Sunday, April 26, 2009

...about Miss Koch

So, who was Ross Armstrong? And Beatrice Koch? And Doris Gates?

Anyone who’s ever had a relationship with Chadron State College probably knows who Ross Armstrong was. The long-time coach, Athletic Director, Dean, and foundation administrator impacted the lives of thousands of young men and women – some more than others. Today, most students at CSC know of Armstrong only as the man for whom the Armstrong Building is named.

Names like Armstrong, Kline, Koch, Thoendel, Andrews, Gates, and many others, remain vivid for lots of us – whose ties and associations with the college reach back to the 1950s and earlier.

After meetings last weekend on the CSC campus – recalling several Chadron State faculty members who left their marks on students – I decided to share some thoughts about a few of those teachers who touched my life in a special way. In coming days, we’ll reminisce about some of those folks. But this particular posting will focus on a pert professor who had a big impact on many CSC students – including this writer.

I was only three years old when 51-year-old Beatrice Koch came to Nebraska State Teachers College at Chadron as a member of the English Department. A native of Fullerton, Nebraska, she was a graduate of the University of Nebraska. She later earned an M.A. at Columbia University. After a two-year stint teaching at Rising City, she had moved to Norfolk, where she taught high school from 1920 to 1943.

Among her many students at Norfolk: entertainer Johnny Carson and U.S. Senator Gale McGee of Wyoming.

During World War II, Bea Koch volunteered to work in the Fitzsimons Army Hospital (shown at left) near Denver, but in 1945, she returned to the classroom in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. In 1946, she came to Chadron and would teach English at the college until she reached the Nebraska mandatory teacher retirement age of 70 years.

I cannot remember Miss Koch walking anywhere without a sense of purpose. I still can hear the “clickety-click” sound of her high heel shoes moving her down the hall of the Administration Building at warp speed when I took her Freshman Composition and Introduction to Literature classes in 1961-62. By that time, I had been working as an announcer at KCSR Radio for nearly three years, and I remember Miss Koch taking me aside after one class and gently – but pointedly – reminding me that I had a “special responsibility” since my work on the radio would be heard by many people.

“Take care to do the best that you can,” she admonished me. My frequent relapses with the English language over 50 years in broadcasting would often cause me to be haunted – with appreciation – by Miss Koch’s words.

Forced to step down from teaching in Nebraska, she moved to Huron, South Dakota, and taught another eight years before retiring.

Our long-time friend Jim Zeman, a Chadron native who graduated from the college and went on to a prestigious career on the faculty at Northern State in Aberdeen, South Dakota, had at least one class under Koch and remembered her as very much “a traditional English teacher” who was full of energy.

Con Marshall, retired CSC Director of Information, probably knows more about Chadron State College and its graduates than anyone else, told me recently that Miss Koch had a real impact on his career and that "she's a big reason I made it through college."

And Con remembers this anecdote. “She once said that the reason she never married was she’d never met a man she couldn’t live without!” Koch was definitely independent, but not without a sense of purpose – and humor. He also recalls hearing that Miss Koch had a twin sister and that they excelled at tennis as University of Nebraska co-eds. Con concedes that the story may not be verifiable, but I think it's probably true -- or it should be!

Beatrice Koch was active in education for more than half a century, and in 1984 she was awarded the Chadron State College Distinguished Service Award for her significant contribution to the college. She died December 28, 1989.

But I still can hear that clear and forceful admonishment from the diminutive Miss Koch:

Take care to do the best that you can.”

Saturday, April 11, 2009

CHS alumnus drowns in Mississippi

News reports from Meridian, Mississippi, delivered the sad news that Don Mathis, a standout athlete at Chadron High School in the 1950s, drowned Thursday afternoon (4/9/09) in a boating accident.

Don was a 1955 graduate of CHS, where he played football and basketball. He was the fullback and placekicker on the Cardinal's undefeated 1954 team. He went on to play center for the Chadron State Eagles and later earned entry into the CSC Athletic Hall of Fame. Don and his wife, Wyoma (Brown), moved to Mississippi many years ago, where they operated a successful small business just south of Meridian.

According to WTOK-TV in Meridian, rescue officials believed Don may have been trying to get his boat onto a trailer and that perhaps the boat started to drift. The accident occurred at Okatibbee Lake northwest of Meridian. The Lauderdale County coroner said Don Mathis was pulled from the lake late Thursday afternoon after a search of the area by divers. His boat had been seen floating empty in the lake.

Only last month, we had told the story about Don and some of his buddies making a trek to Yellowstone Park in 1955 -- Youthful adventures of the 1950s. Their trek took place shortly after Don had graduated from high school, and they took some pictures along the way. After graduating at Chadron State College in 1959, Don taught school in Taylor, Nebraska; Hot Springs, South Dakota, and Fort Dodge, Iowa, before moving to Mississippi.

A teammate on the 1952-53 basketball team at Chadron High, Mike Smith, has noted in an e-mail that Don is the latest of several CHS athletes from the early 1950s who've passed away. Others were John Christopher, Tom Blundell, Lou Riemenschneider, and Bill McCarter.

We have fond memories of visiting with Don and Wyoma Mathis in Chadron during an all-school reunion some years back. It was a bit of serendipity that, like Don and Wyoma, we also lived in Mississippi -- but we all had to return to Chadron to share memories! Until checking upon Don's graduation from CSC in the Alumni Directory this week, I didn't know that he and I shared another common experience -- we both went to graduate school at Iowa State University in Ames.

Don Mathis was 72 years old when he died. An on-line obituary can be found at this link to the Meridian Star. Addional information about Don's career can be found in a story published on-line by the Chadron Record on April 14, 2009. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Wyoma and the entire Mathis family over their loss.