Thanks, Coach – A Special Tribute

by Tom Walker
In memory of Thomas Welles Gough; July 13th,1925 – March 23rd,2011

Coach Gough was born in Long Beach, California in 1925. Like everyone else in his generation, he grew up in a nation struggling through the Great Depression followed by the ominous, steady beating of the drums of war. He was still in high school when America was hit with the stunning news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he watched anxiously as his slightly older peers enlisted to fight the forces of the Axis powers.

Not content to sit on the sidelines with the fate of humanity literally hanging in the balance, Coach Gough did what many in what we now respectfully refer to as “The Greatest Generation” did when constricted by the agonizingly slow progression of the calendar: he lied about his age. And the military wasn’t asking any questions. And so it was that this 164 pound kid joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17 (his military ID claiming he was born in 1924) and became assigned to a Balao-class submarine, the USS Perch, as a Torpedoman.

The Perch was initially deployed to Pearl Harbor and subsequently to Midway, the Marshall Islands, and the Philippines. At one point during the war, the sub was detected by a Japanese ship and subjected to hours of depth charging which caused substantial damage, but fortunately did not explode so close as to destroy the ship. For their service in World War II, the crew received the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with a bronze star.

At the conclusion of the war, Coach Gough received his honorable discharge and began his studies at UCLA and USC, eventually receiving his Masters degree in Education from Pepperdine. He loved sports and excelled as an infielder for Pepperdine’s baseball team. His great passion, however, was golf. And while he taught History and Driver’s Education for more than three decades in California high schools, nothing made him happier than coaching his schools’ golf teams.

Coach Gough always kept team pictures and trophies on display in his home, and frequently reflected upon his career in education and stories of his students for whom he continued to have great affection. He continued to play golf regularly throughout his retirement until the effects of age, and eventually Alzheimer’s Disease, took their toll. Last month he suffered a stroke which set in motion the series of events which mercifully claimed his life with relative peace.

I never knew Coach Gough until after he retired from teaching at Lakewood High School in 1985, but I was fortunate to marry his greatest achievement of all, the young woman who affectionately called him “Daddy.” Somewhat to his dismay, she never really cared much for golf. To my delight, she did acquire a passion for ice hockey instead.

In preparation for his memorial service, we sorted through numerous pictures of generations of teams sporting their golf clubs. On the back of each photo, Coach Gough faithfully recorded the name of each student and the year in which the picture was taken. In a sudden stroke of inspiration, we began a quest to determine if any of these former students might be found on Facebook. Before the night was over, a number of students whose names and profiles matched the correct time period were contacted by email. A few responded. One agreed to write some memories, and after we were blown away by what he sent us, he agreed to personally share them at the service.

I don’t know exactly how one determines “par” for remarks made at a funeral, but it is safe to say that Blake Pannell recorded a Double Eagle as he took us back in time with his memories and expressed his gratitude. He concluded by noting that he only knew Coach Gough for those three years at Lakewood High, and that he never saw, spoke, nor heard from him again. But he knew he had met someone who enjoyed what he did and it inspired him to want the same.

Reflecting upon all of the remarks made at the service, Blake wrote afterwards:

“Tom Brokaw wrote a book about the ‘Greatest Generation.’ Although I have not read the book in its entirety, the men (and women) I have personally met that served in our military during those dark days are some of the GREATEST people I have ever met ! Most, if not all, have/had an aura of honor, nobility, humbleness, kindness and willingness to serve that this current generation of ‘it’s all about me’ lacks. Thinking back on it, Coach Gough had all of those traits – I was just too juvenile to notice them at the time.”

Though not all of us played sports growing up, each and every one of us has had one or more teachers, counselors, church leaders, or other mentors who have helped form and shape us into better people than we would have been without their positive influence. Regretfully, it is the common lot of these coaches and others who inspire us that we have the natural tendency to move on with our lives. We go off to college. We get married and have children. We become embroiled in our careers and other obligations. And before long it can be said of us that we never saw, spoke, nor heard from our mentors again.

And what a profound shame that is.

For the most part, the generation before us is ill equipped to reach out and restore lost ties. But if you are reading this column, you likely possess the minimal internet skills required to engage in the cyber detective work which can reconnect you with those who mean so much.

In addition to utilizing social media such as Facebook, tools such as Yahoo People Search may help locate a missing mentor. If you are the child or friend of a former coach or educator, perhaps one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to sort through old pictures and see who you might find.

Though I am grateful that modern technology made it possible to enrich Coach Gough’s memorial service with the participation of a former student, how much better would it have been if we had thought to seek out these students years ago while their coach was still living? Oh, how much would he have loved to play a round of golf or hit a bucket of balls at the driving range with these young men just a year or two ago. And how much would it have meant to them as well ?

Last week a U.S. Navy color guard saluted Seaman First Class Thomas Gough as he was laid to rest. Tears fell to the ground as the sound of Taps soared to the skies. An American flag was tenderly folded and presented with the stirring words, “On behalf of the President of the United States and the Chief of Naval Operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this Country and a grateful Navy.”

We are all indebted to those who have gone before, whose sacrifices and courage leave our generation with giant shoes to fill. Our posterity looks to us to rise to the challenges of the present and show them the way for the future. One gift we can give them, as well as to ourselves, is to show them how we revere our mentors and do what we can to make these valued souls an ongoing part of our lives. We can only enrich ourselves in the process.

So I’d like to take this moment to say, “Thanks, Coach.” Thanks for your service to our country in its time of heroic need. Thanks for your service to the community as an educator. Thanks for your service to your family as a husband, father, and grandfather. And may others be inspired to express gratitude to those in their lives who mean so much.

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