Retiring Valley Heights teacher Larry Wiebe can only be described as one of a kind.
A cross-country coach, road race coach, and founder/coach of the rowing program at Valley Heights Secondary School, Wiebe was officially recognized Wednesday night at the school’s annual athletic awards banquet.
“He will be greatly missed by both staff and students,” said VHSS teacher Brandon VanHaecke. “Staff describe Larry as a genuine, creative, innovative individual who can make anything out of nothing.”
Wiebe later reinforced that describing in his ‘farewell speech’ an industrial-strength homemade mower he created for maintaining the school’s cross-country course, and an innovative tobogganing training program in the school halls.
“Students describe Larry as a heartfelt guy,” continued VanHaecke, smiling, “with a very simple lunch – a sandwich every day.”
“I’ve known Mr. Wiebe for many years,” said Valley Heights teacher Dave Zakel, who like VanHaecke grew up in the area, and is a VHSS grad. “I’ve known Mr. Wiebe as a teacher (drafting), I’ve known him as a mentor, and I’ve also known him as a friend.
“On behalf of the staff and students at Valley Heights Secondary School we would like to honour you with a little token of our appreciation,” said Zakel, helping to present Wiebe with a special canoe paddle, with a VHSS plaque attached.
Wiebe started teaching at Valley Heights in 1989, and was asked by teacher Bill Newman to re-create the school’s cross-country course.
“To do that I had to build bridges – literally build bridges,” said Wiebe. “Not the one at the bottom of the hill, but there were a few others.”
In 1998, he started the school’s rowing club, and by 2001 they were training at Deer Creek Conservation Area. First, however, he had to design and create a rowing dock (using two-litre pop bottles). It also required finding, buying and repairing rowing shells, using school fundraisers to purchase them.
“We bought the one rowing shell with $1,000 worth of pop cans. So the whole rowing program, with support from the Langton Lions Club and Long Point Lions Club, the school has never seen a single capital (expense) item. The school has helped with entry fees, which keep going up.”
An accomplished rower in high school, Wiebe remembered a rough start to his rowing career in St. Catharines while still in Grade 8.
“We had three boats in the same weight class, A-B-C, and I was in the C boat. We never beat a boat. Not a single boat. We didn’t even come second-last. We came last every single race.”
That changed in the next season.
“When you’re an athlete, what’s the most important thing? Winning? If you think it’s winning, then you’re only partially right. We do want to win. But if you enjoy what you do, that is what’s great.”
His first-year experience gave him an edge in Grade 9, and he was picked to row against university teams like Harvard and Northeastern University.
“I got the experience in that boat, being there every day, rowing my heart out.”
By Grade 10, Wiebe and his crew had changed their rowing philosophy. They focused less on winning, more on ‘doing his best.” And that, he said, made all the difference.
“The next year we never lost a race. We were rowing anywhere from Detroit to Ottawa, and in New Jersey, and we never lost a race. Do I credit it all to our crew’s desire to win? We actually just wanted to do our best.
“As a coach, I don’t come out to have my crews win. I come to have my crews do their best.
“You can tell when somebody has done their best no matter what place they come in. It’s just a relief when the race is over and they can just lay back, exhausted, and say ‘that’s it, that’s all I had.’ What more can you ask? There’s going to be first place, second, last… if you’ve come in last, and you’ve done your best, what more is there?”