Archive for Thursday, July 14, 2005

Remembering a legend

Lansing High to name gymnasium after former coach

July 14, 2005

The summer of 1948 was a long one for Bill Young.

He was about to become a junior at Lansing High School, but school wasn't on Young's mind that summer. His primary concern was who would be his new basketball coach.

Young started every varsity basketball game as a freshman and sophomore, but a coaching change left him concerned about the future of the team.

"I can still remember it," Young said. "We knew that the old coach was leaving. We didn't have any idea who was coming in. We'd heard names and so on. We used to sit on the school wall, and we saw him driving in in the summer of 1948. It was an anticipation-type thing. What's he going to do? How will things change?"

Young's questions were answered shortly. Things changed plenty, and they changed for the better. Today, 57 years after Earl Johnsmeyer first drove into Lansing and three years since his death, Young said he is proud to know that the coach who inspired him as a basketball player, the man who became a close friend years later, will not be forgotten by the Lansing community.

Thursday, Lansing School Board voted unanimously to name the high school gymnasium after Johnsmeyer, a teacher, counselor and coach in the district for 29 years before leaving his entire estate to fund scholarships for Lansing students to attend college.

"It's something that was long overdue," Young said of naming the gym for Johnsmeyer. "The problem now in my mind would be that so many people don't know who he was, what he did and the coaching record that he had."

EARL'S EARLY YEARS

Before joining the staff at LHS, Johnsmeyer was a young journeyman. The Riley County native and graduate of Emporia State Teachers' College (now Emporia State University) took his first teaching job at Glendale High School in 1937. He became head basketball coach and took his 1940 squad to the state tournament with a 22-2 record. The next year, Johnsmeyer went to Prescott High School, where he coached for a year. His squad posted a 21-5 record and narrowly missed advancing to state.

Johnsmeyer was unable to build on the success at Prescott because he was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. He spent the next three years overseas, mostly in Africa and Italy. He returned home in 1946 and accepted a teaching and coaching position at Winchester High School.

Johnsmeyer's time in Winchester was just two years. That short stretch had its ups and downs.

"When he left Winchester, he was glad to go, and they were glad to get rid of him," said Gene Young, a local history buff, long-time Lansing resident and older brother of Bill Young. "He had really good luck with their girls' basketball team, but their boys didn't win much."

Sure enough, after winning 14 games during his first season there, Johnsmeyer's team went just 3-16. After the frustrating season, the coach and the school parted ways. Johnsmeyer didn't leave empty-handed, however. While at Winchester, he met fellow teacher Irene McCoy. They married March 5, 1948. Shortly thereafter, both accepted teaching positions at Lansing.

PUTTING LANSING ON THE MAP

Lansing basketball had been good before the Johnsmeyer era, but his first five seasons at LHS were the most dominating years in school history. The Lions compiled a 77-3 record during Johnsmeyer's first three seasons, but no other season in school history quite matched the impact of the 1949-50 season. That year - Johnsmeyer's second at LHS - the Lions went 29-1 and placed second at state.

An ill and injury-laden Lansing squad lost in the state finals to Downs High School, but the loss didn't shake the team or the town. Instead, the trip to state invigorated the citizens and set a series of events in motion that changed the course of local history.

"That really united this town like it had never been united before," Gene Young said. "After that, (Johnsmeyer) was involved in the Lions Club committee that looked into getting Lansing incorporated. That had so much to do with Lansing incorporating. It didn't make that much sense for the community to be here so long and not incorporate. Immediately after that, things just started happening."

THE COACH

When Johnsmeyer arrived at LHS, the school had just three sports: softball, basketball and track. Johnsmeyer coached all three in addition to teaching business and physical education classes. His softball teams went undefeated during his first three seasons, and he always had talented track runners.

His first love was basketball, however, and he brought a brand of basketball to Lansing that was considered revolutionary at the time. He ran an up-tempo offense that was built around a quick passing game.

"The passing was totally different from what most teams were doing at that time," Bill Young said. "Of course, today it would seem simplistic, but in the 1940s it was ahead of its time."

The Lions struck fear into their opponents before the game ever began as they went through warm-up drills that consisted of lots of behind-the-back passes.

"The other teams would stand on the other end of the courts and watch us warm up instead of warming up," Bill Young recalled. "We didn't do that type of thing during the ball game. We just tried to look crisp."

Wayne Seymour, a starting guard on Johnsmeyer's first team who later coached against him at Tonganoxie, said the new coach was well organized and made discipline a priority.

"All of the time he had complete control of the team," Seymour said. "He wasn't a rough coach. I don't know that I ever heard him use a cuss word. Everybody who ever played for him had a great deal of respect for him. We were glad to have him."

During his first 10 years at LHS, Johnsmeyer's teams compiled a 198-38 record. They won the Tri-County League basketball tournament all 10 years. Seven of those championship games were decided by 15 points or more.

Bill Young said Lansing's success at that time wasn't the result of having lots of talented basketball players. Instead, he said it had a lot more to do with the players being well coached.

"What he basically did, in my mind, was take a group of young players who individually were good and he made a team out of us," he said. "He made us play together and made us realize basketball was a team sport. To me, that was his No. 1 forte."

Johnsmeyer coached the basketball team until 1964 but remained on the school's faculty as a teacher, counselor and track coach until 1977. His wife - a math and science teacher, as well as pep club sponsor - retired in 1970.

THE FAN

Errol Logue came to Lansing in 1969 to coach basketball, assist Johnsmeyer with track and start the cross country program. The men connected instantly.

"I just picked his brain every way I could because he really knew basketball," Logue said. "He taught discipline, and he could give you good advice. He was tremendous. The things I learned from him didn't just apply to basketball. They applied to coaching in general.

"The man always told you straight," Logue added. "When I was doing something wrong, he didn't sugarcoat it. I was 29 years old, and he'd retired from the coaching profession, but I learned so much from him. I was only a basketball coach for five years, but I took what I learned from him and I've used it for 40 years."

Logue will begin his 37th year at LHS this fall as the track and cross country coach. Although he took over Johnsmeyer's track program, Johnsmeyer didn't stray far from the team, or the school, after retiring. He never missed a state track meet, rarely missed a home football game, and always looked for ways to help the coaches.

"About four years ago, we had a mile relay team that won the state title back-to-back years, and he knew everybody's splits and all of their times," Logue said, adding that Johnsmeyer also knew the times of all the fastest runners across the state. "If you were a coach, the man was just a joy."

The Johnsmeyers were frequent faces at home football games until they passed away. After retiring, they usually could be found in the stands, but once Irene died and Earl's health began to decline, he would park his car under the Frank Graham sign at the stadium and watch from there.

"Earl and Irene didn't have any family of their own," Logue said. "The school was their family, and that's probably the best way to put it. What did the school mean to him? It meant everything to him."

THE CONCERNED NEIGHBOR

Kevin Riemann remembers first meeting Johnsmeyer. Riemann had just moved to Lansing as a young teacher and father. It was 1988. Riemann had a family to take care of and a small teachers' salary. Johnsmeyer lived on the farm across the street from Riemann.

Johnsmeyer had retired from teaching 11 years earlier, but Riemann had heard stories. He knew Johnsmeyer had won oodles of games and inspired many Lansing athletes to attend college. Still, he'd never met the man until he saw Johnsmeyer feeding his cattle.

"I went over and offered that if he ever needed help, let me know," Riemann recalled. "Pretty soon I found out that was Earl Johnsmeyer, the guy who was the teacher and did all of the scholarship stuff."

Johnsmeyer took Riemann under his wing during the next few years. Riemann would help him on the farm or do summer painting projects around the house. In exchange, Johnsmeyer shared knowledge of Lansing and sports with the young history teacher.

"He was one of those guys that, he saw this younger teacher and thought 'I'm going to make him feel part of this community,'" said Riemann, who will begin his 17th year teaching at LHS this fall.

Johnsmeyer's concern for others extended far beyond those involved in athletics. He was heavily involved in community projects as a member of Lansing Kiwanis. He teamed with Will Barnes to form the Lansing Connection Breakfast Club, a group of senior men who still meet every other week.

Johnsmeyer's final act of giving is one that will continue to help send students to college in the future. He and his wife started the Earl Johnsmeyer National Honor Society Scholarship and the Irene Johnsmeyer Memorial Scholarship. The scholarships are awarded to Lansing High seniors each year. Two Earl Johnsmeyer scholarships and three Irene Johnsmeyer scholarships were awarded this year. Upon their passing, the couple left their entire estate to the school district to continue to fund the scholarships.

"I wish I could have known him when he did teach and when he did coach," Riemann said. "All I know him as is this extremely supportive patron. And now I know what he's done and how much money he's given to scholarships. It's amazing."

THE LEGACY

Earl Johnsmeyer never coached in the gymnasium that soon will bear his name, but school board members hope it will serve as a way for those who knew him to remember him fondly. Those who knew Johnsmeyer hope it will serve as a way to inform students about who he was.

"When I do the graduation stuff, high school kids ask me 'Who's Frank Graham?' And I'd tell them, this is who he was," Riemann said. "I always thought we need to do something for Earl so the kids will ask 'Who is Earl Johnsmeyer?' Then we can say he's this guy who was a successful coach and he gave all of these scholarships."

Those who played for him, taught with him and were friends with him agree: none of them want Johnsmeyer to be forgotten. They said that Johnsmeyer Gym will give him a permanent and much-deserved place in history.

"I would've liked to have seen it done before he passed away, but I don't think anyone thought of that before," Seymour said. "Of all the success he's had there and with everything else he's done, I think that's a fine gesture."

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