Legendary coach Elmer J. Walcott, who died last month at the age of 88, put Western Michigan Christian High School on the Michigan high school basketball map in the mid-1900s.
He started the basketball program at the small Muskegon school in the early 1950s. His teams won Class C state titles in 1958, 1962, 1965 and 1970, and had state runner-up finishes in 1959 in Class C and 1979 in Class D. He returned for a short stint as the WMC girls basketball coach and finished his career with more than 400 victories.
He also coached WMC to a Class C-D boys state tennis title in 1958.
Walcott was remembered as a tough coach who developed tough teams. Some of his toughness might have come from his years in the Army during World War II. He received a bronze star for safely retrieving a wounded soldier from the battlefield.
But he also had a tender side that many people were not aware.
I attended Grand Haven Christian School, and my parents were divorced when I was in third grade. I loved the game of basketball and played it at GHC through the ninth grade. My single-parent mom was determined that I go onto high school at WMC.
During ninth grade at Grand Haven Christian, I attended several games at WMC and watched the 1958 state champion team mow down their opponents. Ken VanDyke, who later set records at Central Michigan University and then taught at Fruitport High School, was the star of that team.
A little on the shy and timid side, I arrived at WMC the following year. Timid was not a word in Coach Walcott’s vocabulary. His philosophy was that if you are going to do something, go all out and do it. That was true in basketball and life.
Coach Walcott was good at knowing the personal lives of his athletes. He knew I was being raised by a single parent and that our family didn’t have much money. My mother worked at a bakery where she made a dollar an hour.
Churches in those days often had father-son banquets. Coach Walcott soon became my father figure and took me to one of those banquets. He also got me a job selling milk to students at noon and my pay was a free hot lunch each day.
However, when it came time for basketball practice, I was just one of the boys and experienced his toughness. He didn’t fool around and had very disciplined teams and worked them hard.
He was a taskmaster and a stickler for fundamentals that included preaching the bounce pass, defense and rebounding. Coach was a big believer in having his players jump rope, do rebound drills while wearing a weighted jacket and ankle weights, and passing drills with a heavy medicine ball.
When I visited him about five years ago at his summer cottage, he was still jumping rope at the age of 83.
Knee-high basketball socks became popular around 1960, and many teams wore them. I remember us telling coach that we would like to wear them. His comment was, “No, you’ll be reaching down to pull them up when you are supposed to be catching a pass.”
I can’t say I enjoyed every day of practice and his firmness — but, looking back, it was great for me. He was instrumental in changing me from a shy and timid boy to being much more aggressive.
Besides players, Walcott also helped mentor young coaches who went on to successful careers. Jim Goorman, who followed Walcott, continued WMC’s tradition as the Warriors won five state championships and several state runner-up titles.
Walcott attended WMC games up until about two years ago. He would mention that he didn’t like all the “high fives” being given on the court. “They give so many high fives that they are too tired to keep their arms up on defense,” he would often comment.
His talents weren’t confined to the basketball court. He also served as the school’s principal. I lived in Grand Haven and commuted each day by bus or car. I often thought about Mr. Walcott during winter, especially this winter when schools experienced a lot of snow days.
I don’t ever remember having a snow day. When we asked him about keeping school open during bad weather, he would always say, “When you can’t see the ball on top of the flagpole in front of the school, you can stay home.” We often joked about cutting it off.
Walcott was named Muskegon’s 64th mayor in 1982 in the midst of his first term as a city commissioner. He served as a two-term mayor and was part of many of the key economic development decisions that led to the building of the Harbor Hilton Hotel, Harbour Towne and Lumbertown.
At Walcott’s funeral, one of his sons said that, when he was introduced to people through the years, most would ask if he was the basketball coach’s son. After all, Walcott was inducted into the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1988 and also selected to the Michigan Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
That’s what he was known for in public, the son said, but his children knew him for being a great father and later a great-grandfather who, most importantly, taught us about his God.
The three sons — U.S. Navy Cmdr. Tom Walcott, Dr. John Walcott and the Rev. Dan Walcott — all took part in the funeral service, along with a grandson, the Rev. Caleb Walcott. Each touched on a different facet of Elmer Walcott’s life.
Walcott suffered from dementia in recent years and lived in a nursing home the last nine months of his life. After his death, a nursing home nurse told the family that, despite suffering from dementia, watching the way he lived changed her life for the better.
The sons said when they would visit him in the nursing home, the first thing he would do, despite his dementia, was to lead them in prayer.
So often we forget to thank our parents, favorite teacher or coach until it is too late. Don’t delay. I’m thankful that, on several occasions, I was able to tell Coach Walcott how much I appreciated what he did for me.
Thanks again for everything, Coach, and looking forward to seeing you again someday.
— By Fred VandenBrand, former Tribune managing editor