When I heard of the passing of Wilbur Braithwaite, the kindly, philosopher-poet-coach from tiny Manti, I opened a drawer in my desk and found The Letters. There are dozens of them, all hand-written except for a few of the more recent ones. I kept all of them.
Braithwaite probably wrote thousands of letters over the years to coaches, family, friends and members of the media. He was a man of letters — not e-mail but real letters written in his neat cursive. Some were accompanied by his own poetry. He did this for most of his 84 years. The Braithwaites must have gone broke just trying to keep him in pens.
In his letters, Braithwaite philosophized about many things, but his recurring theme was raising kids to be good people, not good athletes. Sports was largely a forum for that purpose. But, ultimately, what shined through in Braithwaite's letters and his person was his deep and simple goodness.
"I always believed in the development of the whole person," he wrote to me once, "and that includes being in drama, music and the arts. The key is for students to follow their passions with balance. Putting 12 months a year in one sport doesn't make much sense ... unless you are a Las Vegas gambler."
He practiced what he preached. He was a voracious reader. He played the piano and clarinet. He wrote music and composed songs. He coached. He taught math. He was devout. And, of course, he wrote his poems, letters and essays, many of which were published in a book.
Near the end, as the coach lay in the hospital, Clark Barton, who grew up next door to the coach and considered him a second father, noticed the reaction of nurses to their patient.
"The nurses who didn't know him kept saying things like, 'Gosh, I get this sense that this is really a special person.' And it's true ... He was the most Christlike man I've ever known."
Barton recalls meeting LaVell Edwards, the BYU football coach, for the first time. When Edwards learned that Barton was a Braithwaite protégé, he said, "Wilbur Braithwaite is one of the finest people I have ever known."
Everyone, it seems, knew Braithwaite, who died Monday evening in his home. He coached for five decades at Manti High. He won a dozen state championships between tennis and basketball, but that's not what people remember about him.
In the end, he was receiving almost as many letters as he was writing, not to mention daily calls, most of them from former athletes thanking him for his influence on their lives.
"There is not a day that goes by I don't think of you or something you said or taught me," one of them wrote. Which is pretty much how all the letters began.
Braithwaite often said it took years to evaluate his career because only then could he see what kind of people his students became.
"Once in a while one stumbles and you feel like a parent and wonder if you couldn't have done more for them," he once told me.
As I wrote a few years ago, Wilbur Braithwaite could have done many things with his life. He came from an educated, accomplished family. His brother Royden earned a doctorate from Cornell and became president of Southern Utah University; Reid was a Harvard MBA who became vice president of Carnation Corp.; Burke was an accomplished, award-winning musical prodigy before he was killed in World War II.
After taking a master's degree from Michigan, Braithwaite turned down a job offer from Utah State as a P.E. teacher and tennis coach to return to the place where he was born and raised. He never left. He was content to lead a simple, quiet life in a simple, quiet town, teaching and coaching. He never aspired for more money or fame that other jobs might have offered.
He determined the course of his life while fighting in World War II, an experience that literally marked him forever. A German land mine left him with a broken knee, a broken leg, three broken fingers and shredded arms and face. To the end of his life, he carried shrapnel in his body and suffered for his wounds.
A couple of years ago, he told me, "When I started coaching, I had gone through World War II and had seen the other side of the coin, and I decided then that nothing could ever get worse than what I had gone through. I knew what the important things in life were, and it wasn't winning or glory."
He loved his players and said so. He stressed doing things the right way, regardless of the situation or the score. After watching the movie "Hoosiers," Manti players told their coach it was like watching their own practice. The similarities didn't end there.
"Everything that happened to that coach happened to me," Braithwaite said, "except the drunk assistant. I went through the meetings with the parents and the principal and had to defend my job, and there were petitions to get me out. I think later, though, I turned enemies into friends."
Once, he yanked his team from the region tournament when he learned that players had violated their own training rules by drinking. The parents protested and a meeting was called, but Braithwaite stood firm.
From tiny Manti, Braithwaite's influence was felt everywhere. In 2008, the National Federation of State High School Associations gave Braithwaite its highest honor — The Award of Merit — for his impact on high school athletics. Previous winners included former President Gerald Ford, former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and former NCAA president Walter Byers.
His love of life and people was evident in everything he did, and he lamented his declining health. After discussing his health problems two years ago, he concluded, "Every day I wake up and say, well, that's a bonus."
Wilbur Braithwaite will never wake up again in this life, which is certainly our loss. The world was a better place while he was here.
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