Coach Liske’s Body Dies

September 26th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

My high-school swimming coached died yesterday at 98. His hundreds of boys (and one girl) are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. We live his example and training every single day.

Coach was competitive in the water, but cared little for the least meaningful comparisons otherwise. Yes, he had 32 consecutive winning seasons at Plainfield (NJ). Yes, lived 98 years (he attributed longevity to his athleticism and good Ukrainian genes). Yes, he is in various halls of fame. In the pool and only in the pool, numbers mattered to Coach. That’s a lesson many in the all too shallow world never hear. Coach never measured himself or others by their income or height or anything trivial.

What he really cared about was that his boys were good people who acted well and tried hard. Moreover, his 80th and 90th birthday do’s were jammed with us and oozed love and respect.  I certainly could not have filled a banquet hall with people who adored me. He didn’t have to try.

For us, he was an all-around father figure, the best possible role model, and without stretching it, a hero. Coach had lost a couple of fingers and most a leg in a wreck as a child. He was still a highly competitive, record setting backstroker in high school and college.

He was totally unselfconscious about putting on his prosthetic leg or swimming. We certainly never complained about a sore muscle when we didn’t really feel like practicing on a given day.

I was one of many of his boys who looked to him for how a man should behave. My divorced mom raised my sister and me solo. In the summers and long holidays, her father was my example, and he was a fine one. In my key high-school years, Coach played that role five days a week, six months a year.

While I internalized his example, many others told me how he kept them focused in school and out of trouble. Instead of yielding to the urban perils of gangs, petty crime and alcohol or other drugs, we honestly wondered what would Coach think and acted accordingly. Sincere and soft-spoken, Coach was still the one person beyond ourselves we didn’t want to disappoint.

He’d drag us down to far inferior spots to give the other team the experience. I remember Asbury Park, where we swam in a near marsh of a dingy Y pool against guys I would have had retake Red Cross Intermediate classes. We were there for them, not for us. Coach had us work with them on strokes and practice with them. He minimized our score as best he could — I was breast, but swam against their two best crawl guys in the 100 free, for example.

In fact, he hated running up the score. We swam to exhaustion against as good or better Columbia or Westfield, but we kept it close with the others.

He outlived his three wives. He grieved each deeply, as he felt all his passions and compassion. It’s no surprise that women sought him out when he was widowed. Sure, he had great eyes and was good enough looking, but that wasn’t it. His relentless intensity and boundless empathy were a killer combination He was fully with the person before him, whether he was refining a stroke or talking over a meal.

As sports editor of the schools Entrée, I  wrote a column on his retirement as swimming coach. I should probably key that in and reproduce it here. He told me he framed it and kept it on his desk. I could have cried hearing that. None of us could have given him back what we got from him.

He never asked anything of any of us he didn’t do and hadn’t done. Honesty and candor, those were givens. Best effort (and a bit more), that was the base for behavior always.

Of course, as any good coach, he made us the best athletes we could be. In retrospect, I think of myself, showing up at 16 after my first year in high school on the wrestling team. Most on the team has been swimming competitively from elementary school days or not much later. I think most coaches would have told me to go away. Instead, Coach had me try the four strokes. It was probably the large muscular shoulders that had him focus me on breast, but later he’d joke that my huge feet were like flippers and gave me an advantage.

Within two years, I actually was a pretty good breaststroker, not the best in the state but in the top tier. Thanks for that, Coach, and the confidence that came with it. More than that, thank you for having faith in me, for inspiring me and for being what you would ask of others.

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3 Responses

  1. Gus Nasmith PHS 1962 says:

    Thanks! I have sent the following to the PHS alumni contact I was given:

    Learning of Victor Liske’s passing at 98 brings reflection, gratitude to have known Mr. Liske in my high school years 1958-1962, and another welcome appreciation of my all-around education in Plainfield public schools. What wonderful teachers we had!

    I was never an “athlete”, and not an outstanding swimmer, but Coach Liske made me a full participant and feel to be a valued member of the swimming team my first years at PHS. A “google” upon news of his death, led me to the “Harrumpher” blog. The author, obviously a good athlete as well as sports editor of the PHS Entree, crafts a beautiful tribute: http://harrumpher.com/?p=433

    I choose a few sentences that reflect how Victor Liske was regarded by not only swimmers, but the student body and his fellows on the faculty (who shared his values):
    “What he really cared about was that his boys were good people who acted well and tried hard…. many others told me how he kept them focused in school and out of trouble….
    He never asked anything of any of us he didn’t do and hadn’t done. Honesty and candor, those were givens. Best effort (and a bit more), that was the base for behavior always.”

    Reading those just words from someone I do not know is such an affirmation — not only of a fine man, but also values and orientation that were hallmarks
    of our education at PHS in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Our society was far from perfect, but we were taught and encouraged to make it better and more equitable, to contribute to
    a fuller democracy and a generous attitude for a more peaceful world.

    What a connection and good feeling it was just to see Mr. Liske in the hall! And to think of him now.

    Gus Nasmith, PHS 1962, Student Council President 1961-1962
    “…to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
    Howard Zinn

  2. Dr. Anthony T. Palisi says:

    I met your wonderful coach for the first time about 30 hours prior to his passing, listening to him interact for about three hours with Milt Campbell. Within the first few moments of their meeting, I understood why Milt holds this man in high esteem and affection. I understood, too, that for Coach Liske the meaning of his life derived from the relationships that he developed. I shall not forget a man, known to me for only three hours!
    We are compiling a biography of Milt, which would be incomplete without strong reference to Coach Liske. May I have your permission to quote you, and those who have commented?

  3. Harrumpher says:

    Dr. Palisi, of course you may use my material as you see fit. I know that Coach and Milt thought extremely highly of each other. Coach also often evoked him to inspire us swimmers as well. I only met Milt once, when he returned to Plainfield during the 1967 riots to help deliver food and supplies to the riot area.

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