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Age gaps that loomed large when younger barely seem to exist anymore

Apr 7, 2020 By Randy Tucker

I met him for the first time at the old Fort Washakie football field 36 years ago.

For those that don't remember, or never watchedm a game there, the field was south of the old building, tree lined and perfect. It was one of the most beautiful settings I ever coached or played on.

I brought out the Riverton eighth grade "B" team, not knowing what we'd face in the Eagles.

Fort Washakie took the opening drive. A tall, athletic eighth-grader ran the ball on every play from the quarterback position.

Venerable head coach Swede Quam knew how to use his talent to the upmost, and with Owen St. Clair running the ball, the Spartans were not able to stop him on that opening drive.

We made some adjustments later in the game and it turned into a good contest. The score ended 6-6, and I was equally impressed when Owen came up to me after the game, shook my hand and said, "good game, coach."

Little did I know how our paths would intertwine over the next four decades.

A few years later, I was the head basketball coach at Shoshoni, and Owen was one of the best players to ever take the floor for another Fremont County legend: Wyoming Indian head coach Alfred Redman.

Owen was the epitome of my favorite athlete, "the worthy opponent." He played hard, played fair and was a friend after the game.

I met his parents, Darwin and Sandra, during this time. They, too, became my friends.

We never know the paths that fate will lead us down.

In the 1980s, Owen was still just a kid playing for rival schools, a kid I enjoyed speaking with and watching grow.

I followed his success on the court and in the classroom throughout high school, then on to a solid career with our mutual friend Mark Hubbard as his head basketball coach at Central Wyoming College.

It was no surprise to me that, a few years after graduation, Owen was back at Wyoming Indian, teaching and coaching.

For those who don't get to experience it, there is no greater pleasure than facing one of your own former players, or a player you respected on another team, as that person leads a squad against your own on the football field or basketball court.

Owen and I met a few times at the junior high level during my 15-year career as the Shoshoni junior high football coach. It was always enjoyable.

As I grow older, I find that the magic of aging is that kids who once were under your tutelage become contemporaries.

As Troy Hladky, one of my favorite players from my first years as a football coach four decades ago, told me last summer:

"You used to be the old man. Now we're the same age."

That's life in a nutshell. I was 22, he was 17 and there was a noticeable gap in maturity and experience.

Now, at 63 and 58, there isn't much difference.

As my own career developed into administration, Owen and I found ourselves on the same team at Wyoming Indian.

He was the elementary school principal, and I was the technology director. Though we worked for the same goals in improving the lives and opportunities for the children of Fremont 14, there was still that little edge of former adversaries. I loved that too.

We'd go to meetings, and in lulls in the action the old Five Rivers Conference came quickly into our conversations.

There were times we disagreed on things, but it was always amiable, and we never took it too seriously.

I left Ethete in 2009, and Owen remained, finally taking the reins as superintendent.

He was an adamant Wyoming Indian fan and supporter. Nothing was too good for his kids, and while disagreements arose with staff and community -- as it inevitably will when you're pushing an agenda -- he always worked to get everyone on board.

My departed friend and mentor Dick Cotton once told me about what I could expect as a head basketball coach.

"If you do a good job, 10 percent of the people will hate you after every year," Dick said. "After five years, you're supporters will be in the minority."

In my case, he was right: I lasted six years, sharing the longest tenure as a Shoshoni head basketball coach with Brady Slack.

In a Fremont 14 board meeting a few weeks ago, Owen's contract was not renewed. Many people shut down when this happens, become sullen and just quit doing their job.

The contrary was true with Owen. In the uncertain world we're now facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, he stepped up and faced the challenge with his staff, continuing to deliver instruction and services to the students of Fremont 14.

I dealt with many school boards in my career, some excellent, some vindictive and petty.

After my third year in Lusk some of my evaluations were altered and presented fallaciously to the Niobrara County school board.

I had the originals, and I proved these were forged documents, but that didn't matter. I was an at-will contract employee, i.e. a non-tenured teacher. My contract was terminated.

Over the next couple of weeks I received phone calls, letters, a pie and a tray of cookies from board members adamantly apologizing for terminating my position.

Strange? You bet it was. These people didn't realize they ran the district.They thought the superintendent did.

I know most of the Fremont 14 school board members and respect them. I'd like them to consider re-evaluating Owen's contract and think about bringing him back.

When you've ridden with a friend as long as I have with Owen, you learn his character, his ambitions and his strengths. His are always with the kids.

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2020-06-03

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