The Grade Blog

Monday, Jul 08 2013 05:29 PM

Community bids farewell to South High coach

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A friend of John J. Wren's touches Wren's hat that rests on his casket at Greenlawn Southwest Cemetery on Monday afternoon. Friends of Wren said that the hat signified Wren was in "game mode."

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Alana Reed, 16, center, hugs Leslie Vides, 15, left, and Kimberly Purdy, 16, right, during a prayer for John J. Wren at Greenlawn Southwest Cemetery on Monday afternoon. "He was like a father figure," said Reed, who had Wren as an English teacher.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Javier Medina, 17, left, hugs a fellow Rebels teammate and a friend during the funeral for South High School's head varsity football coach, John J. Wren, at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Monday morning. John J. Wren, 44, died unexpectedly in his sleep last Tuesday morning.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Friends and family of South High School's head varsity football coach, John J. Wren, look at photos of Wren set up outside of the funeral service at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Monday morning. Wren, 44, died unexpectedly in his sleep last Tuesday morning.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    A member of the Rebels football team kneels down by John J. Wren's casket at Greenlawn Southwest Cemetery on Monday afternoon. Wren, 44, was South High School's head varsity football coach and died unexpectedly in his sleep last Tuesday morning.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Julio Regala, a graduate of South High School, leads the Rebels in the Haka before the burial of South High School's head varsity football coach, John J. Wren, at Greenlawn Southwest Cemetery on Monday afternoon. Wren taught the Rebels the Haka, a traditional war dance that originated from New Zealand. Members of the team say they dance the Haka before each home game and after the loss of a leader.

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    By Autumn Parry / The Californian

    Friends and family of John J. Wren filled The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for Wren's funeral service Monday morning.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Close to 1,000 people jammed into the Fruitvale Avenue meetinghouse of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Monday to pay their respects to John Jay Wren, the South High School football coach who died in his sleep early Tuesday at just 44 years old.

Loved ones and admirers filled the church sanctuary and an adjoining basketball court, and still more packed the hallway, craning their necks to see and hear the funeral.

Speaker after speaker recalled Wren as a devoted husband and father of strong religious convictions who guided and molded countless young people.

"He focused on people one person at a time, helping them to reach their potential," said Ed Mortensen, a former president of the church's Bakersfield South Stake.

Mortensen said Wren's plain, modest coffin was "anything but ostentatious, and that is so fitting for John. It's exactly what he would have chosen because that is the way he lived his life. It wasn't about him."

Wren was a 1987 graduate of South and returned there as an athletic trainer in the mid-1990s while he put himself through school at Cal State Bakersfield. He had been with the Rebels in some form ever since, except for a three-year stint at Foothill from 2004-2006. He returned in 2006 to teach English at South and take over the varsity football position.

Scott Douglas took on Wren as an assistant when he coached Foothill and then reversed roles and joined Wren's staff at South in 2006.

He told a story about Wren coming upon a burning house as he was on his way home to pick up his pregnant wife for a doctor appointment.

Wren stopped and rescued two people and a cat before racing home to get his wife to her appointment.

She told him his excuse for being late sounded like a wild fantasy story, Douglas said chuckling, but when television reports later went out about a mystery super hero who didn't stick around for thanks or accolades, his proud mother identified Wren as the culprit and the mayor gave him an award.

Douglas also talked about how periodically, the coaches at South would consider cutting students who lacked talent, had bad attitudes and didn't show up on time.

"John would pause and take that in. Then he'd say, 'He needs us more than we need him. He's staying on the team,'" Douglas said.

Wren was so much more than a coach, he said, noting that his co-worker once took a pair of brothers to buy Christmas presents for their mother and sent them home with groceries.

He did things like that all the time, Douglas said. That's why years after leaving South, scores of his former students and players kept in touch.

"John was truly the father to the fatherless," said Gerald Ogden, who with Wren volunteered for Wild at Heart, a Christian fellowship for men that mentored youngsters.

The front of the church was a sea of grey and blue. South High's entire varsity football team wore their jerseys over dress shirts and slacks.

There were also jerseys from North, West and other schools where Wren had made an impression on coaches and athletes.

At one point in the service, the fallen coach's players filed past his casket and hugged Wren's widow and children while the church played "Voice of Truth" by the Christian rock group Casting Crowns.

At Wren's burial at Greenlawn Southwest, the players performed a Haka, a New Zealand cultural war chant that was one of the coach's motivational training exercises. They also sang the South High Rebels fight song.

After a short blessing to dedicate the coach's plot, the team encircled the casket three rows deep and bowed their heads to pray arm in arm.

Then a player led the team in a final tribute, shouting, "Coach Wren on three! One two three, Coach Wren!"

At a luncheon in Wren's honor later, South High School senior Johnnie Dirden, a 17-year-old running back for South, said the service was a nice tribute for a man who meant a great deal to many.

"A lot of people don't realize how good a person he was, how generous he was. He wasn't the type of person who ever asked for anything. He just gave," Dirden said. "Ever since he came, we've been doing a little bit better every year. We want to give something back to him. We want to win a valley championship for the coach."

The Rebels were 3-17 in Wren's first two years, but most recently had gone 24-30 with four playoff appearances in the past five years.

Wren left a wife, Marina Wren, and three children: Gader, 19, Gunner, 17, and Natalia, 15.

His widow said the service was "beautiful, beautiful. I felt a lot of love, and I'm very proud of what my husband did for the community."

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