Coach Kuip: Don Kuiper reflects on career as teacher, coach, athletic director
WORTHINGTON -- At one time, Don Kuiper aspired to be a dentist. But instead of spending his career peering into people's mouths, he chose to mold students' lives as a teacher and a coach.
"I remember sitting in a class in school in Platte (S.D.), and we had one of those assignments where we had to write about what we wanted to do for a career," Don recalled. "I wrote something about being in the military, an Army guy, because it was the easiest thing I could think of. When we were done, the teacher said, 'None of you say you want to be teachers, but I can guarantee that half of you will become teachers.'"
Many years later, at a class reunion, Don realized the teacher's prediction had come true -- a good percentage of his class had indeed gone into the teaching profession, including himself.
Born in Sanborn, Iowa, Don started the fifth grade in a new community -- Platte.
"My dad farmed, but he got skin cancer, so he had to go and find something else to do," Don explained. "So he looked for a business to buy, and he and his buddy found a John Deere implement in Platte. I spent quite a few summers putting John Deere implements together."
After graduating in 1958 from Platte High School, Don headed back to northwest Iowa, to Northwestern College in Orange City, where he quickly switched his vocational plans from dentistry to education. There he met future wife Julie -- the classic meeting of the football player and cheerleader.
After graduating college in 1962, he spent three years in Ireton, Iowa, where he taught junior high social studies and physical education and coached football and basketball. Then it was on to Onawa, Iowa, with duties in high school social studies and PE, coaching basketball and assisting with football.
"At the beginning of my second year there, Julie's father passed away," Don said. "She was from Chandler, and we wanted to get closer that way, so I wrote letters to all these school districts, looking for a job. Worthington was the only school that replied that they had an opening."
The position was phy-ed instructor at Central Elementary School, which was then kindergarten through sixth grade. Later, he would move to West Elementary when it became the site for all fourth- through sixth-grade students.
"I think the elementary part was my favorite part of teaching," Don noted, "seeing kids learn something for the first time, seeing kids learn to jump rope, skip -- seeing those things develop."
Don used some special skills to make an impression on his students.
"I always liked to do magic tricks," he said. "I am not a great magician, but I could pull quarters out of their ears, do some card tricks, little tricks to get their attention.
"My favorite unit was juggling. I learned to do juggling while I was doing graduate work at Mankato. I started writing my thesis, but thought, 'This is never going to make me a better teacher,' so I never did get it done. But in one of the classes we did an experiment with juggling, and I put it in my phy-ed classes."
When he started in Worthington, Don had multiple coaching assignments: assistant football, junior high and elementary basketball, assistant track coach, assistant football coach. Later, he transitioned into coaching both the boys and girls golf teams and even tennis for a short time.
"Then Mr. (Ken) Thompson convinced me to be girls basketball coach," Don continued. "It was the first year we had girls basketball here as far as a competitive season, so I started by showing them the different skills. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot."
The first girls game that Don ever coached was against Sioux Falls Washington High School -- the South Dakota team's last game of the season and the Worthington team's first, due to differences in sport scheduling.
"At one point, I looked out, and we only had four girls on the floor ... one of the girls had gone out and gotten sick because she'd eaten too much junk on the bus," Don remembered. "They beat us pretty good, then the Washington coach put his reserves in, and we did OK against them. We didn't win the conference that first year, but we played in the very first girls tournament game at the old Met center. We got beat by Austin, then had to turn around and play at 8:30 the next morning. I remember that some students came up to be at the game and played the school song on the kazoo."
During his career coaching girls basketball, Don took his team to state two more times -- in 1997 and again in 1999, after which he retired from both teaching and coaching.
"We were 26-O going in to the semifinals," he remembered about that final season. "We got beat by Owatonna, then came back and won the third-place game, so I can always say I won the last game I coached."
Among the most cherished of the many awards that Don has received over the years is his induction into the state girls basketball hall of fame. He is also one of the founders of the Minnesota Girls Basketball Coaches Association, coordinated the all-state girls basketball games and helped start the state's Miss Basketball program.
"He just loved coaching those gals," said Julie. "It's kind of funny, because he never had any sisters."
One of his former players, Rosalie "Moz" Hayenga, now a coach at Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington, said Don was "like a father figure" in her life.
"He's pretty much the reason I'm in the profession I'm in," she reflected. "If you can ever touch a kid's life the way he touched yours, it's all kind of worth it. He's a great guy, a great coach, but probably a better person. He had his priorities in line, and he taught you a lot of stuff besides just the sport."
Family was always top among Don's priorities, although the busy coaching schedule (three sports for 35 years) made family life hectic for the Kuipers, who had three children: Brian (Janet), now a banker in St. Peter; Dawn (Bill), a pharmacist in Sioux Falls; and Marc (Mary), a pharmaceutical rep in Greenville, S.D. They have seven grandchildren: Katy, Kelsey, Liam, Kieran, Anna, Ben and Elizabeth.
"Our kids always had a Daily Globe paper route, and back then it was an afternoon paper, so we'd all jump in the Pinto and go deliver papers -- see how fast we could go and get them delivered -- and then go jump on the bus to go to the games," Don recalled.
"I don't think we missed many games," said Julie. "Our kids took stats all the time."
Julie was also a teacher, running the Hi-Ho preschool program for 36 years. The Kuipers made time to be involved in Campus Life, a Christian student organization that met weekly in homes, and Don was a youth leader in his church.
Although they retired from their full-time teaching gigs, Don and Julie both found plenty of activities to fill up their time. Julie still continues to substitute for District 518. Don spent two years subbing in area schools and worked with a friend in northwest Iowa in a fund-raising business.
Then, in 2001, the District 518 part-time activities director position opened up, and Don took the job.
"It's different being on the other side of the desk," he said. "It's all the scheduling, working with the coaches, the refs, but I knew all the people, all the coaches, all the officials. The biggest concern was making sure the teams got to the right place at the right time and getting the officials lined up. And it wasn't just sports, but speech, debate -- the whole gamut."
Although Don said he "would have done (the activities director job) forever, if they'd let me," the position was changed to full-time this year, and he has again moved on to other endeavors. He and Julie both enjoy volunteering in various capacities, and Don plans to work occasionally for Center Sports in Worthington, while finding time for golf, fishing, traveling and spending time with their children and grandchildren.
And even though it's no longer part of his job, Don will still be found along the sidelines at local events, showing his support for the players and coaches.