I found myself on the patio at the house of a guy I’d just met that day. I was among a group of people I mostly didn’t know and one of them happened to be my high school rowing coach at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute some fifty years ago.
Coach Bernie didn’t remember me, of course, but I’d had advance notice from John that he would be a participant in the group bike ride I’d been invited to in the Finger Lakes. And although I remember Bernie as my coach, I wouldn’t have recognized him either. I couldn’t attach this face in front of me to a faint, 50-year-old image in my mind, but as we talked and I told him who I was (bow seat in the freshman eight, and the next year three seat in the varsity eight and bow for the straight four), we got talking and we shared the names of a few people and events from that era, he did become familiar to me again.
I didn’t realize back in high school that Bernie was only four years older than me, a former coxswain for the St. Joe’s Marauders now living the life of a college student and navigating his first year as head coach of his alma mater’s crew team. I said it was impossible we were so close in age because he’d been such an authority figure to me, an expert in his position, and entitled to respect.
One of the other riders among us that evening, Connie, asked me what kind of coach Bernie was. In front of the group, and without any hesitation, I said, “He was the best.” I said he taught me everything I knew about rowing and how to be a better oarsman. He inspired me to be a fierce competitor to demand supreme effort from myself and my teammates. I said to this day I carry the spirit he instilled in me.
Bernie was the first to respond. “Wow, David, can I get you another drink?” We all laughed. He went inside to bring out another beer.
Connie said how amazing and lucky it is to have someone impact you in such a positive, lifelong way, and she told me the story of someone who had served that role for her.
We all remember people who significantly helped shape the person we’ve become, and most times that person has no idea what they’ve done for us. The teacher. The coach. The manager. The advisor or mentor. The older sister or brother. That one friend.
And there are people out there who still think of us and what we did for them, and yet we may not remember them. We may have no idea we’ve positively influenced someone to such a degree. It feels to me like a long chain: You did for me and I did for that person and they did for the next one, all of us linked and mostly unaware of each other.
Reconnecting with Bernie made for stimulating conversation and that proverbial trip down memory lane. But in truth, I have no idea what kind of coach Bernie was. He was the guy trailing at us in the motorboat yelling commands through a megaphone, the one I had to prove myself to in order to earn a seat in the boat.
I have but a few scattered memories of my time as a high school rower, but I’m pleased that when Connie asked me, I said Bernie was the best. Even if he recognized I was exaggerating, I could see he was glad to hear my words.