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Unassuming leaders are often the backbone of our communities

LaFollette’s death a good time to reflect on the value of middle school leaders

Messenger file photo by Britt Kudla Walt LaFollette (second from left) watches a match in the Dodger gym next to former Dodger great Dave Ewing (far left) and long-time middle school coach Sonny Rivera.

You won’t find Walt LaFollette’s name on any prestigious Hall of Fame lists. He’s not in the record books for coaching state champions at Fort Dodge Senior High, or leading teams to titles that bring everlasting glory to a community.

If you’re looking for Walt’s credentials in the year 2019, you’d have to dig deep into the archives. LaFollette — a long-time Fort Dodge junior high teacher and coach who died Friday morning at the age of 97 — never did seek the notoriety that potentially comes with a higher-profile position within the varsity ranks.

Some would call this an opportunity missed. As I continue to hear from those affected by his passing, though, I’m reminded just how important middle school teachers and coaches are in the developmental process of young men and women — as athletes, but more importantly, as people.

Most of us would readily admit the stretch of fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade wasn’t the easiest of our lives, and it certainly wasn’t the most comfortable period of time. We seek direction, security, acceptance and validation. The potential is often there, but it often requires the guidance — and patience — of a teacher or coach at school to show us the way.

Walt’s death brought back vivid memories and raw emotions that many hadn’t explored in 30, 40, 50 or even 60 years. Sometimes, the impact of a teacher or coach isn’t realized or appreciated in the moment; kids aren’t always aware of how their future is being shaped as it’s being shaped.

Middle school leaders rarely look for recognition or even attention. Yet almost every successful high school teacher or varsity coach will point directly to this stage in the game as one that often makes or breaks a student-athlete.

If you know a good middle school mentor who is currently grinding away in the classroom or the gym, take a minute to let them know how much their efforts are valued. The work isn’t glamorous, it’s often overlooked and done to very little fanfare. But those who stay true to the lifestyle — like Walt LaFollette did — tend to quietly impact our lives in immeasurable ways.

I had countless Sunday morning conversations with Walt through the years after service at Trinity United Methodist Church. He loved being a part of something bigger than himself, often behind the scenes or on the sidelines. The man was a Fort Dodger through and through; he stayed loyal to this community and served it as best he could for as long as he could.

Forget wins and championships: put that on a Hall of Fame plaque.

MOTHER’S DAY TRIBUTE: Messenger sports staffers Chris Johnson and Dana Becker pieced together a touching Mother’s Day-themed sports section Sunday. They contacted numerous athletes in our area, asking for pictures, memories and thoughts in recognition of area moms on their special day.

We all tend to take our parents for granted at times. Now that Chris, Dana and I all have kids of our own, we have a greater appreciation for the effort and love it takes to keep a family pointed in the right direction. Mom is typically the guiding light, showing us dads and the kids how it’s done.

Our student-athletes may not realize it now, but I know their feelings in our pages will be a lasting keepsake for the moms who may rarely hear these affectionate words out loud. I want to thank the kids for giving us outstanding material, and thank Chris for coming up with a terrific idea. We wish we were able to bring more tributes to our pages, but if your thoughts weren’t published in The Messenger, it’s still never too late to tell her in person!

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached via e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports