My father met his lifelong friend and mentor, Rocky Welton, when he was just 5 years old.
My dad’s brother Ron, who was 10 years older, was on the wrestling team at Oakley High. Ron brought my dad with him to practice. Rocky, probably about 25 at the time, was the coach. That he would let someone’s kid brother tag along and hang out at his team’s practice already tells you something about the kind of person he was.
Those were the days before Rocky became a legend in Kansas wrestling, but I can tell you that he made an impression on my dad, who later became his longtime assistant coach.
I debated whether I should tell this story.
For one thing, it’s not really my story to tell. For another, I wondered whether I could do it justice. But the fact is that one small kindness decades ago set in motion a chain of events that influences not just my dad’s life but also my life even today. And I think that’s pretty amazing.
It was in Oakley that Rocky had his first individual state champion. He coached at Clay Center and then at Goodland, where he won three team state championships and had Kansas’ first four-time individual state champion (that was Doug Duell; his brother Ben lives in Manhattan). Northwest Kansas was known for being competitive in wrestling, which made it especially impressive.
When my dad finished college, he applied for a teaching job at Goodland, because he wanted a chance to work with Rocky, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, my parents ended up in Garden City, where my dad taught journalism and English and was an assistant wrestling coach.
Just a few years later, guess who the school hired as head coach? Rocky.
My dad and Rocky coached together for about 15 years, and Garden City won six team state titles in the 1990s.
They had not only a good working relationship built on mutual respect, but also a strong friendship. Growing up, I thought that was a given, but I’ve come to realize how rare it is.
Here’s one anecdote: I remember one wrestling trip, where I’d tagged along on the bus. The team was on the way home after a tournament and was making a pit stop. To make it faster, the coaches decided to split the team between two adjacent convenience stores. Rocky went with part of the team, my dad with the other.
When they got back on the bus, each was carrying two cups of coffee — one for himself and one for the other person. Everyone laughed.
Thinking back on it now, what’s funny to me is they probably both knew the other would buy coffee for himself. But it was a thoughtful gesture, and the coffee didn’t go to waste.
They had a lot in common besides wrestling. For one: both had all daughters. Both big readers, both into woodworking. Once when I was a kid, Rocky heard I needed an idea for my 4-H woodworking project and brought out some of his woodworking books. He and my dad helped me make a pretty impressive paper towel holder.
Rocky and his wife, Phyllis (I can’t believe it took me this long to mention Phyllis, always the center of his world and herself an amazing person) were there from the time my sisters and I were born and for basically every major event in our lives. They were at my graduation, at my wedding, my sister’s baby shower. Their girls baby-sat us, and later we baby-sat their grandchildren.
My dad loved to drop by sometimes for a cup of coffee, enjoying Phyllis’ hospitality, maybe a baked good. Having the kind of relationship where one can “drop by” unannounced is pretty rare these days, too.
Rocky was tough, but he wasn’t “just” a coach. He was philosophical, academic and gentlemanly. I know those attributes influenced my dad, especially when he was a young father and husband just starting his coaching career.
When he spoke with young people, Rocky would ask them questions with a kind of focused attention they weren’t used to getting. Once when he heard I liked reading Word Power, the vocabulary feature in Reader’s Digest, he asked me my favorite word. I felt flattered that someone would care to ask.
I remember seeing him speak to kids at a wrestling tournament or something. He’d stop and shake their hands, ask them a question. At first they’d seem surprised, but then they would straighten up. And I’m sure they felt the respect he seemed to show all people he encountered.
Next weekend, we will remember Rocky, who died almost a year ago at 83. His family had to wait to have his service; you can guess why.
He’s someone who influenced so many people, including his children and many grandchildren, as well as countless wrestlers. We talk about coaching trees in college sports. I bet you could count at least a dozen coaches in Kansas wrestling who were coached by Rocky, and maybe more whose coaches had been one of his teams.
Rocky was my dad’s friend, but that doesn’t really seem to capture what he meant to us. As my sister Caitlin said, he wasn’t our grandpa or our uncle, but he was our Rocky. He was an important figure to us.
The thing is, your parents’ friends become family friends. They are the other adults around as you’re growing up. Sometimes they become like extended family. Over time, it makes a big difference what kind of people they are, and that influence can extend for generations.
How lucky we were to have had someone like Rocky in our lives.