James M. Berklan

With everyone from members of Congress to patient advocates, and long-term care providers themselves, wringing their hands over how to find and keep enough staff, I was wondering what could improve this generally dire situation.

Then, I got the call Monday night: John “J.C.” Teeple had died.

He was 25 years short of his goal to make it to 110, but he had hit the mark with just about everything else, I figure.

When I heard he had passed away on his farm in southern Indiana, it brought back a rush of fond memories. It was then that I realized there would be at least one more lesson learned from my beloved fifth-grade teacher.

Yes, many decades after I graduated out of his classroom at Whittier School in Waukegan, IL, we were still in touch. There had been an interruption of several decades, but with the help of email, our friendship and mentor-mentee relationship resumed nearly 20 years ago. The latter connection was not a stated goal by either of us, it just was. That seemed to naturally occur, in fact, with many young people who had the honor of being “Teeple People.” 

J.C. Teeple was as devoted and unpretentious as they come, long after his unassuming crewcut and black horned rim glasses were no more. And his pupils loved him for it.

In recent years, we’d share notes about favorite sports teams, weather and news. I’d seek his advice on everything from sports injuries to parenting and gardening. I found myself sharing thoughts and questions for which there was no other outlet.

The author and J.C. Teeple in 2017, a year before he did 555 push-ups in one session on his 83rd birthday.

As I sifted through the many emails “Coach” and I exchanged through the years, it became clearer and clearer that they were a virtual textbook for great mentoring and relationship building.

Given the state of long-term care’s staffing challenges, we all would do well to follow enduring themes I culled this week from those stacks of emails and Christmas cards:

  1. Show confidence in your charges. Of the many fond memories I hold is how 20-plus classmates and I were each given our own small pumpkin — and paring knife — to make jack-o-lanterns of our own design. Of course this could never happen today, given our helicoptering, litigious society. But nobody else in the school, even in the older classrooms, was doing it back then, either. Mr. Teeple, as he was known at the time, trusted and encouraged us, and it paid off. (Oh, and nobody was injured.)
  2. Give plenty of opportunity. One favorite example is how after school Coach would occasionally take a carload of his pupils to introduce them to long-distance running at a nearby state park. One would think opera would be a bigger draw to a bunch of 11-year-olds, but not the way he presented it as a self challenge. He became well known for ferrying any willing or needy athlete to competitions wherever they needed to go, either in northern Illinois or in southern Indiana, both places he taught and coached.
  3. Set goals. Everyone should have some, employees and elders included. There’s no better example than this wiry man himself. He celebrated his 80th birthday by doing 80 push-ups. Goals are good.

He topped that mark, however, when he met his real goal by doing 555 push-ups in one session on his 83rd birthday. (One of his daughters and her husband kept count.) This caring, deferential man had a contagious inner drive.

After 2019 and 2020 challenged him with cancer in the jaw, surgery and radiation treatments, the expert green thumb was not going to be denied another active gardening season again if he had anything to say about it. Despite being laid up through most of the year-end holidays, he had jumped back on his exercise bike and was recently back to 100 push-ups a day.

  1. Simple is OK. Coach often emphasized focusing on a few things, not everything at once. This also helped avert burnout. Don’t necessarily try to keep up with the Joneses. Take a deep breath and make a sincere mark where you are.
  2. Family. Period. Not a message went by that he didn’t admire something about my family, or talk proudly about his three children and their offspring. I knew about everyone on a first-name basis, even though I had never met most of them. Whether it was school, sports achievements or some other highlight, he kept track of them all, down to the 11 great-grandchildren.

In fact, I can’t think of a time he didn’t close with a “Love, Coach,” and a reminder to go hug my family. Sure, he meant give them a hug for him, but also for my own sake.

That’s the kind of guy J.C. Teeple was, always helping others build for their future. Loved you for it, Coach.

We should all be so wise, wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing.

Follow Executive Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.