Thank You, Mr. Wilkie

Try as I might not to live in my past, I couldn’t help revisit it when I saw who was up for induction into the North Hills Sports Hall of Fame this year.

Seeing Dana Simile, née Pecanis, who pitched North Hills to the WPIAL softball title when I was a junior, was certainly a blast from that past. I even had the pleasure of sitting at dinner with Diane Oberst. I know her as “Miss O,” my grade school art teacher–and, amazingly enough, she still knew me. You know her as the coach of that famous team.

As Dana said that night, that whole team probably deserves to be in with her. I knew a number of those players–Amy Jones, Jill Shields, Lauren Weider, Libby Gaisor (who later took her own turn coaching the varsity squad), to name a few. They were all good ballplayers and better humans.

Still, with all due respect, my chief reason for being at Rico’s that night, besides the appetizers and beer, was to see John Wilkie, the founder and father of North Hills cross country, a legendary program in its own right.

After nearly 15 years and the largest known assembly of Italians speaking in thick Pittsburgh accents, I finally got the chance to shake Mr. Wilkie’s hand and say congratulations. I even got the chance to resurrect my world-renown Norm Bender impression (twice!). But I did not get the chance to properly say thank you.

Mr. Wilkie tolerated coached me in cross country for four years and track for two. While our teams were competitive, I personally never won a darn thing. All I have to show for my efforts in organized sports, complimentary YMCA baseball trophies notwithstanding, are participation ribbons and JV letters, so don’t bother Googling me, unless you feel like reliving my 250th-place finish (total guess) at the ’98 Slippery Rock Invitational.

I had no trouble resigning myself to the fact I was not one of the people God put on Earth to be in this sport, or any other. Cross country was never a livelihood for me like it was for Mr. Wilkie. It was just something I did. In elementary gym classes and summer baseball leagues I showed allegedly above-average speed, so my parents encouraged me to go out for Mr. Bender’s middle school team, if for no other reason than to be involved with an after-school activity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Needless to say, I was not the greatest North Hills distance runner of either my time or Mr. Wilkie’s. I was, however, the proudest.

More than anything, running for Mr. Wilkie gave me a healthy outlet for my unique sense of school spirit, which I’ll never forget. The best part of running for him, for me, was the simple act of putting on my uniform and not only getting to gasp for the same air as Brad Fetchin, Jesse Peel, Tim Jones, Dave Isaaco, Aaron Neely and Ian Fitzgerald, among other tremendous teammates, but getting to cheer them on as well. I was once and shall always be a Fightin’ Indian. (If you don’t believe me, then you probably haven’t noticed the new color scheme of this blog, an homage to those old sleeveless uniforms and shorts so short they exposed stuff I didn’t even want girls to see.)

The greatest compliment I ever received as a member of North Hills cross country actually came from Jim Edelman, another one of our top runners at the time.

“Matt, this team was nothing before you came along,” he once told me in the locker room. “We were a good team, but we were a boring team.”

More importantly, and perhaps most appropriately, the greatest lesson I ever received was a history lesson from my freshman history teacher.

Several of those old teammates came out to console me at my dad’s funeral. Nevertheless, when Mr. Wilkie later stopped by, it came as a pleasant surprise.

Few teachers knew me as well as he did. He knew I was passionate about history–one of the things my father left me. Those two had spoken with each other on a number of occasions. He knew I was big on Presidential trivia, almost as big as I was on quotable quotes, and he gave me one I’ll never forget, from when Teddy Roosevelt received word his wife and brother had died on the same day (I’m paraphrasing, mind you):

“So long as I have something to distract myself from the pain, everything will be fine.”

Funny thing coming from the man who equally adored legendary running coach Percy Cerutty’s classic line: “Pain is the purifier.” (True story: he even asked me how to say it in German once.) But he was right, as usual.

Mr. Wilkie didn’t really need to be there that day. He owed me nothing. Yet he cared as much about a forgettable, bottom-of-the-depth-chart runner as he did his countless record-setters and gold medalists. I never forgot that, either. Furthermore, he still knew exactly which of my buttons to push.

I’ve experienced plenty of pain in different forms. Since that day, thanks to Mr. Wilkie’s crystallizing advice, I’ve known my best medicine, mentally, is a clean break.

I didn’t get caught feeling sorry for myself. I went back to school the very next week and didn’t stop until I got my degree. In that respect, both men would be proud. When I hit the real world, only to discover that the real world hit harder, I did get caught feeling sorry for myself. In hindsight, I solved my problems by remembering Mr. Wilkie’s words.

I became determined to find a healthier relationship because I wanted something positive to build on at a time in my life where I found negativity both intrinsically and externally. I found one.

Meanwhile, my career wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, so I stopped looking at careers and started looking at jobs–specifically, more lucrative jobs. I found one.

Once again, I listened to my coach. I distracted myself from the pain.

High school was an animal house. I was just a different animal. If I was ever going to learn to practice what Mr. Wilkie preached, it wasn’t going to happen in high school. Still, Mr. Wilkie was none too shy about pulling me aside at Riverview Park, our home away from home, pointing and telling me after that day’s meet, “There’s more in there.” He saw it in me.

As I heard him deliver his North Hills Hall of Fame induction speech, I wondered, maybe now is a good time to examine the distinct possibility he was serious? Maybe he was telling me not just how to attack that course, but about how to attack life?

Mr. Wilkie is a true Hall-of-Famer, not just because of his won-loss records and other coaching achievements, but because he’s the kind of person every student-athlete needs one of. He pushed me without being pushy. He treated me like an equal. He appreciated what I had to offer his team–and his class–instead of judging me on what I didn’t. Even today, as I have very casually taken up distance running again and prepare for my second consecutive Great Race the best way I know how (read: “Nothing Cajun, nothing spicy and don’t forget to pump the water!” in your best Norm Bender voice), I will most certainly be thinking of him.

Like many my age, I don’t have everything I want in life yet, but I still have enough potential in me to get it. Mr. Wilkie told me so.

I do, in the meantime, have a lot to be thankful for, including Mr. Wilkie’s incredible service to my community, as well as one other thing he told me that I’ll have to remember the next time pain rears its ugly head:

“Finish the damn race.”

Thank you, Mr. Wilkie.