Jerome Van Meter

Jerome Van Meter, from the 1955 Echo

‘Gray Eagle’ Marks 93rd Birthday

This article appeared in a Beckley newspaper on Aug. 15, 1993.


While enroute each morning to the Beckley Area Foundation office, I frequently spot the old “Gray Eagle” taking his 2.5 mile walk on Timber Ridge Drive in the Woodcrest section of town.

The “Gray Eagle” of course is Jerome Van Meter, the winningest coach of all at Woodrow Wilson High School. I always pull over to greet him.

“Hey, coach, how are you doing today?”

“Not bad, sonny. The old knee is acting up a bit, but I’m plugging along.”

Not bad at all, folks, for a fellow with the youthful spirit of Van Meter. He deserves a big cheer today. Today’s special. It’s his birthday.

Ninety three. Yep, that’s right. He’s 93 today.

And, while we’re at it, let’s wish him a happy anniversary, too. He and his wife, Aline, were married 67 years ago in Pueblo, Colo., the day before his 26th birthday. His wedding anniversary is on August 14, his birthday on August 15—a nice doubleheader in his words.

I’ve always been interested in Van Meter’s success as a football-basketball coach without peer in West Virginia. Only in the last three years, however, did I ever get to meet him personally. That’s a long time to wait---90 years.

Yet I heard about Van Meter from Sports Editors Dick Hudson and George Holbrook of the Charleston Daily Mail and Shorty Hardman of the Charleston Gazette. They were always singing his praises during the ‘50’s, when Beckley became known as the “City of Champions” because of the state football and basketball championships his teams won.

Look at his record: WWHS football championships in 1947, 1948, and 1951. Three undefeated teams and six that lost only one game. A total of 222 victories, 93 defeats and 14 ties during his career.

Basketball: six state championships at WWHS, 1946, followed by four consecutive state championships in 1951-52-53 and 1954 and again in 1957. Runners-up three times. A lifetime record of 647 wins, 232 losses.

How did he motivate the boys he coached then?

“We were family. I lived with them. If they had problems, they came to me and Aline.”

“Our lives were interwoven. I guess I was a stern disciplinarian, same as Principal C. G. Peregoy, who insisted they make the grades. We commanded their respect.”

And what did you tell them before the season started?

“I told them they could be anything they wanted to be, if they wanted it badly enough. I wanted them to be champions, and this is what they wanted to be. I’ll tell them the same today.”

Coach Van Meter now lives alone at Bayberry Inn, having had to place his beloved Aline, 88, in a nursing home recently. He sees her every day.

“Let me tell you about her. She was a student in my class at Point Pleasant when I first came to West Virginia to teach, a pretty little thing. Our first date, I took her out on a steamboat cruise. The steamboat got hung up on the sand-bar and it was the next morning before I got her home. But her father was an understanding man and we got along well from the first.”

“Aline and I, we made a good team. I put her through a lot as a coach, but she was understanding and as interested in the success of my boys as I was.”

Coach Van Meter’s boys have been successful. I know a few of them. Don Hodson, the lawyer and Beckley National Bank official, an outstanding halfback along with Dr. Randall L. Broyles, a top educator. Warren Thornhill, attorney, this year’s “Spirit of Beckley” award winner, who played on the 1946 championship basketball team. Bill Sigmund, the real estate man, who quarterbacked on of Van Meter’s winners. “Buzzy” Ragland, another attorney and basketball great for Woodrow.

“And there was one, Lew Webb, who had problems in junior high. He had trouble listening to his coach there. I sat him down and told him, ‘Son, if you’re going to play for me, you’ve got to do it my way. If not, save us both time and trouble. Don’t come out for the team.’”

Webb came out, became an outstanding tackle, wound up later in California to become one of the nation’s largest car dealers and even today calls his old coach every two weeks to see if there’s anything he needs or can do for him.

“He sent airline tickets for Aline and me for years to come out and be his guest for a vacation. Looks like my talk did some good,” Van Meter says with a grin.

This year’s Flying Eagles football team is now practicing only a short distance from The Bayberry where Van Meter lives. He walked over the other day to observe them.

Any advice coach?

“Same advice I always gave my teams. You can be anything you want to be.”

Listen up, lads. That’s championship advice.

Legend Will Lead Parade Festivities


This article appeared in the Beckley Register-Herald.

Twice he donned the uniform of a soldier and twice he shouldered a rifle when America was engaged in global conflict, but Jerome Van Meter never set foot on foreign soil.

At the tender age of 17, he wanted to join the Marines and help fight the "war to end wars."

Dead set against him going off to war, his mother refused to sign the papers, and Van Meter instead wound up in the Army after his 18th birthday.

"I thought I wanted to go over there until I got to talking to some of the guys who came back, and it was no picture show deal," said the legendary West Virginia high school coach.

Then, at age 41 and facing the draft, he volunteered for the Army again and this time became a training officer.

Come Nov. 11, he will lead the annual Veterans Day Parade in Beckley as honorary marshal. The event is sponsored by the American Legion Post 32.

"Many military men, even though they are not in the battlefield on foreign land, play very important roles in service to their country," said Jim Rubin, chairman of the parade committee.

When World War I flared, the United States had a standing army of a mere 50,000.

"That's all we had," Van Meter recalled. "President Woodrow Wilson had not increased that because he won his second term by keeping us out of war."

By a twist of fate, the president's name figured prominently in the life of Van Meter, who collected six state titles in basketball and three football crowns at Woodrow Wilson High School.

Van Meter entered the infantry at Illinois Wesleyan as President Wilson turned to American campuses to train troops. Soon after Van Meter was in service, however, the armistice was signed.

"A few more months, and I would have been over there," he said.

An influenza epidemic swept through the Army, depleting the forces and threatening Van Meter's life at one point.

"We lost more people with the flu than anything else," he recalled. "They took these guys off the farms and put them in those breezy barracks.

"In one company, there weren't a dozen on their feet at one time. There were no nurses or anything like that. It was a terrible situation."

Stricken himself, Van Meter shrugged off the flu bug and begged to be released from a hospital.

"I told them to let me out and put me on KP," he said. "I wasn't going to stay in that bed and not eat. That was the only time I enjoyed KP."

During World War II, Van Meter wound up in an anti-aircraft artillery unit until the war was nearly over. Commissioned a second lieutenant, he was assigned as battery executive, then battery commander, and eventually was re-assigned to battalion S-3.

In deference to his coaching job, Van Meter was sent to Atlantic City, N.J., to supervise recreation for returnees.

"Of course, we had a beach there, and that was a headache, or could have been," he said. "Those soldiers coming back couldn't swim across the street, but thought they could."

Van Meter also assembled a basketball team, and it was in this stint he rubbed shoulders with some athletic greats, among them tennis star Bill Tilden and New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio.

Between wars, Van Meter spent time in the National Guard while holding down his first coaching job at Point Pleasant.

Van Meter, who turned 97 on Aug. 15, enjoys a distinction held by few -- serving during two world wars but never leaving the country.

"In World War I, I got a rifle," he mused. "In World War II, I gave them the rifle."

Serving with Rubin on the parade committee are Sue Cox, Jim McGrady, Willa Milliken, Charles Keesee, Margaret Bower, Fred Henley, Jim Tweetie and Lewlyn Williams.

Rubin promised this year's edition would be one of the "biggest and best" to honor men and women who have served in the armed forces. The parade is to form at Park Junior High, then snake through town via Neville and Main Streets.

Mayor Emmett Pugh plans to ban street parking during parade hours so that participants may have access to the width of the streets.

Van Meter wasn't sure just what is expected of him as parade marshal.

"I guess what I have to do is smile and wave to the people," he said. "I don't have an Army hat. I gave all that stuff away years ago. I'll have to borrow one."

HBO Show to Include Van Meter


This article appeared in the Register-Herald on April 28, 1997.

One year into this century, a West Virginia legend was born, and for Jerome Van Meter, a folk hero in high school sports, fame keeps spreading.

Early in May, the 96-year-old retired coach, accompanied by one of his stellar athletes at Woodrow Wilson High School, will fly to California for an interview with a crew from Home Box Office.

Van Meter is to be included in a special HBO documentary on Americans born near the start of the 20th century as the world nears the next millennium.

"This will be a documentary about a lot of people who, at that time, will be close to 100 years old, with their memories of the 20th century," an HBO executive in New York explained.

The HBO spokesman said the cable network plans to scout the nation for people in their late 90s.

"We're not looking for celebrities or the famous, but as in the case of this man, people who have influenced their communities from all walks of life.

"In fact, most people who see the film probably will not know this man until then. Producers are just going out to find people of that age with interesting stories to tell."

Van Meter likely could fill an entire two-hour program with his memories.

Before he carved his niche in West Virginia history as a coach, Van Meter lived a storied life, working in a bakery to get through school and serving in the Army through two wars.

After serving in the famed Rainbow Division in World War I, he returned home to pocket $3.50 a week.

"What would that buy today?" he laughed, recalling how he worked five days a week, including a 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift on Saturdays to stay in school.

"That was pretty rugged, but that was the way I started," he said.

Soon after the guns of World War II erupted, Van Meter volunteered and wound up training troops for overseas combat.

His college education weighted in math and science, Van Meter took a coaching job at Point Pleasant before arriving in Beckley.

In a brilliant career that spanned four decades, beginning in 1929, he compiled a 155-55-12 mark in football and logged a record of 501-159 in basketball.

Van Meter notched three state titles in football and six in basketball -- four them in a row.

Known across West Virginia as the Gray Eagle, he comes in for another honor in June when he will be inducted in the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Jack Groseclose, a tackle and center for Van Meter in the Class of '54, will fly with his old mentor May 7 to the Laguna Hills, Calif., home of another Gray Eagle athlete -- Lew Webb. The two plan to return May 10.

At Webb's home, Van Meter will be interviewed by the HBO film crew for a documentary that likely will not be aired until December of next year or possibly as late as 1999.

"We want to run this as close to the new century as possible, with all the emphasis now on the millennium," the HBO official said.

In nearly a century of life in America, the legendary coach has seen it all -- and been around an abundance of celebrities.

For instance, in Springfield, Ill., at the state fair, he watched as barnstorming Barney Oldfield doubled over on the second curve in his famed "submarine" trying to set a new speed record.

Emerging from the wreck, Oldfield, his teeth still clutching a lit cigar, eyed Van Meter and inquired, "Hey, kid, you see my hat?"

He watched President Teddy Roosevelt uncork a fiery speech to admirers, but the young Van Meter, standing almost a quarter of a mile, never knew what he said.

"He had a tinny voice, and I couldn't hear a word he said," he said. "But I remember watching him raise his fists as he talked."

On the music scene, Van Meter laughed at how he and a buddy took takes to a John Philip Sousa performance and tried to romance their ladies by dancing to march tunes.

"You think you could waltz to `Stars and Stripes Forever?'|" he asked. "We took those girls out in a Ford automobile, and all Sousa played were marches. You don't do very much waltzing with that."

How did their dates respond to such music?

"I don't know," Van Meter said. "They didn't have much to say. We got 'em home about 1 o'clock in the morning. Their parents were sitting up waiting on them."

Across the century, Van Meter has watched one revolution follow another in every phase of American life -- social, economic, political, scientific, spiritual, entertainment, etc.

"I've seen changes in everything," he said. "Church used to come first in the community, and now it comes second."

Van Meter remembers the pre-mechanized days of farming when work animals were a common sight. For two summers, he worked a section of railroad track, riding a handcar to keep men supplied with picks, shovels and water.

"They were looking for loose ties," he said. "One thing I remember is the double track Chicago and Alton Railroad, which was later gobbled up by the Illinois Central.

"That was back in the days of horses. I'd work 10 hours a day, carrying water. They might give me a nickel or a penny."

Across the years, Van Meter has rubbed shoulders with some of the major names in sports -- Notre Dame's sainted Knute Rockne, Alabama's Bear Bryant, Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe, to name only a few.

Yet, for all his success as a coach, ex-Flying Eagle athletes such as Groseclose remember a side of Van Meter that separates him from his peers -- the father-like image of a man who looked beyond their schoolboy days to prepare them for life itself.

"I love him," Groseclose said. "It's hard to tell how many young men he has coached and steered in the right direction in his lifetime. He's fantastic."

Gray Eagle To Take Place in National Sports Hall of Fame


This article appeared in the Beckley Register-Herald.

Tom Landry, Johnny Bench, Jack Nicklaus ... make room, guys, for another legend, Jerome Van Meter.

Come summer, the beloved Gray Eagle of Woodrow Wilson High School takes his rightful place alongside such notables -- all members of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

"Oh, Lordy, what am I doing in such company?" Van Meter asked, with trademark modesty, when apprised of some past inductees.

The 96-year-old Van Meter will join 13 other honorees July 9 in an induction at San Antonio, Texas, this year's gathering site of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In his illustrious career that spanned four decades, starting in 1929, the retired Beckley coach compiled a 155-55-12 mark in football and a 501-159 record in basketball.

Van Meter bagged three state titles in football and six in basketball -- four of them in a row.

What's more, the coaching legend, a father figure to the hundreds he coached, molded his young charges for the future -- instilling in them the values of hard work, clean living, sportsmanship and honesty. Many have come forth in late adulthood to salute the character traits that Van Meter taught them, saying his leadership set them on the path to success.

Bruce Howard, publications and communications director for the hall of fame, said Van Meter was chosen after a two-tiered selection process. Each year, he explained, a screening committee looks at all nominations offered. Those that are deemed worthy of national recognition then are put into the hands of a selection committee, which rates them on a scale of 1 to 5. A typical pool begins with 50 nominations and is whittled to 14.

Van Meter was nominated last year, but didn't make it until this year after he was renominated by Beckley attorney Pat Fragile, a member of Beckley's 1962 championship basketball team led by the Gray Eagle's successor, the late Lawrence "Preach" Wiseman.

"I think, generally speaking, it seemed to the committee that in terms of the coaching profession in the state of West Virginia, he was among the best, if not the best," Howard said.

While Van Meter's record is stunning, Howard pointed out that the won-loss mark is not the sole criteria.

"We don't have a set number of victories or championships that qualifies someone for this honor because of the varying amounts of games that a person can coach or participate in, from one part of the country to another."

In reality, he said the hall of fame looks beyond the simple arithmetic of a won-lost log.

"Certainly, winning percentage is a factor," he said.

"Beyond that, (it's) what he contributed in ways other than just winning ball games, that being the person was a believer in sportsmanship, a believer in assisting kids in all areas of their lives. We're looking for an individual who is an all-around type of person.

"We knew there were certain qualities about this gentleman."

Only three other West Virginians have been accorded the honor since the hall of fame was launched in Kansas City, Mo., 15 years ago -- Jerry West, who went from East Bank High School to greatness at West Virginia University and with the Los Angeles Lakers; Jennings Boyd, who won a national record eight straight state championships in basketball at Northfork High School; and Russ Parsons, who was a high school coaching great in football and track at Oak Hill, Charleston Catholic, Stonewall Jackson and Parkersburg.

(In 1947, the first year the state Secondary School Activities Commission crowned champions in football, Stonewall Jackson, coached by Parsons, and Woodrow Wilson, coached by Van Meter, were declared co-champions.) Fragile was moved to nominate Van Meter during a visit to the national federation in Kansas City.

Scanning the plaques and photographs of hall of fame members, Fragile recalled, "Out of curiosity, I looked at the West Virginia section to see who was in it from West Virginia. Quite frankly, I was shocked that Coach Van Meter wasn't in it."

Digging into the matter, Fragile learned that no one had ever nominated him, so, as a state director for officials, Fragile was in position to suggest the inclusion of Van Meter in a process that had to go through the SSAC.

Fragile said the SSAC's executive director, Warren Carter, shared his sentiment, adding, "It was an injustice that coach was never nominated." Carter pledged his support and help in getting Van Meter in the hall, so Fragile did the legwork twice in compiling the nominating package.

"I was absolutely thrilled," Fragile said of the affirmative message from Kansas City. "It was one of the nicest phone calls I ever received when they called and said he had been accepted. And he was thrilled." Ever modest, Van Meter shied from taking credit for his amazing success on the gridiron and the court.

"You don't do it with magic," he said. "I'm thankful that I had a lot of good assistant coaches and some great guys. I had some great kids. My boys made it to every major bowl game in the country, and I'm talking about starters."

Perhaps a key to his brilliant record lay in his philosophy -- the future of the boy was far more crucial than the present goal on the athletic field.

"I never paid a whole lot of attention to winning," he said.

"If they want to give me the honor, that's fine. I'll take the honor on the condition that the guys did all the work and should get the credit. We had a great bunch of guys."

Even so, Van Meter admittedly is "tickled" by the hall of fame induction.

"It is an honor, but only in relationship to the guys that put me there," he said. "They should get the credit. If they want to do that, honor these guys, then glory be."

Van Meter was quick to rattle off the names of some assistants who provided him with crucial backup -- Ken Hunt, Buckshot Underwood, Tom Williamson, Nelson Bragg, Vic Peelish and Wiseman.

Household names such as Len Dawson, Bob Mathias, Pat Haden and Archie Griffin are among other celebrities picked in past inductions. "I'm flabbergasted to be in there with Tom Landry," Van Meter said of the Dallas Cowboys coaching legend. "I feel like on the outside looking in at him. I'll be scared to death.

"For me to be in all that company, I'm speechless. I hope I don't lose my nerve."

For Fragile, a former Air Force pilot, and Van Meter, flying to Texas will be a homecoming of sorts.

"That's my old stomping grounds," Fragile said. "I took my flight training there and met my wife (Mary Lou) there, too. So it's like going home for me."

Van Meter, likewise, spent some time in the Lone Star State, attending a coaching school at Southern Methodist University.

Beckley's Van Meter Has Seen, Been Part of Century of Sports


This article appeared in the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail.

BECKLEY -- When Jerome Van Meter first heard about the game of basketball as a young teen-ager, he didn't even know anyone who owned a car. Because there weren't many cars around back then.

Van Meter, you see, turned 96 on Aug. 15.

Born in 1900, he vividly remembers starting his career as a high school coach at Point Pleasant in 1922. He served as an educator for more than 50 years and a coach for 35.

"The thing I find so awesome about being here this long is, I've lived through almost an entire century,'' said Van Meter. "There was no television when I was growing up. No one had cars. There weren't even any airplanes, although I remember seeing my first one. It looked like a bird on the horizon.''

And anyone who knows anything at all about sports in Beckley knows about coach Van Meter -- who led Beckley (now Woodrow Wilson) High School to nine state championships.

"And I had three runner-up teams in basketball,'' said Van Meter. "In 1926 at Point Pleasant we went to play in a national high school basketball championship in Chicago. We lost to Kansas, who was beating everyone that year.''

Under Van Meter's direction, Beckley won its first state basketball title in 1946 -- one year after he started coaching at Beckley. Van Meter also led the team to basketball titles in 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1957. His teams won football titles in 1947, 1948 and 1951.

His career coaching records, according to statistics compiled by Beckley's George Springer, included going 170-69-11 in football. And Van Meter's basketball record was 612-218.

That's an almost unheard of (in today's terms) .737 winning percentage.

People don't forget things like that -- even though Van Meter has not coached at Beckley since 1959.

That's right, even 37 years after his last days as a coach at Beckley High School, people remember Jerome Van Meter and hold him dear to their hearts.

He is an institution in Raleigh County.

Dave Barksdale is the current basketball coach at Woodrow Wilson High. Barksdale didn't play sports under Van Meter, but he has a deep respect for the former coach.

"Coach Van Meter retired before I was coming up in school,'' said Barksdale. "So I never got to play for him. But I was like every other kid in Beckley. We all grew up following the Flying Eagles.

"Coach means a lot to me and he meant everything to folks like my parents and the rest of Beckley at that time.

"Today when we're doing well, he always calls and congratulates us,'' said Barksdale. "And even when we lose, it seems like he always knows exactly what to say to pick you back up. He's tremendous in that respect. A lot of his former players say he was always good at that when he was coaching, too -- knowing just what to say to pick his players up.''

That Van Meter was a leader became evident in service to his country.

"I fought in World War I in the infantry and then went back to train troops at Camp Stewart, Georgia as an Army drill instructor in World War II. We got' em off the trains and put' em back on down there. And I was also in the National Guard at Point Pleasant as a machine gun instructor, teaching fellas how to shoot the old .30-caliber water-cooled machine guns,'' he said.

"When I started in the coaching business, they didn't give you much room. You were supposed to raise all the money and furnish the teams with uniforms and do everything else, too,'' said Van Meter, who came up with a sound scheme for selling tickets and raising money for high school sporting events.

"I'd get the prettiest girls from the school and send them out to sell tickets,'' he said. "It always worked.''

Beckley's current football coach, Pete Culicerto, played both football and basketball under Van Meter.

Culicerto holds his former coach in highest esteem.

"He's an amazing person,'' Culicerto said. "At 96 years old, his mind is remarkable. He'll talk about people who played for him in the 1920s or 1930s and he'll remember where they lived, their parents, everything about that person. I can't do that now at age 61. He's just an exceptional, outstanding human being.''

Culicerto said Van Meter was top-notch in his profession.

"He was a disciplinarian who stressed fundamentals and he was always very fair with everyone. He kept up with the game more than most people, primarily by subscribing to a lot of newspapers and reading a lot about sports.

"He was a top-notch coach in everything he did because he devoted himself entirely to coaching. He coached football and basketball the same way, too, by teaching strict fundamentals.

"Coach Van Meter had a toughness about him, particularly in football. His confidence carried over into the players. When he prepared you, you knew you were going to be able to achieve your goals,'' Culicerto said.

Van Meter does recall reading a lot of sports sections when he was coaching.

"I got all those newspapers and I always knew what they the opposing teams were doing,'' he said. "Sometimes those sports writers may have been too good, by giving us almost too much information.''

Culicerto recalls that Van Meter always knew the statistical averages of opposing players.

So what did he enjoy doing most, coaching football or basketball?

"It didn't make any difference to me,'' said Van Meter, who has, at one time or another, coached almost everything. At Point Pleasant he coached all sports for 20 years, including baseball and track.

"I didn't have time to have any preference for one sport or another,'' he said. "We went straight from football into basketball and straight from basketball into baseball and track.''

Van Meter was also the athletic director during his tenure at Beckley and Point Pleasant.

"I always had an awful lot of good help,'' he said.

That good help included such former coaching assistant greats as Beckley's Buckshot Underwood.

"He was a line coach here and helped us win the 1947 football championship,'' said Van Meter. "He left here and went on to become a line coach for Bear Bryant. Buckshot also ended up as a high school coach in Texas. I'm pretty sure he was Jimmy Johnson's high school football coach.''

The game of basketball was in its infancy when Van Meter started coaching it at Point Pleasant High School in 1922.

"We played back then in an old wood-working shop,'' said Van Meter. "The backboards were laid right up against concrete walls. Well, our players could run and climb those walls clear up to the hoop. And our opponents didn't like that. So I just told them it was my place and they were going to have to play by my rules. Eventually, we got a real gym to play basketball in.''

Van Meter was born in Williamsville, Ill., and attended high school there until he joined the Army.

He went to Eureka College, Ill., in 1918 and attended the University of Illinois for two years after that. He also attended two years of coaches training courses at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne.

He coached at Point Pleasant from 1922 through 1942, then served in World War II for three years. In 1945, he started his coaching career at Beckley. And in that first year his team had no field to play football on.

"So we signed a note and were personally responsible for building the stadium at Beckley High School,'' said Van Meter. "I think the Lord was with me.''

That facility (named Van Meter Stadium) is still used for multiple middle school athletic and community activities in Beckley.

His memories are numerous, says Van Meter, but some stand out more than others.

"I was on the state selection board for all-state football and basketball and I coached the North-South football game as an assistant and a head coach, too,'' he said. "That game used to be played in December it's played now during the summer months and we had an awful lot of snow that first year.''

Summing up his life briefly in a newspaper-size story doesn't do Jerome Van Meter justice. After all, how could anyone possibly condense nearly a century's worth of experiences into 30 or 40 inches of newsprint? Truly, it cannot be done.

Van Meter, however, is very happy with the way life has treated him. And he doesn't mind summing it up in a single sentence.

"I guess I've gotten to do it all,'' he said.

CWV Gymnasium Dedicated, Named After Former Coach


This article appeared in the Register-Herald.

Dr. Charles Polk, president of The College of West Virginia, described it simply as "just another good day in the life and times of CWV."

The good day he was referring to was Sunday's dedication ceremony for the new J.R. Van Meter Gymnasium, in the old Beckley Junior High School gym.

The building, complete with state-of-the-art weight-training equipment and full facilities for male and female athletes, was renovated to accommodate the CWV Cougars men's basketball, women's volleyball and women's softball teams for practices and some competitions.

Many people participated in the dedication ceremony, including Van Meter, who expressed words of appreciation to those in attendance.

"I'm proud that they named this place after me," the 98-year-old former coach and teacher said. "It's a beautiful place. You walk in and it just catches your breath."

The man whom many refer to as just "Coach" lead the Woodrow Wilson Flying Eagles to six state basketball championships and three state football championships in the 1940s and `50s.

Van Meter's legacy in the Beckley sports realm was something that meant a great deal to a former player of his, Howard Hurt, the all-time leading scorer in Woodrow basketball history and former starter on the Duke University basketball team. Hurt was one of the speakers at Sunday's ceremony, and spoke highly of his former coach.

"He taught us how to live, through discipline, hard-work and persistence," Hurt recalled. "He taught us how to live, love and learn, but most importantly he taught us the importance of leaving a legacy."

That legacy also lives on in the classroom with the creation of the J.R. Van Meter Endowed Athletic Scholarship, now in its second year of existence. The 1998 recipient Cougar volleyball player Adrienne Banks commented on what an honor it was to receive the scholarship.

"As a 1998 Woodrow graduate, I always heard the name `Van Meter' as being synonymous with winning," Banks said. "Thanks to this scholarship, I can play the sport that I love and gain an education at the same time."

"Coach Van Meter gave all of his talent, love and affection to the teams he coached," said Lewis McManus, former Speaker of the W.Va. House of Delegates and current co-chair of CWV's Steering Committee. "He is honored for his coaching but should also be honored for his care for the community."

The importance of this new facility to the athletics department at CWV could not be understated, according to Athletic Director and men's basketball coach Bob Bolen.

"It used to take six or seven days of calling around to a bunch of different people and places just to get in one day of practice," Bolen said. "Now we have a place to call home."

The choice of naming the facility after Mr. Van Meter could not have been more perfect either in Coach Bolen's mind.

"They could not have named this gym after anyone who touched more people's lives in the Beckley community than Coach Van Meter," Bolen said.

Van Meter spoke to the crowd about his many memories in the sport of basketball. He spoke of how the sport got started, where he learned about it and how he brought it to Beckley. The crowd laughed as Coach reminisced about playing basketball in barns and chicken coups when there was no where else to play.

But Van Meter became emotional as he spoke of what a great coach's wife Aline, his wife of 72 years who passed away in February, had been during all those years.

"She was a great coach's wife because all that work I did took time," he recalled, "but she always said that's OK; go ahead."

The Beckley legend ended his speech with a simple thought, but one that came from his heart.

"You people are my people," he said holding back tears, "and I love you all."

Van Meter Adds Prestigious Community Service Award to His Trophy Case


This article appeared in the Register-Herald on Aug. 29, 1999.

Legendary Beckley coach Jerome Van Meter has another honor to add to his impressive trophy case, and this one may be the biggest of them all: The Spirit of Beckley.

The community service award, presented by the Beckley-Raleigh County YMCA, "recognizes exemplary service which benefits all people of Beckley, Raleigh County and West Virginia."

"The individuals receiving this award manifest, in their lives and deeds, the selfless concern and care for others, which constitutes the essence of our community's proud spirit."

Van Meter, who recently turned 99, certainly fits that description. It's doubtful anyone alive today has touched more southern West Virginians than the man known simply as Coach.

"He's such a great image for everybody," said Bob Crews of Luray, Va., who played for Van Meter during the 1950s.

Spirit of Beckley campaign co-chairman Bill O'Brien's relationship with Van Meter goes back to the radio personality's days at Beckley Junior High, where Coach was principal.

"My feeling is that we couldn't have a better honoree than Coach Van Meter," O'Brien said. "He's meant so much to so many people in and out of athletics. He's just the right person at the right time."

Affectionately dubbed "The Gray Eagle," Van Meter literally has a Hall of Fame resume. Consider these marks:

  • Beckley's winningest basketball coach with 674 wins, including state championships in 1946, '51, '52, '53, '54 and '57.
  • Beckley's winningest football coach with 222 wins and state championships in 1947, '48 and '51.
  • The second-winningest high school basketball coach of all time in West Virginia.
  • Member of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.
  • Life member of the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
  • Member of the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
  • Member of the College of West Virginia's Honorary Alumni Hall of Fame.
The list goes on. And on. And on.

Still, it falls short of the measure of this great man, O'Brien said.

"It's not wins or losses, or victories or state titles. This man, just his values, these current generations need to know about," O'Brien said.

Former Woodrow Wilson High basketball standout and Class of '52 grad Dwayne Wingler agreed.

"He touched so many people, you didn't have to be an athlete to fall in love with him," Wingler said at Van Meter's 99th birthday celebration last weekend.

"He just touched so many people. He did so much for sports in Beckley. He's just a great man."

Another Van Meter disciple, Lewis Webb of California, added: "He was like a father to me. We are still very close. I talk to him about two or three times a week. He is one of my best friends."

Coach's influence on Beckley is nothing short of divine, Webb said.

"He had a colossal impact on the city. The Van Meter influence has been an absolute halo for Beckley."

Indeed, divine intervention may have played a part in the Gray Eagle's arrival in the City of Champions. Just ask the coach himself.

"I guess it was fate that brought me to Beckley from Point Pleasant," Van Meter remarked during his birthday party at Beckley's Pancake House.

"I've known him since I was a sophomore in high school," former student Jack Front said. "I heard of him since he got out of the service in 1946. He gave so much to his students and to the city.

"Everybody who played for him shared a common bond. He taught the value of being people and about preparation and hard work."

Van Meter's legion of fans has developed a special relationship with Coach that transcends athletics. Today, some members of that inner circle visit Van Meter daily and meet his needs.

"We take care of him because we want to," Jo Lee Daniels said. "We are loyal and dedicated to him because he is such a wonderful man."

That dedication included driving Van Meter to and from Hidden Valley nursing home in Oak Hill, where his late wife, Aline, was a patient.

O'Brien was part of that committee.

"They were a team. She was just a wonderful lady," he said.

Daniels added: "It was not unusual for him and his wife to have the football team over for dinner. They never had any kids of their own, so they compensated by taking care of their students."

The Van Meters' adoptive family spans into the thousands. Many of those folks will be on hand Oct. 5 at the Raleigh County Armory Civic Center when the Spirit of Beckley is officially presented.

Tickets to the gala affair benefit the Spirit of Beckley campaign, which seeks to raise $100,000 for the YMCA this year.

For ticket information or to help with the campaign, call 252-0715.

Previous recipients of the Spirit of Beckley include Lucy Hays, Mary Cape Smith, Leslie C. Gates, Charles K. Connor Jr., Margaret Sayre, Dr. and Mrs. M.M. Ralsten, Warren A. Thornhill III, Nancy Pat Lewis-Smith and Hulett C. Smith, Alex D. George Sr., Elmo J. Hurst, Erma Vecellio Grogan and Leo Vecellio Sr., and James C. Justice II.

Sports writer Jody Murphy contributed to this report.

A Good (Van) Meter for Those Feeling Old


This article appeared in the Sunday Gazette-Mail on May 21, 2000.

LORDY, LORDY, I just turned 40.

Friday, to be specific. A time, I figured, for reflection. A time to evaluate my life decisions. A time, well, to freak out, raid my savings account, buy a roadster and get new hair.

But since I had an Early-Life Crisis and am planning on a Late-Life Crisis, I decided to skip the Mid-Life Crisis.

Instead, I figured I would sit in my rocking chair, get out the laptop computer and regale you with stories of yore. Like the time I almost got in a fight with Andre the Giant. Like the time I saw O.J. Simpson - after the trial. Like the time I saw Frank Gifford flirting with a stewardess - before his "conviction.'' Like the time I literally bumped into Franco Harris at Three Rivers Stadium - and asked him just who he thought he was.

Then I got a phone call. Legendary Beckley coach Jerome Van Meter, I was told, will be appearing in Charleston to speak at a breakfast this Friday at Harding's Restaurant.

Eighty days before his 100th birthday.

Made my idea of yore-regaling seem silly. So I called Mr. Van Meter. And he answered on the first ring.

"Coach,'' I said, "I was going to do a column on turning 40. Then I heard you were coming over to speak.''

He laughed.

"You're just a kid,'' he said.

I'd never so enjoyed being "kidded.'' Then I put my pen to paper. The coach had stopped coaching at Woodrow Wilson High, where the stadium is named after him, in 1959 - the year before I was born.

"I just keep putting one foot in front of the other,'' he said.

Van Meter, a 1997 inductee into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, said he still walks a couple miles a day "around the hill'' where he lives. Then he started spinning tales.

Yours truly was going to tell a story about Pearl Washington. Him?

"I went to a coaching clinic given by Knute Rockne,'' Van Meter said. "He was good, but he had others there that showed us how to play - the Four Horsemen: [Harry] Stuhldreher, [Elmer] Layden, [Jim] Crowley and [Don] Miller.''

I was going to tell you about keeping stats for Washington and ...

"Then I went to Ohio,'' Van Meter said, "Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe were there. All Thorpe would say to us was ‘Huh?' But he'd talk to Pop Warner.''

The coach went on. He spoke of meeting Red Grange. He spoke of coaching football, baseball, basketball and track in Point Pleasant before moving to Beckley. ("I,'' said he, "was a busy boy.'') He spoke of playing basketball in gyms with posts as obstacles. He talked about coaching Woodrow Wilson High to its first state basketball title in 1946, beating Stonewall Jackson and George King in the championship.

Van Meter, I realized, is a state treasure. I remember black and white television. He remembers when there were no cars. He spoke of farms, wheat, oats, horses, mules, wagons.

"I was born and raised in Illinois,'' Van Meter said. "Home of Abraham Lincoln. I didn't know Lincoln, but I passed his house a couple times.''

Talk about a lesson in humility. I was going to tell you about a basketball player named Washington. Van Meter was talking about Abe Lincoln.

"I do what I have to do,'' Van Meter said. "I feel good except for a stingy arm. But I don't moan and groan about it.

"I just endure.''

And by enduring, Van Meter endears.

Inspiring the rest of us "kids.'' stats for Washington and ...

"Then I went to Ohio,'' Van Meter said, "Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe were there. All Thorpe would say to us was ‘Huh?' But he'd talk to Pop Warner.''

The coach went on. He spoke of meeting Red Grange. He spoke of coaching football, baseball, basketball and track in Point Pleasant before moving to Beckley. ("I,'' said he, "was a busy boy.'') He spoke of playing basketball in gyms with posts as obstacles. He talked about coaching Woodrow Wilson High to its first state basketball title in 1946, beating Stonewall Jackson and George King in the championship.

Van Meter, I realized, is a state treasure. I remember black and white television. He remembers when there were no cars. He spoke of farms, wheat, oats, horses, mules, wagons.

"I was born and raised in Illinois,'' Van Meter said. "Home of Abraham Lincoln. I didn't know Lincoln, but I passed his house a couple times.''

Talk about a lesson in humility. I was going to tell you about a basketball player named Washington. Van Meter was talking about Abe Lincoln.

"I do what I have to do,'' Van Meter said. "I feel good except for a stingy arm. But I don't moan and groan about it.

"I just endure.''

And by enduring, Van Meter endears.

Inspiring the rest of us "kids.''

Van Meter Gearing Up for 100th Birthday


This article appeared in the Register-Herald on June 12, 2000.

Jack Groseclose suddenly felt a football plop into his hands after a leaping teammate tipped an opponent's pass.

Without hesitation, the Beckley middle linebacker barged into the end zone.

Problem was, the Flying Eagle defender crossed the wrong goal line.

Princeton wound up with a safety, and Beckley's victory margin - 19 points - was shaved just enough to spoil a gambler's 20-point spot in a bet with a friend.

Needless to say, Groseclose wasn't welcome in a Beckley eatery the man owned for some time. Such was life in the Fabulous Fifties.

Dwayne Wingler laughed this week at his former teammate's gaffe, but with some measure of restraint.

After all, the multi-talented athlete helped clear Groseclose's path with a block, as did some other Flying Eagles caught up in the mass confusion of the moment.

"We were all turned around the wrong way," Groseclose laughed.

That story - and thousands just as funny, all portals to Beckley's storied athletic past - are in for some rehashing (and perhaps a little embellishment) when Jerome Van Meter, the white-haired man in the business suit, once a familiar icon on the Beckley sidelines, turns 100 on Aug. 15.

The Gray Eagle is heading toward a different goal line - the century mark.

As many as 400 people from across the nation - many of them former players, "my boys," as Van Meter affectionately dubs them - are likely to turn out for the historic occasion for a man who built Beckley into a formidable football and basketball machine.

Wingler, a devil-may-care human dynamo whom Van Meter once labeled as his finest athlete, has ample ammunition in the story department.

Perhaps the one that sticks out best for the irrepressible Wingler came when his athletic days ended and he was at school polishing up for the spring commencement at Woodrow Wilson High School.

Two pals sneaking a smoke in the boys' room spied Van Meter ambling down the hallway. Not wanting to be caught indulging, the two handed a lighted cigarette to Wingler. There wasn't enough time to douse it.

"I'm standing there, holding this cigarette, and they left," he said. "That was probably the most embarrassing moment of my whole life. I felt so bad I almost felt like crying."

Wingler tried to explain, "Coach, I know you're not going to believe me, but this is not my cigarette."

"Dwayne," Van Meter answered, "I'm not in the mood right now to hear any stories from you."

Even today, Wingler isn't sure he ever convinced the Gray Eagle of his innocence.

"I got into enough trouble that I was guilty for, but to get into something when you were really innocent ..." he mused.

In advance of Van Meter's 100th birthday, Groseclose, another former athlete, Lew Webb, and Jo Lee Daniels of Beckley, whose late husband, Bob Daniels, was also one of Van Meter's stellar athletes, arranged to move the venerable coach from The Bayberry, a retirement center he called home the past eight years, to Greystone Inn near Shady Spring.

"Coach needs more attention now than he had before, so we got him into a place that will really be able to care for him," Daniels explained.

"He's doing fine, other than a small place on his neck. That set him back a little bit."

Van Meter steered the Flying Eagles to three state titles in football and six more in basketball, and holds the distinction of being a surviving veteran of America's two world wars.

To all the men who played under him, there is a common thread - an image of him as a father figure.

"Van Meter is more or less my mentor," said Groseclose, who took it on his own a few years back to play the son's role and provide personal care for his former coach.

Without fail, Groseclose pays him a daily visit to make sure his needs are met and provide him with company.

"His short-term memory is fading, but his long-term memory is still there, all the stories he tells," Groseclose said. "I get reruns about every night. And they are pretty accurate."

Indeed, when he appeared last summer before Marshall University's football team, at the behest of a former player of his - coach Bob Pruett - the Gray Eagle amazed the Herd with crisp and vivid details of games played decades before they were born, down to the exact scores and dates.

Van Meter quit driving a few years ago in deference to his diminishing eyesight, but legally, he remains licensed. His card expires Aug. 31.

"I wonder how many 100-year-old people in the state of West Virginia have a valid driver's license?" Groseclose asked.

Wingler, the school's own version of Cool Hand Luke, set a state single-season scoring mark of 664 points in 1954, the year he led Beckley to the state big-school basketball crown over arch-enemy Mullens in the finals. In that tournament, Wingler set four records and matched two others. He grew up fatherless, but Van Meter stepped in to fill the void.

"Coach means everything to me," said Wingler, now living in Richmond, Va.

"He was always the person I looked up to when I played sports for him. He made us behave ourselves. He was very much on discipline. We didn't want him to catch us doing anything bad, like smoking or drinking a beer."

Wingler sees his onetime coach in the mold of Gen. George S. Patton, minus, of course, the salty language in an era where the coaching staff's speech in particular, and society in general, was squeaky clean.

"They were hard on us in a nice way," Wingler said. "They weren't like Bobby Knight. I can't remember them ever using a curse word. We didn't have those words in our vocabulary like they use today. They can hardly make a movie now unless they put those words in."

While the former athletes helped Van Meter move to a new home, Daniels began laying plans for the birthday bash, set for Aug. 12 - a Saturday - at Daniel Vineyards in Glen View.

The guest list could have embraced some heavyweights in sports, but in his longevity, Van Meter simply has outlived his peers - among them such acquaintances as Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Jesse Owens, Knute Rockne, Tom Landry and Notre Dame's famed "four horsemen," to name a few.

"We're just in the planning stages right now," Daniels said.

"We plan on lots of birthday cake and balloons, and music. It's going to be a big party."

100 Years in the Making: Beckley Coaching Great Celebrates a New Milestone

This article appeared in the Register-Herald on Aug. 13, 2000.


The "Gray Eagle" held court Saturday.

He reminisced with old friends. He posed for numerous pictures. He smiled.

He even danced.

Legendary Beckley coach Jerome Van Meter celebrated his 100th birthday in style at Daniels Vineyards in Glen View, surrounded by many former athletes and students.

"Howdy!" the still sharp-minded Van Meter told his adoring audience. "I tell you it's great to see you all so happy. It's just beyond words. It's a glorious day for me."

Bill O'Brien of WJLS Radio served as emcee for the event, which was attended by over 400 people.

"All of us here have been touched by coach Van Meter. We're all successful because of what he taught us," O'Brien said. "But he's the richest guy in town."

Recently-retired Woodrow Wilson football coach Pete Culicerto, who played years ago for Van Meter, said, "The party tells the story. People have come from all over the U.S. to be a part of it. It shows what he's meant to so many people."

Van Meter would be revered for his coaching accomplishments alone. He won 674 games and six state championships in basketball along with 222 games and three titles in football.

He's a member of the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, the National Basketball Hall of Fame and the West Virginia Sportswriters Hall of Fame.

Yet, it was his great character that drew accolades at the event.

"My father was killed when I was seven years old, so coach Van Meter was really the only father I ever knew," said Dwayne Wingler, the one-time brash Flying Eagle star from the mid-1950s who went on to become a successful businessman in Richmond, Va. "He kept me in line. He taught me a lot about character and about life. Those years with him you carry with you forever. That's why so many people are here today."

Bill Lilly and Bill Myles, both 1949 Woodrow Wilson graduates, recalled his sportsmanship and fair play.

"We were playing Hinton and one of their players had an injury. Before the game coach told us he didn't want any of us to try to hurt him," Lilly said. "He wanted to win more than anyone around, but we had to win by the rules."

Myles said, "Coach treated everybody the same way - he wanted you to be the best. He always thought you could do better, and he was probably right."

Van Meter wasn't a man players wanted to cross.

"If you were out running around after 10 at night you'd walk two miles out of your way to keep him from seeing you," observed Wingler, who occasionally found himself in hot water during his career. "At halftime he'd sometimes chew us out and after a few minutes about half the guys would be crying. We couldn't wait to get out of the locker room and do better."

The "Gray Eagle" was also an understanding man, fortunately for Jack Groseclose, who once ran an interception back to the wrong end zone.

"Coach didn't say anything. He didn't want to discourage me," Groseclose said. "In fact, he took me over and introduced me to a scout from VPI. There was no repercussions until coach Vic Peelish started calling me 'Wrong Way Groseclose' and it stuck."

Van Meter and Groseclose have solidified their friendship over the years.

"I've taken care of him for close to five years, ever since he lost the ability to drive," Groseclose said. "I see him every evening. He does real good. He still is concerned and remembers who he calls 'his boys.' He keeps up with the biggest part of them."

There were many highlights in the party, including the reading of a letter from President and Mrs. Clinton, and the announcement that Van Meter has earned a prestigious Daily Points of Light award.

But the biggest cheers came when Van Meter and chief party organizer Jo Lee Daniels danced at the end.

Van Meter moved with grace, effortless twirling the delighted Daniels.

"My late husband Bob had started the Woodrow Wilson Alumni reunions, and coach Van Meter and I danced together at one of them," Daniels said. "I had told him we had to dance again, and I reminded him of that today. He jumped up and we danced. It meant so much to me."

His presence obviously meant much to a great number of people.

"He doesn't have children, so these folks are his family," Culicerto noted.

For his part, Van Meter plans many happy returns.

"I talked to St. Pete and he said, 'Not yet. You're not worth it.' Then the 'other guy' said, 'I don't want you.' So I'll be here awhile!" he said with a grin. "Thank you a lot. Hope to see you in 2001."

Van Meter Had a Good Run

This article appeared in the Register-Herald on April 24, 2003.


Howard Hurt visited with his former coach and lifelong friend, Jerome Van Meter, on Tuesday at Greystone Inn in Beaver.

"He was real weak," Hurt said Wednesday night from his home in Salisbury, N.C. "I think he was just thinking he needed to be with his wife (Ailene), and that's what he did.

"But he had a good run."

Van Meter, who coached Woodrow Wilson High School to nine state championships in basketball and football, died Wednesday. He was 102.

Hurt, who graduated from WWHS in 1956 as one of the school's all-time greats, had been visiting Van Meter once a week or every other week for the last six months.

"He coached my dad (shortly after coming to Beckley in 1929), and my mom was the only cheerleader," Hurt recalled. "They decided to run off to Pearisburg, Va., to get married, and they took Coach with them. He was the witness.

"So we've always been close. He was kind of like a granddad to me.

"Everybody is going to miss him. Anybody over 50 from Beckley, he's had an influence on them.

"He was a good man. There are two things I'm going to remember about him. First, I guess the thing we always learned was never quit, be competitive, not only in sports but in everything. And second, why did he live so long? I think it was because he took care of us, kept teaching us. He was always teaching."

"He was a man's man, a coach's coach," Marshall football coach and Beckley product Bob Pruett said. "He influenced a lot of people. You try to model yourself after a guy like that. He was an innovator, and I never heard him say a cuss word. He was an awesome person."

For five years, Pruett invited Van Meter to Huntington to speak to the Marshall players.

"Our players really enjoyed him talking to them," Pruett said. "The last time, he was 99, and he was just as sharp as a tack. He remembered things from the late '20s and '30s. That was just amazing. I struggle to remember yesterday."

VanMeter's ability to remember events 50 or more years in the past, with precision, was uncanny.

"A couple of times we would start talking, and he would tell me how many points I scored in a game - minute details of games, 'you missed a foul shot in the last two minutes,'" said Beckley attorney Ned Ragland, who played on VanMeter's last Beckley team in 1959. "He knew everybody's family relationship.

"He was probably the most influential person in my life outside my immediate family. He inspired everybody to do their best. He had a way to bring out the best in you no matter the situation or how tough it was."

Retired Mullens basketball coach Don Nuckols called Van Meter "one of the finest people I ever met."

"He was a tremendous coach, and he leaves a legacy that will never be forgotten in the state of West Virginia and other places.

"He was such a great man and great coach. It's unbelievable the lives he touched and things he did."

Former Woodrow Wilson basketball coach Dave Barksdale said Van Meter was always quick to congratulate him after Beckley's string of five state titles in the 1990s.

"On Sunday afternoon after we would win the state championship, you could count on him calling and congratulating us on winning it," Barksdale said. "Even when we would lose in the finals, he would call and say, 'You came close; bring it home next year.' That meant a lot to me for him to do that."

Coach Jerome R. Van Meter Obituary

This obituary appeared in the Register-Herald on April 25, 2003.

Coach Jerome R. Van Meter, 102, of Greystone Inn, Beaver, died Wednesday, April 23, 2003.

Born Aug. 15, 1900, in Williamsvillr, Ill., he was the son of the late Henry and Alice Van Meter.

"Coach" had been a resident of Beckley since 1929 after several years in Point Pleasant. He taught and coached in Raleigh County for over 30 years, where he set many school and state records. He was a veteran of both World Wars, serving in the Army. He was a member of First United Methodist Church, Beckley.

His beloved wife, Aline, preceded him in death in 1998.

Survivors include two nephews, Larue Van Meter Jr. and Nathan Zane Van Meter; two nieces, Babes Barnes and Katy Matthews; and several great-nephews and nieces.

Funeral service will be 11 a.m. Saturday at First United Methodist Church, 217 S. Heber St., Beckley, with Dr. Ellen S. Carter officiating. Burial will follow at 3 p.m. in Lone Oak Cemetery, Point Pleasant.

Friends may call 6 to 8 p.m. today at Melton Mortuary, Beckley.

Pallbearers will be Tony Lusk, Lou Webb, Mel Hancock, Walter Rappold, Dwayne Wingler, Frank Rodriguez, Howard Hurt and Ned H. Ragland Jr.

The family requests that memorial gifts be made to the Coach Jerome R. Van Meter Endowed Athletic Scholarship Fund, c/o Mountain State University, P.O. Box AG, Beckley, WV 25802, or to First United Methodist Church, 217 S. Heber St., Beckley, WV.

Arrangements by Melton Mortuary, Beckley.

Jerome Van Meter Dies at 102

This article appeared in the Register-Herald on April 24, 2003.


He lived under 19 presidents and served in both world wars.

He went to school with Red Grange at Illinois and rubbed elbows with Pop Warner, Jim Thorpe, Knute Rockne, Joe DiMaggio, Gen. George Marshall, Woody Hayes, Paul Brown, George Allen and the head of General Motors, among others.

Above all, he was a caring and devoted husband for more than 71 years, a father figure to hundreds of athletes who benefited from his knowledge, his compassion, his wisdom, his class.

Jerome Van Meter was Beckley. And to many, the greatest high school coach West Virginia has seen.

The legendary mentor died Wednesday at Greystone Inn in Beaver. He was 102.

"The 'Gray Eagle' shall be missed by all," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said. "He was a legend to all of Raleigh County and West Virginia. The manner in which he treated his players set the highest standards for coaches across the country. He was first-class in every respect."

Van Meter came to Beckley in 1929, following seven years in Point Pleasant, and except for his World War II duty and 18 retirement years in Florida, Beckley was home.

For the better part of 30 years, Van Meter taught and coached at Woodrow Wilson High School.

In basketball, his Flying Eagle teams won 674 games - second most in West Virginia history - and six state championships, including four in a row from 1951 to 1954.

In football, he won 222 games and three state titles.

"Nobody has accomplished more in basketball than Coach Boyd and Coach Van Meter," former Woodrow Wilson basketball coach Dave Barksdale said, referring to the Gray Eagle and the late Jennings Boyd, who won eight straight state championships at Northfork.

"When you add what Coach Van Meter did in football, I don't see how people could argue against him being the greatest coach ever in West Virginia."

He was inducted into the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

He left coaching in 1959 and became principal of Beckley Junior High School. He retired from the public school system in 1966, then taught six years at Beckley College.

He and his wife, Aline, spent 18 of their retirement years in Florida before coming back to Beckley. She died in 1998. They had no children.

"Aline and I had a great life together," he said in a 1999 interview. "I never did like to play golf. I could play, but I couldn't see playing golf day after day. We traveled 49 states together, pulling a trailer. She liked to fish and I liked to fish. We had some wonderful times."

Van Meter was born Aug. 15, 1900, in Williamsville, Ill.

He received a degree in engineering at Illinois Wesleyan, then earned a teaching degree. He also attended the University of Illinois and received his master's degree and principal's certificate from West Virginia University.

As a youngster in the early 1900s, he and his friends made their own baseballs and bats.

When they heard about a new sport called football, "we got a pig's bladder and tried to make a football out of it," he said in 1999. "That didn't work, so we got a piece of leather and used that. You couldn't throw it, but you could run with it."

And then there was another sport in its infancy, basketball.

"That was along about the time of World War I. We threw our pennies together and hung a hook up on a post. That's all we had, then they finally brought us down a net. There were no rules then."

In fact, because many sports were in their infancy, there was little, if anything, in the books on coaching.

"There were no physical education programs at all in colleges and universities," he said. "You could grow up on a farm and be strong, but we were poor physically.

"The University of Illinois opened up coaching courses. They offered a six-week coaching course during summer vacation. I went there two summers and took coaching courses."

It was there he met the legendary Red Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" and one of the football greats of the 20th century.

"He was in the same thing I was, taking some of the courses and demonstrating. I got to know him there. Later on, I met him again in Huntington at a coaching clinic. I saw him beat Ohio State. He finally got loose and beat them. He was the kind of guy who was easy to get to know."

At another coaching clinic, Van Meter was introduced to Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe. On three occasions, he attended coaching clinics at Notre Dame conducted by Knute Rockne.

"I went to a coaching school about every summer. I worked most summers, too. I went to coaching clinics as far away as Colorado."

In 1922, he heard about a job in West Virginia, at Point Pleasant High School, and decided to take it.

Van Meter met his wife in Point Pleasant. They were married in 1926 and came to Beckley three years later.

Van Meter trained for Army infantry during World War I. During World War II, he was a battalion training instructor stateside.

The "Gray Eagle" had a way with people.

"When I was inducted into the West Virginia Hall of Fame up in Parkersburg, Woody Hayes (the Ohio State football coach) was the main speaker," he said in 1999. "He was kind of a nut like I was when it came to books. I asked him if he had the book by a fellow at Ohio State who wrote the first book on football. He said, 'No, they don't even have it at our library.' I said, 'I've got one. Do you want it?' So I gave him the one I had. He told me, 'Any time you want to come to Ohio State for a football game, you've got a place on the bench with me, and you and your wife will stay with me and my wife.'"

On another occasion, Van Meter was visiting with one of his former Beckley athletes, Lew Webb, a prominent car dealer in the Los Angeles area.

While at one of Webb's dealerships, he struck up a conversation with a man he'd never met. They talked for a while. After the conversation ended, Webb asked, "Do you know who that was?"

Van Meter: "No."

Webb: "That was the head of General Motors."

Melton Mortuary of Beckley is in charge of funeral arrangements.

Gray Eagle Was a True Legend

This article appeared in the Register-Herald on April 24, 2003.


I imagine Jerome Van Meter is busy greeting old friends now. Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Joe DiMaggio and Knute Rockne, as well as his loving wife, Aline, and many, many athletes who went before him.

Van Meter, the legendary and beloved Gray Eagle, passed away Wednesday morning at Greystone Inn in Beaver.

By sheer numbers alone, the life of Van Meter, known simply as "Coach" to tens of thousands, was incredible. The people he knew - from Mr. Coffee to the Galloping Ghost - only amplified that fact.

Rockne, for instance, called Van Meter "West Virginia."

That he lived to be 102 is but one of the remarkable feats that made up VanMeter's life.

Consider that he retired from coaching before John F. Kennedy was president, yet saw 11 more presidential inaugurations.

How old are you? Van Meter last coached 44 years ago.

He served his country in World Wars I and II.

He began playing football and baseball when those sports were in their professional infancy.

Van Meter was a Cubs fan, one of the few living Cubs fans, according to the Illinois Wesleyan University magazine - his alma mater - who could remember the last time the Cubs won a World Series. That was 1908.

He grew up in an era of oil lamps, yet witnessed a moon landing.

He played football before facemasks were introduced, baseball before batting helmets and basketball when the ball had laces. Imagine the changes he witnessed over the years.

His father went to California for the Gold Rush and was never heard from again.

"We will never meet another person who walked the same path as Coach Van Meter, and did so with such success," said Mel Hancock, who was a student at Beckley Junior High, when he was principal. "The things he did, the people he knew ... there will never be another."

Coaches, by job alone, are major influences in their athletes' lives.

Van Meter was more.

He was mentor, father and friend to scores. Even those who came along later loved the coach.

"Coach Van Meter was the man, the coach," said former Woodrow Wilson coach Dave Barksdale, who himself won five state basketball championships in the 1990s and won another as a player at Woodrow in 1962. "He retired the year before I was to come over (in 1959). We were all mighty disappointed we didn't get to play for him.

"He made Beckley a sports town it was and still is today. The signs were up even then that proclaimed Beckley the 'City of Champions.'

"All great people, all successful people, have pride in what they accomplish. Beckley won state titles in 1951, '52, '53, '54 and '57. Somebody saw him when we were going through our run that we had won five state titles in the 1990s. He quickly told the person, 'But they didn't win four in a row.' I have always appreciated that. You have to have pride in what you did and that showed me the pride he had for what he built. He was a great man."

And a great competitor.

"Boy, did we have some great ballgames," said former Mullens coach Lewis D'Antoni, who is 89 and coached the Rebels from 1947 to 1958. "I guess we were the hottest rivals in southern West Virginia. But it was a friendly rivalry. He knocked me out of the state tournament in 1954 when I had one of my better teams. And we beat him in 1956 when he had one of his best teams."

In fact, according to two different record books, Van Meter won 13 games and D'Antoni 12 in their 12-year rivalry.

In the late 1980s, when Mullens was feting D'Antoni, the Gray Eagle came to town.

"He came down here and sort of bragged on me," D'Antoni said. "I went to see him about three years ago in the retirement home. His mind was just as sharp as it ever was. He was always telling stories. He was a true gentleman."

Gentleman is the word that comes up most often when talking about Van Meter.

"What struck me about Van is he was a grand gentleman," said former Morgantown sports editor Mickey Furfari, who covered VanMeter's teams in the '40s and '50s when the state tournament was in Morgantown. "I remember him bringing teams in here and dominating the state tournament. Everybody loved him, except the people he was beating."

When I first met Van Meter, I asked him if he really knew Red Grange.

"Sure did," he said, before rattling off tales of the Galloping Ghost.

I was stunned.

"I was with him Easter Sunday," Hancock said. "I had a prayer with him and he seemed comforted by that."

On Wednesday, the Gray Eagle soared home to greet many of those who made his life so remarkable.

The rest of us are left with the wonderful memories.

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