Though I certainly could have made excuses to put it off, today I again jumped back into my workout routine. I have some lofty goals for this year, and life beyond, and turning into an old pot-bellied decrepit dude just isn’t going to cut it. The weather here really wasn’t bad today, but it wasn’t nice either. Intermittent snow, blustery wind, sloppy conditions all around. A nice day to sit on the couch, if you’re into that sort of thing… and I don’t want to be.
So I forced myself out, hopped on my bike and rode the two and a half miles into our local track. I go back there to run from time to time, just for the memories and to draw strength from days gone by. Not to sound all Uncle Rico, but being a runner in high school was a source of great pride. Between workouts and competition I left a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that old track. Now twenty plus some years later, it seems significant to be doing it still.
And within those memories there were some really great lessons. Some true character development that has carried me through difficult situations in life. Developing mental toughness and learning to fight through adversity. Fortunately we had a couple of really tremendous coaches in Dave Vogelgesang and Paul Sesker; two guys that knew how to push the right buttons in inspiring kids to be their absolute best.
As most of you reading this will know, Coach Sesker passed away last summer. Like many of you, I think of him often. He certainly was a character! Even on the track today, fighting the wind on the backstretch, I could imagine him grabbing me by the shirt collar, pulling me to the side and saying, “…someone needs to tell the Chamber of Commerce to shut these fans off!” That was one of his favorite go to expressions, and we’d hear it often during the various windy Relays that make up an Iowa spring track season.
I wrote the following piece for our local newspaper, The Tipton Conservative, last fall. I’m not sure if it ever ran or not, if it did I unfortunately missed it. So as this years track season progresses without that spunky old coach roaming the infield I thought it might be worthy of a share, just in case some of you missed it too. While he’s no longer here in person it seems a pretty safe bet that Coach Sesker is still cheering from somewhere, and beaming that great big smile, especially when his “timber toppers” take the blocks.
REMEMBERING PAUL SESKER
Tipton lost a legendary coach and teacher on August 1 when Paul Sesker passed away following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Sesker spent over forty years in the Tipton Community School District, working full time as a social studies teacher from 1975 until his retirement in 1997, and coaching track, baseball, girls basketball, and football during his tenure. He continued to assist with the track programs through 2016 and was widely recognized as one of the top hurdle coaches in the state. During his time Sesker touched the lives of thousands of local youth, many who credit him with lasting impacts to this day. A former paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, Sesker might have been labeled a perfectionist. He had little tolerance for mediocrity and refused to let kids settle without giving their full effort. But despite a sometimes hard-nosed approach, he ultimately always had the best interest of his students and athletes at heart.
For those of us that knew him, it is Sesker’s whit, spontaneity, and unique style that will be remembered most. My introduction to this came one blustery afternoon in Solon. It was my freshman year at the Spartan Relays and some friends and I were walking the infield between races, possibly horsing around more than we should. Out of nowhere Coach Sesker appeared, scooped me up in a bear hug, and proceeded to carry me across the field. That crazy old man (as I saw him then) didn’t say a word. He just carried me dangling and helpless all the way to the far end zone, dropped me without explanation, and continued on his way. I stood there, embarrassed and confused, wondering what had happened… and what was wrong with that guy.
I recently shared this story with Dave Vogelgesang, and he laughed knowingly.
“Yeah, Paul knew how to get a kids attention,” he said.
As longtime Tipton Athletic Director, Vogelgesang was involved in hiring Sesker when he first came to the district. The two coached together and built a lasting friendship. A trove of Paul Sesker stories, when asked to share Vogelgesang gets a gleam in his eye born of a decades long understanding. He tells of the joy Sesker would take from watching hurdlers, or “Timber Toppers” as Paul called them, at the Drake Relays. He speaks of the danger of sitting too close to Sesker at wrestling meets, when unable to contain his enthusiasm Paul would begin acting out moves in the stands. He tells of the mental toughness Sesker instilled in kids, especially his own children, and a favored story of how Paul’s son Craig had to fill in for an injured runner at the state track meet. Craig rose to the occasion, shaved seconds off of his best time and pushed the team to victory. But the best stories, Vogelgesang concedes, are of what Sesker could do with the average kids who had big hearts.
One such case involved a young man who nearly went his entire high school track career without winning a medal. He wasn’t particularly gifted, but tried hard and in four years never missed a practice. As a 110 meter high hurdle runner, he worked under Sesker’s tutelage, and at times gave the coach fits. On race day, each time without fail, the runner would take off strong and hang with the pack through the first five hurdles only to lose stamina and fade down the stretch. Yet Sesker never gave up on him. He coached him just the same as he had his many state champions.
It was the conference meet of the young man’s senior season when the unthinkable happened. In what was expected to be the final race of his career, he somehow ran just fast enough in the prelims to sneak his way into the finals. It was quite an accomplishment, really, and a nice testament to his commitment through the years. But with the slowest qualifying time he drew an outside lane, and the victory appeared to be moral.
When the gun sounded to start the final race, the best hurdlers in the conference took off in a dead heat. There on the outside was Tipton’s representative, and like so many races before he held strong through the first five flights. Only this time in the run up to the sixth hurdle, he didn’t falter. He three stepped that, and then the seventh and the eighth. Then he started to pull away. Though it seemed time stood still, seconds later the finish line string snapped and Tipton had its newest conference champion.
“My God you should have seen the celebration that day. I thought Paul was going to have a heart attack!” laughed Vogelgesang.
Amazing things can happen when you pair a kid who wants desperately to succeed with a mentor who refuses to give up on them. According to Craig Sesker, that’s what his father was all about.
“He absolutely loved the kids. It was all about them. It didn’t matter if you were the star player or the last player off the bench, if you worked hard, had a good attitude and bought into his coaching philosophy, he would do anything for you.”
Dave Vogelgesang and Craig Sesker are both quick to point out that Paul continued to coach through recent years, even with his health in decline. In 2016, at the age of seventy nine, you would still find him each spring afternoon down at the track coaching junior high hurdlers. Vogelgesang remembers how the kids would all rush to help him pull his walker from the back of his truck as he arrived each day for practice. They had immense respect for the beleaguered old coach, and just couldn’t wait to get him out there to put them through the drills.
Sue O’Donnell was head coach for some earlier junior high track teams, and also recalls the impact Coach Sesker had on the kids. With large numbers in her seventh and eighth grade programs, she brought Sesker, Vogelgesang, and Marv Miller on as volunteer assistants in 2007. The runners were completely enthralled and inspired while working under this group of coaching legends. Both classes won conference championships that year.
“That, in itself, was awesome,” said O’Donnell, “but the absolute best memory I have of that season is after the conference meet. When the winning team usually takes a victory lap, my boys lined up to hug Paul. It was spontaneous… to say thank you.”
There is no doubt that Paul Sesker leaves an enduring legacy, and one that is multifaceted. On one hand his life exemplified the profound impact that teachers, coaches, and mentors can have on young hearts and minds; and should encourage our community’s role models as a reminder of the difference they themselves are making. Then of course there is the direct impact that Sesker had on the thousands who came of age under his watchful eye. The scope of this became clear when news of his death spread with a solemn murmur around town, followed by an outpouring of hundreds of Facebook posts, sharing stories and offering condolences to his family.
Still, it’s natural when someone passes to wonder if they really knew what they meant to the world; if they understood the full extent of their influence. I believe that Paul Sesker did. He came to realize it through victories lived and moments shared.
“I saw tears come down his cheeks,” said Sue O’Donnell of her team hugging Sesker in celebration. “He was so touched by the genuine love and respect. It was a perfect moment.”
“Paul was just on Cloud Nine,” Dave Vogelgesang remembers from the aftermath of Tipton’s unexpected hurdling champion.
“It was awesome,” recalls Craig Sesker of stepping in to run his best race of the year and propel his relay team to a state championship. “My dad had a huge smile on his face after the race.”
I too was fortunate to share in one of these special moments with Coach Sesker. Two years after that awkward encounter in Solon, I found myself at the Loras Invitational in Dubuque getting set to run my first ever 400 meter dash. I’d only competed in shorter sprints to that point, but Coach Vogelgesang wanted to experiment and penciled me in on a whim. I stood nervously amongst a group of teammates before the race, talking strategy and seeking advice. Once again Coach Sesker appeared and pulled me out of the crowd.
“You go out there and you run like hell,” he told me. “All out, all the way. Don’t think about it, just run.”
So I did. I won my heat and finished with a time that finished second overall, runner up only to one of the top quarter milers in the state.
After the race my legs felt like jelly. I stumbled my way back to our team camp where there was already a buzz. One of our runners had tweaked a hamstring earlier in the meet and needed to pull out of the 4×400 relay.
“What do you think, Meier,” asked Coach Vogelgesang. “Got anything left?” I never had a chance to answer.
“Yep,” said Coach Sesker slapping me hard on the back. “He’ll do it.”
What seemed mere moments later I was passing several runners on the final turn then kicking hard down the homestretch to anchor our relay team to a runner up finish in the 4×400. Leaving the track I was on the verge of collapse. An average kid with a big heart, I’d given it everything I had. I’ll never forget staggering under the floodlights, when just as my legs began to give out a figure appeared and caught me. It was Paul Sesker. He held me by the shoulders, looked me square in the eye, and flashed a proud smile. Then without a word he hoisted me in a bear hug and carried me across the infield.
It was the best feeling in the world.
*Special thanks to Sue O’Donnell, Craig Sesker, and Dave Vogelgesang for their contributions to this story.