Bill Raphael, a beloved coach and teacher at St. Joseph High School died Friday of pancreatic cancer. He was 87. Steve Shirley (St. Joe Class of 1976), who played and learned under Raphael, shares this remarkable tribute.
Bill Raphael was a legendary math teacher. Through his decades at St. Joseph High School, thousands of students passed through his classroom, learning algebra, trigonometry and geometry. Bill Raphael was also a legendary coach. His athletic record in both football and girls’ basketball has been recorded, his trophies displayed and the field at the new Madison campus will forever bear his name. Those of us who were lucky enough to have “been there” will never forget the Capital Bowl in 1972, when tiny St. Joe beat mighty Murrah on the last play of the game. Many will say this was the pinnacle of his career, and perhaps it was, in terms of success on the field. But I’d like to tell you why I call Bill Raphael: My Coach.
Coach Raphael knew all of the kids. Some were jocks. Some were cheerleaders and homecoming maids. Others were members of the chess club, Mu Alpha Theta or the marching band. As memories fade with each passing year post-graduation, I think most former students tend to remember him only as our football coach, but he was much more. I like to remember his wry smile, above his loosened tie, biting on a piece of chalk. I like to remember his mustard and ketchup bottles, with yellow and red string, playing a trick on an unsuspecting student. I like to remember the way he drew a Crucifix, and the two smaller ones on either side, in the top-center of his chalkboard and on every test he ever handed out. I also like to remember him as a dedicated coach, coated with sweat during our August two-a-days, drinking water out of a hose just like the rest of us. Whether in the hallway of awkward social development or in the trenches during a tight game, he was there with us; we were all his kids.
My favorite memory was on a steamy Friday night at the old St. Joe on Boling Street, a year or two after the Capital Bowl. We must have been winning at halftime because our mood was upbeat – even jovial. Coach had just given us one his famous tirades, expecting improvement during the second half. The team was lounging in the grassy area in-between the cyclone fence, which partially surrounded the bleachers, and the back-door of our fieldhouse. Fr. Brock’s marching band was on the field. Although much has changed since then, I think all would agree (including the former members) that the band was pretty pathetic at that time. It was made up of about ten kids who could more or less carry a tune to “The Marlboro Man” and march in a straight line. They were not athletes in any sport but they, too, were some of Raphael’s kids – the smart kids; some might have even been stereotyped as “nerds.”
One of the student leaders in the band was an upper-classman named David; he played the lead trumpet. In school, David was one of those kids that sported a “pocket pal” with a mechanical pencil or two and a miniature slide-rule. His hair was straight and dark, framing a large pair of black glasses that seemed to always be kind of loose fitting and crooked. As a trumpet player, he was usually pretty good. But on this particular night, when it was time for his solo, David played terribly. The rest of the band was lost in the tune, too – no one could find their way back to the melody or the rhythm of whatever the song was supposed to be. Right there, standing in front of the band, at the 50-yard-line in the middle of the field, facing the entire student body, teachers, parents, visitors and God Almighty, David squeaked and whined through some semblance of a song before he finally just stopped. In a word, it was a disaster.
Behind the fieldhouse, a small group football players witnessed this unfortunate scene. Our attention was peaked when we heard the strange noises of a band out of sync and irreparably out of control. We saw and heard David choke. And, since we were the “cool” football players, we laughed. Uncontrollably. We raised our hands as if we were holding an instrument and made screeching noises and blunderous transitions. We mocked him. Then, someone in our group turned and noticed that Raphael had been standing by the back door, watching us the entire time. He called us back into the fieldhouse.
“What gives you the right to criticize anyone?” he said in a low, slow voice. “Don’t you know that he is your teammate, too – a member of the St. Joe family?”
He went on to point out that we had some anonymity on the field, playing as a group, even disguised by bulky equipment, but that David was out there, on his own, in front of everyone, and he had failed. Why did we think that his catastrophe was so damn funny? He went on to say, “I wish I had one man on this team with half as much intestinal fortitude!” After allowing the admonishment to sink in, we knew that he was disgusted to be in our presence. Finally, he dismissed us with: “Go out and play your little game.”
We snapped-on our helmets and joined the rest of the team at the cyclone fence behind the bleachers, waiting for the band to march in single-file and turn past us. My most vivid memory was of David’s face, streaked with tears behind his crooked glasses, while he marched stoically with the band back into the stands. I do not remember who won the game.
But, a few weeks later, I remember being in the same place, behind the fieldhouse during halftime, again waiting to take the field to resume the second half. We must have also been winning that night because I recall that our mood was light and relaxed. Then, all at once, we heard the band. It was déjà vu, as the melody reminded us of the fateful evening only a short time before. David took his position in front of the band, at the 50-yard-line. The audience that night was again comprised of our entire student body and practically everyone else that we knew. And, they must have remembered, too, because all went silent and waited. We nervously awaited David’s solo. .
On this cool, clear night, with the only background noise the hum of the fluorescent bulbs on creosote poles and uncountable moths darting about blindly in their light, the world stood still. Finally, David began playing his trumpet. Beautifully. The band joined him in a melody that was in time and in tune. Their performance went on for what seemed to be an exact moment – the maximum length of time you could hold your breath. They finished with a crescendo featuring David hitting all of his high notes, with cymbals crashing. Or, the cymbals I heard that night might have been all of our hearts beating again. At the time, it was the most courageous thing I had ever witnessed. Perhaps it still is.
Coach Raphael was at the front of the line, at the cyclone fence, waiting for the band to march by. We all knew that he was waiting for just one of his kids. David. After a quick embrace and a slap on the butt, Coach allowed us to congratulate him. I think the “high five” was invented that night. There may have been a few tears shed, as well; but they were tears of relief and joy. Like before, I do not remember who won the game.
Bill Raphael took the time to know me, to discipline me, and help me mature during those odd, formidable high school years. He always looked me in the eye. He knew when I was not giving him my best, either in the classroom or on the field. He encouraged me with a look and a nod. Thankfully, he also forgave me. I was motivated then to try to not disappoint him, and I am still trying to gain enough intestinal fortitude. I will forever call Bill Raphael: My Coach.
Bill Raphael obit.