He was a man of many names. J.E., Eyerly, Black Jack, Jack, but to me he was always Mr. Eyerly. Later on in life he asked me to call him Jack, but I could never really do it naturally.
He was my mentor. He was one scary dude. He was my track coach. He was my math teacher. As Choral Director of Principia Upper School he oversaw my musical development for a couple of decades and fostered my talent. I loved him then. I do today. He still stands as the man whom I have most respected in my life.
Mr. Eyerly walked with a discernable hitch in his purposeful stride – the result of polio at a young age and one leg about 4-6 inches shorter than the other. This feature alone probably made him even scarier. For a period of time he was Dean of Boys at my high school, a job that he later admitted to me that he hated. It put him at odds with his boys. It made him the super disciplinarian of the campus. He was the guy who took your dating privileges away when you were caught in uncompromising circumstances with your girlfriend. He didn’t like being the bad guy, but he was so tough and his principles were so high that he always seemed to be in that position anyway.
As Choir Director he was legendary. His choirs were always disciplined, joyful, precise and ultimately musical. He simply convinced me, a young drummer, that I had the music in me and that I could pretty much choose whatever I wanted to do to get it out. He made me his student choir director in high school and in college when we worked together again, he stepped back and left the entire job of College Choir Director to me alone. He convinced me that I could do it, and so I did.
In my sophomore year in high school our track team was runner up in State. Our coach, a Mr. Haas, was very tough and ran our tails off all season. Most of our top runners that year were sophomores, so we had great potential going into the next two years. Unfortunately Haas quit at the end of the season and was replaced my junior year with a much softer coach. The new coach’s softer approach that year did not produce good results and we did not at all live up to our potential. At the end of that year, my junior year, several of the better athletes on the team and in my class decided to take the matter into our own hands.
We discussed which teacher at the school would make the best disciplinarian and kick our butts through our senior season. It didn’t take long to come up with one guy, Mr. Eyerly. We went to him and asked him to take over the team. He laughed at us at first. The image of a crippled man as head coach of the track team was odd, to say the least. But half way through winter quarter (track is spring quarter) he told us all that if we wanted to be any good, we’d have to come out early and learn to run.
Learn to run? Ha! We were good athletes. We had been runners up in state the year before. Now we were supposed to start all over?
But you didn’t question Mr. Eyerly. You simply showed up and did what he told you to do.
Stressing that “Excellence is the mastery of the fundamentals”, he had twenty boys meet on the football field every day for a couple of weeks before the season began and basically learn to run all over again. He broke down form and built it back up again through a series of drills and exercises for each athlete, correcting each boy’s flaws and started a tradition of both physical and mental preparedness that produced many state championships and a number of Olympic trial runners over the next 20 years. Jack Eyerly became one of the most famous and successful coaches in Missouri track and cross country history. Needless to say, my senior year, we far surpassed our potential.
As the years went by he watched over me, gently correcting me, advising me, mentoring me. I was proud to be “one of Jack’s boys”. He would come to NYC and see my musicals. We would walk the streets long after each show and discuss every nuance of what he had seen. I was always more nervous when Mr. Eyerly came to see one of my shows than I ever was opening night with a house full of NY critics. The night he passed away I once again wandered those streets most of the night and talked with my friend, Jack.
Looking back, I now realize that my own father was often jealous of Mr. Eyerly. Dad recognized in Jack’s and my relationship a love and respect that Dad and I would never have. I loved my father and respected him greatly, but Mr. Eyerly was just something else. He inspired me. He gave me the confidence through discipline and training to be the best that I could be. He was simply a great teacher.
I was lucky to know him. He will always be a big part of me.