Saturday, October 30, 2010

Excellence on a Shoestring

You see them in almost every movie comedy about teenagers--high school athletes who are braggarts and bullies, intimidating defenseless nerds and wimps who dare to trifle with their women or their territory.

Les Hipple allowed none of that. This coach gave his players no reason to believe they were better than anyone else. When a star was singled out for a special honor, the coach drew him aside and said, "You are only being recognized because you play on a good team. Don't let this go to your head."

Hipple permitted no showboating, no insolence, no whining, no trash talk. If a player even hinted at those things, he sat down. The coach insisted instead on disciplined play backed by hard work, conditioning and a mastery of the fundamentals--combined with gentlemanly behavior at all times.

As his teams won championships and mounted thrilling runs in state basketball tournaments, their example permeated the whole school, creating an environment of excellence that went far beyond athletics.

That's the recollection of John K. Castle, who graduated from Marion High School in 1959, obtained degrees from MIT and Harvard, and went on to a distinguished career in finance. Today his multiple business interests include heading a private equity firm in New York.

Castle didn't play sports in high school, but he was a four-year member of the band, which came back from each state competition with highest honors. He participated in vocal groups and on debate teams that were always among the top in their class.

He remembered a "Quiz Kids" competition in which Marion team finished second in the state because of a single superfluous letter. The Marion team identified "the silver-tongued orator" as William Jennings Bryant, conferring upon him the t that rightfully belonged to William Cullen Bryant, whose poem, "Thanatopsis," was part of every student's passage through high school English. (That loss is as vivid in Castle's memory as a one-point defeat would be to a former basketball player.)

Marion had one of the lowest costs per pupil in the state. Yet it established a culture of hard work and sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence. And in doing so it delivered an education that Castle ranked far superior to what his own sons experienced years later at an exclusive private school in New York City. It all started, Castle insisted, with Hipple and his sports teams.

-- Dan Kellams