State Sen. John Ruckelshaus, right, awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash to Dugger native Joel Leaman, who coached and taught at Pike High School when Ruckelshaus was a student, posthumously during a ceremony at Hillcrest Country Club in Indianapolis on Aug. 12. Leaman's wife Tina accepted the award for her late husband.
Joel Leaman was raised in Dugger thriving in athletics, but he made his mark as an adult molding young people’s lives as an educator and coach in the Indianapolis area prior to his death on Jan. 25.
Two of those students were Gov. Eric Holcomb and State Sen. John Ruckelshaus, with Ruckelshaus bestowing the Sagamore of the Wabash — the highest honor the governor can present to an Indiana citizen — to Leaman poshumously during a celebration of Leaman on Aug. 12 at the Hillcrest Country Club in Indianapolis.
"I sat down with the governor on Wednesday, Gov. Holcomb, who also went to Pike High School and who also had a tremendous amount of memories about Joel,” Ruckelshaus said of a meeting just before the ceremony.
He noted how when he brought up the ceremony for Leaman, the governor "just looked at me and his face just beamed, just beamed.
"Sometimes facial features just say everything and he had the biggest smile on his face," Ruckelshaus said, "and he tapped his head back like Gov. Holcomb does and says, 'I know I got a couple of detentions from him back in the day.'
"But, he quickly turned to what was most important about Joel ... In our education system today, we need Joel Leaman because Joel was color blind. He didn't care if you came from two nickels or 200 million nickels.
"He didn't care. He treated everybody the same. Everybody had ambition, everybody had a chance in life, everybody had a future."
Ruckelshaus awarded the Sagamore to Leaman’s widow Tina during the ceremony, at the country club where Leaman also molded youths as a
“He had two different jobs,” Tina said last week. “He had his teaching job and he managed the pool (at Hillcrest) and coached the swim team.
“He compiled a legendary reputation at Hillcrest,” she noted, including the club team compiling a 260-5 record during his tenure as coach between 1968 and 2009.
Leaman mentored a huge amount of kids during his time at Hillcrest, with Tina noting he coached about 120 to 130 kids a year.
“Times that by 41 (years) and that’s a lot of kids,” she said.
The pool at Hillcrest was named after Leaman in his honor prior to his death.
“Nobody had anything bad to say about him really,” Tina said, adding an exception might be “the mothers of other teams.”
Leaman taught at Westfield High School after graduating from Butler University and then finished his teaching career with 40 years at Pike High School where he served as a guidance counselor, English teacher and coach of the track and cross country teams before retiring in 2010.
Ruckelshaus spoke during the ceremony about images in his mind from his high school days. He could see Joel in the hallway with his arms always folded and his back arched "and he always had a grin, always had a smile on his face."
“John Ruckelshaus ran for my husband and (later) was the manager because (Ruckelshaus) said (at the ceremony) that he wasn’t a very good runner,” Tina said.
During the ceremony, Ruckelshaus shared an anecdote about his first year running the mile in track for Leaman as a freshman.
"I was not an athlete and, in typical Joel, he delivered me the message. ... Coach Leaman was always on that first lap, 'Come on Ruck, keep working, keep working' and by the fourth lap, 'Go for time, go for time,' which meant I was dead last.
"So right then, coach took me aside and put his arm around me and said, 'You know I think you've got a different future in a different venue. Athletics may or may not be one of them, so why don't you come and be our manager."
Ruckelshaus took that position and later did so for Pike's basketball team. Possibly seeing the state senator's future in politics and government, Tina shared a story from Ruckelshaus where her husband told him, “Today Pike High School, tomorrow the White House.”
“He had a way of making people reach for the best of themselves,” Tina said, “... and behaving in a manner that brought respect to yourself.
He was kind of everybody’s cheerleader.
“I knew him for 56 years, and I knew he was special. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have married him,” she added.
Tina noted that Leaman grew up in Dugger graduating from that high school in 1959.
“He was valedictorian of his class,” she said. “He was recruited by Tony Hinkle (at Butler).”
Tina noted that Leaman was an only child “and his father was his basketball coach (at Dugger), Tom Leaman.” His mother was Myra Evans Leaman.
Joel spoke about his recruitment to Butler in a 2016 article by Times sports editor B.J. Hargis after the 1961 track team was inducted into the Butler Hall of Fame.
“I grew up next to Jim Phillippe’s family in Dugger,” Leaman said of the former public address voice of the Indianapolis 500. “He was a professor at Butler when I was in high school and he also was the announcer for Butler football and basketball.
“Jim was a family friend. He put in a good word with coach Hinkle. When I was a senior, they came to watch me play at Brazil. Coach Hinkle offered me a scholarship that night. I guess I did all right.”
Leaman ended up playing basketball for Hinkle for 2 1/2 years before Hinkle, who was also athletic director, directed him into cross country. He also ran track for four years.
Tina noted the family still owns the Leaman family home on Main Street in Dugger.
“My husband and I were engaged in that house so it’s kind of hard to give it up,” she said. “I know all the neighbors because everybody’s lived there so long. I’ve been going down there for a long time, since 1961.
“It’s a relaxing place to go,” Tina continued. “I just went down with some teacher friends and it was great. It’s nice to go to a quiet place where I can enjoy the house and the grounds.”
She noted visiting the Acorn Grill in Sullivan for the first time over Labor Day weekend, giving high praise to a cake she had at the recently opened restaurant.
“It was a killer cake,” Tina said. “It was good.”
Of the Sagamore, she noted “it’s too bad (Joel) wasn’t alive to receive it. He’d probably say, ‘What’s all the fuss about.’
“He would have been proud but humbled,” Tina added.