1957 FILE PHOTO - The Big White Eagle, Ron Pupke, coach of the 8th grade Jefferson Cubs basketball team.

A teacher and coach, Pupke’s legacy runs deep in the Grove

I first met Ron Pupke at the 1st Presbyterian Church. I had just fully moved to town and had landed a teaching job at Lincoln Middle School. When he found out I was to be a Lincoln Tiger, he said nonchalantly, “I helped them plan when they built that school.” Whoa! Considering that Lincoln was built in 1962, and it was then 2015, that’s some serious historical reach. Pupke was around not only before Lincoln, but predated the South Lane School District itself. Even more surprising was how vibrant, sharp, and youthful he was then, at 91 years young. 

Pupke, or “Coach” as he is known to multiple generations of Cottage Grove gentlemen, knew that he wanted to be a teacher when he was in the 8th grade. He naturally liked people and although he enjoyed and had a talent for math, his real love was for sports and physical education.

Life intervenes

Even though Pupke had a clear vision of his career path, the world had other plans, which caused a few detours for him. Under the clouds of WWII, he enrolled in the Physical Education teaching program at University of Oregon in 1942. After his freshman year Pupke transferred to University of Southern California where he did his 2nd and 3rd year as well as playing basketball. During his schooling he had been a part of R.O.T.C. and in November of 1944 he entered the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School, and after boot camp and much training, was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was in line to head to Japan when the big war ended. 

He returned to the classroom at UO to complete his masters, when in the summer of 1947, he noticed an empty seat next to an attractive fellow P.E. major in his health class. After just a few classes together they went out for ice cream and discovered they both loved the stuff. The next date they went dancing, another mutual love, and by the third date summiting Mt. Shasta with the Eugene Obsidians group, Pupke knew he had found his soulmate, Sim. She agreed and they were married a year later and 68 years of life adventures followed, only ending with her death in 2016.

In 1948 they both got teaching jobs in Springfield: Sim, art and P.E. at high school; and Ron at middle school, teaching 7th and 8th grade P.E., and coaching football, basketball and track. In 1951, he found Uncle Sam wasn’t done with him yet. Pupke, a member of the Reserve Officers’ Corps, was recalled to service due to the Korean conflict. He was stationed in San Diego, where he coached the Marines’ track & field team.  

In 1953, returning to civilian life, Pupke got a job offer from Jesse Fasold, a fellow Marine, who had had his team squarely beaten by Pupke’s Springfield boys. Fasold had been tapped to serve as Cottage Grove’s superintendent of schools and wanted Pupke to take over his old job as coach and P.E. teacher for 6th-,7th-, and 8th-grade boys at Jefferson School here.

This school, gone now and its site covered by the Jefferson Apartments, stood at 5th and Jefferson, was built in 1914 to replace the 1890 wooden Eastside School that served the town as both grade and high school. Jefferson was the Cottage Grove high school just for students in the town. In 1938, 17 surrounding small school districts had voted to pool resources so that they could provide a more adequate education to their older students. The Cottage Grove Union High School District was the result. By April of 1940, the first classes were held in the new, grades 9-12, brick high school building on Taylor where the new Harrison Elementary sits.

SLSD takes formation

When Pupke started teaching in Cottage Grove it was still surrounded by many small, independent school districts in outlying settlements. These formerly vibrant communities, powered by smaller mill operations, each operated an independent school district. As mills shut down or laid off workers, enrollment declined, leaving many of these districts struggling. In 1961 the Blue Mountain, Cottage Grove, Culp Creek, Delight Valley, Disston, Dorena, Latham, London, Lynx Hollow, Mt. View, Silk Creek and Union High School districts all consolidated to become the South Lane School District, a name which reflected its service area formed of many parts. The SLSD offices currently occupy the old Adams Elementary School that stood in front of Jefferson School.  

In taking up his new duties at Jefferson, Pupke was resplendent in long white trousers, white T-shirt and jacket, all pressed to a knife’s edge in true marine fashion. He soon acquired the affectionate nickname “The Big White Eagle” given to him by his grateful students, happy to have such a qualified coach and instructor. Jefferson at the time varied between grades 6,7,8, and 7,8 depending on enrollment numbers.

Although Jefferson had a gym, an artifact from its time as the high school, there were no athletic fields or track, just a graveled play yard. Not ideal conditions for sports but Pupke, who had a passion for sports, especially track, started to make what improvements he could. He dug out pits for pole vaulting, high and long jumping and made arrangements for using other fields for practice.

I had the honor of speaking with Vic Allen, who was a 1955 Jefferson graduate who remembered Pupke’s tutelage fondly. “He was a fantastic coach, very tough but fair. We had never really had a real good coach before and he came in and taught us the right way to shoot and pass in basketball. He really got us into shape, we ran a lot! But he also encouraged us to work together as a team and to do our best.”

Applying these principles, along with the fast break, Allen described how, as a member of the 8th-grade basketball team they beat taller, bigger teams from Eugene, Roseburg, and Springfield. “Our biggest guy was maybe 6-foot tall. But I could jump high and we would usually get the rebound and be down the court on the fast break. We were in such good shape that no team could keep up with us. We played zone, but if they had a good shooter we’d switch to man-to-man coverage and keep our opponents off guard.” That team won their district tournament that year.

Coach Pupke shared his love and expertise for track with his Jefferson students. Using the scissor kick, Allen was able to clear over five feet on the high jump. “Nearly my own height! I had the school record for many years until the Fosbury Flop came along and somebody beat it.”

Personal touch

On a personal level too, Pupke touched Allen and his teammates. “My dad worked in the woods and would leave for work at 2 a.m. We lived out Mosby Creek and Coach Pupke would drive me home after practice or a game, otherwise I couldn’t have done sports. He and Sim would always come to our reunions and felt just like family to our class.”

But Jefferson’s days as an upper grades school were numbered. With the 1961 consolidation of the outlying elementary school districts it was obvious that a much larger middle school was needed. The community committee to plan and guide the building of the new school included local minister Hugh Peniston. He had a passion for education, but also knew Pupke as a member of his congregation at 1st Presbyterian, as one who faithfully served on committees there. 

The huge task of designing a modern school to serve the surrounding area students required lots of careful thought and planning. SLSD superintendent Bob Dusenberry was so impressed with Pupke that he hired him to be athletic director for the new school, which was to be called “Lincoln Junior High School,” even before he had settled on a principal. Pupke was also to coach football, basketball and track for the 9th grade. 

Since the consolidation had also put pressure on the high school facilities, CGHS became a three-year school in 1963. 

Once plans had gotten as far as architectural design, Dusenberry asked Pupke to help give input for design of the gym and the athletic facilities for the new school.

Construction on Lincoln started in 1962, with the first students on campus while construction was still in progress. Lloyd Williams, who was in the seventh grade at the time, was sent to Lincoln when there was just one wing of the building complete along with the office. The rest was still a job site. He missed what had been the traditional 8th grade graduation by being in the middle of the new configuration of grades 7, 8, 9.

Known collectively as “The Lincoln Wildcats” each year had a big cat mascot: 7th grade – Jaguars, 8th grade – Panthers, 9th grade – Tigers. Since the CGHS mascot was the Lions, Williams remembers this as a way to work up the cat tree to become the king of the jungle, a Lion, when they headed on to high school.

An early Lincoln handbook clarifies that the school colors are black and gold and that “The nickname of the whole student body shall be known as the Wildcats,” and then specified the big cat for each grade level. Pupke remembers that they used those mascots as their sports team names and to build class morale.

The first full session for the new school was the 1963-64 school year. The 1964 “Lincoln Log” contains this message from Principal Lee Hemingsgaard: “You have history in your hands. This is the “first” yearbook for Lincoln Junior High, which is in its “first year” of operation … We, on behalf of our faculty, would like to thank the student body for their cooperation during this first year. We have had many problems, and you have handled them in fine fashion. It is our hope you have profited from this year and are looking forward to next year.”

Pupke remembers this time as well. A new school building, some of which was still being built, many new staff members, students thrown together for the first time in a novel arrangement. There were kinks to work out but they all got through it together as the “Wildcats” settled into their new den.

Next week: We look at more of Pupke’s 31 years of service to local youth, including track and field, how the swimming program saved lives and put the Grove on the map, the emergence of athletics for girls, and the fortuitous pairing of Pupke and Wally “Chick” Ciochetti.

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