Farewell To a Hero

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A week and a half ago or so, I got an email informing me that my high school wrestling coach and advisor, Steve Ward, was going into hospice care. I knew that he had had some health challenges for the last several years, but this still caught me out of the blue. I had just a few months ago had the good fortune of seeing Mr. Ward at my high school’s Annual Fund dinner, where I introduced him to my fiancée. Although he did not seem well, I did not anticipate that he might pass away soon, or that that would be the last time that I would see him. He was on the list of invitees for my wedding this September, and I was looking forward to having him there as some sort of opportunity to come full circle in my life from young advisee to mature adult.

When I got the news that Mr. Ward’s days were numbered, I broke down in tears on mute in the middle of a Zoom call at work. Finding out today that he is gone gutted me and shook me to my core.

It might be helpful to first provide some context about who he was and why he mattered so much to the Roxbury Latin community. RL is a prestigious all-boys school in the Boston area that collects the most diverse and talented boys in the region. As it is a need-blind school, it has true socioeconomic diversity and places equal value on every boy regardless of their background or circumstances. It resonated with me there how loved every single student was not only by their fellow peers, but also by the faculty members. This love was the motivation for the longest story I wrote for my senior thesis in college called “A Boy’s School,” a story I am now editing for my next book and one that I hope to adapt to screenplay sometime soon. Suffice it to say, the love from the faculty and students stuck with me for many years.

RL was also a very serious place. I felt that academically it was a lot more rigorous than my college education at Princeton. It could be a very cutthroat competitive environment at times, with many students jockeying against each other for position to get into some of the most elite colleges and universities. The school had zero tolerance for lying, cheating, or even drinking alcohol off campus, and it would expel any student who partook in any of the aforementioned activities. Decades ago, only half of each class would actually make it to graduation.

I think that context sets the stage for why Mr. Ward was so special. In a place that was sometimes draconian and austere, Mr. Ward was always a beacon of light. His modus operandi was to take things less seriously. His message for these sixteen and seventeen year old know-it-alls was to take themselves less seriously. In his own weird way, he could use a sarcastic sense of humor to shed light on almost anything and to help every student remember that there was a lot more to life than whatever test score they got or whether or not they won the wrestling match. In this way, Mr. Ward truly led by example. He showed his students that you would get a lot more out of life with a growth mindset rather than the fixed mindset that is often so engrained in high-achieving people.

Nowhere was this persona more clearly displayed than in his role as Varsity Wrestling Coach. If I told you that he was the second most winningest wrestling coach in New England prep wrestling history with 393 wins, at one point amassing a 132-7-1 record over a twelve year span in which the team won twelve league tournaments and ten dual meet titles, you would probably expect that he was a hardass. Quite the opposite. Coach Ward brought out the best in his athletes through some innate abaility to speak the language of each and every disciple that he had. Keep in mind, RL is a place for cerebral kids and not always so much for athletes. Cerebral kids tend to overthink things. Coach Ward had a bevy of ways to lighten the mood in wrestling, and I wrote about that in a previous blog years ago.

One of the ways that Coach Ward put people at ease was through the awards he would give out in practice the day after every dual meet. The Cookie Award would go to the person who wrestled the best match, and the wrestler would get a cookie. Of course, Coach Ward would always remind that athlete to wait until the end of the season to eat the cookie. Then there was the Terminator award, which went to the wrestler who got the fastest pin. There was also the Guts award, which went to the gutsiest performance, and I always felt that this was a classy way for our coach to recognize athletes on the team who might not have had a winning performance but who displayed mental fortitude. And last but not least, there was the Gumba award, which went to whatever inevitably funny and ridiculous thing happened at a dual meet.

Here are some examples of the Gumba award. One time, one of our wrestlers started bleeding on an opponent. The match was stopped, and the opposing wrestler – thinking that the blood was his own – licked it off himself. Coach Ward was disgusted, as was everyone, so we enshrined this opposing wrestler into the RL annals of history by bestowing the Gumba award upon him. Another time, our scorekeeper forgot to start the clock for a match, which resulted in one of our guys having to wrestle an exceptionally long match. My personal favorite was the time that I pinned a wrestler named Jésus in a Christmas tournament. I am Jewish (so was Coach Ward, for anyone who might get offended by what is coming next), but since I was the Jew who vanquished Jésus on Christmas, I had to get the Gumba.

The cookie sheet.

Wrestling was one of the most important things I ever decided to do in my life. It taught me so much about how to deal with failure and what it means to really work hard at something. I never wanted to wrestle – it was something I fell into because I got cut from the 7th grade basketball team. But I was pretty good at it, and I remember that Coach Ward would show up to some of my 7th and 8th grade matches and would otherwise ask how I was doing, and I developed a mindset from a pretty young age that I wanted to impress him. In fact, the more I think about my entire wrestling experience all the way through senior year of high school – when I was Varsity co-Captain – and on to Princeton, where I wrestled for a couple seasons as a walk-on – I think deep down I just wanted to impress Mr. Ward. And while that may seem silly to others, I think it is a testament to the type of person he was and the respect that he commanded.

When I reflect upon that reality that I wanted to impress him, I think of times where I became resentful that he might have focused some of his attention on others and not on me. I was always on time for practice, I worked really hard, I did all the right things. Why was it that so much of his attention was on other people?

As an adult, it’s abundantly obvious to me that Coach Ward was completely dedicated to elevating people who needed the help. The reality was, I was an upper middle class kid from a wealthy town in Massachusetts with great parents who showed up to every match and provided me with all the resources I needed to get myself into a good college. That was not true for many of my teammates, some of whom had problems at home, had problems with drugs, or even just keeping up in school. Coach Ward went out of his way to spend time with those people and he went out of his way to boost their morale.

Something else about Coach Ward is that he always valued team above the individual. Wrestling is unique in that it is a team sport but largely an individual sport. My sophomore year, I was seeded first in the league by some stroke of luck. I ended up getting fourth place, and I was very hard on myself about it because I had not wrestled to my seed, which is what everyone needed to do if we were going to win the tournament. But what happened was that we won the tournament anyway, because for the first time in league history, we placed a wrestler in all fourteen weight classes. He would always say that that was his biggest achievement. And I remember that hearing that made me suddenly forget about my own failures. It encouraged me to think about the bigger picture and the accomplishment we had made together. In his own special way, Coach Ward was able to make light of my situation anyway. I had lost two of my matches in double overtime, and I had won one in double overtime, so Coach Ward told me that even though I had not won first place, I still set a record that day for the longest day of wrestling in the history of the tournament. Fact-checkers may need to verify whether or not my record still holds, but he found a way to make me proud of a meaningless achievement nonetheless.

Coach Ward giving me some guidance before a match, probably in the form of a joke.

My senior year of high school happened to be Coach Ward’s 30th year as a wrestling head coach. You would think in a sport like wrestling that is all about the individual that everyone would be fixated on their own success. Quite the opposite. The entire theme of that season was that we needed to do whatever we could to make Coach Ward proud in a milestone season for him. We had a special ceremony for him after one of our matches and he would go on to get inducted into the Massachusetts Wrestling Hall of Fame later that year.

Coach Ward’s attitude was infectious even to those who hardly knew him. When I went to college, one of my teammates at Princeton was someone who went to another school in our league, and he would often remark to me how great Coach Ward was. I have another friend, Chris Scribner, who was kicked out of one of our rival schools (St. Paul’s) and went on to do Teach for America, where he coached a team of underprivileged kids in Huntsville, Alabama. Chris’s work was so amazing that a documentary called “Wrestle” was made about him rejuvenating a team in what is more or less a segregated part of Alabama. I was so inspired by Chris’s work that I called him on the phone and made a decision to fly down to Alabama to meet his wrestlers and help with some coaching for a couple days. During all of this, Chris gushed about how lucky I was to have Coach Ward as a friend and advisor, because Chris always could observe from afar how great a coach he was. And to be honest, I think I was inspired to help Chris uplift his students because I knew firsthand how much it meant to me, even as a relatively privileged person.

But the biggest reason that I will miss Mr. Ward is because of his friendship. Mr. Ward was my advisor for most of high school. Precocious as I was, I never missed an advisor meeting; in fact, I was probably early for all of them because of how excited I was to get one-to-one time with Mr. Ward. He would sometimes joke to me that I was the only advisee who actually showed up to the meetings, because other students did not tend to take them very seriously.

Our conversations ran the gamut on everything. We talked a lot about the Boston Red Sox. We talked a lot about school stuff. He wrote me what was probably the most emphatic letter of recommendation I have ever received from anyone, undoubtedly boosting my odds of getting into a good school. We talked about wrestling. We also just talked about my life. You see, even though I had a relatively good situation, it did not always mean I was happy. Being in an ultra-competitive environment is very stressful, and you have a lot of uncertainty as a teenager, especially in an all-boys school when you think about basic matters like socialization with girls. I had my own little depression after I got in a car accident my senior year that happened a month after a friend of mine died in a car accident. Mr. Ward was always there to remind me to take myself a little less seriously and that the drama of my life was self-inflicted in my own mind.

Wreckage from my car accident in September 2005.

Naturally, as I got older, I only spoke to Mr. Ward every so often. I would come back for wrestling practices here and there when he was still a coach after I graduated, and occasionally I would go to matches or tournaments where I would spend time with him. We went to a Red Sox game together a few years ago, and as I mentioned, we got to sit next to each other at a dinner just a few months ago. But we otherwise checked in periodically. I was pleasantly surprised to get this text message from him on December 22, 2020, merely seven days after I had published my first book. It says everything you could need to know about him:

Just finished reading your very interesting book. Did it in one sitting. We share many of the same values and insights and therefore have always had an authentic relationship which I value. I particularly liked what you did with the concept of failure. I know you recovered from your wrestling experience at Princeton. I never thought it was a good idea for you but as you said at least you gave it a try. Your segment on your grandfather was priceless. Congratulations on the book. Wishing all the Kirchick’s a Happy Hannukah and New Year. 2021 has got to be better than 2020.”

The book I wrote was about authenticity, and as I sit back and think about it now and why I value authenticity so much, it is because I have never met anyone who exemplified that attribute more than Mr. Ward.

When I found out the bad news about Mr. Ward going into hospice care last week, I made sure to reach out to some of my classmates to let them know. One of them wrote back to me, “That’s so sad. He was a great guy.” I responded, “If Mr. Ward could see your message, he would probably tell you that he isn’t dead yet.” We all had a laugh, because we knew exactly that that is what he would have said. Sadly, he is no longer here to take the gravity out of things. I’ll always be grateful for what he taught me.

12 comments

  1. Thanks for writing this. It was just passed around on the RLS Class of 1977 mailing list. Our class overlapped with Steve only for a year, but he made a big impact. You may or may not know that Steve came in to replace Bob Ryan, a beloved teacher and coach who had been fired by Tony Jarvis. It had to have been difficult in that situation, but he won our hearts completely.

  2. Jeff….thanks for your beautiful tribute. Mr. Ward was a kind and generous man and a role model on how to carry one’s self through the world. His indelible imprint on his wrestlers and students will be remembered as will his smile and good nature.

  3. Really nice tribute Jeff. I was in ‘77 with DMB and didn’t wrestle but had him in American history which kickstarted a lifelong relationship w Steve. He also had my sons John and Brendan (as students not wrestlers) which was also a pleasure for them and me as a parent. An awesome teacher, coach and human being. He will be missed.

  4. Wow … a wonderful tribute to a great man. His impact will live on through all of those he touched … and there are a lot of us. As Dave, Ernie and Jack already mentioned, Steve made a life-long impression on our class … and he had a very tough act to follow.

  5. Dear Jeff….your tribute is absolutely beautiful. You captured him perfectly. Love to you and your family.

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