Saturday, Jun. 18, 2005
Recently, one of my seventh-grade world history students asked me how long I had been teaching. His question was not meant to be disrespectful; it was one of those spontaneous sparks that ignites in a 13-year-old mind and tumbles out before a self-censor can inhibit curiosity.
When I replied, “since 1969,” a collective gasp engulfed the classroom, and my students stared at me with a new sense of amazement, as if I were a wax figurine who had stepped out of a Civil War exhibit and was brought back to life for only daylight hours to teach fidgety teenagers. Another child, in shock, blurted, “Then why are you still teaching?” Another gasp.
“I am still teaching,” I replied without hesitation, “because how many people my age are lucky enough to spend every weekday with people your age? How many people my age are fortunate enough to talk to you about world issues and the latest music and discuss why you think many Chinese embraced Buddhism instead of Confucianism? How many people can say they laugh out loud every day at work? How many people can drive home every day and smile because a young person they know said something or did something wonderful?”
My students were uncharacteristically silent, but their smiles and their body language told me they understood.
There are many compelling and legitimate reasons to leave the teaching profession and, sadly, many of our best and brightest do. Veteran staff members are all too familiar with the often overwhelming difficulties facing new teachers. We are not surprised, even more sadly, when fewer than 50% remain longer than five years.
There is, nevertheless, the most important reason to stay: Every year you have a chance to fall in love again — with your students and with teaching. To remember why you decided that the classroom was where you belonged. To remember how much that one special teacher influenced your life. To remember the magic in your classroom when your students could do it without you.
Every day for a teacher is one of infinite challenge. No day is the same as the one before. No class is the same as the one that just left. You are not always a model of perfection and rarely everyone’s favorite teacher; however, you have the time and the opportunity to try to be one of the best.
I continue to teach because every August I still get butterflies thinking about that first day of school. I hope I will be a better teacher than the year before, and I hope I will remember how profoundly confusing it is to be 13. I also hope that each new teacher will be smitten and stay.
Friday, Jun. 17, 2005
Two weeks from retiring after 38 years on the job, Officer Michael Gullace was working a desk shift inside a city station house, filling out a routine report about a missing juvenile when gunfire erupted around him.
A man about to be arrested for domestic violence Wednesday night had whipped out a gun and started firing wildly, shooting two police officers and continuing to squeeze off rounds.
Gullace ran from behind the desk, grabbed the gunman’s girlfriend and their two young children and threw his body over the trio, using himself as a human shield amid the flying lead. When a detective returning fire at the suspect ran out of bullets, Gullace tossed him his own weapon, enabling the officer to keep firing at the gunman, who eventually was hit by five to 10 shots.
Thursday afternoon, as one of the wounded officers was released from a hospital and the other continued to improve, police brass promoted Gullace to detective _ a parting gift that will sweeten the pension of an officer who had never had to draw his weapon in nearly four decades on the job.
“I thought I was going to go out quietly,” he said at a City Hall news conference Thursday. “You never know.”
Authorities on Wednesday night had been questioning Corey Harley, who was brought to the station house after police say his girlfriend accused him of hurting her. Both of the adults were making complaints against each other, alleging domestic violence, police Chief Robert Troy said. When an investigation that included evidence of past injuries to the woman convinced officers that Harley, 27, was to blame, they told him he was about to be placed under arrest.
At that point, Harley pulled out a .22-caliber handgun he had hidden in his clothes and began firing. Without hesitating, Gullace flung himself over the woman and children.
“I heard, ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ I was just thinking of protecting the innocent people that were there, just doing my job,” he said.
Gullace, who had pulled his own service weapon out of its holster, tossed it to Detective Jack Bennett, who had run out of bullets, and Bennett used it to continue firing.
The mother and children were unharmed. Their names and ages were not released by authorities.
Harley was in fair condition Thursday at Jersey City Medical Center. One of the officers he allegedly shot, Patrick Kirwin, was released Thursday afternoon. He had been wearing a bulletproof vest that almost certainly saved his life, police said.
“He’s got this big purple bulls-eye on his back, right on his spine,” said Sgt. Edgar Martinez. “If he hadn’t been wearing it, he would have been killed instantly.”
The second wounded officer, Sgt. Timothy Harmon, was shot in the stomach. He was in good condition Thursday.
“God wrapped his arms around the west district last night,” Troy said. “The right officers were in the right place. It’s not called the Wild West for nothing.”
Harley had not been formally charged Thursday, but police said he would face charges including attempted murder.
Troy and Mayor Jerramiah Healy said it would be impractical to place metal detectors at the entrances of police precinct buildings but said security procedures would be reviewed.
Gullace, 64, has three grown children of his own. His retirement will take effect July 1 but, with some personal days left to take, he only has to report for six or seven more shifts. He will spend those on modified duty, as is routine whenever an officer is involved in a shooting incident, police said.
His immediate plans included going straight home from Thursday’s news conference to spend time with his wife.
“Just relax,” he said. “Maybe have a few drinks.”
Thursday, Jun. 16, 2005
A pilot being hailed as a hero says an emergency landing he made “wasn’t one of my better ones,” even though the landing in a Florida neighborhood killed no one on board or on the ground, and avoided all houses and cars.
Charles Riggs was at the controls of a World War II-era cargo plane that had just taken off from a Fort Lauderdale airport Monday when one of the engines began leaking oil profusely, and failed.
From Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, he told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm Wednesday, “We had to do something, you know, to try and stay up.”
Riggs says he quickly decided to try to set the plane down on 56th Street, rather than Commercial Avenue, a busy highway that was loaded with cars: “It was a less populated highway or road, and we went for it.”
Bush trees along the road helped cushion the plane, he explained: “It’s one of the things you study when you’re a pilot, and they absorb the shock.”
Then, despite the plane’s wide wingspan, Riggs lined it up with the road “and I guess inertia helped, maybe God as well. We stayed pretty much dead center.”
But, he says, it was “not one of my better landings.”
He was pulled from the wreckage just before it caught fire, and says he was dazed, but not unconscious.
His co-pilot and a passenger were injured, and Riggs hurt his knee.
The driver of a garbage truck is being called a hero for the way he handled his vehicle after its brakes failed on a steep central New York road.
Thirty-six-year-old John Renfer of Sullivan was driving a Blue Ribbon Sanitation truck on Route 173 in the Madison County village of Chittenango yesterday when the brakes failed.
As the truck barreled down the road, witnesses say he managed to swerve through an intersection and a single-lane construction zone without hitting the workers or any other vehicles.
Co-worker Ken Chase told the Syracuse Post-Standard he thought of jumping out but decided against it.
He says his partner steered the runaway truck for about a mile before crashing it into a building housing a hair salon and a restaurant. No one inside the businesses was hurt.
Renfer was trapped inside the truck for a time, but only suffered minor injuries.
Tuesday, Jun. 14, 2005
Carla Clark, a teacher at Simmons Elementary School, is one of five teachers nationwide honored for exemplary involvement in agriculture literacy.
Clark received a plaque commemorating her award at the national Ag in the Classroom Conference last week in Indianapolis. The awards are given by the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture in cooperation with the American Farm Bureau Women’s Committee.
The five winners were selected from a group of 16 finalists. The main judging criteria were their innovative programs to teach students about the nation’s food and fiber system, how they expect to use what they learn at the AITC conference in their classrooms, and how they plan to share information with other teachers. The award included expenses, up to $1,000, for each teacher to attend the conference.
Other winners were from Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and New York. The Ag in the Classroom program is coordinated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the goal of helping students gain a greater awareness of the role of agriculture in the economy and society.
Monday, Jun. 13, 2005
Science, says Frank LaBanca, is for everyone.
“I can’t imagine any job that wouldn’t find science useful,” the 32-year-old biology teacher at Newtown High School said last week.
After a decade of teaching, LaBanca, who was inspired to pursue science during his own high school days, has been named Connecticut’s “Teacher of the Year” by the Meriden-based Teachers’ Insurance Plan.
LaBanca got $1,000 and the school received a check for $500. With the state award, LaBanca now qualifies for the company’s “National Teacher of the Year” title to be decided later this month.
Thomas Kuroski, chairman of the high school science department, nominated LaBanca for the award and said LaBanca had made “a significant impact” on the unit.
LaBanca joined the faculty at Newtown High School two years ago after teaching in Stamford for eight years.
“He has quickly become a model and mentor teacher for the department,” Kuroski said. “Mr. LaBanca’s students are regularly involved in hands-on laboratory activities. His laboratory is constantly abuzz with activity.”
LaBanca’s projects have included making local river water quality studies in partnership with the state Department of Environmental Protection. DEP officials have also visited the school to work with students on other classroom programs.
Kuroski said LaBanca had implemented a science research program at the school that provides students with opportunities to complete independent research.
“These students have conducted original, significant projects and have been extremely successful,” Kuroski said.
During the past year, students have competed in both the Connecticut State Science Fair and the Connecticut and National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.
“I think it’s important for students to find creative ways of seeking independent solutions,” said LaBanca.
LaBanca, once named the RadioShack National Teacher for Excellence in Science, Math and Technology, has also been a finalist for both the Connecticut Education Association Teacher of the Year award and Connecticut’s Outstanding Biology Teacher Award.
“He’s a very outgoing guy,” said 17-year-old Bobby Grauer, who will graduate from Newtown this year and plans to study natural science at Lyndon State College, Md.
Grauer said LaBanca once mentored him in a study of shellfish in Long Island Sound.
“He’ll reach out and help you any time,” Grauer said. “All the students love him. He makes the work environment very relaxed.”
LaBanca, who lives in Newtown with his wife and two daughters, Ann 3, and Maggie, 1, said he had always been fascinated by the “logic” of science.
“I think it’s important to make students practicing scientists even if they never become scientists,” LaBanca said. “It will expose them to the logical way of recognizing problems and finding ways of resolving them.”
Sunday, Jun. 12, 2005
Ashton Vinluan is 3. For Christmas, he was the lucky recipient of a toy fire truck.
Saturday morning at Tree of Life, Ashton was able to play on a real fire engine during Hero Day.
“I like to play in it,” Ashton said of the regulation size fire engine. “It has a bigger ladder (than the toy engine he has).”
During a morning that was about giving children the opportunity to meet real life heroes, Tree of Life brought in a Marion firefighter, a Marion police officer and a soldier to talk to young children about what it means to be hero, and what heroes do on a daily basis.
“These are some people who are heroes,” said Tina Janofski, special events coordinator at Tree of Life Bookstore and Cafe. “Heroes are people who protect us.”
Janofski continued to tell the children throughout her introduction that anyone can be a hero, even the small children in the audience.
“Heroes are not always doing something strong or miraculous,” Janofski said. “It is our actions, all the things that we do that make us heroes.”
After her introduction, she allowed the three hero guests to speak about what they do that makes them a hero.
“Sometimes there are bad guys who want to hurt us so we go over seas to protect people,” said Lt. Victor Vinluan, Ashton’s father.
Vinluan, who has spent the past 16 years in the National Reserve, told the audience that even as a hero he gets scared.
“I pray when I get scared,” Vinluan said.
After Vinluan spoke, Marion Police Department officer Ben Caudell, Gas City, spoke about what he does in his job.
“When people have problems or are in trouble they call me and I come and help,” said Caudell, a four-year veteran of the department.
Caudell as well expressed that he too has been scared several times during his career.
“I ask for help when I am scared,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Marion firefighter Tony Fox was the final hero to speak, and he too spoke about what his job entails.
“I drive the truck and operate it to make sure it gets to the fire on time,” said Fox, an engineer, who has spent five years with the fire department.”
After each hero spoke, the children were able to sit in a police car and in the fire engine. They were also able to make the horns, sirens and flashing lights go off, which appeared to be the highlight of a very exciting morning.
“I love army guys,” said Kyle Swan, 4, Marion, who was dressed up as a pint-sized firefighter, complete with helmet.
Kyle like many of the other children expressed what they hoped to be when they grow up.
“I love firemen, I just like them,” Kyle said. “They get to go in fire trucks and rescue people.”
Added Ashton, “I want to be a fireman. When I grow up, I can drive like this,” he said as he pointed to the fire engine.
Saturday, Jun. 11, 2005
Heroes credit victim; “…she’s my hero”.
Police released a composite sketch Friday of the suspect in the attack on a Hackett Middle School student Thursday morning. The sketch is based on descriptions from the victim and witnesses.
Police say two of the witnesses who helped describe the man were working at the Stratton VA Hospital, just on the other side of a fence from where it happened. They say these two men played quite a role in saving this girl from being abducted or even killed.
“It was a big deal, but it was on her behalf it was, and she defended herself,” Perry Smith recalled.
Humble would be the best word to describe Smith and his buddy Curtis Frasier.
The two men work in the laundry room at the VA hospital.
But Thursday something unexpected went down only feet from where they take their normal break. Smith says he and Frasier went around the fence and saw a man attacking a young girl with a large butcher’s knife and what appeared to be a towel.
The men saw that the attacker was armed with a butcher knife and what appeared to be a towel.
“We were sitting out here having coffee and we heard her scream. It allowed us to go see what happened and he recognized us coming and let her go and he ran,” Smith said.
“He was all masked up. He knew what he was doing. He came out here with intentions to hurt somebody,” Smith said.
Smith says when it all comes down to it he and Frasier only did what anybody in their shoes would have done.
City officials have recognized the value of their presence, even if the two heroes refuse to admit it.
“They assisted in scaring off the assailant. So their role was critical. It probably prevented a very serious situation,” Assistant Police Chief Steve Reilly said Thursday.
Smith gives the victim credit for fighting off her attacker.
“She made the difference. Can’t change that. She made the difference,” he said. “She needs to know that she’s my hero. Simple as that. She’s the hero and I’m glad she’s alright.”
Thirty-eight years ago, Rochester firefighter Willie Johnson went into a burning apartment building on Bartlett Street and rescued an infant.
Friday night, during an emotional ceremony at the Riverside Convention Center, the two were reunited for the first time since that blaze.
The infant — formerly Dita Jackson, now Dita Powell — sang a song she wrote, “Miracle,” to Johnson, who was honored as the Rochester Fire Department’s Firefighter of the Year. The ceremony was part of the department’s fifth annual awards dinner.
The song was appropriate for the occasion, said Powell, an actress and singer.
“I don’t remember much from the fire, of course, but my uncle said my hair smelled like smoke for weeks. They always called me the miracle girl.”
The fire was in September 1967. Dita’s mother had left her and two siblings — a 5-year-old sister and a 4-year-old brother — alone in their apartment while she went to a store. A child in another apartment started a fire. That’s when the crew at Engine 7 on Genesee Street, including Johnson, got the call and headed to the scene.
Johnson went in and found Dita in a bed, her family’s apartment filled with smoke. Then he found her brother and sister, hiding in the apartment.
Johnson passed the children out a window to waiting firefighters, who administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Nevertheless, Dita’s siblings died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
But thanks to Johnson, Dita lived — and that was reason for celebration Friday night.
“If I had more time, I could have saved the other kids,” said Johnson, who retired in May after a 39-year career with the Rochester Fire Department. “It’s just by the grace of God I saw (Dita). It’s part of my job. It was the way I was trained.”
Johnson’s humility is typical, friends and family members said. But they weren’t about to let his accomplishments go without praise. The crowd of several hundred in the Lilac Ballroom rose as one, giving him a standing ovation.
“It was a dark day for us, we had two caskets of two children at one funeral,” said Pastor Eulah Nelson, Dita’s aunt, who was there the day of the deadly blaze. “But the great thing is, one was saved. Firefighter Johnson was our angel.”
Friday, Jun. 10, 2005
A man broke out a window on his van at a gas station after another man jumped inside with his wife and two daughters, police said.
The Chattanooga’s Police Department’s Burglary and Robbery Division is investigating the attempted carjacking that occurred around 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Conoco gas station at 5900 Shallowford Road.
Kenneth Leon told robbery detectives that a black male got into his 1999 Astro van with his wife and two daughters while he was parked at the gas pumps.
Mr. Leon said the store clerk informed him that a man was attempting to steal his van while he was inside the store.
Mr. Leon ran out of the store, broke out the driver’s side window, grabbed the steering wheel, and began to fight with the suspect.
He said another man came to his aid, helping him pull the suspect from the van and take him to the ground.
The suspect got up and fled on foot towards the rear of the store.
The store clerk told police the man had grabbed two 20 packs of Budweiser beer and walked out of the store without paying prior to attempting to carjack the Astro van.
The victim told police he would take himself to the hospital to get stitches for his hand that he cut when he broke out of the van’s driver’s side window.
The suspect’s description is a black male, 6 feet tall, with a nappy afro, green/white stripped polo shirt, baggy jean shorts, mustache and goatee, dark complexion, white/green tennis shoes with no shoe laces, 27 to 30 years of age and very rough looking.
Miracle Boy has a miracle tale, of course. It was 1993. Dave Mirra was 19 and had just begun to redefine the sport of BMX. But the drunken driver didn’t stop to check his bio.
She didn’t stop at all as Mirra walked across the street. She left him with a fractured skull, a blood clot on the brain, a dislocated shoulder and the toughest six months of his life.
After recovering, Mirra spent three more months deciding whether flying through the air on a bike was worth the risk anymore. He considered it a personal decision. He wasn’t cocky or imaginative enough to think his choice would have any effect on the mission to legitimize BMX and all action sports.
Mirra hopped back on his bike because he needed it for “just what it gave me.” The rush. The freedom. All that sentimental stuff. It was a good thing he needed it so much.
Now, at 31, Mirra is the most decorated athlete in BMX history. He’s on television more than Ryan Seacrest. He makes more money than Uncle Scrooge. Sports history will remember him as one of the influential athletes who allowed action sports to wade in the mainstream.
Action sports on the rise
Mirra, who earned the nickname “Miracle Boy” for his innovative stunts, is here participating in the Dew Action Sports Tour, which runs through Sunday. This new tour has him marveling again at how much action sports have grown.
He started competing at age 10 and can remember when contests were held in dirty warehouses.
“Now we’re in arenas with catered food and TV cameras and potential endorsements hanging out, watching the event and making heroes out of a lot of riders,” Mirra said. “That’s amazing.”
He says that word, amazing, quite a bit. Safe to say he’s amazed by the growth. Ask about how admirers praise him for helping with this progress, and Mirra nearly gushes.
“That’s an ultimate compliment right there,” he said.
Like most people, Mirra never set out to leave a legacy. He was just a child, exploring, doing something dangerous. Then he turned pro in 1992 and immediately became the best and most exciting freestyle rider.
After the driver hit him, he got over a fear of falling on his head and returned even better. He’s won a record 13 X-Games gold medals. MTV had him host “The Real World/Road Rules Challenge.” Whenever a great, young talent comes along, people wonder whether he’s the next Dave Mirra.
King of his sport
He’s the Michael Jordan of his sport because he’s dominated with flair, put BMX stars in a new financial stratosphere and left fans so hungry for more that they see a little of him in every great rider. He admits to feeling pressure.
“You feel like you have to prove yourself a little harder now,” Mirra said. “If I can’t ride as well as I want to ride, and I self-destruct, that bothers me a lot. I guess I’d say I’m a perfectionist. And most people in this sport are.”
Miracle Boy has come to enjoy the mental challenge of his sport. As he gets older and his body starts to wear, his mind continues to sharpen. He figures that will help him thrive.
“It’s really cool to go out and learn and push yourself, if you’re scared of something, and then overcome that fear,” Mirra said. “And then all of a sudden, you have something else that scares you, and you overcome that. It’s a big set of stairs, you know.”
He learned that lesson at 19 while in a hospital bed. Then he decided he wanted to climb a few more flights.
Now look at Mirra and his sport. They’re way up there, higher than ever.
Thursday, Jun. 9, 2005
A former star of TV’s cop drama serial Heartbeat returned to crime-fighting when he came to the rescue of a real-life PC who was being assaulted.
Jason Durr, who played dapper copper Mike Bradley in the hit ITV series, came to the rescue after seeing the constable struggling with an 18-year-old man in Claremont Road, Highgate, on Sunday evening.
Mr Durr, 38, who lives nearby and is due to start filming a new two-part drama, said: “I spotted one of the boys hiding in a bush nearby and grabbed him and held on to him.
“Then I saw the policeman struggling with another boy, and it looked like he was getting the better of him.
“The poor guy was on his own and was trying to be all things to all people. It was one against three and those odds aren’t good.
“So I handed the boy to some onlookers and said ‘Don’t let go of him’.
“The policeman was being turned over by this bloke, and I ran down the street and literally leapt on him and got him in a head lock. Then before I knew it, the cavalry had arrived.”I didn’t think about what I was doing, I just did it.”
But despite his heroic actions, Mr Durr said his experience as a 1950s rural copper in Heartbeat didn’t translate to real-life Crouch End crime in 2005.
“All the people in the street thought it was hilarious that my role had somehow stayed with me, but it didn’t really help me.
“I just did what I think anybody would have done in that situation.
“I think I would rather stick to pretending to be a policeman, that is much more fun.”
A teenager has been arrested and charged with two counts of assaulting a police officer, aggravated taking and driving of a car, dangerous driving, driving without insurance and drug offences relating to two outstanding arrest warrants.
A police spokesman said: “Although we obviously do not encourage the public to get involved in incidents that might present a risk to their safety, in this case we would like to extend our thanks to the member of the public who came to the officer’s aid.”
The incident began after a routine patrol spotted four youths in a stolen blue Volkswagen Polo in Middle Lane, Crouch End, at 7.30pm.
When the two officers stopped the car, one managed to apprehend the front passenger before the car sped off, and a chase ensued.
The Polo crashed into another car in Claremont Road, and the other three youths ran off.
Wednesday, Jun. 8, 2005
A disabled boatman embarked today on an attempt to sail around the British Isles “single handed” to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Keith White, 56, who only has the use of one arm, set off early this morning from Gillingham, Kent, on a 2,000-mile voyage in which he hopes to raise hundreds of pounds for charity.
The adventurer will travel anti-clockwise around Britain and Ireland in his boat Nephele, which has an 8ft picture of Admiral Lord Nelson – painted by Mr White – on one of its sails.
He hopes to arrive on the South Coast in time to join celebrations marking the anniversary, including the International Fleet Review on June 28, before he completes the circuit.
Mr White, from Eltham, south-east London, said he had drawn some inspiration from Nelson, who had his right arm amputated eight years before he died at Trafalgar in October 1805.
But he added: “There is a link there but I am not playing on it. I am doing it for a sense of self-achievement – there is not much else I can do in life now.”
The father of seven lost the use of his left arm following a motorway crash 15 years ago but continued sailing, a sport he first fell in love with around 40 years ago.
He said that he would attempt to sail the whole route and was only planning to use the engine to recharge the vessel’s batteries.
And he suggested that if he succeeded in his present voyage, he may become the first person to sail “single handed” – quite literally – around the British Isles.
“I don’t know that anyone has done it. I have sent the Guinness Book of Records an email but I haven’t received a reply,” he said.
Mr White hopes to raise money for several charities, including The Psoriasis Association, which aims to raise awareness of a skin condition which he himself suffers from.
A spokeswoman for Guinness World Records said the voyage was “too specialised” to be accepted as a record attempt but she added that the organisation wished him luck for the trip.
A Toronto guide dog named “Ziggy” will receive a special Fire Safety Award from the Fire Marshal’s Public Fire Safety Council at a ceremony on June 15, 2005 in Toronto. The annual Fire Safety Awards recognize outstanding contributions to fire protection and prevention in Ontario.
On February 23, a fire broke out in Ziggy’s owner Neena Saloiya’s high-rise apartment when an oven mitt caught fire while food was being retrieved from the oven. Her guide dog Ziggy immediately began yelping and jumping around the apartment before the smoke alarm activated, to alert her to the danger. Immediately, Neena called 911. Ziggy then led her down 20 flights of
stairs to safety.
Although the fire gutted the apartment and caused about $30,000 in
damage, the situation could have been much worse had it not been for Ziggy and
his will to lead Neena to safety.
“Neena was extremely fortunate that Ziggy was there to alert her to the danger and lead her to safety,” said Fire Marshal Bernard Moyle. “Without a doubt, Ziggy saved the day!”
Fire departments throughout the province nominated individuals, organizations-and Ziggy-for this year’s awards; 21 recipients were selected.
The Honourable Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services Monte
Kwinter and Fire Marshal Moyle will present the awards at a luncheon ceremony
at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto.
Tuesday, Jun. 7, 2005
Love of the game means many things to many people, but more to Max McLeary than just about anybody else.
A man who clings to the lowest rung of pro baseball as an umpire for 35 years, logging six nights a week and 45,000 miles a year crisscrossing the Midwest to lay down the law, can’t be doing it for the money – $125 per game, plus expenses. It has to be the work.
But even that doesn’t explain McLeary’s devotion. Because for the last 25 of those years, he’s been doing it with one eye.
”I never, ever thought about quitting. Every night, just before the first pitch, I look up into the sky,” he said, ”and thank the good Lord for putting me back on a baseball field.”
McLeary was knocked out twice when baseballs shattered his facemask, and nearly left for dead the first time. That was in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1998. The first official to reach him shone a flashlight into McLeary’s right eye and horrified by the lack of movement, screamed out, ”Somebody call 911. We’re losing him.”
”Fortunately,” McLeary said, ”some fans in the stands yelled, ‘Check the other eye.’ When I came to, the first thing I saw was a helicopter in center field. I thought we were in a war or something. …
”Then, two years later, same thing happens. But this time,” he chuckled, ”they knew enough not to shine the light in my right eye.”
At 56, McLeary has turned disability into performance art. He has yet to hear a catcall he couldn’t turn around. He shut one coach up by strolling over to the dugout late in the game, popping his plastic eye out of the socket and handing it to his tormentor. ”You want to umpire this game?” McLeary said. ”Here, be my guest.”
Once, he tapped his way to home plate to exchange lineup cards using a cane and wearing dark glasses. The stands shook with laughter. Another time, McLeary was downing postgame beers with a losing coach and longtime pal who had a revelation three hours too late.
”All of a sudden he sits up and says, ‘I threw a left-hander. You didn’t see a pitch the whole night!’ When I finally I quit laughing,” McLeary recalled, ”I told him, ‘Next time, use a righty.’ ”
The memories flow fast and free Sunday afternoon as McLeary growls into a cell phone from a Cincinnati ballpark where he’s organized an all-star game for high school seniors from across southwestern Ohio.
”Every now and then, I’m heading toward Kalamazoo or somewhere else, and I wonder why I’m still doing this,” McLeary said. ”Then I get to the ballpark and honest to God, I think no one experiences the feeling I still get every time.
”I’m not a wealthy man,” he paused, ”but I’m a rich one.”
Dealt McLeary’s hand, a lesser man might have folded. He was good enough to play baseball at Penn State, but smart enough to know his talent wouldn’t put food on the table. On advice from umpire Augie Donatelli, whom McLeary knew growing up, he got his certification and began working the New York-Penn League the summer after graduation.
But the gypsy life lost its allure soon enough. McLeary took a job coaching soccer at Ashland University in Ohio and assisting Bill Musselman with the basketball team there until 1972. He moved to Wright State in Dayton, opened an auto upholstery business and worked a few games. But it took a freak accident to remind him how much he was missing.
He and his wife-to-be were playing in the snow during a blizzard in 1977 when she slipped and began to fall. McLeary grabbed hold of one leg, but the other shot skyward. The pointed toe of her boot punctured his right eye. After seven hours of surgery, McLeary awoke to find the world would never quite look the same again.
Today, he considers that setback a blessing. While recovering, he built the customizing business into a decent living. But the freedom it afforded felt like a cruel joke. McLeary missed the smell of freshly clipped grass, the languid pauses and helter-skelter bursts of action, even the way sweat flowed freely beneath those layers of padding in the dog days of summer.
Soon, he found himself at the batting cages for hours on end, pumping quarters into the pitching machines and learning to track the flight of a baseball all over again. After a few months, he showed up at field houses where high school and college teams practiced indoors during the chilly spring weather, begging for a chance to call balls and strikes. One day, he decided to return to umpiring school and be re-certified, this time as a one-eyed umpire.
For 11 years now, McLeary has been behind home plate almost every night from the end of May until the middle of September in one or another of the dozen towns that make up the Frontier League.
He’s been the subject of one book already, ”It Always Happens in Chillicothe,” by Mike Shannon. Like some minor league ”King of the Road,” he’s in it for the here and now, to collect stories and tell them over cold beers. He knows which coaches, bus drivers, groundskeepers and tavern owners stay up late in every town.
That goes for the offseason, too.