One Final Salute

The following column by Jim LeMonds appeared in the Daily News on January 4, 2010.

Former R. A. Long teacher and football coach Gary Ekegren passed away on December 31st in Missoula, Montana, after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

I had a lot of great colleagues at Cascade Middle School and R. A. Long High School, but Gary was the best teacher I worked with during my 30-year career.

He grew up in the Missouri Breaks near Cow Island, where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce fought their final skirmish before surrendering to Federal forces in 1877. I can’t explain how a farm boy from the Montana Highline developed the deep love for history, reading, politics, and education that characterized his life.

A three-sport star at Harlem High School, Ek played college football and earned a teaching degree in 1963. He taught and coached at Harlem, Havre, and Sentinel (Missoula) high schools before Gene Carlson hired him to coach defensive linemen at the University of Montana. After the staff was fired in 1979, Gary was hired to teach history and coach football at R. A. Long.

Until I met Ek, I thought being a successful football coach meant yelling a lot and drawing up trick plays and gimmick defenses. He was all about planning and proper technique. It didn’t matter whether the venue was the field or the classroom. His focus was on helping kids maximize their skills.

The Greater St. Helens League was very fluid during Ek’s years at R.A. Long, first including Centralia, Chehalis, Battle Ground, and Prairie – along with Mark Morris and Camas – and later morphing into a combined league that included the Vancouver schools.  

It seemed like we were always outnumbered, always outgunned. But we were competitive, and we beat some teams we had no business beating.

During the late ‘80s, we played Lakeridge at their place. Lakeridge had won the Oregon state championship the year before, and they were loaded with speed. Their quarterback, Doug Nussmeier, went on to star at Idaho and then played in the NFL.

We were big underdogs going in and had lost our starting quarterback to injury the week before. But we had a defensive plan that frustrated Nussmeier and kept us in the game. We ended up losing 14-7, but it was a complete effort by our kids and our coaching staff.

I was proud to coach at R. A. Long, regardless of the outcome of our games, because we always went in with a solid plan, and sometimes that’s the best you can do.

Gary returned to Montana in 1990 to coach and teach at Big Sky High School in Missoula. The situation was much the same as it had been at R. A. Long, with Big Sky the smallest school in the state’s AA classification. But within a few years, he turned things around and led the Eagles to the state finals twice, winning it all in 1994.

Ek was anything but the stereotypical coach devoted to sports at the expense of his teaching assignment. He was in his classroom most mornings by 5 a.m., and he wasn’t watching game film. He was reading students’ papers and refining lesson plans. His World Problems classes focused on discussion, engagement, and critical thought, rather than rote memorization. Like every successful teacher, he set high expectations because he believed kids were capable of great things.

Gary believed unequivocally in the power of education to transform lives. He also believed in accountability. He would do everything in his power to help his students and players achieve success. But rules were rules, and they applied to everyone.

When Gary was at Big Sky, his team was preparing for a play-off game. The weather was in the teens and prior to the team’s dismissal from school, two of his starters skipped class to buy gloves. He found out and suspended them immediately.

He was tough, but kids respected him because they knew he had their best interest at heart – even when he wouldn’t let them off the hook.

As an educator, it doesn’t take long to realize that failure is part of the game. During a 45-year career, Gary Ekegren made a positive difference in the lives of hundreds of kids. For a teacher and a coach, that’s as good as it gets.

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