A man I wish I had known better passed away this week. His name was Jon “Joe” Duane Cole, and our community is less because of his passing.
I knew Joe had not been in the best of health for a while now, but still I could not quite wrap my mind around him passing away. Because Joe seemed almost larger than life, so big and strong that it kind of seemed he would defy death.
I never knew Joe all that well, but he was always around. He was there when I was a little kid, following my dad to Sunday afternoon basketball gatherings where he and Joe both played. He was there at most all of my high school basketball games and track meets. When I started covering high school athletics for a living he was at almost every Hillsboro game I was at, and other contests, too. He and his wife, Arlene, worked the fish fry late every summer, signaling the beginning of the local football season, and when I moved on from sports, I saw them year after year at Veterans Day services, and other smillar places, too.
I have seen many pictures of the softball teams Joe and my father played on together, but mostly I remember those Sunday afternoon basketball games at the old Hillsboro High School gym. That’s where I first met Joe and Arlene’s oldest son, Jon.
How could we have known back then that we would became high school teammates in basketball and track, and lifelong friends? Little did we know that the precedent had already been set.
Jon is a year younger than me, in the same Hillsboro High School class of 1980 as my brother Brent. Like his dad, Jon has always been big and strong, while the guys in my family tend to be on the smaller side. But during our school years Brent was especially small, so Jon watched over him. While Jon teasingly picked on Brent regularly, he would not let anyone else lay a hand on him.
Back in the 1950s, when my dad was a year behind Joe in high school, dad once smarted off to an opponent at a track meet. The opponent was big and bad, and when the opponent came after my dad, dad figured he was in big trouble. But Joe came to his rescue.
Another time several years ago, when I was working as a sports editor I said something at a wrestling match that I did not intend anyone to hear. But someone did. After the match, a massive man came after me, obviously intent on teaching me a lesson. But Joe’s brother, Larry, about half the other man’s size, stepped between us and saved my hide. The Coles are like that – eager to help those in need and willing to lend a hand whenever asked.
When I think of Joe, especially in my younger years, I remember a big man with serious look on his face and a deep, intimidating voice. Locked forever in my mind is one memory of that resounding voice, and how that day changed forever how I looked at Joe.
The class of 1980 was very talented athletically. In basketball, they lost a total of one game in their seventh, eighth and ninth grade years, and they were similarly successful in football and track.
But when they were sophomores, three of them were moved to the varsity basketball team to start with myself and another junior. We finished the year 1-18, albeit against likely as tough of a schedule as any Hillsboro team ever faced. Anyway, probably because the rest of us where not as talented as Jon and he was frustrated with losing, he decided to quit after one game. As the process was playing out, big Joe showed up in our locker room, and he did not look happy. Things suddenly turned quiet, then Joe boomed the words “boy” toward his son. Let’s just say that Jon quickly decided it would be better if he remained on the team.
As the years passed I learned that Joe’s voice and intimidating looks were more of a facade than anything else. Oh, he expected the best of his sons, for sure, but I believe his heart was as soft and true as any. As more years passed I started calling on Joe and Arlene for help with various stories I was working on. Never once did they turn me down or fail to return a call, and more often than not they went out of their way to help me.
A few years ago my wife and I were waiting in line at a local restaurant when Jon appeared out of nowhere. He lifted my wife off the floor, then gave me a big hug, too. It had been a while since we had seen Jon. Joe and Maurice were there, too, and I ended up sitting with them rather than with my wife and her family.
Joe and Maurice soon left to see Arlene, who happened to be recovering from surgery in a nursing home. Jon and I stayed and reminisced a bit longer, then we went to the nursing home, too. I have never forgotten the warm hug Arlene gave me when I walked into the room that evening, and I never will. Later, Jon came to my home and visited with my wife and me late into the evening.
Not long thereafter I ran into Joe and told him what a nice visit we all had. I do not remember his exact words, but they were something like, “That’s good, you boys should do that more often, because life goes by too fast.”
This week one of our old coaches gave me a call. He told me lots of things Joe did for the Hillsboro community that most people would never know, myself included.
“Joe was a force,” he said. “He and his family made a difference in that town. He and Arlene – I can’t think of one without the other – they did so many things that were good.”
What I will always remember most about Joe, though, and Arlene, too, is that they were always there for their kids, no matter what. And that’s the most important thing our families have in common – that families are always there for each other.
This week, Jon told me Joe never knew how proud he was to be his father’s son.
He knows, brother. Trust me, he knows.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.