I only met Hayden Fry in person, man-to-man, once in my life.
I was in my mid-30s and was just outside the west entrance to the old indoor practice facility (the building he was instrumental in creating). I was propped up against the outside wall, doing stretches before my daily run. It was around 9 a.m., a beautiful spring day in early April — temperature in the 60s, cloudless blue sky, bright sun. It was one of those days that everyone prays for after fighting through the cold, depressing final days of an Iowa winter.
I didn’t notice him at first. I heard someone exit the building through the heavy glass doors to my right. Then a voice I recognized immediately drawled, “Howdy, young man. Beautiful day for a run, idin’ it?”
I glanced over at him. He had taken the time to stop and was smiling at me. I pushed myself away from the wall and turned to face him. I said something like, “Man, it really is! We’ve all been lookin’ for one like this.”
I remember that he looked up and glimpsed the sky and scanned the surrounding landscape of newly greened grass and distant trees. Then he looked at me, still smiling and said. “Well, you have a good run, and I’m envious.”
I said, “Thanks.”
He raised his hand in a slight wave, and I did likewise. Then he turned and walked away.
Coach Fry didn’t have to stop and pass the time of day with me that morning. He didn’t know me from Adam (an expression he probably used from time to time along with the countless others that made him so entertaining). He was such an unassuming individual, he might have actually thought that I didn’t know who he was.
I had seen the man countless times on TV pacing the sidelines during games and in interviews after both victories and defeats. He seemed to always be true to himself — seemed to always be there for his players, friends and for those who exhibited good behavior. He seemed real — a man of unshakable character and unwavering principles.
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But people in the spotlight aren’t always what they seem to be after the director says, “cut!” It was very clear to me, however, after meeting him that early spring morning, that Fry would remain the same no matter who he was meeting and no matter what the circumstance.
He was an impressive, personable, decent human — the kind of person we all want to know, the kind of person who is harder and harder to find these days.
I’ll always remember him in the context of that April morning — just someone taking the time to notice a fellow human and exchange kind words. It was a chance meeting, but then that’s what life is all about. It’s a memory that I’m sure is similar to the memories of anyone who was fortunate enough to have met him.
Tom Gingerich lives in Kalona.