What’s amazing about Duane Thompson is not that he’s a fine coach, but that he’s donated his time and money for the past 25 years to keep Kootenai High School’s wrestling program alive.
He works before school, after school, weekends and through vacations - all without pay.
On his own time and at his own expense, Thompson has taken wrestlers to meets, sometimes providing transportation for the team with his own van. He also maintains a tradition of buying wrestlers a steak dinner after the state tournament at Pocatello.
“We wouldn’t have a wrestling program if it weren’t for Duane,” said Kevin Kincheloe, former wrestling coach who worked with Duane from 1975 until last year.
Industrial technology teacher John Love helps coach the wrestlers. He echoed his colleagues’ sentiments - Thompson wants whatever is good for the kids, they always come first.
In 1993, the school board voted to eliminate wrestling, saying the cost was too high in relation to the number of students participating. On average, 30 or so grade-schoolers and six at the high school level take part.
In response, 125 patrons of the 326-student district signed a petition requesting the retention of wrestling as a school sport. The board agreed.
Thompson is reluctant to talk about himself. A friend, Rich Lundt, described him as “A humble guy. He’d rather have the kids get the credit.”
A scrapbook his daughter Jennifer Linn compiled in honor of her dad’s 60th birthday is witness to this observation. In a three-inch album crammed with newspaper clippings, only a couple of pictures show Duane Thompson with his boys. The rest are team pictures or action pictures of the wrestlers.
What Thompson will tell you is that he began wrestling in high school when both he and the basketball coach agreed that basketball wasn’t the sport for him. He simply wanted to participate in sports and wrestling was the way to do it. He weighed in at 123 pounds.
After high school he joined the Navy but did not involve himself in wrestling again until 1972 when he began helping Bob Bodner, who was wrestling coach.
Duane will tell you why he believes in wrestling. “I don’t think you can separate the mind and learning from the body.”
He said the wrestling program makes for better students and men.
According to his associates, Thompson has brought a special attitude to his chosen avocation. They say Duane enjoys life. No one remembers seeing him down. They think it rubs off on people.
They recall that Thompson, who worked many years for Potlatch as a timber faller, would come directly to school at 3:30, still in his work clothes, to coach the wrestlers. He probably had been up since 4 a.m. feeding his cattle.
Love tells a story about how Thompson got up early every morning to drive from his home on state Highway 3 to pick up a wrestler at Rose Lake. He brought the student to the high school and stayed for practice. It was during Christmas vacation when no school buses were running. After practice, Thompson took the student home before returning to his own home. This was the only way the boy could prepare for the state competition.
“He does whatever it takes,” Love said.
Students and faculty say that Thompson and his wife Shirley, who have three daughters of their own, treat the team like family, and stay in touch. Duane and Shirley go to weddings and receive letters like the one from a former wrestler who said he never would have made it in the Marines if it hadn’t been for his experience in Duane’s wrestling program.
According to Shirley Thompson, the high point of the 25 years was taking four of Kootenai’s six wrestlers to the Olympic trials in Spokane last summer.
How does Duane feel about it all?
“It’s fun,” he said. “And I want the kids to have fun.”
, DataTimes MEMO: Jeri McCroskey, a free-lance writer and antique collector, lives with her husband at Carlin Bay. Panhandle Pieces is shared among several North Idaho writers.