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One way to save a life

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By David Whitlock

He was always getting up a game of some kind, usually sandlot football.

Mark had a knack for gathering my friends and me, most of us 10 years his younger, for a game of football in the fall or baseball in the spring. And he was my own personal trainer, throwing me thousands of football passes or hitting me countless groundballs, trying to make me better.

But there was more to it than the game — something much larger than that. The sport was only an avenue enabling Mark to do something far more important than catching or throwing a ball.

Before Mark made our front yard a football field or a baseball diamond, I spent most of my time with Dougie, my brother, only 18 months older than me. We were so attached as constant companions that Momma usually spoke our names as one: “Dougie and Davey, Davey and Dougie.”

Until quite suddenly on a fateful day in May, after a car wreck involving the two of us and my oldest brother, Lowell, Dougie’s short life was taken.

And after that, it was only “Davey.”

Mark gradually emerged as our neighborhood coach and my personal instructor in all things athletic. Because of him, I dreamed big dreams and learned to work with others.

Mark even arranged for one of his high school football buddies to form a rival football team from another neighborhood so we could play them, which we did, giving Mark his first win as a football coach.  So, I really wasn’t surprised when Mark announced his intention of getting his college degree in elementary education. After all, he was a natural, as was his wife, Joy, who graduated with him, both of them earning bachelors and then master’s degrees in their fields. With their mutual love for kids and one another, it seemed likely that if they didn’t achieve great success, they would at least have a joyful journey.

They got both.

And some forty years later — seven as a coach and teacher and 33 as a principal, Mark, along with a banquet room full of teachers whose lives he had touched, gave his retirement speech.

He didn’t mention that along the way, he received the prestigious Academic Achievement Award from the State Department of Education, nor that he was named the District Administrator of the Year by the Oklahoma Association of Elementary School Principals in 1995 and 2009, nor that he was the recipient of the Oklahoma School Administrator Award in 1998-1999.

Neither did he mention that his wife, Joy, was named Teacher of the Year from Rivers Elementary in 1993-1994 and also in 2010-2011, nor did he say that Joy was a grant recipient for Award Reading from the Rural Oklahoma Foundation in 2007.

All those awards weren’t really that important to Mark and Joy. What mattered was that they considered themselves privileged to invest their lives in students and teachers.

But Mark did remember to thank the teachers for their role in his journey, and when he was done, they thanked him.

There was the teacher who once worked in the school cafeteria, and because of Mark’s encouragement, went for it, getting her degree in education and a job at Mark’s school; and then there was the teacher who finally got a chance to prove herself, because Mark was willing to hire her; and another teacher had lacked confidence but gained it from

Mark’s support; and some, like my wife, Lori, pursued careers in education simply because of Mark and Joy’s positive example of what it is to be a teacher — educators who make a difference in others and in so doing, save some students from potential disaster, pointing them to the right path in life.

I couldn’t help but think, as teachers and friends gathered around Mark to thank him for caring enough to lead and teach those many years, how Mark had helped save another life, that of the skinny, 6-year-old I once was, the child who was lost without his brother. It was then that Mark stepped in and took up the slack, and in so doing helped save not just one life, but potentially many more as well, because he had learned the importance of instilling in others the hope that comes from dreaming dreams and the thrill that comes in fulfilling them en route to becoming whole and well.

And 40 years down the road, that’s still one way to save a life.