Photo: Baltimore Sun
Last Thursday morning my fencing coach, Richard F. Oles, was killed by a hit and run.
It was the summer of 1989, I was four years old and attending summer camp. They had the standard camp activities, however one afternoon they offered a fencing class. That was the first time I was introduced to the sport. My parents would tell you, I was hooked. This sport and the people I met would ultimately change the course of my life. There was no bigger character in this story than my Coach, Dick Oles.
Camp had ended and the search for a fencing club began. Who would accept a soon to be five year old and promptly give him a sword? Turns out few people would even consider it. No one other than Coach gave me that chance. Reluctantly so, but he did. By 1989, Coach had already been the head coach of the John Hopkins Varsity Fencing Team for 30 years. He also ran Salle Palasz, a fencing club for adults.
Obviously I did not join either of those teams. I had joined the Tri-Weapon Fencing Club (TWC). TWC was Coach's youth program. When I joined, the membership was at a low point. There were only five members, and all were heading off to college soon. TWC was seemingly always in transition; talent level in flux, membership grew and then waned, kids went off to college, and then just as some left a new batch would come in. With the same never ending passion for fencing, teaching, and life Coach would once again begin to build his next wave of fencers. I saw this process with my own eyes for more than a decade.
Coach ran what could only be described as an unique program. It was the same program for all three clubs - youth, college, and adults. Designed to take complete new comers and make them in to anything from a competent local fencer to a national champion. There was this very long horizontal chart of skills that needed mastering and tests that needed to be passed. You could not begin to learn one skill until you passed the previous one, each test passed came with a reward and a greater responsibility in the club.
First: You mastered footwork, and passed a test.
Second: You started working with a weapon. Passing a test for each skill, then learning the next.
Third: Pass the rules test and you could compete in tournaments.
And so on…admittedly not a process for everyone.
Of course there was also a fun side to Coach. No one pulled a better prank than Coach! Who could? He had spent 60 years in college athletics. Every guy had a nickname, I was "Ears" because when I was five my body still needed to grow into these big boys. Each summer there would be a team retreat to go hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and afterward all the parents would meet us for a barbecue and initiation of the first year guys. Coach was a masterful story teller and he would build up the fear of initiation, only to have each new guy fail at a small prank, get blind-folded and doused with a bucket of water while all the parents laughed at us. Good times.
Although being a good fencer was not enough for Coach. He wanted to make sure we would become good men too. He taught us patience, process, teamwork, imparted wisdom, electrical engineering, how to build things, respect, how to do the right things - the right way, grace, humility, maturity, the confidence to be ourselves and so much more.
With Coach there were always certain constants, he seemingly never aged, always in the similar attire. In the Hopkins' fencing room there was a team picture from every year since 1950. Coach was in every single picture, same spot, looked exactly the same...the only two he was absent from was when he served in the Korean War.
Since before I knew him, Coach had driven a bright yellow Ford Festiva. That car took him, and countless JHU/TWC fencers on hundreds of trips, more than enough scary rides along JHU's Snake Road until finally breaking down with more than 420,000 miles on it. That car was part of Coach. Finally, left with no choice but to get a 'new' car he did so.
That brings me to last Wednesday night. I've been told that the 'new' car had some trouble and was towed in for repairs. Being close to home, Coach decided to walk home. A winter storm and several inches of snow and ice had covered the sidewalks. Coach was hit while walking alongside the street and died instantly around 2:30am on Thursday, January 27th. While a resident, saw the incident, the driver of the truck has not been found.
Coach was like a father to me, to all of us that shared our paths with him. He made us all better men. Thank you Coach.
From the Carbone Archive: A clip of 16 year old me (on the far end) fencing in the Charm City Classic. This was Coach's pride and joy; held annually at the JHU sports facilities and an event that attracted the top fencers from around the region. I think this was my first year not fencing at TWC, but at the DC Fencers' Club. I wanted to win so badly for him…
In the background in a dark blue warm-ups you can spot Coach "standing in my corner", supporting me. He's even pointing to me while talking to one of the then current TWC fencers. Somehow, I always picture him standing in my corner.