Monday, February 09, 2009

Black History Month: Honoring Joe Sims

MY MOTHER called me yesterday. One of her bad news calls. You know the kind. "Did I tell you that Mrs. Drews passed? Yeah. She had something wrong with her lung. And you don't remember Mrs. Marcus from over at St. Phillips, do you? You was probably too young, but she passed too. Oh, and remember your cousin was in that accident and almost paralyzed. Oh, I almost forgot, Mrs. Payne called to tell me Joe Sims died. He died last week, but his memorial service was yesterday."

That last one caught me.

Joe Sims was my summer track coach from the time I was 9-years-old through most of high school. A great man who did great things for a generation of great kids.

A quiet hero.

Amy Silvers penned a wonderful tribute.

Anyone who knew Joe Sims thought it was only fitting that the Milwaukee Striders track club was renamed in his honor.

Last year, it became the Joe Sims Milwaukee Striders, named for the founder and head coach who helped young athletes run their best on the track and in life.

"He didn't want to do it - he was pretty humble," said the club's board chairman, Bob Harris, speaking of the name change. "But we told him it was necessary for the Striders to continue to exist . . . and for the kids, you should do this."

And so Sims agreed.

Joseph Sims died Tuesday in Waukegan, Ill., where he last lived in a rehabilitation center following health problems and a stroke. He was 59.

In 1975, Sims founded the club with Robert O. Kern, another North Division coach. The purpose was to keep school athletes and other neighborhood youths busy during the summer.

The club was first called NKL, short for North-King-Lincoln, the schools most of the athletes attended. It was renamed the Milwaukee Striders about 1977.

By the early 1980s, the club emerged as a national force - and an unexpected one.

"It's the funniest thing we always hear," Sims said in 2005. " 'Are you sure you're from Wisconsin?' I just crack up every time."

Robert Hackett and Renee Jones were in the Striders' first wave of success at the National Junior Olympics.

Some Striders alumni became national and world-class athletes, notably Esther Jones, later an Olympic relay gold-medal winner. Others included Floyd Heard, David Brown, Kevin Bledsoe, Dana Collins, Norman McGee, Demi Omole and Michael Bennett.

"Joe Sims is a treasure for Milwaukee - wow!" community activist Reuben Harpole said. "He did it so poor kids would have a chance to go to college - and they did."

Sims' sister, Sandra Hobbs, said: "People are calling from all over. It's a lot of love, it's nothing other than that."

Sims considered the athletes to be his kids, just part of one big extended family.

Cheryl Torrence-Adams knew that first-hand. She was running on her own when Sims noticed her at a meet.

"He had one of the kids come to me and talk to me and get me to join the club," she said. "I ran with the Striders from 11 to 19."

Torrence-Adams later returned to the club to help with fund-raising, knowing that Sims often put his own money in to help his athletes.

"He did what he did because he didn't want to leave anybody out," she said. "He was like a father figure for many who didn't have fathers."

Sims grew up in Milwaukee, graduating from North Division where Harris was his football coach. He also did track, specializing as a shot-putter.

"And at 17, he took the city weight-lifting championship," Harris said.

He went to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh for a year before deciding that college was not for him.

Sims ended up working as North Division's track coach and assisted with the football team. He also supervised the school's weight room. He later was assistant track coach at Boys Tech.

His one real struggle was with his own weight. Sims put on hundreds of extra pounds, but was losing weight at the rehab center.

Although Sims cut an unlikely figure for a track coach, his athletes didn't seem to care. He did his coaching from a seat on the sidelines or from his car on their longer runs.

For Sims, athletics was a way to help young people rise above the problems of poverty.

"You can't do drugs and run track," Sims would say. "That's a fact!"

His athletes kept coming back, bringing what they learned from college programs, said co-founder Kern.

"And everything kept getting better," Kern said. "The kids in the club were Joe's life. Once you were in the club, you became part of Joe's life."

"A coach don't know what he's talking about if he says he knows it all," Sims said in 1991. "When my kids come back, I listen to them.

"I say, 'Learn me something!' I'm learning to be better for my kids."


muriel may campbell said...

"A coach don't know what he's talking about if he says he knows it all," Sims said in 1991. "When my kids come back, I listen to them.

Hey Craig,

It took me back a little when I saw Joe's age, my husbands, much too young to lose someone making such a difference in young peoples lives.
Our prayers go out to his family and community.
This guy was real, one with a big arm, spoke the truth and everything good grew. makes sense to me

We have enjoyed reading about each of the self made people you have lifted up in honor of "Black History Month".
Our best to the family

Felicia Wilkins said...

I was one of the many people who not only considered joe as a coach but as a father. I started running track with the Striders when I was five years old and did so until I was eighteen. It broke my heart when Joe died, I felt like a part of me died with him. He was a wonderful man and a blessing to everyone he came in contact with. Joey (as only I called him) I will never forget you and I will always love you. Rest In Peace!