How do you measure the life of a man? A loving, devoted marriage? Adoring children and grandchildren? A long career filled with countless nods of respect?
If any of these are considered yardsticks, Dan Coleman has met them all and then some.
But I can assure you Dan himself would not support the idea of anyone sizing up the merits of his life (or anyone else’s for that matter) because he is one of the most humble and giving human beings many of us have had the pleasure of knowing.
It is this approach to life that was mirrored in his years as a school teacher and coach for generations of children in the North Thompson.
This particular aspect of his life was honored on Oct. 12 during the first annual Dan Coleman Classic Cross Country Run, which was held at Clearwater Secondary School as an invitational for grades 3-7 in School District 73.
Raft River Elementary saw more than 60 students participate, along with participants from Kay Bingham Elementary in Kamloops.
Grades 3-4 ran a route distancing 1.7 km, while grades 5-7 ran 2.2 km.
Placing ribbons were handed out at the finish line to all participants, followed by hot dogs and hot chocolate.
It was a gorgeous fall day in the sunshine. Dan, his wife Donna and their son Ben were in attendance, along with many friends, the majority of the staff of Raft River Elementary and numerous community members who had been influenced by Dan as children themselves.
Assistant superintendent of School District 73 Rob Schoen opened the event with a speech about Dan’s many contributions in his career as a teacher and coach, and sharing Dan’s personal influence over Shoen’s own career and life as a father.
I had the honour of being welcomed into the Coleman’s home a few weeks ago.
All five of their children had recently been there as Dan has been battling cancer and most recently his health had taken a turn for the worse. However, on that day his energy was high and I never saw a smile leave his face.
Over 30 years ago, Dan began his teaching career at Vavenby Elementary. At the time there had been a lot of enthusiasm in the province for rural communities to develop their junior track and field programs. Dan took it upon himself to start a club in Vavenby to join the BC Track and Field Association.
“They welcomed us with bells,” recalls Dan, “even though they had no idea where Clearwater or Vavenby were.”
Dorothy Schulte sewed uniforms for the entire club, which was named Shadowfax (after Gandolf’s horse in JRR Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’).
With a black stripe sewn across white shiny fabric with crests, when they took to the field they “stood out like a sore thumb” remarked Coleman.
“The first BC championships we went to, we shocked people with our ability. Seppi Wadlegger at that time was running the 1500 meters as a nine- or 10-year-old in five or six minutes.”
This was one of the fastest times in his age group out of the entire province.
He could recall countless children he coached – children who are now adults with grown children of their own – and could remember their times or the places they finished. It was astonishing and incredibly touching.
He shared how they would show up to the championships every year, always having at least a few of their team place in the top 10, many times in the top three.
“In our heyday we took 15 BC Summer Games medals,” shared Dan proudly.
Although involved in track himself as a teenager to some degree as a runner, it is his story of reinventing himself through sport that helps shed light on his future path as a coach.
“He saw himself as an overweight, asthmatic kid,” said his wife Donna, “but when he moved to Sidney on Vancouver Island and was asked to play sports, he reinvented himself as an athlete.”
“They didn’t know who I was so I got to be who I wanted to be,” said Dan. “I was socially inept and had a hard time making friends. The revelation to me was that I had some athletic ability and I found a place to belong.”
As a teacher and coach, he would see a child who wasn’t fitting in and he would speak to him or her – encouraging the child to join track and field. It was always a broad invitation, anyone who wanted to show up could show up.
“The best part of being a coach was to take somebody who didn’t have a lot of confidence but wanted to be a part of something,” explains Dan. “It was about challenging their own perceived limitations to understand that if they pushed themselves they could get better.”
Describing his coaching experience as being “captured by kids and their enthusiasm,” Dan spoke at length about the gratification over the years of seeing children change and grow as both athletes and people.
“I don’t think you can find anything better to do than invest your time in young people,” said Dan matter of factly.
This is the gift Dan Coleman gave to so many and in return he has been blessed with countless memories and the knowledge that he made a difference.
And what greater gift can there be?
Inset photo: Rob Schoen (l), School District 73 assistant superintendent, has a few words with Dan Coleman.