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Tribute to James E. Lee

Submitted by James Hesselberth - January 28, 2007

Jim Lee came to Minonk in 1956-57. Mr. Lee grew up in Missouri and graduated from Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau. He returned to Missouri to marry and was in the insurance business. At the behest of Bob Yates, in 1958 he accepted the position of head football coach, assistant basketball coach, and head track coach at MDR high school. He also taught social studies.

I met Coach Lee when I went out for football that fall of 1958. My brother Jerald and I were late reporting because we were walking beans and corn for my father. I started my sophomore year as a backup center on the varsity. The first game was a victory over Cornell. I remember well the first game I started which was at Metamora. We lost 14-13. After the game Coach Lee came into the locker room and praised us saying the Metamora coach felt we should have won the game. I remember well how he drilled us the weeks after to prepare for the following Friday. On that team Larry Dunham was the quarterback. We didn't pass the ball much in those days, but one play sticks out in my mind. I snapped the ball to Larry and he dropped back behind the line of scrimmage. The next thing I knew, I looked up, there was the ball, and I caught it. The referee came up to me and asked what position I played. After I confessed I was the center, we were penalized. Also, Coach Lee started two other sophomores - Loren Handley and Larry VonNordheim. I don't remember out record, but I do remember victories over Dee Creek-Mackinaw and El Paso.

The following season the Mohawks went 0-7-1. The tie was to Flanagan in the mud at Minonk. Craig Davis was quarterback as a sophomore. Both his first two seasons, Jim only 16 to 17 boys on the varsity. The following year he had 33 on the team and we came within one game of winning the Midstate conference championship. He had introduced an off season weight training and conditioning program. In the fall of 1961 came a turning point. Cornell snatched a win on a halfback scamper on the last play of the game. The following Monday Coach sat his team down and gave an impassioned speech. He said he would rather be shoveling manure in the salt mines of Siberia, than to be back coaching them the next season. This inspired the boys to win four out of their last five games. The 1962 season was MDR's only undefeated varsity football season. Jim Jacek was quarterback and Jack Jochums served as assistant coach.

In 1963 the Lee family moved back to Missouri as he received a position near his home town. But after a short stint they came back to Illinois settling in Springfield. He was a salesman first in pharmaceuticals, then in insurance. Later Chicago beckoned and he became vice-president of an insurance company. Two years after retirement he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He passed away in 2001.

I remember Jim Lee not just as a teacher and coach always encouraging us to do better. I remember him as a great personal friend.