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Leroy changed a lot of lives

Aug 19, 2013 - By Randy Tucker

For decades, he was exactly what kids needed -- and they loved him for it.

It's almost rhetorical, nearing the edge of reason as much as the old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg does. The question on my mind this morning is composed of decisions, fate, luck and a bit of the ethereal all rolled into one.

Does the walker choose the path or the path choose the walker?

The term "fellow traveler" fell out of favor in America during the 1940s and 50s once it became associated with the Red Scare of the McCarthy years but the term can accurately describe many of life's myriad situations.

A fellow traveler is most often defined as a person sharing similar interests, goals and beliefs, but that doesn't belong to the same organization.

In that context, the coaching community of Wyoming lost one of our own "fellow travelers" this week with the unexpected passing of Leroy Hayes of Thermopolis.

I've known Leroy for a long time. As Keith Blankenship of Kinnear once told someone who asked him if he knew my father, "Of course, I've known Luther since we were both productive."

That's the kind of friendship that developed between Leroy and me over the last several decades. Most of those years we coached on teams that competed in different classifications, but that didn't matter. We shared an interest in young people, and Leroy's influence is beyond categorization.

One of my former Shoshoni athletes, Rob Palmer, now of Sheridan, sent me a text telling me of Leroy's sudden passing. As we communicated via our phones Robbie summed up the conversation and Leroy's life with a simple phrase: "He was a great guy and changed a lot of lives."

True enough.

In the context of modern education, or what passes for it, we are immersed in rhetoric of another sort -- AYP, cut scores, proficiency and a thousand other terms of the moment that really mean little in a child's development.

Leroy and I didn't talk much about the latest, greatest trends in education. Sometimes the only mention of it was a joke lamenting the waste of time, talent and money on the never-ending fads. Fads weren't part of Leroy. He found the secret to young people in the simple things. He was approachable, helpful, demanding and to the point.

He was exactly what the kids needed, and they loved him for it.

He was a joker at heart. One of my most memorable experiences with Leroy came as we both worked a track meet back in the 1990s in Thermopolis.

Leroy was the recall starter, and I was clerking the finish line, waiting for the end of each race to write down times and send them on to the scoring table.

The heats of the 100, 200 and hurdle races left little time for anything else, but once the distance races began the pace of the event and the need to write down the information quickly slowed down.

That was all Leroy needed. As we watched the 1600-meter runners finish their third lap, Leroy quietly moved behind me and fired his starter's pistol signaling the final lap.

Rather than hold it in the air he decided to fire it just a few inches behind my right knee. Yep, I jumped at the noise, then jumped again when I realized he had singed the hair on my legs. As I turned to chase him I didn't have to go far. He was laughing so hard he had to take a knee to recover.

That was Leroy's humor, and it was infectious.

He was a natural with young people. You never found him alone at a track meet or wrestling match. He was always surrounded by teenagers. It didn't matter if it was a three-time state champion or a kid who would never place in an event. Leroy treated them all the same, and his care for each one was genuine.

Leroy motivated us in a different way over the last few years. He suffered a stroke and lost much of the use of one hand. He walked with a limp and tired easily, but that didn't stop the youthful entourage from following Coach Hayes around an event.

You found him sitting on a bench in the infield more often than in previous years, but the enthusiasm and interest he showed in the youthful competitors never waned.

I saw Leroy for the last time just a few weeks ago when we both attended Kara Paxton's funeral in Riverton.

As I spoke with Leroy and his son Heath in the parking lot, Curt Paxton and his three sons stopped to speak to us. Curt said, "Now, there's a pair to draw to," and drove off a few minutes later.

In retrospect that was quite a compliment. Being in the company of a man who dedicated his life to young people, who overcame adversity, set high standards, and did it all with a smile, no matter the situation, is about as good as it gets.

Robbie was right. Leroy Hayes changed a lot of lives.

To a fellow traveler: Leroy you were one of the good guys. Thanks.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy Tucker is a retired educator. He farms in rural Riverton.

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