew to understand Reese in ways that many people did not have the privilege.
Playing for Coach since he was in biddy ball, Mishler said that he learned two very important things from Reese. "One, you as an individual don't matter on the court. What does matter is your team. And two, you were expected to work hard.
"Coach wanted you to understand that other people were counting on you, and that was what was the most important part of being on the team," said Mishler. "At times it would be easy to feel sorry for yourself, but in the end, if you continued to keep the team first, you get past that. Coach used to tell us that when things were at their worst, that was when a person's true character came through. It took a while but I realized he wasn't talking about basketball. He was talking about life."
Mishler still feels Coach's presence all around. To him, coaching in the shadow of his former coach, and continuing to build upon everything that Reese stood for concerning building relationships, teaching kids how to work hard and playing not with the thought of self-gain but for team pursuits, is what is most important.
"There's a lot more to it than just coaching basketball," said Mishler. "It's about teaching respect... respect for yourself, your teammates and for those around you. Coach did so much for this community, in terms of basketball and life, about relationships and race. The lessons need to carry on."
Setting up the foundation
Reese changed the hearts of a community. He blurred the line between black and white, and showed that a genuine thoughtfulness toward others paved the way to knock down racial walls and destroy stereotypes, no matter what they might be.
What Reese did was set the foundation for a generation, but with his passing, those characteristics he possessed now must be passed on from the people who learned such an incredibly valuable lesson.
"Some people here were pretty racist before Perry came along," said Miller. "Some still are. We've had such a closed community, and it was all so new to us. Perry changed a lot, and I still worry that it (racism) could easily come back. He came in and changed a lot of hearts, He made people look at things in a very different way, and he made a lot of people wake up and realize that we were a very guarded, closed-minded community. It's important for us to not just acknowledge what Perry did for this community, but to carry it forward to the young people who didn't know him, and to keep reminding each other that what he taught is worth continuing."
"I definitely think he made strides in race relations," said Mishler. "He broke a lot of barriers in one generation. It's now our job to continue that with the next generation. There's a whole new generation of kids who never had the opportunity to know Coach. It's up to us to make sure that the things Coach stood for are not forgotten."
Matt Miller, who played for Reese from 1998-2000, said that he always joked with his parents that Coach taught him as much about life as they did. Miller said that many of the character traits Reese instilled in him during those basketball years are still part of who he is today.
"He taught us that how we treat people and the relationships we build will last forever," said Miller of Reese. "He showed us that caring for others as individuals is more important than grades or wins. Many people here are much more accepting now. He smashed down some pretty big barriers. Hopefully we will be able to teach our children and their children those same values about race. Coach transformed this area, and 10 years later, there is still an awfully big hole. I'll cherish him forever."