This week I lost another friend to cancer.
In 2002, April’s DI team competed for the first time in the secondary division at Global Finals. While they had known some success in DI as middle schoolers, placing 6th at Global Finals the previous year in that division, my little team knew that they were out of their league in the secondary division. My fresh-faced eighth and ninth graders were all awkwardness and unbounded enthusiasm, with their oversized feet and their mouths full of braces. When we moved their things into the prop storage room, we gazed around at teams of high schoolers, most of whom were at least four years older than my babies. The teams against whom they would compete were full of beautiful mature 18-year old women and bearded men.
The team performed early in the morning on Thursday, the first day of competition, only the second team to perform. Thankfully, our older team, who had for years been mentors for this team, was there to cheer them on in an otherwise empty hotel ballroom. The team had built an amazing ten-foot motorized windmill that contained months of hard work and had to be disassembled to pass through doors and then reassembled in the launch area. That morning the kids performed in front of the most lackluster group of appraisers to ever grace a DI stage. The kids did a great job. After their performance the appraisers struggled out of their chairs and yawned their way through the post-performance interview with hardly a glance at the magnificent windmill, the hand-sewn backdrop with moving parts, or the amusing and well-crafted puppets that the team had made. Disheartened, the team gathered their props and set pieces and headed out the back door towards the dumpster where they would leave the remnants of their year of blood, sweat, and tears.
And that was when Bill Cole came into our lives. He was the International Challenge Master overseeing their challenge and had watched their performance. Only later would we learn how angry Bill was about the indifference of the appraisal team that morning. Bill escorted our team out the back door and into the parking lot, where he marveled over their windmill, and took note of the motors powering the small windmills on their backdrop, as well as its intricate quilt-like sewing job. He spoke of the originality of their characters and the creativity of their puppets. He gave the team the gift of validation and recognition for their months of work that the appraisal team had failed to give them. He learned the kids’ names and spoke to them individually of their experiences and the growth that they had experienced in DI. Then while the team was disposing of their set pieces, Bill spoke to Tom and me and said “I know that they are young, but they are really special. We need more kids like that in the world.”
I have wondered how things would have been different if Bill had not spent that time with our team. Would that have been their last DI performance? When they received their scores, they pretty much received half of the points available for each scoring element and no appraiser comments that made them feel like anything that they had done was worth noticing. But they were able to cling to the encouragement that Bill had given them. Without that, they may have turned their backs on DI.
At the awards ceremony a few nights later, the team received a Renaissance Award for their windmill. Tom and I knew that Bill must have advocated for the team to the appraisers. As we passed across the stage with the team to get their medals, Bill said to us, “I told you they were special.” We have watched Tom’s video of that night many times, and each time we listen again to hear Bill’s words over the other noise on the video. Their overall placement that night was somewhere in the teens, the lowest place they ever took at Globals. But it didn’t matter. Their Renaissance Awards overshadowed the number beside their team name at the end of the competition.
The next year, the team returned, older, wiser, and ready to face the world. Sometime before their performance they caught sight of Bill (once again their ICM) and asked him if he would please be there when they performed. Of course he remembered them and was there to support them again. And again after their performance (before a different and much improved set of appraisers) Bill took the time to talk to them and hear about their experiences. He spent over an hour of his highly demanded, valuable time with the team that day, just talking with them and expressing admiration and gratitude for their hard work. At one point another official walked by and Bill said “Hey, come meet these kids- This is the team that had the windmill last year!” The other official told us that Bill had gone around the previous year telling everyone about these wonderful kids and their windmill. That year the team regained their old ranking of sixth in the world. They were happy with it, but really craved another walk across the stage in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Then came 2004. The team had never worked so hard or had such a remarkable presentation ready for Global Finals. Bill was no longer serving as ICM. His wife, Laura, was, however, and at the team managers’ meeting I handed Laura a note to give to Bill from the team, letting them know the time of their performance and that they hoped that he would be there. Of course he was. He and Laura sat and watched as the team encountered a fierce official in the prep area who tried to disallow a major component of their solution in spite of the team clarification that they kept showing him telling him that the element was legal. He called the head appraiser who took one look at it, nodded, and said “no problem.” Still, it was traumatic for the team, but the Coles were there silently supporting them. Then Bill and Laura cheered on the kids’ performance and talked with them afterward and several more times during that Globals week. It meant so much to them to have Bill and Laura as champions and friends. At the awards ceremony, they did indeed get another walk across the stage, this time to claim their second place trophy. Bill congratulated the team after the ceremony with tears in his eyes. He was truly so happy to have seen them grow and develop over the years. Hopefully, he knew that he had played an important role in their journey. He and Laura proudly posed with the team and their trophy for photos, and he called other officials over to tell them “This is my team!”
For Tom and me, that was our last year managing a team. Our wonderful little team, by then juniors and seniors in high school, retired, having accomplished everything they wanted. The following year Tom and I put our names in to be officials at Global Finals and were thrilled to be accepted. That first night at dinner with the officials, we felt extremely out of place, like we were not where we belonged, which was back in the dorms with kids. And then Bill and Laura Cole greeted us, took us under their generous wings, just as they had done with our team, and helped us begin to navigate DI from the adult side. For several years, we shared happy times with Bill and Laura in Knoxville. They always asked about, and were genuinely interested in, the accomplishments of the kids on the team that they had mentored. We got to know them well, sharing dinners, long talks, and their special scuppernong wine. They were funny, inspiring, and a true example of love and generosity, for others, and for each other. Never have I known a couple more in tune or in love with each other and the world around them.
Last night I learned that Bill had passed away. Since then, a series of memories, like a living slide show, has been playing in my head. I’m pretty sure that Bill knew how much his love and support meant to Tom and me and to our team. And I know that there are other countless other kids whose lives he touched and influenced in many ways.
Thanks for everything, Bill Cole. I love you, and will always think of you as my Cowboy Fairy Godfather.