J. Gawen Stoker was only in Wellington nine years before going on to legendary status as a high school football coach in Pennsylvania.
However, the man known as “Stokes” is still remembered fondly by the community where he cut his teeth as a young coach fresh out of college.
Stoker, who coached at Wellington from 1963-72, died Thursday of a heart attack at the age of 70 in Danville, Pa. He was born in Johnstown, Pa., on July 25, 1941.
He coached football for 44 years at four high schools, compiling a 248-197-4 record.
“He came to Wellington when he was 22 and just graduated from college,” said Pete Aldrich, whose parents were friends with Stoker. “My parents were six years older. The impression he made on the people after nine years there was and still is very favorable. The effect on the people in Wellington, even after being gone for 38 years, still resonates.”
Aldrich linked an obituary of Stoker to the Wellington Facebook page, and many adults who either played for his Duke teams or studied in his classroom paid tribute with glowing comments.
“Mr. Stoker took me out of a study hall and asked me to teach a fifth grade physical education class,” wrote Anne Weber-Rosemark. “I am sure he never knew how much he changed my life with that decision. Though I originally majored in Health and Physical education, I now teach students with special needs and have the passion to keep on this road for a few more years. Just because of the faith of one man. Really? A 26-year-old teacher made that much of difference.”
“I know my brother Doug (Swede) Hansen really liked him as a coach,” wrote Jan Hansen Schlenker. “He was a really good guy! He will be missed.”
A few others remembered being in his class when they found out John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Aldrich said that he served as a ball boy and manager for Stoker and his Dukes when he was 6 and 7 years old.
“I never played for him, but I wished I had,” he said. “He left when I was in seventh grade. Had he stayed, I might have stayed at Wellington instead of going to Elyria Catholic.”
It was while he was a young boy working for Stoker that Aldrich said he learned one of the most important life lessons.
“Our family lived right behind the athletic field, and I would rise early every morning during summer two-a-days, put my uniform on (Browns jersey, helmet, pants, cleats) and trudge over to help the team,” Aldrich said. “Never fear, Stokes kept me busy.
“One day, I was supposed to go with the team to an away scrimmage. I forgot. The next day of practice, Stokes yelled at me. ‘Where were you? We were counting on you. Give me a mile.’ I ran the mile as fast as my 7-year-old legs could take me. From that day, I don’t think I ever forgot to show for anything.”
The mile run became somewhat of a Stoker trademark. A rival coach from his Pennsylvania days referred to it as a “Stoker Mile.” Others referred to it as the “Eagle Walk,” in reference to his stint at Bald Eagle Area High School in Wingate, Pa., from 1973-96 — the longest stint of any of the four stops during his long career.
In 23 seasons at Bald Eagle Area, Stoker’s teams were 145-93-2 and won a District 6 title in 1988, the only one in the school’s trophy case. He provided much-needed stability to a program that went through eight coaches in the 18 previous seasons.
Stoker then spent four seasons at Trinity High School in Camp Hill, Pa., before taking over at Indian Valley High School in Lewiston, Pa., where he retired from coaching following the 2007 season.
Stoker’s finest year at Indian Valley was his last one. In ’07, he led the Warriors to the state quarterfinals, where they lost to Erie St. Vincent.
As Associate Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association, Stoker was well-known throughout the state. He was a Pennsylvania Hall of Fame inductee in the Class of 2000. On the board of directors, Stoker was in charge of updating information on memberships.
Stoker was also instrumental in bringing new life to Pennsylvania’s East-West All-Star Game. The game had stopped being played in 2010, but with his help, the game will be revived in time for 2012.
Aldrich remained in contact with Stoker while he was in Pennsylvania, visiting him a few times. Stoker always told Aldrich he would return to Wellington to visit, but never was able to.
“I talked to him about two months ago on his 70th birthday, and he was in fine spirits,” Aldrich said. “Guys like Ed Adelsberg (former Midview coach) would always ask me how Stokes was and when he was going to come into town. Rival coaches loved him and his players loved playing for him, and that carried over into Pennsylvania.”
Stoker’s funeral was held Monday in Pennsylvania. He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Patricia, four daughters, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, six sisters and three brothers.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Coach J. Gawen Stoker Memorial Fund c/o PNC Bank, 801 E. Bishop St., Bellefonte, Pa. 16823-2319. Funds will be used to support educational scholarships for high school athletes in Central Pennsylvania.
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.