Roger Barbee: Coach offered students unconditional love
In the men teacher’s bathroom of a local school is a sign on the towel dispenser that reads: “Your students may not remember your words, but they will always remember how they made them feel.” That small, hand-done sign is, for me, a reminder of the responsibility of teaching, and it is a reminder of how fortunate I am to have had Mr. Bob Mauldin as a teacher and coach.
In 1961 I was a young, foolish high school sophomore in North Carolina. Like many boys in our cotton mill town, I wanted to be a star athlete. I tried football, but was relegated to somewhere called the “scrubs”, and baseball proved no better because, while a good fielder, I could not hit a barn door with a bass fiddle. A fairly normal male adolescent, I looked around for a place, an identity. It arrived in the form of our young physical education teacher and coach, Mr. Bob Mauldin, who changed my life.
Coach Mauldin was an assistant football coach, and it was here that I met him and came under his influence. Seeing that football was not quite working out for me, and knowing the mind and spirit of a fifteen year old boy, he told me that he wanted me to come out for his wrestling team. Being wanted by Coach Mauldin was too good to be true, so after the fall season, I went to the small room in the basement that had canvas mats tied together for us to practice on. This was all taking place during the Cuban Missile Crises, and he was called up for active duty, but for that season we made do with a substitute coach. Fortunately, during my junior year, Coach Mauldin returned to us.
Coach Mauldin had been the team manager of the wrestling team at Appalachian State, but his knowledge of wrestling was, well, limited. However, we had our team captain David for that, and Coach had many books in our room. But what he lacked in know-how of wrestling, he made up for it in his knowledge of boys.
Coach Mauldin took a bunch of mill-hill boys and made them champions. Like all great teachers, he shared with us his enthusiasm for wrestling, but most of all he respected us and he loved us. Like the greatest teacher who ever lived, he molded us by giving us his example of what to be and how to act. He believed in us, so we learned to believe in ourselves. Unlike so many coaches today, Coach Mauldin was not a screamer or pusher. It was his unconditional love that inspired us to do our best. His mild manner, while firm, was a model for us on how to act on and off the mat. We were not perfect, (after all, we were teenage boys), but we worked at being someone he would approve of.
Eventually he left coaching and became a principal of an all-kindergarten school. One of my cherished photographs is of a seated Coach Mauldin surrounded by a bunch of five year olds, and one sits on his lap. It was taken when he was named principal of the year. It speaks of Coach Mauldin the teacher because in his seventy-eight years he was that for children of all ages, wrestlers, wrestling officials in North Carolina, his Sunday School class, and all the ill people in hospitals and their homes whom he visited. Coach Mauldin was a teacher to the core.
A few years ago many of his wrestlers gave him a tribute dinner. Almost one hundred came to honor the teacher who had changed so many lives. During the presentation, one of the Fox twins came forward to the microphone. As he approached Coach Mauldin, Danny reached into his hip pocket and said to Coach, “Mr. Mauldin, when I was in Vietnam in 1969, you sent me this letter. I now give it back to you.”
So many of us, students, teachers, wrestlers, officials, or friends have received our letter from Coach Mauldin. In them were words of encouragement and inspiration embedded in his deep faith. In them we read how he believed in us. In them was his love.
On March 21st, at 5:30 in the afternoon, this great man died. Even he couldn’t beat cancer, but he leaves so many of us with his memory. Having known Coach Mauldin, we are better. Only one man ever changed water into wine, and Coach Mauldin knew Him well. However, Coach changed children into adults by loving them all, unconditionally. It’s how he made us feel.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.