About two weeks ago I got a message from the other Tara in my life, Cooperstown Sports Booster Club President Tara Loewenguth, letting me know that despite COVID restrictions I was invited to the annual end-of-year sports banquet.
It wasn’t an unusual text and I politely declined. I don’t do a lot of banquets, but as a Cooperstown booster and after a fun spring of sports coverage, I thought nothing about being invited.
I told Tara it was graduation weekend and I had plans to go somewhere Friday evening to cover one of our small schools.
What happened next I found to be unusual. Tara texted me back and asked if I could call her immediately. It was urgent, she said.
“So, we were hoping to surprise you, but,” she said, and then explained that the other club members had unanimously voted to give me the 2020-2021 Ken Kiser Award for Good Sportsmanship for dedication and commitment to athletics at Cooperstown Central School.
I spent the next couple of days stunned, debating with myself if I could miss a graduation night, and discussing with my family if they wanted to go to a long banquet on a Friday night, while trying to cobble a speech together in my head. I guess if you are at the stage where you are cobbling together a speech in your head, the decision is obvious. And when even the teen agreed to go, I knew it was settled.
I ultimately decided if I made a speech too much about me or my journey, I would be the talk of the town in a “hmm” sort of way. So, I put together a few words in my head about sports in general, about Cooperstown sports specifically and about the class of 2021 and the amazing things they had accomplished despite the pandemic.
I still look back on banquet night as me being in a state of shock. I had practiced my “speech” a dozen times, I choked down all the anxiety, and I took my normal place in family affairs, in the car waiting for everyone else to join me. We got to the school, entered the Sterling Auditorium and sat on one side. The boosters who knew about the award were quick to congratulate me. I was relieved to see the Kiser Award was near the top of the program so I would not have to wait long to be done speaking.
I listened intently to an explanation of who Ken Kiser was and what his values were. It may be the clearest part of the evening in my mind. Kiser died in 2005 and we moved here in 2011, so I only know what I have been told about him by friends, sometimes mutual ones. My takeaway was he loved his native Milford and also Cooperstown, and he loved sports.
Club Vice President Roger Lansing took the podium to present the award. When he announced my name, there was a gasp and a cheer. I am not making that up. Later, Ted Spencer, club videographer, and patriarch of the great Spencer/Victory clan of CCS athletes, including the leaders of my soccer boys, told me “you got the biggest cheer of the night.”
Roger made, I am told, a wonderful speech. I remember smiling at Tara for the longest time as she took pictures and then when that got uncomfortable, I forced myself to smile at the audience.
The entire time, I was sweating my speech. I had even remarked earlier in the evening, after Leadership Training for Athletes President Abby Miller, a neighbor of ours, had given an incredible speech, that if she could ace that, I should be able to say thank you and good luck seniors without worrying too much. (That trick never works, but I noted Miller aced another speech two days later at graduation!)
When Roger was done and presented me with my award, I leaned in and asked if I had to say anything. I think he said something like, “no, you are good.” I went back to my seat and thought, “but I had a speech prepared!” Then “whew!” Then I think I asked what Roger said.
Luckily, word filtered back to the office that he had praised local journalism and the local journalism owners liked that. At their request, I asked Roger if we could reprint his speech. Reading it, I am touched almost beyond words.
As for the speech I never gave, it was mostly to tell the class of 2021 — and it applies to more than CCS seniors — how impressed I am with them. The joke about my parents’ or grandparents’ generations (or maybe it came from their parents or grandparents) is they had it so hard they had to walk 12 miles to school in a snow storm, uphill both ways, and that is why they turned out so much tougher or better than whatever generation they were maligning. Well, the classes of 2020 and 2021 figuratively did walk up hill to school both ways, and they will be stronger for having come out the other side. I suspect they will not take the good things in life for granted and I suspect their reactions to the pandemic will define the century in America and beyond.
I am proud of our student-athletes and what they accomplished this winter and spring. I noted that the class of 2021 has the last two members of the boys state basketball champions, John Kennedy and Spencer Lewis. Both played a huge role on the title team. I noted that teams/schools/programs that had strong systems in place got back to winning quickly post-pandemic and CCS is blessed to be one of those schools. I made a joke about how that bodes well for the soccer team in the fall and everyone who knows me groaned and rolled their eyes and thought, “again with the soccer boys.” So, I one upped myself and noted that P.J. Kiuber scored the section title winning run in baseball and he is a star soccer kid, too.
And like all good speeches, I ended on a joke. With Buddy Lippitt as the new softball coach, I can’t tell you how many of his classmates have reached out to me to tell me they aren’t sure who this guy coaching softball is. Where is the fiery Buddy Lippitt they knew? He used to be the most fired up guy on any playing field. Now it is Lynn Krogh, CCS assistant softball coach and a former college player, who brings the passion and fire. I only heard a few of her rants and only printed one or two this season, but they were beauties. There may have been one or two we couldn’t print in a family newspaper, but luckily the girls were so good this season, she only had to rant a few times.
So, thank you, Lynn, for showing Buddy’s friends something they never thought they would see, someone more intense about athletic contests than Buddy Lippitt.
Thank you to everyone at all of our schools who got us back to school and back to sports.
Thank you Roger for the kind words. And thank you to CCS and my fellow boosters for this honor. It came at the perfect time and I can’t explain why. But even if I win an Oscar or an Emmy someday, it won’t be as special as this, coming from my peer-group of parents and fellow boosters.
Despite all these words, I am touched beyond my capacity to express it.