Nathanson may be out of school system, but his class endures

John Steadman

May 13, 1991|By John Steadman

Now the years have passed, and looking back is almost the same as peering through the wrong end of a telescope. It seems so long ago and far away. And it was. The man who was your first coach carries a treasured identity. He can never be replaced. Affiliation: Clifton Park Junior High School.

Jerry Nathanson not only talked a good game, he could demonstrate it, which brought immediate attention and respect. He had been a baseball and basketball player at Temple University, so when the youngsters gathered around him to listen and watch, they realized this wasn't one of those "read it out of a book" coaches.

The "old coach," a term used now both affectionately and advisedly, gave the public school system of Baltimore 39 years of bountiful contributions before retiring in 1974. He touched the lives of thousands. "Every time one of you guys makes a call or stops by to see me, I cry," he said. "I guess I'm a sensitive slob."

Jerry has congestive heart failure but still makes it about his suburban Baltimore home, and if he doesn't remember every boy he coached, he can take comfort realizing they have never forgotten him. Nathanson was a winner from the outset, at dear old Clifton Park Junior High.

He spent the better part of World War II in Navy intelligence and then, after discharge, returned to Clifton. He wanted to coach at the high school level. Polytechnic called, but he was there for only six months in the physical education department. When he didn't get a coaching assignment, he got help from an unexpected source.

"My Clifton Park principal, Emma Schad, came to the rescue. She said, 'I don't want Jerry treated like this or shuffled around.' So I got a call from City College, the athletic director, Ken VanSant, who asked me if I would coach baseball. Three years later, after Ernie Marks died, I took over track and cross country."

In those two sports he compiled records that stand as the most imposing in the 152-year history of City College and, likewise, within the Maryland Scholastic Association. When he met the tryout candidates for his squad, he looked at them with those owl-like eyes and said with iron-willed conviction, "Gentlemen, we don't finish second."

There's no way to coach speed, only technique, so Nathanson improved on styles and enhanced individual skills. Plus his personality was an admiring asset. The team members liked him and reacted in a positive manner. He had an innate quality of extracting the maximum. Result: Victory in 165 meets, 13 MSA track championships and 14 cross country titles in 18 years.

One of his most memorable cross country runners was a kid named Marshall Caplan, who had been an earlier polio victim. He kept the boy on the squad because of his enthusiasm and spirit. "When I put him into a meet, I asked him to do only one thing -- to beat just one man. Well, after the leaders of the race came in, all attention was trained on Marshall. We felt he might be trailing. But he not only finished the race but beat 50 rivals."

His first black athlete was Alvin Jenkins, who had a job after school and wasn't able to practice. But Nathanson, wise and caring, told Jenkins to work out on his own and he would use him in meets. Jenkins became the area's premier track athlete. Other coaches would have been inclined to insist if a boy couldn't practice he wouldn't be able to enter meets, but Nathanson realized how important it was for him to earn money and made the allowance.

In regard to his own health, Nathanson, 77, wasn't feeling sorry for himself but talked matter-of-factly. "What a hell of a way to end a life," he said to no one in particular. "There are things I want to do and can't. I'm not completely shut down. I'm grateful for that. I've had a good run. I'm satisfied how it came out. I handled a lot of kids and I believe in the right way. I never hurt a boy."

So every day, Jerry Nathanson goes down his own private memory lane and remembers the rapport he had with young teen-age athletes at Clifton Park, when he was a young coach, and then how it was when he moved to City College and gained so much attention and success. "It sure makes me feel good to hear from one of the old gang," he said.

The "old coach" is something special. He has been for a lifetime.

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