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Wirt High School closing leaves staff, athletes feeling lost
JOHN J. WATKINS

GARY | Ron Kittle brought along his Wirt letterman's jacket from 1976 but didn't wear it. He couldn't.

Retired coaches Don Toma and Jerry Troxel joined longtime athletic director Dennis Martinson on this sunny May morning in welcoming Kittle back for his first visit in more than 20 years. They shared stories, hugs and photo ops with everyone they met throughout the building.

It was a day full of laughter, sadness and some tears.

Wirt High School is closing at the end of this school year. Two words: Budget cuts.

"William A. Wirt was Gary's first superintendent. He'd be rolling over in the grave if he knew this was happening," said Martinson, a faculty member for 37 years.

The Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts will occupy the building beginning this fall, with Banneker Elementary moving into the current Emerson facility.

"I woke up every single morning wanting to go to school because of the camaraderie, the friends," Kittle said. "I was as good a friend with the teachers on staff as I was with the students."

Kittle also starred in basketball and football at Wirt, but never got the VIP treatment.

"You had to 'earn' your treatment as an athlete," he said.

In 2004, Horace Mann closed, leaving Gary with four public high schools. Now there will be only Roosevelt, West Side and Lew Wallace -- grades 7-12.

Kittle, the most popular Wirt Trooper of all, had brought national media attention to Gary in 1983 when his 35 home runs and 100 RBIs earned him American League Rookie of the Year honors with the White Sox.

He retired in 1991, but his widespread popularity continues to this day.

Coaches went that extra mile

Toma and Troxel carried on the Wirt coaching excellence established by Rich Scheub (baseball), Jack Owens (football) and Walt Nabhan (football).

Troxel coached Kittle in baseball and also was involved with tennis and swimming from 1962 to 2002. Toma coached soccer, baseball, track and football from 1967 until 2006, when he became legally blind and had to retire.

"It's a tragedy," Toma said of the school closing. "The majority of my adult teaching life was at Wirt and it was a privilege to teach so many good kids."

Among them was former three-sport standout Mark Thanos, who along with his father John, drowned last September while attempting to rescue a 10-year-old boy from a rain-swollen drainage ditch in Chesterton.

"They're our heroes," Toma said.

While on staff at Wirt, Toma and Troxel car-pooled daily with a child-like excitement.

"To be known as a Wirt coach was really quite an honor because there were so many great coaches like Walt Nabhan and Dick Scheub and Wally Bracich and Paul Hook and Ira Judge," Toma said. "We all got along. We'd go out to eat with our families."

Troxel credits Kittle for bringing baseball scouts to Wirt.

"All of a sudden, we had big 'connections' with Ron," Troxel said. "He used to tell us: 'Coach, I'm gonna be a Major League Baseball player. There's no doubt.'

"This (closing) hurts because it was so enjoyable here. We looked forward to getting up and going to work. Kids were all proud to go to Wirt."

It will never be the same

"I'm a little shocked," Kittle said. "I drive by this area all the time. Memories are great. I'm one of those people who, if I see a weed in the concrete in the middle of the highway, I have a heart attack.

"I look at the landscaping out here and I see it's beat up. It takes a lot of people -- and money -- and there's a lot of work to be done to make this nice again. Who's gonna do it today?"

Kittle played 12 seasons in the pros before retiring in 1991 after stints with the White Sox, Yankees, Indians and Baltimore. His wife Laurie is a '74 Wirt grad and the family lives in Porter County.

Here's an interesting footnote: Softball was not yet an IHSAA sport, so Laurie and girlfriend Leslie Bowman once tried out for the Wirt baseball team but quit after finding 6 a.m. practices very unappealing.

"We had great teachers who took an interest in the kids. They cared and I saw that," Kittle said. "When the buzzer beeped, not too many ran out the door."

Asking for more trouble?

Omar Vazquez has compiled a 219-195 record as basketball coach the last 19 seasons at this Northwestern Conference school. He teaches health and has also coached baseball, volleyball and tennis.

"It has to upset you simply because you've invested a lot of years and (the closing) really doesn't make any sense unless the issue is only economics. But you need a school on this side of town and we got the numbers," Vazquez insisted. "It might backfire because if these kids leave (Gary), if 700 kids disappear, that's $5.5 million right there that the city will lose.

"If they were in trouble because of budget, they'll be in even more trouble."

The Gary School Corporation was forced to trim its 2009 budget by $23 million and the school board unanimously enacted a restructuring plan that will close 12 schools, including Wirt.

Because of class sports, the IHSAA then took from Wirt and gave roughly 200 students each to Roosevelt, Wallace and West Side for the 2009-10 school year, although there is open enrollment. Vazquez said many Wirt kids are considering West Side or Bowman Academy as their first choice.

Vazquez can retire in a year but expects to still be coaching. He's good friends with South Suburban College men's coach John Pigatti and will serve as his assistant next season.

"It's 90 percent sure that I will be there," Vazquez said.

Another one bites the dust

It's been an emotional rollercoaster ride for senior Kevin James, recently honored as Wirt's first Indiana football all-star. On the flip side, school closings have become all too familiar for the defensive lineman.

"Every school I went to, they've all closed up -- Nobel, Tolleston, Kennedy King. Now that Wirt is closing, I won't have anywhere to go back to and show my kids that I went there," James said. "Instead of a 'home' to go back to, it'll be Emerson Visual and Performing Arts.

"I feel bad about that."

James will play football this fall at St. Francis in Joliet and, no, it won't be closing its doors.

"I learned here that you can't get complacent and you always have to move forward," James said. "As a freshman, I didn't think I would like the school. But I talked to Mr. Martinson and he helped me want to stay for four years.

"He's one of the best people here, one of the nicest, like family."

The sign outside Wirt best exemplifies its approach to education: Everything and Everyone Around You Is Your Teacher.

It's been that way there for 70 years.

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