Editor’s note: This is the second part of a story about Gary Lundergreen, who passed away last week.
Carson Valley native and pioneering George Whittell High School coach Gary Lundergreen was an all-around athlete when he attended Douglas High School in the 1950s — a halfback and defensive back in football, playmaking guard in basketball and state qualifier on the track.
Ron Wilcks was a teammate on the 1951 football team that posted a 6-2 record and lost 20-7 to Reno in a playoff for the Western A Conference championship. Reno was the largest school and Douglas the smallest school in the conference at that time.
“That was one of my favorite games and I know it was one of Gary’s favorites,” Wilcks said. “We had about 85 kids in the entire high school and Reno had like 1,500, but we gave them a good game.”
Douglas gained a measure of revenge at the end of the 1953 basketball season with a 68-46 victory against Reno in the zone tournament championship game before a standing-room only crowd in the old University of Nevada Gym. Lundergreen was a senior captain for a team that went 22-8 and advanced to the state tournament semifinals before losing to Churchill County.
John Borda, a 1950 Douglas graduate, fondly remembers Lundergreen for his nickname “Rubio” for his red hair.
“Gary was an excellent athlete and fine young man,” Borda said. “He was a (basketball) guard who didn’t shoot a lot, not that he couldn’t, he was just very unselfish. He could do it all. He would have been a great baseball player, but we didn’t have baseball at Douglas in those days.”
After graduating from Douglas, Lundergreen went to the University of Washington on a scholarship and stayed two years before transferring to the University of Nevada, where he lettered football as well as track and field (he threw the javelin) in 1956-57.
“We had a lot of good times growing up together,” said Wilcks. “Gary was a great all-around athlete and a great all-around guy.”
Borda has kept all the letters he exchanged with Lundergreen from their military and college days, and has taken time to go back and read through those in recent days.
“You know, 60 years ago he wrote me a $1,500 check from the old Farmers Bank in Minden,” Borda said, adding with a laugh. “We made a bet and that’s how he paid me, kind of a joke type thing. But he wrote it and I’ve still got it.”
Lundergreen is well remembered by the many students and educators he worked with in nearly four decades on Whittell’s campus at Zephyr Cove.
Heather (McGraw) Verdi is a 1987 graduate of Whittell, where she played basketball and was a state champion shot put and discus thrower. She is now assistant principal at Orville H. Platt High School in Meriden, Conn., and remembers many valuable lessons she learned from her coach.
“He was very much a mentor when I was in high school in terms of the right things to do academically and athletically,” she said. “He was very encouraging, but he was tough about it, and I appreciate that.”
One lesson from her freshman year of high school stands out in particular.
“I failed my freshman year history class and he read me the riot act,” Verdi recalled. “He basically told me that I wasn’t going to be eligible and I wasn’t going to be able to get to college if I continued that kind of behavior and it’s something that really made a profound impact on me throughout high school, into college and even my career.”
Marty Swisher, now the principal at Douglas High School, and Verdi both noted that while Lundergreen was a strict disciplinarian, he made his sport and class fun.
“He was very clear about what he expected, but then he helped you meet those expectations,” said Swisher. “And he had a great sense of humor. There were times when it was a serious moment, but he would say something, and you’d just laugh.”
One of Swisher’s “best memories” of his former coach came from the 1980 football season, a 18-6 victory against Lovelock. It marked Whittell’s first varsity football win in Lovelock.
“We knew we had to win that game to have a chance to go to state and I remember seeing the smile on Gary’s face after the game,” said Swisher. “You could tell he was happy and satisifed with what we had accomplished. It was a moment of, ‘Yep, we just took a big step forward to accomplish the dream.”
Lundergreen was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to coaching and teaching. At one time or another he taught all the general classes, whether science, math or history. And he taught life skills in his class, according to former coaching and teaching colleague Frank Forvilly.
“He was the most personable guy in class,” Forvilly said. “I learned a lot from the way he taught. He would tell the kids stories and tell them about things in life. When it came to teaching life skills, growing up, working hard and stuff like that, Gary was unbelievable.”
John Summers, a 1975 Whittell graduate, feels fortunate to have experienced Lundergreen as a student/athlete as well as fellow teacher/coach.
“I admired the way he coached and how he dealt with athletes,” Summers said. “When I was going to school there, he instilled an attitude to all of us, losing wasn’t acceptable. We all had the attitude, ‘We’re from Whittell, don’t mess with us,’ and that all came from him.”
Andy Hughes, who played for Lundergreen in the late 1970 and went on to a career as teacher and coach at Douglas High, remembers Lundergreen for putting the students before himself — “It was never about Gary, it was always about the kids” — and refers to his old coach as being an icon.
“I think he’s kind of like the Clint Eastwood of coaching,” Hughes said. ”He was kind of a man’s man; I mean, he made you into a man. Whoever you were, you would get called on the carpet. It didn’t matter if you were the star, you had to toe the line.”