LE MARS, Iowa | Four years ago, I was on my daily walk when I waved at Don Shilling as he pulled into a diagonal parking space at Le Mars High School.
I had an idea for a feature story about Shilling and his Le Mars assistant boys track coaches. He smiled and liked the idea about a piece that would discuss the loyalty that Steve Mohning, Jim Denekas and Al Engebretson had for him. The four of them had worked together since 1983, Mohning coming aboard when Shilling became the Bulldogs’ head coach in 1979.
“Jer, if you want to do it, this is the year you gotta do it because Steve’s retiring this year,” said Shilling.
“I’ll get right to it,” I said.
Northwest Iowa boys track won’t be the same this spring. Shilling passed away unexpectedly on Christmas Eve at the age of 73. Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Le Mars.
Shilling, who became the school’s boys and girls cross country coach in 1980, always had a friendly smile and a handshake when I’d stop into his office, an extension of the Le Mars boys locker room. Oh, and then there was the customary Diet Coke he’d buy me before the start of interviews previewing his cross country and track teams.
Those were the days. The pace at a smaller daily newspaper such as the Le Mars Daily Sentinel wasn’t as fast, so you could go to a coach’s room at the high school, kick back and see your interview subject face to face.
If enthusiasm could be bottled, the guy would be a millionaire. If you could run a 400, you were versatile enough to compete for Shilling. This was one of the subjects of one of those track previews, as he listed all of those boys and how they could be used in relays, sprints, an 800, even as high as a 1,600.
Le Mars won seven consecutive district track titles in the 1980s and claimed three Lakes Conference track championships. He coached four Class 3A state track champions, John Enright (1,600, 1983), Jim Mayrose (800, 1986), Paul Brown (100, 2003) and Aaron Albus (long jump, 2005). The Bulldogs were 3A state champions in the 4x100 relay in 2000, then in 2013, claimed the 3A state title in the 4x200.
Shilling could never be slowed down, this longtime physical education teacher who had a yellow rubber chicken fastened to the end of his key chain. Also an assistant boys basketball coach at Le Mars for 20 years, he retired from his teaching position in 2005 but continued as the boys track coach.
Plus, for the past several years, Shilling worked at 12th Street Touchless Auto Wash in Le Mars. He’d talk after he took your money and exchanged it for a token. Just another example of how he touched the lives of those who enjoyed knowing him as a coach, a teacher and a friend.
Le Mars renamed its co-ed track invitational the Don Shilling Invitational in 2008.
No doubt, a word will be added this spring.