Hi, I’m Matt Thomas, and I grew up across the street from the Gotts. My condolences to his grandchildren, Grandma Gott, Mrs. Gott, Kim, Jeff, and Tommie--I know you’re Tom now, but to me you’ll always be Tommie, and Grandma Gott will always be Grandma Gott, and Mrs. Gott, Mrs. Gott, and Coach Gott will always be Coach.
It didn’t take me very long to prepare this eulogy because--oddly enough--I had already written most of it--15 years ago. You see, Barnes and Noble had this writing contest and the topic was to write about a mentor in your life, so I picked Coach Gott. No, the essay didn’t win first place; actually my mom entered the same contest, and she won first place. (She was nice about it.) So my essay is not some literary masterpiece.
But I still remember the phone call I received from Coach Gott, thanking me for writing this narrative and mailing it to him. His reaction was of sincere gratitude; in fact, his voice cracked a bit and I wondered over the phone, did Coach Gott almost cry ? I mean this guy was a Maker of Men? Coach Gott doesn’t cry, does he? It’s hitting me as I type this, that his request for me to speak today is probably payback. Anyway, Coach Gott was so touched by the essay that it motivated me to have all of my students in my composition classes write on the same topic--a wonderful influence in their lives; then I’d mail the student essays to their mentors as a Christmas gift. I wanted my students to feel what I felt when Coach Gott called to thank me--Absolute Joy .
This past spring--15 years later--Coach Gott and I were on the phone and he reminded me of how much that essay meant to him. And even though his role in my life had evolved from neighbor, to mentor, to colleague, and finally to friend, I think he’d like to be remembered this way--the way I remembered him as a kid growing up on Lafayette Street.
“The Guy in the Gray Ford Pickup”
By Matt Thomas (written in 2003ish)
If only my childhood had more drama. If only my father had chugged Jack Daniels for breakfast, if only my mom had left that drunk for her personal trainer, if only I then got sent to some orphanage, and then blah blah blah...if only I could show a major flaw in my childhood, some void that would then be miraculously filled by my mentor, then maybe I’d have a shot at winning your essay contest.
But that would be a lie. My dad is an honest person, a good man. My mom raised five kids who love her dearly. I did not need a mentor. But for whatever reason, God decided to spoil me: Thirty years ago, my parents moved from Gary to Valpo, across the street from a man named Mr. Dale Gott.
Mention the name Dale Gott to any Valpo townie and you’re guaranteed good conversation. His acts of kindness and his fanatical intensity as a teacher, coach, and neighbor will be etched in Valpo Folklore for decades. Admittedly, I’ve even dropped his name as an ice-breaker.
Once I was stuck in an awkward social situation with a man who bullied me as an underclassman. What do you say to a guy you’ve tried to forget about for the past 15 years? To break the silence, I asked him if he ever played for Coach Gott. He smiled and reminisced about “going to war” for the broken-nosed coach. When he finally shut up, I told him that I, too, had gone to war, playing basketball for the legend. This made me worth listening too; we were now comrades. Playing for a maniac like Gott was a Rite of Passage. Then, when I told him I grew up across the street from Coach Gott, he was awestruck. “ Really ?” Ha! I had one-upped my former bully. He put down his drink and squinted at me. “Did the guy ever sleep?”
Nope. If Coach Gott slept, then God must have granted him 32-hours in a day. Mr. Gott always had time; keeping up with him was the hard part. In the summers, after teaching summer school, working construction, and/or mowing lawns, Coach Gott would take us to Northview Elementary School to play hardball. Usually he’d announce it by yelling something like, “Baseball time! Woo-Whoo!” When we heard this grand proclamation, we scrambled through our screen doors to grab our caps, oversized mitts, and bats, while he changed from his construction boots to his sneakers and started jogging to Northview. His two sons, daughter, and what seemed like fifty kids scurried after him, all hoping to get first at-bats. It was as if the guy were solar powered, and laboring in the oppressive heat only recharged his battery.
In the winter he crammed half of our neighborhood into his Mercury Cougar and drove us to the Thomas Jefferson Middle School gym to play hoops. One day the gym’s old wooden backboards were replaced with glass ones. He shuffled around the gym chanting, “We’ve got glass backboards, Woo-Whoo!” Now, I was six years old and had no idea why glass backboards were cause for grown man to completely lose his mind, but I suddenly felt spectacular shooting at glass backboards. Later that day, I stole the ball from Jeff “The Jet.” Coach Gott again went ballistic, “Great steal, Matt! Woo-Whoo! You’re a defensive hawk, swooping in for the steal!” He flapped his wings, while cackling, “Woo-Whoo! Hawk! Hawk! Hawk!” Earning a nickname from Mr. Gott, was no small feat. Over the next twenty-four years he dubbed me Hawk , Matt-Matt-in- the-White Sox Hat, Scrapper , Bulldog , and Seabuscuit. The last one, Seabuscuit , I received this past fall; I won some local charity race in Kouts, IN which kicked off the illustrious Pork Festival. Coach Gott sent me a congratulatory letter, making me feel as if I had out sprinted a pack of Kenyans for the Olympic Gold.
There’s so much more to tell. How he tiptoed over to our house in the middle of the night and put a net on our hoop. How he convinced our Freshman B-Team that we were the hottest show in town. How he gave me rides home from practice. How he taught his math lessons so fervently that I had to listen, even though I was in English class three doors down. How he would watch me out his living room window, pumping his fist, clapping, and flickering his porch lights, as I dribbled my basketball up and down Lafayette Street.
And how he mowed lawns.
When I was sophomore, he hired me to mow lawns. I needed new clothes, and I was grateful for the money. However, one Friday evening after mowing Lord-knows-how-many lawns, I became cranky when he decided that we could somehow squeeze in “just one more lawn, Matthew, just one more lawn” before dark. When we got out of his truck, his mother, affectionately known as Grandma Gott, asked him if he’d stop by later and lift some heavy items. This made Coach Gott angry, “Later? What do mean later ? I’ll do it now. If you haven’t--“ “I know, Dale, I know. If you haven’t got time for your mother, you haven’t got time. You and your sayings.” Grandma Gott smiled at me and winked. “Did you hear that, Matt? If you haven’t got time for your mom, you haven’t got time.” I nodded and started mowing the last lawn solo, feeling a bit sorry for myself, muttering “just one more lawn, Matthew” and wondering if and when he’d come out to help. I started to think about his saying, and about his mom, and then it hit me.
Every lawn that we had mowed that day was owned by an elderly woman, all of whom needed a guy like Coach Gott--someone patient enough to listen to them complain, someone reliable, and someone who would charge them as if inflation never existed. My plod turned into a walk, my walk into a quick march. Coach Gott jogged out of his mom’s house and started his mower. The sun was now merely an orange speck on the horizon, and the streetlights glowed. My march turned into a jog. Coach Gott, not about to be out-hustled, started pushing his mower at an even quicker pace. He looked at me and pumped his fist for encouragement. Over the droning mower I swear I could hear him yelling, “Woo-Who!” So I too started running, and I pumped my fist back. Both of us ran behind our mowers until we finished the lawn in darkness. On the drive home he kept repeating, “Nobody’s going to outwork you, Matt, nobody.” That was the only time he ever lied to me.
Sadly, after over 30 years of teaching, Coach Gott retired last spring, and in the fall, he and his wife Sharon moved thirty miles east to Plymouth. When I visit my parents, it disheartens me to see his old house with a different owner’s car in the driveway. Now, I teach at Thomas Jefferson Middle School (the school with the glass backboards). Last Friday, I was running down Campbell Street with the girls I coach in track. Behind me, I heard a horn honk and saw Coach Gott’s truck drive by with his mower in the back. I wanted to tell the girls that the guy in gray Ford pickup was the greatest teacher and coach I had ever seen, and that if it were not for him, I probably wouldn’t be coaching them right now. But kids don’t care about that stuff. So I clapped hard, and said to the girl next to me, “You’re a hard worker! Keep it up!” She nodded and we kept on running.