ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Legendary baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, “It’s not bragging if you can do it.”
Although Rex Wilson and Don Penner, assistant track and field coaches for Marion and Hillsboro high schools, respectively, would be the last ones to brag about past accomplishments, it’s true both men have practiced what they currently preach.
Wilson coached at Isabel for two years before becoming the Warriors’ head coach in 1964. He’s coached for 45 years in all, including head coach for 29 years and two state titles for Marion.
Penner has devoted 47 years to coaching, including stops at Walton, Windom and Holyrood before taking over at HHS in 1967.
Besides their longevity, each coach also enjoyed impressive careers as athletes-Wilson at Dighton High School and Fort Hays State and Penner at Newton High School and Bethel College.
Wilson threw the javelin for a state title in high school and a third-place finish in the NAIA national championships his junior year, and a second-place finish as a senior with a throw of 224-feet, 10-inches.
Penner admits he didn’t distinguish himself as a high school athlete, but his toss of 51-1/2 in the shot put still stands as a Bethel record after nearly 50 years.
Penner also held the school record in the discus for 26 years with a toss of 160-11/2, earning him a spot in the Thresher Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
Wilson eventually spent 39 years in the classroom teaching math while Penner taught industrial arts and eventually physical education and health classes.
In track, both men instruct today’s youth in the finer points of field events: Wilson in shot, discus and javelin and Penner in shot and discus.
Although each coach draws a modest paycheck for their work, each said their real reward comes in other forms.
“The real reason I coach is just because I enjoy trying to teach the kids,” Wilson said. “When someone does really well throwing, it’s a great feeling. When kids throw a personal best or win an event, it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Marion head coach Grant Thierolf said it’s obvious Wilson loves teaching and respects his kids.
“The thing that Rex Wilson brings to track and field is an unbridled love for the sport,” he said. “He loves the Marion Warriors, but he’ll help any athlete who needs his help and expertise-and that is the essence of being a coach.”
Penner said his love of sports is the main reason he continues to teach.
“I just love coaching and I love sports,” he said. “I think the thing about track is that kids can see their individual improvement even though they might not be the best or ever win a meet or an event.
“As long as they work for personal improvement and realize how hard it is to succeed and that it doesn’t come easy, I think that’s a reward we get as coaches.”
Dennis Boldt, head coach for Hillsboro, said Penner’s impact has been broader than the athletes.
“I consider Don Penner as a mentor,” Boldt said. “He taught me much over the years, including the value of being consistent with young people, listening to them, and above all teaching me that as a head coach you have to do what you feel is right-not only for the individual, but for the team.”
It’s not surprising each man has persevered in the coaching profession for nearly five decades.
Their sense of commitment extends to other areas, including family. Wilson and wife Margaret have been married for 45 years and Penner and wife Carolyn are approaching their 44th anniversary.
Each said their willingness and ability to coach for such a lengthy period is partly attributable to a supportive wife.
“My wife has never been one of those people that shows up for every track meet-in fact, she seldom does,” Wilson said. “She’d rather watch wrestling or basketball. But she’s always supported me and has no problem with me still coaching.”
“My wife doesn’t say much about me coaching yet either,” Penner said. “She’s always enjoyed sports and has been very supportive.
“I think at times, I didn’t do justice to my own kids with all the time I spent coaching, but we actually made it into good family time by all being together and living in the same train of thought.”
Each coach said today’s track-and-field programs differ from those of days gone by.
“It used to be when I started coaching, you did everything-you marked off the field, you marked the track, you got contestants, you sent out entries-you were a one-man coaching staff,” Penner said. “Another thing that’s different is there’s just so many offerings in the spring.
“Now you have so many other sports to take away from track.”
Wilson said the number of spring sports cuts into the talent pool available for track.
“With baseball and softball, it cuts into the talent base,” Wilson said. “When I was at Isabel, we had 28 boys in high school and 26 of them were out for track-and the other two were my managers.
“If they had any ability, they were involved, and even if they didn’t have much ability, they were willing to give it a shot,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how, every now and then, you’d find a diamond in the rough.”
Also new are improved equipment and better facilities.
“The javelin went from a slender steel or wooden javelin to one that was thicker and it just flew better,” Wilson said. “When I was throwing 215 with the new javelin, I couldn’t throw 180 with the old one.”
Penner said the throwing ring also has been modified and improved over the years.
“We had a dirt ring and had to wear long spikes and spin on the dirt,” he said. “Now they have concrete rings so the facilities are a lot nicer.”
Even though the training methods may have improved, both coaches agreed there’s no substitute for natural ability.
“Gary Melcher (five-time state gold-medal winner from Marion) lifted very little weights,” Wilson said of one of his past stars. “In a lot of things, weights helps tremendously. But there just isn’t any substitute for natural athletic ability.”
“Back in the 1920s, someone threw over 58 feet (in shot put), so I don’t know how much the athletes have improved over the years,” Penner said. “Sometimes someone just comes along who has great talent.”
These days, both men spend numerous hours of each week giving not only to the school athletic programs, but to their respective communities, too.
Wilson teaches outreach classes for Butler County Community College at Marion and does a lot of volunteer work with his church as well as some tutoring on the side.
Penner volunteers for Mennonite Central Committee, distributes posters for the Hillsboro Arts & Crafts Fair and the upcoming Kansas Sampler Festival in Newton and helps at his church as a trustee.
Each man said he also has benefitted from relationships that began on the track or in the classroom and have grown over the years.
“I had a lady come up to me who taught at Hillsboro and she thanked me for helping her in her first year,” Penner said. “That kind of thing is gratifying.”
Wilson said he’s had similar encounters.
“A lot of kids over the years have come back and thanked me for my help in both the classroom and on the track,” he said. “I even had one guy hand me a nice check in appreciation for the time I spent with him in class.
“To have someone recognize you’re trying to invest in their life and really make them better is a great feeling.”
Just how much longer will each man continue his coaching career?
“I may get fired this year,” Penner said with a laugh. “But as long as I can still help them in field events, I’ll probably stick around as long as my health holds out.”
Wilson, who battles a problem hip, said he too hopes to continue for a while, too.
“If my hip doesn’t give out on me, I said I could continue for a while. But if it keeps troubling me, it’s not much fun,” he said. “If at some point we got somebody who really wanted to do a good job and had some knowledge, I’d step aside and just do some assisting on a volunteer basis.”
As coaches for schools just 10 miles apart, both Wilson and Penner said they’ve grown to respect each other.
“We were never really rivals,” Penner said. “That’s one thing about track-it’s not like football, because you can visit with other athletes or coaches between events or afterward. The social part becomes a nice atmosphere.”
Wilson said his friendship with Penner has grown over the years.
“Don and I have known each other for years,” Wilson said. “When we started in the early days, we were much more egotistical about our teams and we had some good team battles. But now I really consider Don a good friend.
“It’s developed into a fun relationship and we’re not quite as hard-nosed as we used to be,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s about the kids and not the competition.”
Thierolf said Wilson’s love for coaching is evident.
“Rex is one of the best ambassadors for the sport of track and field this state has ever had, and Marion is so fortunate to have had him as their coach for the past four decades.”
Boldt echoed Thierolf’s gratitude for his counterpart at Hillsboro.
“(Penner’s) contribution to this program is invaluable,” he said. “Besides bringing his expertise to the throwing events, he brings 47 years of teaching and coaching experience. The young people who learn from him will have no better throw coach in their lives. I truly believe that.
“This community should count itself lucky having a gentleman with the expertise and character Don Penner possesses, working with their children.”