By BRETT MARSHALL
SYRACUSE — Teacher, coach, guidance counselor.
Husband, father, brother, friend.
Church member, volunteer fireman.
Any one of those words describes the person Ron Ewy has been, is and will be. Past, present, future.
Starting in the fall of 2011, he will add another word to that — facilitator.
After 38 years of mentoring thousands, of young men and women — as a teacher, coach and counselor at Syracuse High School — Ewy, 60, recently announced his retirement to take on his new responsibilities as a Gifted Facilitator with the High Plains Educational Cooperative, headquartered in Ulysses. This comes after serving the past 36 years as the head cross country and track coach for USD 494 where he became one of the greatest track athletes in school history.
There is a saying that goes something like, "you can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy." They must have been thinking of Ewy when that was penned.
Ewy said the decision to retire was perhaps the most difficult one he's ever made,
"I wanted to do something different and it was really, really tough," Ewy said. "I've shared with some people that I didn't feel good about doing it. I know I've put my time in, but when I first started seriously thinking about it, I distanced myself from people. I just felt like a quitter. I'd never done anything like that before.
"I think after someone told me that I'd given 38 years of my life to public education, I felt more at ease. Then, it just got easier and easier."
Having just returned from Wichita and the 2011 Kansas High School Track and Field Championship, Ewy was the guest of honor at a surprise reception on Sunday at the school that has become like a second home for him. Family, friends, colleagues, former athletes and students gathered to honor Ewy for the role he played in each of their lives.
All this for a person who says he never expected to be where his life path took him.
"When I first started (college), I was going into athletic training," Ewy said. "I went to Hutchinson Community College and I did methods classes where I worked with youth. I knew athletic training was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to finish competing as a college athlete, and then share that and coach and be around kids."
He's more than fulfilled that dream and few have done more for a hometown than Ewy.
He's had his own lawn care business in the summer, because he just couldn't do nothing in the off months. He's been a longtime volunteer fireman for the Hamilton County Fire Department. And he's right in the middle every Fourth of July in helping put on the Syracuse fireworks display.
Work. Work hard. Be dedicated. Be committed. Never take a shortcut.
That's what Ewy's father, Ray, preached to the oldest of two sons. The youngest brother, Randy, also took it to heart, and has been a Federal Bureau of Investigation and Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent for more than a quarter century.
"When I decided to come back to Syracuse (1973), I realized that my dad was my best friend," Ewy said. "He grew up in a very disciplined family. He was very smart although he didn't go past the eighth grade. He was a WWII veteran (Army Air Corps).
"Early on, he taught me about work ethic, commitment, responsibility," he said. "You were always on time. If you're going to do something, you're going to do it 100 percent. You're going to work your butt off."
Ewy said his father never pushed him into sports. The alternative, though, was to find a job. Ewy chose athletics.
"I got the discipline side from Dad, and I got the emotional side of things from my mom (Jo)," Ewy said. "She's the one who talked to us about when we got in trouble or if we thought Dad was mad at us. But there's never been a question in my mind that he loved my brother (Randy) and me."
Coaching and discipline. Counseling and listening. Dad and Mom. Inextricably tied together for life.
A 1968 graduate of Syracuse High School, Ewy, who twice finished runner-up in his specialty track events (shot put, discus) in Class B state competition, made a circuitous trip which eventually landed him back in his hometown.
Ewy was a rare combination of speed and power in track and field. He was a sprinter, a distance runner and excelled in field events. He threw the shot put 54-1 and discus 159-10, both good for silver medals in Class B when Kansas had four classifications of schools.
Initially, he wanted to enlist in the Air Force and be a mechanic, like his father.
While competing at Hutchinson, a personal-best third-place finish in the discus at the Jayhawk Conference meet would set the stage for his next stop — Adams State College in Alamosa, Colo. At one time an NAIA powerhouse in track and field, and cross country, Adams State is now an NCAA Division II school.
At the time, the coach was Dr. Joe I. Vigil, a legendary name in cross country and track and field circles. Ewy competed in the shot put, discus and hammer throw.
Vigil mentored Ewy on the physiology and cardiovascular aspects of the human body, and how it affected athletes who were performing. Those lessons have been used by Ewy with his athletes for nearly four decades.
"Dr. Vigil was about academics first," Ewy said. "If you didn't have a 3.0 grade point average, you were in trouble. I've always pushed academics, pushed citizenship, volunteering to help your fellow man. Those things are just as important to me as the athletic accomplishments of the kids. Sometimes, they are more important."
Upon graduation in 1973 from Adams State, Ewy returned to his roots and while looking for a permanent teaching job was employed at the local John Deere dealership, at the time owned by Zeno Gould, himself a former SHS track star in the 1940s.
"Zeno said he needed a shop foreman, and offered me $10,000 per year, three weeks paid vacation, and uniforms," Ewy said. "I need to know next week."
Ewy said that same night he got a call from then school superintendent, W.E. Peterson, who called and asked if he had a job yet.
"I said 'no', and he said he had an opening and wanted to visit with me the next day," Ewy recalled. "My first thought, was, 'Oh no, I've got to take tomorrow off to do the interview.' It was fifth-sixth grade social studies, elementary physical education and some coaching.
"I was in a dilemma. It was a sleepless three nights. I was that close to not going into this profession, but I'm glad I made that choice."
Through the years, Ewy received his Master of Arts degree in guidance and counseling, M.A. in physical education and history, Master of Science degree in fitness and physiology, and M.A. in administration and advanced administration from Fort Hays State University.
Ewy has coached multiple team and individual champions in the Hi-Plains League, regional champions and state winners. They are too numerous to mention, but suffice to say there have been a lot of SHS runners who have been successful in the classroom and on the track or cross country course.
One of the toughest assignments a coach/teacher/counselor has, Ewy said, is to know what to say to a student/athlete when they've just experienced a major disappointment.
"The true test of a coach is when you have an athlete, sitting under a tree or somewhere, bawling their eyes out, and finding the right thing to say," Ewy said. "You can't be emotional. You try to lift their spirit and make them feel good about themselves again. You have to find a way to make them feel like they're not a loser. When those situations come along, you better take a step back, and you better be real smart with what you say, and how you say it, or you're gonna ruin a kid for life."
On the kids of today, Ewy said they face monumental challenges and pressures in everyday life and in school.
"The kids are in a tough situation," Ewy said. "They have to perform. They have to pass state assessments, or they have to take more classes. They have to adapt to the pressures much earlier than we did. Parents are gonna have to support them and help them through these tough situations. It's a tough world right now for kids."
Ewy also sees a loss of leadership, community and togetherness.
"We've lost the leadership of programs helping other programs at schools," Ewy said. "We're too fragmented. We're not getting the full student body involved. We don't know sometimes what the kid who sits in the next desk is doing. Now, they just want to go for a ride in the car. It used to be that we would do all the sports, all the activities to help each other. That's what makes a school go."
On his most recent, and likely last, trip to the state track meet as a coach, Ewy said he was tempted to make one final gesture as his way of saying goodbye.
"I really seriously thought about going down on the track, which a coach can't do, and get in the middle of the field, take my hat off and take a bow to each side," Ewy said. "Obviously I didn't, but I thought it would make me feel better. But I do want to talk to the KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) about coming back as a track official in some capacity. I hope they'll allow me to do that."
Change doesn't come rapidly, or easily, for this soft-spoken, but tough grizzled man.
He's been married to his high school sweetheart, Carolyn, for 39 years. They've raised two daughters, both of whom competed in cross country and track for their father. They both now reside in Wichita, along with his brother and his family. His mom and dad are both deceased, and yet Syracuse remains home.
"You know, I wouldn't have been able to do this, all the time away with my teams, and the schooling through the years, if I didn't have a great wife who supported me," Ewy said. "She's been my biggest fan. My daughters always encouraged me. I've been very fortunate and been very blessed."
There are a couple of Bible verses that seem appropriate when looking at the life of Ewy.
2 Timothy 4:7: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith."
1 Corinthians 9:4: "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize."
Ewy has fought the fight for his student-athletes. He has finished his course. He has kept the faith and run the race of life in such a way as to get the prize.
Now, the finish line of that race becomes the starting line for his next race. And another prize awaits.