The first person I’d like to honor with my Hometown Heroes Series is my high school gym teacher, Mr Edwin Swartwout (I know…I know…it’s “physical education”). I’m sure that many–even people who know me very well–are shocked that Mr Jesse-Who-Hates-Sports would choose his high school gym (ok, ok…PE) teacher among his heroes, but here it is and indeed deserved.
I first met Mr Swartwout when he was a long-term substitute for about six weeks when I was in fifth grade. I remember him as being a nice, warm, and dedicated teacher. In fact, even though he had been studying to become a PE (see? I got it!) teacher, he saw that all of us 10-11 year olds were struggling with reducing fractions, so he went back into his old college textbooks and prepared a lesson for us on how to tell when a fraction could no longer be further reduced. It worked and it helped us. More importantly, it showed on his part that he was always thinking about his students and trying to help us understand. His lesson worked and I never forgot it, not even 18 years later (wow, can that really be?!).
But perhaps more importantly, Mr Swartwout was hired as the permanent high school phys ed (is that what they call it?) teacher when I was in eighth grade. I felt comfortable with him since he had been our long-term sub three years prior, so PE was no longer something I dreaded as a horrible class full of personal embarrassments as a result of my athletic aversion and indisposition. Rather, Mr Swarwout, focused on assessing us in terms of our “attitude,” our willingness to TRY. And at that, I was quite good. I tried everything and I did so happily. I even had a few good times. I was good at riding a bike. I was more flexible than most guys in my class. And I won at darts! I never gave him a hard time and I never appeared reluctant. If I had been assigned any other teacher, I probably wouldn’t have been as inspired. But, Mr Swartwout had the gift of being an educator who knew how to get the best out of his students. I’ll always remember one day when he–probably unknowingly–revealed his ultimate philosophy: “I just really enjoy people.” I believe him and I decided that day that I was going to live according to that philosophy, too.
Mr Swartwout was also a beloved softball coach, a position that I believe was his dream come true. He loves athletics, he loves teaching and coaching, and my sister, a dedicated athlete, loved being coached by him. He played a major role in many of her successes. And, perhaps, one of the most interesting and extraordinary things about Mr Swartwout is that he knew both my sister and myself. One was a gifted athlete and one was a “princess dancer.” I’m sure you can guess which of us was which! He treated us both extremely well, and I always felt like he valued us for our unique talents and on our own terms. Certainly, such a rare and undervalued characteristic, but one that this world would benefit from.
Years later, when I was elected to the Board of Education, I was again impressed many times over by Mr Swartwout’s genuine devotion and commitment to the position to which he had risen by that time: athletic director. He always fought for opportunities for kids and remained steadfastly committed to the notion that athletics are important because of what they can offer to young people. I supported him the best that I could, and I made it a point to praise him for his efforts, by which I was extremely impressed. Mr Swartwout is one of those people who was born with certain interests and certain abilities and who found his true calling. I admire him for finding the unique path that led him to fulfill his potential as a person–the same path that has bettered the lives of countless youths in our community.
Mr Swartwout stands out in my memory as someone who was always kind, always understanding, and took the time to figure me out. He knew sports weren’t my thing, but he made me feel like that was okay. And because he did that, I was able to grow and learn from him.
Who is the miraculous person that could actually inspire Jesse Katen to actually try at sports? Only Mr Edwin Swartwout, “Coach,” could do that. 🙂