Passing the baton

? Veteran Marion track and field throws coach Rex Wilson retires after 55 years in the field

Rex Wilson has spent many hours coaching at Warrior Stadium over the past 51 years. Pictured here on the bleachers near the discus ring, Wilson most recently served as Marion?s throws coach. He has coached track and field at Marion in various roles since 1964. He announced his retirement at the end of the 2015 season. Janae Rempel / Free Press

Rex Wilson has become an icon for the Marion High School track and field program.

Each spring for the past 51 years, Wilson, 77, has faithfully reported to Warrior Stadium, where he has served in various capacities since 1964.

Year by year, Wilson built a legacy?all but four years of his 55-year coaching career were spent at Marion. Having most recently served as the Warriors? throws coach, Wilson has announced his retirement.

While his career includes numerous success stories, Wilson will be the first to admit he does not remember when his teams won championships or how many state medalists have graced the podium during his tenure.

?When I started this coaching career, I never really thought I would ever have any success, so I never kept track,? he said. ?I suppose I should?ve had a little bigger ego I guess and kept track of all those wins and all of those league champions.

?The bottom line is, I had a lot of fun doing it. I had great kids to work with, and if you have great kids, you can be a great coach.?

Beginnings

A standout track athlete himself, Wilson grew up on a farm 20 miles north of Dighton, Kan., the second youngest of six siblings.

?We didn?t go to town very often,? he said. ?We had a big garden that us kids had to work in, had chickens and hogs and beef. When I was a little kid, (I) might see town three or four times a year.?

Wilson attended Dighton High School, where he decided to join the track team.

?My folks wanted me on the farm the rest of the time, but I sort of disobeyed them a little and went out for track my junior year,? he said. ?The coach was an old crusty guy and he said, ?Wilson, just try everything. Figure out what you can do and what you can?t do, and just do it.? So I did.?

Wilson said he tried running and jumping, but refused to do the pole vault. He threw the shot put and the discus. But it wasn?t until he picked up a javelin that he found his true love.

?My cousin was our javelin thrower, and he said, ?I?ll teach you how to throw a javelin,?? he said. ?Everybody had known that my strong suit was my arm?I had pitched in baseball and stuff?and he taught me. I just fell in love with that javelin instantly, and in three weeks I was beating him.?

The following year, Wilson won the gold medal in the javelin at state.

Rex Wilson (far left)?coached the 1972 Marion boys? track team to a Class 2A state championship in 1972. Marion won a second state title in 1973.  1972 MHS Yearbook, Marion County MuseumHe graduated from Dighton in 1955 and went to Fort Hays State University?an NAIA school at the time?to continue the sport.

?I was throwing an old wooden javelin, and if it hit wrong, it would break,? he said, adding that today?s javelins, made mostly of steel or aluminum, are weighted heavier at the point, causing overall distances to decrease by about 10 percent.

At Fort Hays, Wilson had to prove himself.

?They wouldn?t give me a scholarship because the coach already had two, three javelin throwers on scholarship,? he said. ?Being a farm kid, I was pretty stubborn about things, and I said, ?I may not have a scholarship, but those guys aren?t going to beat me.? So I worked pretty hard, and by the time that first year was over, I was beating the rest of them most of the time.?

Wilson?s junior year, he placed third in the javelin at nationals, defeating a number of competitors who had boasted to him during warmups about how far they could throw.

Wilson tucked that experience away for future reference.

?Talk is cheap,? he said. ?Don?t be walking around bragging to people about what you can do. Show them when they call your name.?

At nationals the following year, Wilson turned in a silver-medal performance. Wilson had been in first place by two inches with one throw to go, he said. But despite launching a school record 224 feet, 10 inches on his final attempt, Wilson was edged by his competitor.

?I had my heart set on a national championship, and then (it) didn?t happen,? he said. ?You just have to accept it and go on.?

Wilson brought home many a medal throughout his collegiate career, saying he probably has at least 20.

Wilson?s coach, Alex Francis, was an influential role model for him during his college career. Having already lost his father to a heart attack, Wilson?s step-father died of a heart attack his sophomore year.

?I had no car,??Wilson said. ?They called (Coach Francis) to tell him that my step-dad had died, and he called all of my instructors and told them that I would not be in class for a few days and why. He drove me in his private vehicle from Hays to our farm and spent a better part of the rest of that day with the family out there. That’s going a little above and beyond. That’s one reason he was as good a coach as he was.?

Wilson graduated from Fort Hays in 1960 with a bachelor?s degree in math.

He drew life lessons from his collegiate experiences, later encouraging his own athletes to put in the hard work necessary to succeed.

Career paths

Pictured here during his first year at Marion, Rex Wilson was hired to teach high school math and coach track and field in 1964. Wilson spent 35 years in the classroom at Marion and coached Warrior track and field in various capacities for 51 years. 1965 MHS yearbook, Marion City MuseumWilson spent the first four years of his career teaching high school math, as well as some history and government, in the small town of Isabel, southeast of Pratt.

Wilson also got his first taste of coaching at Isabel, assuming head coaching positions for baseball, basketball and track.

Then, in 1964, Wilson was hired to teach high school math and coach track and field at Marion, after applying at the request of Marion superintendent Pete Campbell, Wilson?s former principal at Isabel.

?The first year, I had a great big ol? kid, a shot putter, and he placed at state,? Wilson said. ?That was sort of my first experience with an athlete that was good enough to make it to state and place, and it sort of got me going I guess.?

The athlete, senior Gene Schimpf, became a life-long friend, he said.

Wilson?s successes continued through the years.

He coached the Marion boys to back-to-back Class 2A team championships at state in 1972 and 1973.

In all, Wilson said he spent about 25 years as a head coach, including at Isabel and at Marion.

In addition to his track accolades, Wilson taught 39 years in the classroom and also started the cross country program at Marion, serving as the Warriors? first coach.

End of an era

Wilson made the decision to retire at the conclusion of the 2014-15 season as part of an ongoing conversation with head coach Grant Thierolf.

?I had made two commitments to myself,? Wilson said. ?One was that if Grant ever stepped down as head coach, I was not going to coach because I like the way he does things, and the other was that if they found somebody?I told (Grant) years ago, ?If you find somebody that they?re hiring in that you think can do a good job at what I?m doing, I?ll happily step aside.??

Marion has hired Tomas Lambotte as its vocal music instructor, and Lambotte will assume the responsibility of coaching throwers next season. He will also serve as the high school girls? assistant basketball coach.

?We had talked and said if the hiring of a good teacher ever hinges on the fact that they want to coach, we wanted to make certain that we had those coaching opportunities available for them,? Thierolf said. ?We certainly didn?t enjoy being in that situation, but Rex understood.?

This article is the first in a two-part series. Next week, we?ll highlight some of the athletes Wilson coached during his tenure at Marion.

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