John Wooden’s favorite poems: They ask me why I teach


I played high school football.  Untalented in virtually every other sport, I kept my place in 6th Period Athletics working with the basketball team, keeping statistics and keeping the official score book when we traveled. That was in the era when UCLA’s basketball team dominated the NCAA championships (save for 1966, when Texas Western managed to sneak out of the west and take the title from Kentucky . . . a story for another occasion).  I cannot count the times coaches discussed the wizardry of the coach at UCLA, who seemed to be able to weave a winning team from any talent.

Our basketball team had some great talents — Stan Crump, Clark Hansen, Jim Brock, Steve Whitehead, Craig Davis, Parke Hansen and Sam Robinson come to mind.  But we played up a level in our league play, and rarely won.  Injuries kept the seven I named from playing together in any one game through their last season.  Brock, Whitehead and Parke Hansen would have been the most formidable front three in our league, including the schools twice our size; I’d have to check to see if we were able to get two of them on the floor at the same time in even half our games. Never all three.  Wooden’s ability to win constantly at UCLA was both an inspiration and a taunt.

Our football coach used to say you win games, or you build character.  We built a lot of character, in football and basketball.

In our junior year, we got a new wrestling coach who followed many of the tenets of John Wooden — and the wrestling team won the state championship in our senior year.  Mark Sanderson led the team; his younger brother Steve Sanderson followed him, adopted winning ways, and went on to father the great Sanderson wrestlers out of Heber, Utah.  Winning can be contagious when solid teaching meets young talent.

In my senior year (IIRC) my sister bagged a couple of tickets for the NCAA basketball regionals, at the University of Utah.  I got to see our local powerhouse (then) Weber State, and ultimately, the winning UCLA Bruins crush all comers.

John Wooden

John Wooden

Years later, when I consulted with corporations, especially on quality and excellence in performance. I often came across framed quotations from John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach — often framed, or etched in brass or stone, hanging on the wall of executives.  Wooden’s words on getting great performance rang true with crew bosses, executives and everybody in between.

In a meeting on the importance of elders in a church congregation, national church officials referred back to the dramatic testimony from people in a California church, who swore an elder in their church had turned their lives around.  Turned out that John Wooden was that Disciples of Christ elder.

How does a guy get so good, and say stuff that is so applicable to peak performance coaching in several different areas?

There’s a new book out on the coach, John Wooden: A Coach’s Life,  by Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis.   Charlie Rose interviewed the author tonight.  At the close, Rose showed a clip of Wooden being interviewed with Bill Walton and Bill Russell; Walton talked about how he’d been inspired by a visit to the Vietnam Memorial with Wooden, and the poetry Wooden recited from memory on that occasion.  Past the age of 90, Wooden recited the poems again, poems he’d memorized for use in his classrooms when he taught high school.

This one is about teachers:

THEY ASK ME WHY I TEACH

They ask me why I teach,
And I reply,
Where could I find more splendid company?
There sits a statesman,
Strong, unbiased, wise,
Another later Webster,
Silver-tongued,
And there a doctor
Whose quick, steady hand
Can mend a bone,
Or stem the lifeblood’s flow.
A builder sits beside him-
Upward rise
The arches of a church he builds, wherein
That minister will speak the word of God,
And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.
And all about
A lesser gathering
Of farmer, merchants, teachers,
Laborers, men
Who work and vote and build
And plan and pray
Into a great tomorrow
And I say,
“I may not see the church,
Or hear the word,
Or eat the food their hands will grow.”
And yet- I may.
And later I may say,
“I knew the lad,
And he was strong,
Or weak, or kind, or proud,
Or bold, or gay.
I knew him once,
But then he was a boy.”

Author of the poem, Glennice L. Harmon

Glennice L. Harmon, author of the poem, “They Ask Me Why I Teach”

They ask me why I teach, and I reply,
“Where could I find more splendid company?”

*  They Ask Me Why I Teach,” by Glennice L. Harmon, in NEA Journal 37, no. 1 (September 1948): 375

Why do you teach?

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One Response to John Wooden’s favorite poems: They ask me why I teach

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Great poem by Glennice Harmon. Whatever happened to her?

    Like

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