A friend of my youth, from my gymnastics days, has finished an exceptional coaching career at Westfield High School, in Westfield, MA. In her own right, Joanne Egan Hewins, is a marvelous person. She has managed to share her passion, her competitive drive and her hard work ethic while inspiring others and assuredly, transforming lives. Last week, before winning Western Mass — again — MassLive posted an excellent article about the career and dedication of Joanne – or, to me, always, EGAN!!
We met in a gym at the Westfield YMCA, back in the early 70s. Our first coach, Joan Hicks, challenged us, inspired us and loved us. And somewhere, in the grown-up world that I wasn’t privy to, Mrs. Hicks pissed off someone’s (or many) parents….and she was gone. Just like that. Our mentor disappeared. Rumors flew, but all I cared about was how much I missed her. (Later she coached at Yale University and now, sadly, she is truly gone.) Next, we were coached by a fine young man, Percy Hill. And again, we were challenged and inspired and cared for. Below, from the Percy days, is a shot from the Westfield Evening News of our team after a big win. I’m third from the left, Egan is fourth from the left, and yes, we have similar hair, glasses and leotards on. That was bff-ing in 1974.
The primo gymnastics school in western Mass. then was in Springfield, Pioneer Gymnastics, coached by Leo Leger. When Percy was ready to move on, many of us moved from the Y to Pioneer. Where Mrs. Hicks and Percy had guided us from the beginning ranks to intermediate and, in some cases, advanced, Leo was coaching all levels, including elite. Indeed, one of our teammates, Marcia Frederick, was destined to go on to the US Olympic team, where she amazed the world…..but only the world who watched the boycotted Olympics of 1980. During those years at Pioneer, high school and boys crept in. My high school, Hampshire Regional had a team, and a fine coach, Diane Parker. I competed for both Pioneer and my high school; suffering a severe ankle injury at the Regional Junior Olympic qualifying meet for Pioneer.
Gymnasts are never strangers to injury, but some injuries are weirder than others. Joanne cracked a vertebrae in her neck in a freak accident at Pioneer. She left the gym for a long time and our worlds separated. Her high school, the one she later coached to numerous state and regional titles, did not have competitive gymnastics in those days, so we didn’t even have the chance to bump into each other at meets. Back in the seventies, it was possible to lose a friend, even a good one. In recent years, thanks to Facebook, we’ve found each other again. I know of her long-held dream of owning her own gymnastics studio, of her regrets that dream never came true. I know of her adoration of Leo as a coach, of her deep, deep sadness that he has slipped into the clutches of Alzheimers. I’ve learned, without surprise and with so much thankfulness, of her amazing career at Westfield High. Indeed, last week they won their seventh straight Western Mass title!
Joanne Egan Hewins created a program at Westfield High School. She gave her school and her community the one thing she would have loved the most in her youth. She owned a gymnastics studio there, even if only now she’s realizing it.
You owned it, Egan. Own that.
Her decision to retire from coaching was not easy, but the online and media love-fest happening for her must ease the pain a bit. As I see the pictures of Joanne (Joj to her athletes, Egan always to me), I feel the presence of Mrs. Hicks, of Percy and Leo. I know that their excellent examples served Joanne well. I know that someday, one of her former athletes, will be positively influencing some other young lives. And I think of the words of Ray Bradbury:
“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.
It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
― Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451