Mark Twain once said, “The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.” People who know me might find it difficult to believe that I once lacked confidence and its faithful companion, self-esteem. During our most recent class reunion (the milestone 50th for the Class of 1961), we were asked to talk about our most inspirational teacher. Like most, I said that I would have to include Paul Earles (math, science, and school Principal) and Leila Pate (English), but tears came to my eyes and it took a while for me to continue when I mentioned Coach Keith Youngen. Here’s why:
Although I had a few friends among the kids in my neighborhood in Elnora, having had polio before I was four years old, being sheltered by my parents and other adults, and relying on a private tutor at home for the first six grades of elementary school all contributed to my fears, insecurity, and lack of social skills. Finally heading into the school building on the first day of seventh grade, I could feel the eyes on me as I walked stiff-legged to the Study Hall on my forearm crutches and full-length leg braces.
Because I was so self-conscious, I didn’t realize that some of the students were genuinely being nice to me and were accepting me for who I was. In my naivety, I assumed those kids were ‘putting on a show’ and were really more like the others who (in my mind) were avoiding me like the plague. Things got better as the years progressed, but I still seemed to have very few close friends. Little did I know that was not unusual, even for most kids.
Calvin Keith Youngen was the high school basketball coach for only three seasons, leaving after my junior year at Elnora. He turned a losing program into a winning one in just that short time. However, I will always remember him for something much more important that affected my life forever. Before the start of basketball practice during my sophomore year, he approached me and asked if I’d like to be a Student Manager. This would involve getting equipment ready for practice and games plus travelling with the team to away games and tournaments. It also meant that I would have more interaction with the team, the fans, and most importantly, the other students. That simple request which I eagerly accepted did more to bring me out of my shell and accept myself for who I am than any one thing that had happened prior.
During the next two years I spent a lot of time with him and was devastated when Mr. Youngen left Elnora. The last time I saw him was at our 25th class reunion. Although he apparently came to some others, I didn’t attend any more until the 50th. Someone said he was invited but couldn’t come due to another commitment.
Recently, it was announced that Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard, legendary basketball star, Indiana Pacers coach, and long-time Pacers announcer will be the subject of an upcoming documentary about his life. He met with three basketball buddies at his old Terre Haute Gerstmeyer High School Gym for a photo which included twins Arley and Harley Andrews and Keith Youngen. Like an old Elvis song, “Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind…” I just celebrated my 69th birthday still full of confidence, self-esteem, and with a ton of memories.