Friday, March 8, 2013

Dr. Ponder: A class act from the start

Dr. Leonard D. Ponder
       The man sitting next to me at the LSU-at-Texas A&M men's basketball game Wednesday night is my favorite Aggies fan. Also, one of the important people in my life.
        A number of coaches and journalists were special to me. Leonard D. Ponder was the first of those coaches.
         He's been a part of Aggieland since 1972, but Ponder's roots are in Louisiana -- Pleasant Hill, Northwestern State and, where we met, the brand-new Oak Terrace Junior High School in 1959-62.
         He was Coach Ponder to me in September 1959 when we first met, the first male teacher I'd ever had.  I was one of a dozen nervous seventh-graders in first period P.E., the first class of his 40-plus years of teaching. It was one of my most fortuitous connections.
        He is now Dr. Ponder -- visiting professor/emeritus, head of A&M's Health and Physical Education department (later changed to Health and Kinesiology) for 13 years (1979-92), guiding force for the Thomas and Joan Read-inspired Deerfoot youth sports camp for boys 10-14 each summer for 35 years.
        When he retired from A&M in August 2001, the Leonard D. Ponder Chair for Research and Development was established in his department.
         No ordinary Aggie. No ordinary friend of mine. Many, I'm sure, share this opinion of the tall, slender, poised, neat, classy young man -- and one-time almost basketball star -- from Pleasant Hill, one of those small Sabine Parish hoops hotbeds, about 60 miles south of Shreveport.
         He's still Coach Ponder to me. The friendship has carried through the years, much to my great benefit. He's been very generous, as he is with so many.
        I can't write about Leonard Ponder without also including Ellace Bruce. I've mentioned their influence before in a couple of blogs; they are the two coaches who started me on my career path -- as a team manager and as the correspondent for The Shreveport Times calling in results of home football and basketball games -- my first newspaper connection.       
Ellace Bruce
         Bruce was the first head coach at Oak Terrace; he had been in coaching several years before moving to the new school with Stanley Powell, who had left coaching (at North Caddo High) to become the school principal.
        After 10 years as Oak Terrace's coach, Bruce moved into administration, as the school's assistant principal for 14 years. He now lives in northwest Arkansas (Alma) and is a longtime Razorbacks fan. Some things -- such as Ponder as an Aggies fan -- can be forgiven.
         Both men "took care" of me long ago. I was honored that both came to Shreveport for my mother's memorial service in July 2010 and it was wonderful to see them together again last May at a reunion of Oak Terrace and Woodlawn coaches and athletes.
Coaching buddies a long time ago at Oak Terrace:
 Bruce and Ponder
        My mother called Ponder "the shiniest man in Shreveport." Even as a young man, he was polite, soft-spoken, smooth, well-dressed, well-groomed ... he really did shine, literally and figuratively. Nothing's changed; he's still that way.
         In my three years at Oak Terrace, he became a frequent dinner guest at our house, a bachelor happily taking in a well-cooked meal. My parents liked him as much as I did -- and he liked them.
         Just as the coaches at Woodlawn would a few years later, Bruce and Ponder made my Dad feel at home in the coaches' office and gymnasium at Oak Terrace. Always a sports fan, this was a connection my Dad cherished.
          One of Ponder's memories is that when the faculty vs. students basketball game came around in 1961 and 1962, Dad -- billed as "The Flying Dutchman" -- was part of the faculty team. In his early 40s, he had little hesitation firing off those long, European-style two-handed set shots.
           As my first homeroom teacher and in his P.E. classes, it didn't take long -- even for a seventh-grader -- to figure out that Coach Ponder was very organized, a thorough and patient teacher, interested in all his students and, most importantly, approachable.
           But you didn't mess around a lot in his classes and you had to make an effort and be prepared for his tests, the written ones and the physical ones. I was the runt of the class, so I was never going to do that well in the physical tests, save for the six-weeks sessions in soccer. I was the only kid familiar with the sport then; those were my only A's in P.E.
            Ponder quickly figured out that I was a sports nut. He knew I loved the Yankees and baseball, and he saw me at every Oak Terrace home game in football and basketball, usually hanging close to the teams. Which led him to suggest, near the end of my seventh-grade year, that I become a team manager the next fall.
            That was my introduction to school athletics, the start of the road.
         Here is why Oak Terrace was always a fond memory for Ponder: In the third year there, he met a blonde English teacher from Wisner, La., and began courting her. In the summer of 1962, Sue Ann Kiper became Mrs. Ponder. A couple of years later, Jenny was born, and a couple of decades later, she twice made them grandparents with Dr. Andrew de Jong (whose father was a native Dutchman).
         A special memory: My Dad and I were the first dinner guests for the newly married Ponders in the summer of 1962 (when my mother and sister were on their first trip back to Holland). Coach has a picture of the occasion and remembers how nervous Sue Ann was that night.
         And speaking of nervous, Ponder recalls our first meeting, too.
         "It is understandable that you would be a little nervous," he wrote of that September 1959 day. " It may not have occurred to you, but that also was my first day. I had student-taught, but you were in the first class where I, for the first time, was totally responsible for the class. I too was more than a little nervous."
           Bruce and Ponder were my favorites at Oak Terrace, but it was -- in my estimation -- an outstanding faculty; Stan Powell had a knack for picking good people/teachers, as he did later as the first principal at Captain Shreve High (fall 1967). Many of the best teachers I had came in my junior high years; better even than a very good Woodlawn faculty.
           As coaches, Bruce and Ponder were hampered by the lack of a lot of good athletes, so there wasn't a great deal of winning in those days -- many good lessons in how to lose. Later, when the quality of athletes improved, the coaches used their P.E. classes to seek out kids who could run -- and Oak Terrace dominated the city in track and field for a three-year period.
       By the summer of 1966, after six years at Oak Terrace, the Ponders moved on. He went to Southeastern Louisiana University to teach P.E. and earn his master's degree, so I had a "host" in Hammond for several football/basketball trips with Louisiana Tech in my days as student sports information assistant).
       His five years with SLU included a two-year sabbatical at the University of Tennessee, where he  earned his doctorate (I would work in Knoxville some 25 years later). And then Dr. Ponder became part of the A&M faculty in 1972.
       I took my family to College Station in the spring of 1979, six weeks after Rachel was born, to meet the Ponders. We stayed in touch over the years, but I didn't see them again until 1987, when I covered the Louisiana Tech at A&M football game. I spent a couple of hours visiting with Coach and Sue Ann.
       I lost touch during my travels to Florida and then Tennessee until early in 1998. Sadly, when I called Coach, he had bad news: Sue Ann had died from breast cancer only a few months earlier.
       Beginning then, Coach and I became regular e-mail partners, and he has often touted A&M's great tradition and the uniqueness of the university and its loyal fans. And I've become an admirer, if not a fan. 
        Good fortune for Coach: He found another woman to love, and vice versa, and Linda has been his wife since July 1999, and a gracious host, great cook and fun conversationalist. She  takes good care of the man she calls "Professor."
       We have traded views on many, many sports matters and, better yet, on life views. We sometimes disagree, but always, always politely. And I assure you that to receive frequent bits of wisdom and wit and encouragement from Leonard Ponder is a treasure.
        We've shared a couple of rounds at the Colonial and a day at Augusta National, on the Tuesday  before the 2002 Masters, because if there is anything Ponder likes better than basketball it is golf. He plays as often as he can and, as with anything, he is a student of what he's doing.
         He made sure that Bea and I and my parents were part of his retirement banquet/roast in August 2001, and I was honored to be asked to be one of the speakers.
         In a brilliant idea, I had a stack of notecards with quotes from his e-mails -- his philosophical bits on life. Trouble was, it was a thick stack and I took twice as much time as any other speaker. Plus, I tried an Aggie joke that fell completely flat (and wasn't well received ... horrible idea).
         I think Coach forgave me. Pretty sure some of the other Aggies are still grumbling.
         Anyway, I tried to impart how genial a guy Coach Ponder/Dr. Ponder is. I could have talked from then to now about him.
          So, while we rooted for separate teams Wednesday night, I know I was sitting with a wise man -- and a true friend -- in Aggieland. From that first class in '59 to today, he's been a class act.


  1. From Tim Looney: Another excellent blog entry, Nico. Brings to mind my relationship with Coach (Joe) Sampite up until his death last year.

  2. From Dr. Leonard Ponder: Wow! I've never been more touched or humbled. I once read a response by Lyndon Johnson when he was given a special award. He said he wished his mother and father could have lived to see him get the award. "Dad would have been proud, but Mom would have thought I deserved it." That seems appropriate for my condition just now. You are a kind and talented friend. It was my luckiest day when I received the appointment to teach at Oak Terrace Junior High. Thank you also for your comments about Coach Bruce. I could not have had a better tutor. Few head coaches would have been so patient with someone who brought so little experience coaching football. Thanks dear friend.

  3. From Larry Lewis: Coach Bruce, a really good man, one of the few I can remember well. Always fair and honest. Him and Coach (Robert) Simmons (Sunset Acres Athletic Club) positively influenced a lot of kids they will never know about.

  4. From Beverly C. Porche What a wonderful tribute!

  5. I remember so well those dinner when Coach Ponder came to our house to eat. My mother adored him, as did we all. Mama was always trying to set him up on dates, including with my beautiful fourth grade teacher, Ms. Lafitte. How lovely it was to see him at Mama's memorial service so many years later, still handsome and charming as ever.

  6. From Pamela Summerlin: Too bad more "kids" don't make an effort to contact those teaches and coaches who made a positive contribution to shaping the future lives of their students. If you are too late to tell them in person, their surviving family members will treasure knowing how much you appreciate their loved one's contributions to your life.

  7. From Allen Kinley (A&M strength/conditioning coach): I did not know Dr. Ponder had been at Oak Terrace (of course, Oak Terrace was the rich area to us Cedar Grove guys).

  8. From Sandra McCalla: Great blog. Joined the Oak Terrace faculty as a 1st year teacher in Leonard's 2nd year. He and Sue Ann were a super couple. Became reacquainted with them as I completed my degree at TAMU. Enjoyed the memories that you helped me to remember. Thanks.