Human Interest - Marvin Thelen
This is a human-interest article I wrote in 1997. It was published in St. Mary's Today, a high school alumni periodical published twice yearly. The issue that included this article was submitted to the Iowa School Public Relations Association in Des Moines for a statewide competition. St. Mary's Today received the top award, "Best of Class," for general excellence in a secondary school alumni magazine. I have continued to do volunteer writing for St. Mary's Today.
Marvin Thelen…Coach, Teacher, and Friend
When Marv Thelen was speaking publicly, he loved to use his deep, resonant voice and dramatic pauses to state, "When Remsen St. Mary's takes the field to play baseball, literally hundreds of people throughout this state and beyond are pulling for them." When speaking privately he would often say to friends such as Ken Goecke that he believed those hundreds of people were pulling for the students of SM as they worked in the classroom as well. On October 27, the thousands of people across the nation that Marv touched with word and deed will remember this true and humble man on the 10th anniversary of his passing from us, the family of St. Mary's.
His picture hangs in St. Mary's High School in a hall between the gym and the cafeteria. His name is prominent on state baseball tournament trophies and at the city baseball field named for him. But should an SM student of today ask about "Mr. Thelen," they would probably be corrected right away. As one former student said, "It's 'Marv'. When we were freshmen, students and athletes were told in their first 'talks' with him that he considered us his equals, and he would demand nothing of us that he didn't demand of himself."
Most that knew Marv did not know much about his childhood, his family, or his adult years before St. Mary's. His father provided for six children as a farm hand, mechanic, and then custodian at St. Joseph's High School. Marv never played baseball, ending any chance of playing when he accidentally chopped himself in the knee with an ax at fifteen. He was unable to walk for over three months, and was held back a year in school. He was a member of the first graduating class of St. Joe High School in 1946. He served in the Army for a year and a half, and attended Loras College for a year. The college expenses being too great, he finished his studies at Westmar, graduating in 1957. He taught at St. Joe's, Melvin High School, and Marcus Holy Name.
In 1964 Holy Name closed, and Marv was hired by St. Mary's to teach Social Studies and P.E. He there met Sr. Margretta Trumm, also a new teacher that year, Mr. Larry Brazil, a third-year band teacher, and Mr. Ken Goecke, whom he would assist as baseball coach. When Mr. Goecke had his first kidney transplant in 1968 Marv took over as head coach for the '69 season. In 1979 his teaching duties moved to drafting and wood shop. Fr. Paul Eisele remembers him as a teacher "who was a very deep thinker…. He talked to his classes about finding God in wood. The cutting, polishing, and construction of the pieces was done to accent the beauty of God that came through the wood."
For most of the years that Marv coached baseball the results were hugely disproportionate to the law of averages. Over ten percent of graduating seniors were going on to play college baseball. Several years the entire starting team was named all-conference. The statewide All-Star game had an SM representative almost every year after 1977, with over 400 schools to choose from. The team was participating in and consistently winning a league in which the next-smallest school was larger by 620 students. Marv was Coach of the Year twice for the state of Iowa, and was named to the Iowa High School Baseball Hall of Fame. His teams won three fall and three summer state championships. In the end he had won 676 games in 19 years.
While people outside SM were trying to explain his success, Marv and his players and students went on with the task at hand. Some said Marv was recruiting players to the small parochial school. Meanwhile, he was telling everyone that would listen that any normal boy could become an excellent baseball player because the game was mostly mental--90% he claimed. Some said he was "buying" talent with gifts and rewards. In the small coach's office, everyone who wanted to play was given what he needed, regardless of his apparent importance to the team. At track and cross-country meets all athletes could leave their money home; Marv bought the meal. In the wood shop, lumber, supplies and tools came in at no cost to the school. In Granville, where Marv continued to live, he helped a Spalding player, an arch-rival, to overcome peer problems, and told no one.
One former player remembers the day Marv gave him a glove, "I knocked politely and was invited into the office. He pulled out two glistening infielder's gloves. 'I want you to try these on.' The smell of the first nearly won me over, but the moment I slipped the second one on, I was in love. The leather was softer, and it seemed to hug my hand. 'Is that the one you want?' Marv's voice snapped me back to reality. 'I like my glove,' I answered, knowing I could not pay for this one. 'I really don't need a new one.' 'Yes you do,' he insisted. 'It's $85 if anyone asks, but if you promise to wear that thing out in the next four years - it's paid for.'"
Some said St. Mary's played baseball year-round, practicing all day. Meanwhile, baseballs stowed in five-gallon buckets, players sat in the dugout or locker room, and parents waited patiently outside while Marv talked, sometimes for the entire practice or for hours after the game. One player remembers, "We were beating one team so badly that they packed up and left after the second inning. Marv came to find out they had players gone for basketball camp. He told us that we had seen that day what happens when loyalty and attention are denied a coach, teammate, teacher or parent."
Fr. Eisele, principle for many of Marv's coaching years at St. Mary's remembers, "I think Marv was not always a great coach, he wasn't even always a good coach. He grew into the greatness. Because he was so insightful, he could analyze his coaching techniques, glean his errors and correct them-he never stopped doing this!" He taught mental preparation, and was never one to teach the fundamentals, leaving that to his excellent assistant, and friend, Mr. Mike Meyer. Marv's closest friend in his "dynasty" years, Mr. Meyer said, "Many people knew Marv as a successful baseball coach, but few knew him as a person, to see his loving concern for his kids, his compassion for the disadvantaged, his vast knowledge of a variety of subjects, and his great sense of humor."
Marv's humorous side was never far from the surface. In the school's first championship, a gutsy shortstop had spurred the team with an early home run, but a reporter said he didn't look the part. Marv said, "Yeah, he's short….but he's slow."
Marv was demanding of his athletes, requiring those serious about baseball to run cross-country practice. He required complete attention, complete trust, and expected excellence. He was as demanding of his own responsibility. He spent many hours on the phone touting his players to the Athletic Association and the press for statewide recognition, and seeking college scholarships. Marv had conquered alcoholism, and while others rarely spoke of it, he brought it up often with players and friends. He said drinking was a waste of precious time, and that he hoped he had enough time left on earth to make up for the bad things in his past.
In March of 1996, Marv said to his sister, Madonna, that he just didn't feel right, that something was very wrong. He went to the doctor in Sioux City, where a biopsy was ordered. He was immediately diagnosed with lung cancer. Back at home, dealing with terrible pain from the biopsy, Marv expressed fear that he would die in the first few days, and his sister feared that every day from then on would be as bad as this first. But he pulled through and began chemotherapy and radiation treatments soon after.
In his finest hour, Marv overcame his pain and fear and carried on. He would get ready for school and then lay down at home to rest for the ride to Remsen. In Remsen, he would rest at the home of a friend before going into school. During free periods, he often snuck out and collapsed from exhaustion at the friend's house, which was always open for him. His goal was always to reach St. Mary's and his kids.
In what was to be his last season, Marv had a team that everyone said was the end of the baseball dynasty. They were young and inexperienced and-most thought-untalented. Marv demanded no less of this team than any other: "To present the best of Remsen and St. Mary's wherever we play, and wherever we are known." And he demanded no less of himself: "To make them vitally aware of their responsibility as Hawks." A player from that year remembers, "When tournament time rolled around, Marv's only team with a losing record did not believe it could be beaten. We came from behind in 3 of 4 tournament victories, and after being behind 5-0 in our last game, had a 6-5 lead, before falling 7-6, one victory short of the state tournament. I feel our squad may have been Marv's greatest achievement. To see him leaning on crutches in the coach's box after a chemo treatment in obvious pain is one of the most vivid images of love and selflessness and courage I have ever experienced."
On an October day in 1987, the calendar date wearing the same number as the coach, Marv was scheduled for a chemotherapy appointment in Sioux City. He told his sister that he was going to ask the doctor to stop the treatments that day and let the disease run its course. He didn't go to school that morning, but intended to after the appointment. Driving back to Remsen, there were skid marks and a collision with a train. Marv died almost instantly. He was 59 years old.
Umpire Henry Kraus remembers the funeral, "Whether Marv lost or won, he was the same Marv. His kids knew discipline. And anyone could see that discipline at the funeral." Fifteen priests presided; six former players carried the casket, his last team in uniform, the classes filed in behind him, one after the other. Throughout the congregation were family, friends, faculty and staff, former students and players, opponents from around the state, coaches, umpires, and officials. His "family" took comfort in the words of Fr. Eisele, "You are not 'out,' rather safe at Home in the only game that matters."
Some will remember him running the team from the third base coach's box, the blue and white uniform numbered 27, the legs too short and bent from knee pain, the voice that seemed to fill the park, large hands clapping encouragement, the unhurried talk with a player as eight others hustled to their positions. Some will remember him in school, the big eyes behind glasses, the white hair that suggested dignity and wisdom, sawdust on his arms, the hearty laugh, the stern, father-like voice. Days can pass when we do not think about Marvin F. Thelen, but to those who knew him and learned from him, we remember him each day through the decisions we make. When we do something for others with no chance of being repaid, we remember Marv. When we choose the more difficult path because it is the right thing to do, we remember Marv. When others say we cannot, and we find deep inside ourselves the talent and courage to do it anyway, we remember Marv. Marv called us "Champions" first, then taught us how to get there.
Copyright © 1997 by Richard J. Roder. All Rights Reserved.
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