Have you ever thought about what you’d like people to say about you at your funeral? The end of your life may not be something you want to think about, but the way you live your life will be your legacy.
Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a man who I’ve known for nine years, but who will impact my life forever. But, more important than that, the way he lived his life will impact millions of lives.
At the funeral of Phil Lawler, two of his best friends and his three incredible children paid tribute to the man and his legacy. He was remembered for his faith, his devotion to his family, and his passion for his life work in physical education and baseball.
Phil started his career as a gym teacher and coach, similar to many former athletes. He taught PE for years believing that all kids liked sports as much as he did. His PE classes had the typical emphasis on team sports. But, one day about twenty years ago, he read an article in the newspaper about the trend in the U.S. of children getting more overweight and obese and he thought, ‘Aren’t we as physical education professionals the ones responsible for helping children learn to live active lives and be healthy? We need to take the lead and do something about this.’
He examined the way he and his colleagues were delivering physical education and realized that they needed to do more to reach all children, not just the athletically inclined. He changed his philosophy to introduce a wide variety of sports and fitness activities to engage more children. He introduced small-sided games and modified rules so that more children had the opportunity to participate, instead of a traditional PE sport like football where the “best athlete throws the ball to his best friend” and 20 other kids stand around and don’t really participate.
He utilized technology to connect with kids on their level, using heart rate monitors to give children feedback on what was happening within their bodies and searched out high-tech games where children could pedal within a video game or dance and exercise on high tech dance pads. He got the community involved and had firefighters work out with his middle school students and the local cardiologist give cholesterol tests to students.
He wasn’t the only innovative PE teacher in the country, but he was one that really took a bold stand to be inclusive of all children and create a “New PE”. In addition, he let people know about it. He was masterful at networking with people across the country explaining what he was doing in his program and he was able to get national news attention from CNN, CBS and USA Today, among others, to a middle school “gym class.”
That’s when the President of Wilson Sporting Goods (based in Chicago), Jim Baugh, learned about his program. In 1999, Jim had the idea to start a non-profit organization dedicated to returning daily physical education back to schools and liked the way Phil Lawler was doing things in Naperville, Illinois. Not only was the program in Naperville inclusive of all children and doing innovative things, it was offered to every child, every day of the week. Jim Baugh had already reached out to his colleagues in the sporting goods industry to raise the seed money and to start the non-profit organization, PE4life, to raise national awareness about the importance of kids being physically active and the critical role physical education, specifically daily P.E., can and should play. In 2000, Jim hired Anne Flannery as Executive Director and she invited Phil Lawler to Washington D.C. to speak at a national press conference about physical education, a topic that was not on the national media radar, but would be over the next ten years.
A year later, in fall 2001, a few months after I came on board with the organization, PE4life designated Phil’s school at Madison Junior High in the Naperville CUSD 203 as the first PE4life Institute, later to be named PE4life Academy, to provide a “train the trainer” model to help other schools in their quest to gain administrative and community support to improve their physical education programs.
On December 31, 2002, Phil sat with me in a hotel lobby near Chicago O’Hare airport and shared story after story about how he had built his program, garnered support from community leaders, involved members of the medical community, elevated his program to be ranked the #1 curriculum by parents in the community, integrated technology and assessment into his program and how he had been able to get thousands of dollars of equipment donated to his program and generated national media attention. That conversation, combined with many before and after, was the basis for the first PE4life training manual.
Phil retired early from teaching, in 2004, and chose to focus on helping other schools improve their physical education programs, but still continued coaching the Central High School baseball team. He joined the PE4life team as the Director of Education Outreach and over the next several years, Phil, and his colleague Paul Zientarski at Naperville Central High School, tag-teamed to host community teams from school districts from 40 states in the United States and ten foreign countries to showcase their programs and the PE4life principles they embraced. Additionally, Paul created a physical education program at Central High School to stimulate brain activity and placed it before difficult classes, showing that a quality, daily PE program could enhance academic performance.
Even though Phil was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and battled it five times over the next six years, he was a keynote speaker at almost every PE4life event over that time. He continued to network and found innovative new products and equipment to enhance PE programs. He became friends with Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the father of aerobics, and Dr. John Ratey a noted brain researcher from Harvard. He appeared in the movie “Super Size Me.” He spoke in front of Congress. He made phone call after phone call to members of Congress, state legislators, corporate executives, medical professionals, school administrators and gym teachers, uh, physical education professionals, throughout the world.
His passion and his commitment for changing the perception of physical education and the actual delivery of physical education has changed the lives of countless children throughout the world.
His close friend, Paul Zientarski, eulogized Phil by naming and describing words that portrayed him – innovator, educator, advocate, networker, communicator, competitor, first class and friend.
Bill Seiple, who coached baseball side by side with Phil since 1982 at Naperville Central, and who is himself a cancer survivor, spoke of Phil’s commitment to the developing the character of young men. He said that some people see things for what they are, but Phil had the gift of seeing things for what they could be.
Phil’s son Todd spoke passionately and proudly of the impact of his father on countless lives and the courage and passion he showed in his battle with cancer. Todd said that whenever anyone spoke to Phil, he gave her or him undivided attention and showed that he truly cared about everything being said. Todd spoke of the last audible word that his father said to him was “Win!” and Todd said he plans to win in everything he does because that’s what his father did.
His daughter Kim talked about the unconditional love Phil showed, to all people no matter their age or their opinion, or even if they didn’t play baseball, she joked. She spoke of his legacy of love and how she would continue that.
His son Scott, the associate head baseball coach at Notre Dame, who bears a strong resemblance to Phil, talked about the strength of his mother as her husband battled cancer for six years. He mentioned that when he was in middle school, everyone would tell him he would be a coach and teacher someday and he never thought that would be true. But, the influence of his father, and his uncle, led him to coaching and teaching. He talked about his father’s passion for physical education and the use of heart rate monitors and joked that he was probably in heaven convincing Jesus to strap on a heart rate monitor. Scott said that Phil was a “man of few words” when it came to his faith and saying that Phil was a man of few words about anything is odd. But, Phil was more a man of action where his faith was concerned. He lived his faith by the way he treated those around him.
The strength and poise of his children was amazing. I was fascinated as I felt Phil’s spirit coming through each one of them as they spoke. Phil had a gift for making you want to listen to everything he had to say. He was confident, passionate, caring, respectful and engaging and each of his children personify his legacy.
Phil made me think about the education of children in a different way. He helped to articulate the principles that are the foundation of the PE4life organization. I heard Phil speak many times over the nine years that I knew him --- to large audiences, small ones and one-on-one. I can repeat many of his stories verbatim. Many of his words and stories are the ones I repeat when I speak to people about PE4life – the story about the first girl he put a heart rate monitor on in PE class, the mother who came up to him with tears streaming down her face recounting her experience with PE, the firefighters who worked out in the fitness center with his students, Dr. John Ratey’s quote that exercise is like fertilizer for the brain, it’s so good it’s like Miracle Grow and on and on.
I have many fond memories of Phil, but one of my favorites was the time that we took at PE4life “field trip” to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Phil was mesmerized by the history around him. He was a baseball aficionado and each exhibit or picture elicited a story. He even shared with me where the baseball phrase “can of corn” came from – back in the days when there were mercantiles where people went for groceries and had to ask for the store clerk to get the items off the shelf, typically the cans of corn were on a top shelf. The store clerk would have to turn and hook the can off the top shelf to drop it down and the clerk would hold out his apron to catch the “can of corn” out in front of him.
Phil turned 60 in February and his time on earth was far shorter than any of us hoped it would be. However, Phil lived each of those 60 years to the fullest. He lived his life with purpose, with passion and with integrity. When it comes time for each of us to have our lives recounted, will we be able to have the same said?
Read Brenda's Blog here: She's Got Game.