Sports

Father's Day tribute: Coach shares love for sports

Mert Waller in his younger days. - Contributed photo
Mert Waller in his younger days.
— image credit: Contributed photo

If you grew up in Oak Harbor at the time of my youth, in some ways, my father was your father.

Merton Waller understood the importance of activities in strengthening one’s character, and he made sure the young boys of the community were afforded the chance to develop positive qualities through sports.

My family moved to the island in the early 1950s when my father was hired to teach at Coupeville High School. He was also hired as the coach --- of everything. He was head coach of the school’s four varsity sports, football, basketball, baseball and track. He coached the latter two simultaneously in the spring, shouting instructions to the the track athletes conditioning in the outfield during baseball practice.

Several years later we moved to Oak Harbor where my father was head basketball coach for a decade and also served for a time as head track and cross country coach. He had stints as an assistant coach in football and baseball.

When girls sports were introduced in the 1970s, he was the school’s first girls basketball coach; I was his assistant. He eventually coached the softball team as well. And, if that wasn’t enough, he was Oak Harbor High School’s athletic director for about 10 years.

Dad was a loving and nurturing father. He allowed my older brother Mike and me to tag along to his practices, ride the team buses to his away games and sit on his team bench. He taught us how to play, and, more importantly, he taught us about sportsmanship, teamwork, work ethic, integrity and respect.

We were the envy of our friends. There were no professional athletic teams in Seattle, and television had yet to saturate the airways with sports. Therefore, for sports fans,  high school sports were a big deal. That, in turn, made my father a big deal.

The ‘60s were a simpler and less litigious time, and as Mike and I became teenagers, my father allowed us to take his keys to open the high school gymnasium and play there unsupervised, often with friends in tow. The OHHS gym became our playground. My father wasn’t worried about problems; he taught us well.

As long as I can remember, we had a basketball rim  mounted above our carport. Long before I was old enough to heave a ball up to the hoop, older kids in the neighborhood would meet for games in our driveway. They would knock on the door and ask permission to play. When it became dark, they would knock again and ask my father to turn on the porch light.

He never refused. The rambunctious games took place just outside our living room and each thump of the ball on the backboard would reverberate throughout the house, making it difficult for us to watch TV. My father, and my mother, Jeanne, for that matter, never complained. They knew. They understood the kids were developing more than a jump shot on our patch of concrete.

His love and service, however, went beyond his family, his driveway and his high school teams.

When we moved to Oak Harbor, baseball was the only sport offered to the community’s youth. He, with several close friends, began the junior league basketball and football programs in Oak Harbor. Through these opportunities, he provided kids with the chance to enjoy organized sports and the life lessons they teach along the way.

I followed my father’s career choice, becoming a teacher and coach. It was an easy deision to make. He was happy, and who wouldn’t want that?

When my father retired, he became the scorekeeper for my high school baseball team. Now our roles, in a way, were reversed. He followed me to games, joining me on the long bus rides and interacting with the players; they called him Grandpa Waller. He continued to pass along his wisdom intermixed with embarrassing stories about my youth.

My father died in 2002. He never had the opportunity to watch his grandsons play college football, something he would have treasured. He missed their games; I miss him.

Now, years later, men stop me and tell me about the positive impact my father had on their lives. Each compliment reenforces my belief that I was lucky to be his son. For each touch he had on others’ lives, he had a score on mine.

Thank you, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.

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