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Saturday, Dec 08 2012 10:00 PM

GERALD HASLAM: For Turk's boys, lessons were many and lasting

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    Gerald Haslam

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Back in the 1970s, an Oildale neighbor and one-time high-school football rival surprised me when he handed me three or four sheets of paper covered with words and diagrams in fading ditto. "Look what I found in an old binder," he said. At first I couldn't decipher the message, then I realized it was a North High scouting report for its 1954 football game against Garces, for whom I had then played. The Stars won 7-0 on their way to a valley championship.

I was stunned because I'd never seen a written preparation like it in high school; it was better than many I'd later see as a college player. "Who did this?" I asked.

"Our secret weapon," my neighbor grinned, "Coach Eliades, the math teacher. He values accuracy."

I didn't know then that Jordan "Turk" Eliades not only brought math's accuracy to the field, he also brought football's passion to the classroom, and his influence endures among many ex-students, football players or not.

Engineer Kim Miller Dunn, for instance, past president of the International Society of Automation, was once his pupil at North High. She remembers the coach's energetic sideline behavior at Friday night football games, but "If Turk had passion on the field," she said, "he had even more in the classroom." At a time when girls were not encouraged to pursue math, "I owe Mr. Eliades for teaching me algebra, but more importantly I owe him big time for teaching me the importance of passion." Ex-player Bob Norris agrees: "The passion and intensity with which he coached and taught were legendary."

Eliades didn't limit his efforts to the classroom or the gridiron: Troy Etter recalls the day he was working in the yard with his dad, and "I looked up to see Mr. Eliades driving up our street and coming our way. ... Mr. Eliades told my dad that I was going to fail algebra because I wasn't doing a damned thing and treated studying and doing well as a big joke. Without another word, he rolled up the window and went on his way." That event proved to be as miraculous as an Oral Roberts healing: Troy soon became a much improved student and a valuable player.

Eliades took over the fledgling football program at brand-new North High in 1953, after having established himself by winning 24 games in just three years at Shafter High School. A year later the Stars -- with no seniors -- won the Valley Sierra Division championship, and Coach Eliades continued coaching there for 30 more years, winning eight league championships outright and sharing two more.

The joke had been that North High would always be a collection of slow white guys, but people like Dale Standifer, Jimmy Doss and Vernon Burke, among others, soon proved that wrong.

During that era of memorable high school coaches in Kern County -- Paul Briggs, Migs Apsit, Ray Frederick, Marv Mosconi, et al. -- Eliades held his own and then some. An ex-World-War II fighter pilot who had destroyed four enemy planes before his own plane was shot down, the Nevada native spent more than a year as a prisoner of war. He returned home, married his life partner, the late Frances "Cookie" Cook, and completed his education at the University of Nevada and the University of Southern California, then became a teacher in and out of the classroom.

"Turk was an emotional and inspirational coach," recalls Jim Anderson, who went on to play for the University of California, and is now retired as vice president of Hilton Hotels Corp. "I was fortunate to have great coaches ... [but] none of them could prepare me emotionally to play football the way Turk could. I only hope my grandchildren will be lucky enough to be inspired by someone like Turk Eliades."

Among many lessons he taught, Eliades made certain his players understood that replays are rare in life; "You can never play this game again," Gary Champ recalls the coach saying. "As a coach he knew he had to share that with his players, not just for football but for living your life to be the best you can be."

Eliades also encouraged his players to have larger perspectives, recognizing that football was only part of his own life -- along with family, friendship, teaching and other factors equally or more important. Cletus Harper remembers Eliades telling his players, "As important as this game is tonight, football is only a temporary part of our lives, but what we gain from it will be with us for the rest of our lives."

About 15 years ago, several of Eliades' ex-players initiated an annual fishing trip to June Lake with him. Remembers Harper, "We had no idea this tradition would last year after year." Following the passing of his wife, Cookie, last year, Eliades' fellow fishermen weren't certain he'd feel like joining them at June Lake. But he did. His daughter, Jane, told Harper, "as the day to leave gets close, he'll say, 'It's almost time to go fishing with my boys.'"

And those boys -- in their 50s and 60s and 70s now -- can't resist smiling when they think about the man who educated them about football and algebra, but even more about life. "He taught us to believe in ourselves and to value family and friends," remembers Gerald Congdon.

Vernon Burke, an All-America at Oregon State before a pro football career, was arguably Eliades' most accomplished athlete, and he recalls that the coach "taught me to be mentally tough and never, never give up. [He] talked with deeds that backed up his words. He coached all his players with equality and fairness. He knew how to look inside people, to see strengths they never knew they had and to draw out those strengths and blend and refine them. He was able to lead players to levels way above their abilities and skills."

Jordan "Turk" Eliades is closing in on his 90th birthday, and he still tutors algebra students. He has employed football and math to prepare generations of students for lives that may at times be beyond their control, but in which integrity can always be theirs. Such preparation is education at its finest. Says Harper, "What an honor to be considered one of Turk's boys."

Gerald Haslam had the misfortune of playing against Eliades-coached teams. He is an Oildale native, and his most recent book is "In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa."

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