A will to live, inspire, triumph

The story of Harold J. Koch. 

It was a reminiscing drive that was filled with fond memories, the three hour drive to Glenwood drifted my thoughts back to the electrifying 1960s.  That was where I first met Coach.  His name is Harold Koch.  Ironically, his  surname rhythms with Coach and for some reason it makes perfect sense.  Over the years, to everyone that he associated with, he simply was Mr. Koch, with the letter K in a trajectory short hand movement back and forth from his chin — his name sign.   He was a staff member at the Minnesota School for the Deaf, his alma mater.  He was also a 1955 graduate of the school.   The school is now known as the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf.   This is a story about a man who is exceptional and unique. He instilled unbelievable amounts of motivation and a strong positive (winning) attitude that enabled many of his former student-athletes to be the best out there.   There are hundreds out there that Coach instilled winners in many of us….this is his brief life story. On October 3, 1933, Harold was born prematurely at Starbuck, the youngest of four siblings, three girls.  The oldest, Myrtle died at birth. Adeline was born in 1921 and she died of breast cancer in 1962.  Lorraine was born in 1927 and like her older sister, she succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 38.  According to his doctor, Harold was not supposed to live. Clearly, the doctor underestimated his will to survive. Because of his dire condition, his parents decided quickly to have a baptism and he was baptized three days later at rural Starbuck. These days, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s, money was tight and they had to endure tough winters. For instance, his parents kept tiny Harold warm by lying him down on the oven hatch of the kitchen stove.  Harold chuckled and said that one side was tanned and the other side was not.   Some brief family anecdotes, his grandfather immigrated to the United States from Prussia (now Germany) and he served with the North army during the great Civil War.  After the war, he was very active with his community. For years, during town parades, he always marched out front strutting the Star and Stripes flag.  He was also well known for singing hymns with a booming voice in church.  His father Edward (b 1894) was the 13th child in his family and was often sick. Harold said that he never saw him well — ever.   Among his many maladies, he had multiple-sclerosis.   However, he found time to spend quality father-son moments with Harold while he was growing up. Because of his chronic illness, he was not able to find steady work.  His mother Anna was simply a hard working person her entire life to maintain a stable and secure home for the family.  For example, she worked at a nursing home in nearby Hancock earning 50 cents an hour.   His father passed away on Father’s Day in 1957 at the age of 63.   His mother died at the age of 81 on Mother’s Day in 1977.  Harold was stricken with polio at age two.  This led to a lifetime challenge with his legs and continues to walk with a gait today.  He had multiple surgeries on his feet that included toe operations to strengthen his feet.  The disease ravaged and affected the left side of his body.   (When Coach was working at the school, he walked with integrity and as strange as it sounds — his walking gait showed every one that he had full confidence with every step he took.  Nothing slowed Coach down).  As a young child he had some real hearing difficulties. He could not hear high pitch tones and low frequencies.   Harold enrolled at the local public school — the Hancock Public School.   Harold still reflects his first day at school and he was terrified.   He truly believed that he was the only deaf kid in the world.  Dr. Leonard Elstad, the Minnesota School for the Deaf Superintendent changed that perception in 1942.   These days, superintendents traveled the entire state locating deaf children to enroll them at the Minnesota School for the Deaf.   Somehow through connections, Dr. Elstad found Harold Koch and that changed everything.   Harold remembers observing Dr. Elstad in the backyard of his home talking and interacting with his parents.  Eventually, they decided to send him to school far away from home – Faribault. It took four hours by bus and these days there were no superhighways that we have today. Sometimes he took the train.  Harold had numerous health setbacks from 2nd grade through 8th grade and he was often hospitalized. He was often behind with his school work and that traumatized him.  As a Junior in high school, he was hospitalized nearly half of the school year.  Harold took Gallaudet College entrance examinations.  Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University) is the world’s only liberal arts college for deaf students in Washington DC.  He came close to passing the entrance requirements. This devastated him.  His words were….”I was very upset about this.” Due to polio, he was not able to participate in sports, however, he was ready to pitch for the Deaf nine.  Koch had a good arm and a high school classmate, Dennis Berg mentioned that if the school did not drop baseball, it would have given Harold an opportunity to play baseball as a pitcher at the Minnesota School for the Deaf. Harold has an immensely love for sports.  I asked him who were his role models while a student, he said two guys, Dick Caswell and Douglas Burke stood out. Coach explained to me that Burke, despite his challenges growing up, set high standards for his peers to follow.  What about staff?   Without hesitating, he fingerspelled Otho Penix.  I said, Otho who?   He was a houseparent and an outstanding drill master and set positive examples that he still follows today.   I said hold on and grabbed the Lauritsen history book to find out a bit more about him.   I learned that he was a staff member at Barron Hall (boys dormitory) from 1946-1951.  After graduating in 1955, he got a job at a dry cleaning store at Ortonville.  He did not like that job and on December 1, 1955, he got a letter from Howard M. Quigley, the Minnesota School for the Deaf Superintendent offering him a job to work as a boys houseparent at Barron Hall.   That was the only time his mother eagerly kicked him out of the house, knowing that this was a job that best suited him.  Harold said that it was the turning point of his life and loved every minute of his job at Barron Hall.  The pay was not that great and it did not matter because he loved that job.   He learned that Dr. Wesley Lauritsen, a deaf man who was the athletic director at the Minnesota School for the Deaf from 1921-1961 went up to Dr. Quigley to drum up a sales pitch to hire Harold Koch.   Years later, Wesley told Koch that he walked up to Dr. Quigley and told him to hire you!.   Harold is forever indebted to him.  In the fall of 1961, Dr Quigley summoned Harold and said, why don’t you do something with the middle school boys to keep them busy!   Harold thought about forming a football team and after hashing out ideas with Dr. Quigley, they both went up to the gym attic and found outdated football equipment.   He hauled out the obsolete gear and under his tutelage, a junior high football team was established.   His first year team played three games.  The first gridiron team did well and that included beating a very good team from Shattuck 6-0 (a military boarding school across campus).    Harold says that he has never seen a defensive player play like Ronald Springer – never will.  He was all over the field making bone crunching tackles.  Eddie Leighton, who later starred at sports in high school and at Gallaudet anchored the offense as the team quarterback.  Coach shared with me a story about Albert Esterline, the school principal saying that he should try to take some players from the varsity squad to balance out his new team. Esterline says that the Faribault Junior High School is strong and had many players.   Koch politely declined and said they were fine.   And that Faribault team could not budge an inch on the line with Springer plugging up holes.   With Leighton leading the offense and Springer holding the line, they buried Faribault 40-0.  The team went 3 and 0 that year.   This was the beginning of Harold Koch’s uncanny ability to coach and instill a winning teams at the Minnesota School for the Deaf.   Actually his coaching career. Administrators started to take notice and suggested that he start grade school basketball.   Thus history was commenced.   There was no looking back.   Bummy Burstein was the Junior High School coach and that left him to coach elementary age students and to partake in weekend league play.   Harold  loved working with community recreation program leaders and he singled out a wonderful person that he worked with – Bob Burke.  He was in charge of community athletic programs and established a strong working rapport with Harold. His Saturday morning grade school teams were one of the best in the community and in 1966 one of his teams went undefeated 7-0 and won the city-wide championship.  This writer (Mike Cashman) played on several of his successful teams.   Harold Koch was a strategist and his half-time talks were legendary, for example, his teams shared lockers with opponents at the Lauritsen Gymnasium.   One time, his team was not doing well and during halftime Coach was visibly upset.   He started to talk to his team and suddenly, right in the middle of his tirade, his face contorted.  Quickly, he positioned  his ear to the wall….towards the direction of the other team dressing room.   He was listening and signing at the same time, he said, “Number 12 (my number) is so easy to defend….and number 15 (David Bauer) is so easy to steal the ball from….number this or that cannot dribble!”   That was enough to fire us up as a team and we went out back on court with smoke coming out of us….we went out and flattened them in the second half to win the game.    Years later we found out that he never heard anything and he just made all that up….these cement walls built during the WPA years were at least 48 inches thick!  Harold Koch was very creative when it comes to preparing a game and to make each player demonstrate the best abilities he had to offer during crunch time (game time).   Koch always said that his experience with the Minnesota School for the Deaf grade school teams paved the way to a lifetime experience as a successful coach in many sports.  In 1967, the deaf community asked him to coach a fledging deaf basketball club – the MinnePaul Club and he led the team to win the National Deaf Basketball Championship.  Their first since the National basketball tournament was founded in 1945.  Their very first title and Coach laid out the blueprint to seal this winning tradition for years to come.  They went on to win more titles.  The MinnePaul Club was one of the best in the nation and Harold had engineered that from the onset. Again, in 1967, he moved out west.  Theresa Connors a long time deaf educator at the Minnesota school transferred to the Riverside School for the Deaf in California and she encouraged the Dean of Students to hire Harold Koch.  He was promptly hired and stayed there for only two years, and he moved right back to Minnesota in 1969.   Without missing a beat, he picked up coaching once again and naturally did well.   For example, he scheduled a middle school basketball game at his old stomping grounds – the Hancock Middle School.   He wanted to show the community where he grew up, that deaf students can really play basketball.   It started to snow a bit before the team hit the road.  Coach started to become nervous, not because of the snow, but that someone higher up would cancel the trip.   To Harold that was not going to happen at all.   He told the team that if you were one minute late to the car, a severe punishment would befall! Of course, the team moved quickly to the car.   When they drove off, it began to snow a bit heavier.  Coach was undeterred and drove on.   We arrived to an empty parking lot about an hour before tip off.   Coach went out to make a couple of contacts and before we knew it, people came in droves and the game was on.   It was show time and, of course, we did not disappoint Coach.   It was a jaw dropping performance by his team and the community had an opportunity to see a successful and popular homegrown son.   Now I realize that it had come in a full-circle for him, from his experience as a bewildered student at the Hancock public school to a very proud man with a storied coaching background.   He stayed at Faribault for one more year and in 1970, was lured out to the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD).  It was a rude awakening for him at the Philadelphia school.    Harold also landed a side job teaching American Sign Language and loved the job because it helped pay off many of his bills.   In 1971, one of his former students at the Minnesota School for the Deaf, now a teacher, Ed Leighton left PSD to teach at the California School for the Deaf at Berkeley.   He was instrumental in bringing Koch to Mt. Airy and he was disappointed to see him leave and they hired a hearing person who could not sign at all, however, he had a batch of college degrees to vouch for the job.   One day, that new person went to the headmaster’s office and he brought Harold with him.   The headmaster looked at Harold and said what are you doing in my office?   He responded, “Interpreting…”.  Three months later that supervisor was fired and Harold was hired.     Immediately he went over to talk to the headmaster and explained that he did not have a college degree and wondered why he was hired?  The headmaster flatly said that he did not care if Harold possessed a degree or not because he explained that it was the first time in his 30 years that the beds in the boys dormitories were made.  He added by saying that the dormitory was usually a pig pen and a zoo!  It was the first time that he would walk through the sparkling clean corridors of the boys dormitory and feel comfortable.  He noticed students complying to Koch’s high expectations about rules, for example, he observed Koch telling a kid to get off the pool table.  Unbeknownst to Harold, the headmaster was taking parents on a tour and the mother saw that commotion at the pool table.  She was quickly impressed and on the spot she told the headmaster that she is sending her child to PSD.   They had seen what Koch did and they were impressed with the orderliness.  The itch to coach came back and this time it was wrestling.  Wrestling?  Harold Koch had no idea about that sport.  Zilch!  The wrestling program had some internal problems with coaches and the athletic department went out on a limb looking for a coach.  They were really desperate.  At first the headmaster would not let Koch take the job because he already had a very demanding job with his responsibilities in the dormitory. The Athletic Director thought otherwise and went back to the Headmaster to urge him to reconsider and allow Koch to take the wrestling coach job.   Harold prayed that the Headmaster would say no.   However,  the headmaster rescinded and said if Koch wants to do it, that would be perfectly fine with him.  The Athletic Director went back and talked Harold into becoming the wrestling coach.  Harold agreed and said just for one year. The AD nodded and handed him a paper to sign. As soon Koch as signed, the AD grabbed the paper and left to be sure that he does not change his mind.   They started to practice and were outmanned at the 1st match 50-12.  Wrestlers quietly bickered and said that Koch knows nothing about wrestling!  Harold agreed!   Naturally Koch was disappointed and set out to see the AD that one particular Friday.  He was dismayed because, he was not in his office.  After some serious thinking over the weekend about this predicament and on Sunday he read the sports page about a good wrestling program that was only 10 blocks from his school – Germantown Academy; another private school.   He was enthralled about that team. He set out to talk to their coach, Joe Frazier (same name as the legendary Philadelphian boxer) and he suggested that Koch bring his wrestling team to their practices.  Koch eyes widened as he watched how they practiced, more like the military with tons of pushups and steady stream of hard work. The workouts were continuous until the final minute.   Their preparation and conditioning was beyond to the point of sheer exhaustion.   Harold brought that training philosophy back to PSD.   Koch instilled this type of training that he learned from Germantown Academy and he would work his boys hard and made them run up and down the four flights of the school power plant — usually 10 repetitions each.   Usually, his wrestlers hit the sack pretty much right after dinner.  It was almost an overnight sensation because the team got better in a hurry and was 4-1 before Christmas.  Their first match after Christmas was against perennial wrestling powerhouse, the Model Secondary School for the Deaf (MSSD) at Washington D.C.  Model was supporting a 5-0 slate.  Koch was nervous for his team and periodically during the bus trip, he turned to check his team and found them to be relaxed and very calm.   They were ready and Dr. Turk, an administrator from MSSD, found Faribault alumnus Harold walking up to the gym and wondered what he was doing here.   Mr. Koch told him that he was the PSD wrestling coach.   His eyebrows raised and mentioned that MSSD was 5-0.   Their coach Marty Willigan, a former wrestler himself and a college All-American wrestler from Hofstra University.  During a NCAA wrestling tournament, he lost to Dan Gable a future Olympic gold medalist.  Koch noticed that he was somewhat pleased because he learned that Koch was an inexperienced coach with no wrestling background.  Several hours later Harold’s team went home victorious…they had annihilated a strong MSSD team (48-18).   It was simply a no-brainer.   As always in the past with so many teams, Harold Koch psychologically fired up his wrestling team with his usual motivational ire.  His wrestling teams won many Eastern Deaf wrestling tournaments – four straight at one point.   Many high school All American wrestlers were selected from Mt. Airy.   Koch was also selected coach of the year as well. Koch shares a favorite story that will forever be embedded in his heart…it is about a kid by the name of Peter McLaughlin.   During the 1978 wrestling season, they participated in a private school wrestling tournament that fielded 16 teams.  His 188 pounder could not make it because of a family situation and Koch looked around and moved up his standout wrestler Eugene Miller from the 170 weight class to the 188 pound weight class.   It was a tough move because Miller had 40 straight wins in that competitive weight class (170) and Koch painstakingly had to move him up to 188.  Miller wanted to stay at 170 and wrestle the kid from Elizabethtown who also had 40 wins as well.   Peter weighed 160 pounds and he was placed in that 170 weight class.  Regardless, the leader he was, Miller agreed to jump to 188.   Koch put the unheralded 160 pounder McLaughlin in the 170 weight class and his wrestling record for the year was 0-0!  It was his first chance ever to get in and miraculously Peter moved along in the tournament by winning his first two matches.   However, his third match was against that undefeated wrestler that Miller wanted a chance to face had 40 plus wins!  After the first period, Peter found himself down 4-0.   After the second period he crept up within two points 4-2.    Peter forced overtime with a tie 4-4.   Koch sat down with Peter and said, “Peter, you are doing good!”  Then, Koch turned his head and looked over towards the other end of the mat and found the 40 win wrestler trying so hard to get his breathe back.  He was clearly tired he thought and Koch went back to Peter.  “Peter, he is tired and you can beat him!”  Peter nodded and got up to meet the undefeated wrestler.  He was at least a foot taller.  At the whistle, he immediately tripped him backwards and quickly took control of his legs.  The opponent landed on his back and Peter pinned him within 45 seconds.   Koch was in shock and had tears streaming down for Peter McLaughlin who ended his career with a perfect 3-0 record and a champion at the 170 pound class.    I will never and never forget Peter McLaughlin! A special thank you to Michael Cashman for writing this article and to the Hancock Record for assisting in bringing the story to the Sr. Perspective. Thanks!

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