Athletic director Dennis M. Kaman, a long-time coach, teacher, humanitarian, humorist and mentor was honored with a retirement reception on Father’s Day at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
Numerous friends, colleagues, former students and athletes roasted the successful and colorful career of Kaman, who dedicated 23 of his 45 coaching career years to St. John Catholic School in Ennis.
Kaman announced his retirement at of the end of the 2007 school semester to take care of his health.
Immediately after graduating from St. Edward University in Austin, Kaman’s first career assignment began in 1962 as athletic director at St. John High School.
“Never did I imagine I would begin to live a dream that was instilled in me by my high school history teacher and coach, Dick Boles from Dowagiac High School in Dowagiac, Mich., he was my idol and mentor and he inspired me to become a teacher and coach. I always wanted to be just like him. I kept the standards he taught me, and I have always wanted to help kids just like he helped me,” Kaman said.
There was no shortage of tributes to Kaman at the retirement event.
His brother, Bill Kaman, said the two were raised in foster care, which brought them close together.
“His need to help kids over the years is a natural evolution of this early environment, family life is also important to both of us,” Bill Kaman said.
Edwin Mikula was one of Kaman’s first basketball players at St. John and remembers when Kaman first arrived at the school.
“It was very exciting times when Coach Kaman came, he was the first lay teacher St. John ever had and the first real coach we ever had. He was young, enthusiastic and vibrant - and he wasn’t a nun. For many of us who had grown up in such a cloistered environment, this was really quite a change,” Mikula said.
Kaman said he knew he had his hands full when St. John scored only 20 points in his first game against Palmer.
“Then I knew the meaning of the word challenge, ” he said.
Kaman’s wife, Barbara, had a supportive role as well as a chaotic role at times, raising their four children - Christine, Tim, Jeff and Tony - during his career at St. John’s, balancing home life and sharing their home and family with young athletes who daily filtered in and out of their home and were always welcomed as their own family.
“We left our families back in Michigan at a young age to come to Texas for Dennis’ college and when his assignment in Ennis began, our family life started here too. For 23 years of Dennis’ career, our lives have been intertwined in and around the St. John community, so we have always called Ennis home. Ennis became our adopted family. Coach and I have cherished the lives of the kids who grew up at St. John’s,” she said.
Kaman began the process of building the boys and girls basketball programs and the baseball program and, before long, St. John High School was known as being in the competitive ranks.
Within the first three years, the varsity basketball team won the district title and the school took third place in state in varsity baseball. From 1968-1973, the St. John varsity basketball team had four district titles, went to the state tournament five times. The baseball team was state runner-up in 1968.
“Although I had initially started with untapped talent, the kids responded well and with the new facilities their enthusiasm took hold, and things started to happen for the better for the teams,” Kaman said.
“St. John began to be known as the competition. I tried to encourage leadership in these students. I tried to inspire them with a desire to win and to always be a competitive force,” he said.
Five athletes from his first class on hand were to congratulate Kaman on a stellar career. Nancy (Svehlak) Valek, Robert Valek, Terese (Harrison) Dempsey, Lucy (Cepak) Mikula, Edwin Mikula and Elsie (Slama) Marak. Vicki (Grier) Reed, class of 1973, and Nancy (Toupal) Clark, class of 72, spoke about their athletic and cheerleading experiences. They also talked of how they babysat with the Kaman children, who grew up with many of the St. John athletes.
Richard Parma remembers Kaman as a dynamic, energetic and funny person.
“He taught me to be the best I could be, even though I had a handicap. ‘No matter what your circumstances,’ coach said. He believed I could still play basketball and baseball and gave me the chance to play. He would not let me use my handicap as an excuse for any of my failures. He believed in me and I played just like everyone else. I know this type of belief gave me self-confidence, which has carried me throughout my entire life. These are gifts that can never be repaid. He is not just my coach, but a true friend,” Parma said.
“Coach also had a temper, he could get downright mad,” said Kaman’s son Tim.
Kaman’s other sons, Jeff and Tony, each recalled playing for their coach and father was not always so easy, saying that if they made a mistake on the court, he was always harder on them than on other players.
Jerry Honza recalled how he, as a basketball official, once had to call numerous technical fouls against Kaman in one game because of his temper but quickly points out the two remained friends despite it.
“I sometimes called him the Bobby Knight of the High School set but as much towel throwing, disciplinary action and animation as I saw from the coach, it was all about teaching the kids. There were 10 times as much laughter and gentleness, a lot of respect from the kids and a great deal of technical knowledge of sports from the coach,” Honza said.
As many coaching careers go, Kaman’s included numerous opportunities in both boy’s and girl’s athletics, many of which led these young athletes to playoff opportunities, titles and awards.
“I used my sense of humor and fun on the court because that was good to loosen up the kids and to control my stress level before the games,” Kaman said, saying his humor was also tempered with a need to instill values and goals in students as a teacher and mentor.
“In the classroom, I was constantly seeking different ways to help the students grasp the materials I presented, and searching for ways for them to perform well on my tests and standardized tests, I was always concerned about the progress of each student.”
Kaman cared for his students as he did his own children and according to Father Fred Caldwell, former pastor of St. John church, his family is a testament to his role as a father.
“If you want to know what kind of father Dennis Kaman is, just look around at how his children respect him, and you will see the love they have for him. All four of the Kaman children are college graduates with careers and families of their own, including his 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren,” he said.
Kaman says now that he has retired he will get to all the things he hasn’t had time for over the years.
“I have attained my life-long goals in life, becoming a coach and hopefully helping kids along the way, now, it’s time to throw in the towel and take a long-needed rest. Barbara and I can travel a little and have some time for just the two of us to be together once again,” he said.