NOWATA, Okla. — Ken Zacher was a white 31-year-old high school basketball coach from an almost all-white town in rural Oklahoma, and there he stood on a stage before thousands at the 1972 national NAACP convention in Detroit.
He knew he had just a little time, and so he began to tell the story of how his team had elected a black captain who, by school tradition, was supposed to escort the homecoming queen in a ceremony marked by a simple kiss. But facing the prospect of a black captain and white queen, school officials told Zacher to ask his captain to step down. Zacher refused.
"They hired me as an educator to remove ignorance, and if I perpetuated ignorance and racial prejudice, I wouldn't be doing my job," he said. His remarks, never reported, are clearly audible on an old recording of the convention at the Library of Congress.
Zacher would never coach another game in Nowata, despite a record of 91 wins and 46 losses that only begins to tell the story of his basketball success. Four years later, he would be found dead in a Kansas City suburb three days before his 36th birthday, leaving those who knew him best, even now, to question the price he paid for taking his stand.
Forty years ago, the end of Ken Zacher's tenure split people in this small northeast Oklahoma plains city of about 3,300. Families fought, friendships ended and some left and never came back. Blacks supported Zacher, whites wanted him fired. There were exceptions, of course, but the only group that stuck together, it seemed, was the one in the middle of it all, Nowata's 1971-72 Ironmen basketball squad.
Hours of interviews and hundreds of pages of old newspaper clippings and court records at the National Archives, as well as Zacher's own recently-discovered words, shed new light on a central figure in this forgotten civil rights controversy, a brilliant but unyielding personality years ahead of his time on the court and off.
The critics said Zacher defied authority. Others believe he answered to a higher one: not God or Jesus, necessarily, but his internal, nonnegotiable moral compass. In the post civil rights era, he was a volatile figure pushing for racial equality in an unsettled time. The seemingly quiet, tiny city of Nowata, surrounded by shallow oil fields and cattle ranches, was unprepared or unwilling to accept the rapid pace of change this outsider sought.
And so the place erupted.
They were Zacher's boys. Some were poor and had never left the state or so much as tasted pizza until their first road trip. But when they made the team, life changed. They received new socks and sneakers and leather-bound playbooks filled with defenses, special situations, terminology and the Zacher team motto: H3, shorthand for "Hustle, hustle, hustle!"
They wore maroon blazers and stocking caps. Student managers carried and washed their gear. Opposing teams stared as they walked wordlessly into their gyms.
Zacher, who was a little over 6-foot tall with brown hair and a round boyish face that masked the intensity of his ways, led the Ironmen to a dozen tournament championships in five years. He had moved from Alva, a little town about four hours west, into a small ranch-style house in Nowata with his wife, an elementary school teacher, and grade-school age daughter.
Within four years, he was turning down job offers at bigger high schools, scouting part-time for Ted Owens, the legendary University of Kansas coach, and serving as head of the state coaches' association.
In one hastily arranged team photo likely taken minutes after a big win, Zacher is wearing a rumpled suit jacket and striped tie, and all in front are his players, his boys, black and white, jumbled together, laughing and holding up index fingers — we're No. 1! Zacher is smiling. It's a rare moment of contentment for a coach who drove his players hard but drove himself infinitely harder.
Once, the team bus rolled into the school parking lot around 2:30 a.m. after a tough loss and a nearly five-hour ride from a weekend tournament in Oklahoma City. The weary boys trudged off toward home. Zacher stopped them.
"Where are you going? Get your stuff on," he told them, recalled one former player, Robert Sprague. "And we proceeded to practice from 2:30 in the morning to 6 in the morning. Then he said, 'Now you can go home.'"
"He worked the hell out of you," Sprague said. "But he cared about you."
Every game, every practice was videotaped after Zacher convinced the booster club to spend $3,500 on two cameras for football and basketball. He and his assistant, Bob Knoll, stayed late reviewing tape, charting shots, seeking edges others did not know existed.
If a player had been missing shots from the left side of the court, Zacher and Knoll checked their charts to see if the ball was coming short on the front of the rim, the side of the rim or backboard. Then they'd check the tapes, over and over, seeing if perhaps the pull-up leg wasn't square with the pivot foot or maybe the player wasn't getting enough leg drive.
In tiny Nowata, this deeply superstitious coach, who had a closet full of lucky suit jackets and a master's degree in social studies, came to study and know the game of basketball in ways many college counterparts wouldn't understand for years.
Zacher's rules, and there were many, extended far beyond the court. Win or lose, nobody spoke on bus trips, and every player, manager and coach had assigned seats.
"There would always be a black boy, a white boy, a black boy, a white boy and it was the same with the room assignments," recalled Rick Reid, a white player who now is a veterinarian in town.
"But we didn't care. It was just one of the coach's rules."
Zacher had painted the door inside the Nowata basketball locker room a mural of a black arm and a white arm joined in a high handshake, and players slapped it coming and going. Still, even if such things were routine on Zacher's team, outside his locker room people took notice. His rules sparked important conversations about race that would have not otherwise occurred.
Sprague, who is white, roomed with a black player, a star on the 1969 team named Kerry Caliman. After a road trip, Sprague's mother told her son he would never room with a black player again.
"I was a good kid, but I said, 'No, you're wrong about Kerry, there's not one thing wrong with Kerry,'" recalled Sprague, now an athletic director in the Tulsa area, who said his father spoke up for his friend, too. "At an early age, I had no prejudice in me and that was really reinforced by Ken Zacher."
For his part, Caliman, a class valedictorian, recalls how Zacher pushed him to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy, even as a school guidance counselor scoffed at the notion.
"I may have been valedictorian of a high school class of a little town with three or four thousand people, but I had never been out of the state of Oklahoma in my life," he said. "I would have not gotten that recognition if it were not for the coach."
Zacher seemed an unlikely change agent for racial equality. He grew up in a predominantly white part of western Oklahoma and attended college in Alva, where his wife at the time recalled not a single black student enrolled in the school.
"We never seen segregation before, we had never realized," said Lynda Coley, who married Zacher when they were right out of high school.
"Right away, both of us were in shock," Coley said. "We were stunned. I felt like I knew nothing of the world, and it was just not OK. And there was this spirit of these people who would walk over the railroad tracks to school ... and they would go to school with these people who didn't even like them everyday. And it was not OK. It was not OK to me, and it was not OK to Ken.
"But it was like he was going to change it. He would just bring up whatever it was, and he would bring it out right in the open."
Indeed, one of Zacher's first rules was that his team would have one captain. Before Zacher, there were two captains, Caliman said. If one was black, the white co-captain always escorted the queen to basketball homecoming, a tradition played out in small towns across the Midwest.
"On the night of the homecoming, when the crowning of the queen was going on, those of us black players just stayed in the locker room," Caliman said.
"It was not out of the ordinary. I didn't have feelings about it one way or another, and years before that I can remember very good players, black players, who may have been co-captains but never singular captains, doing things like opening car doors for the queen's entourage and carrying the stage out for the queen to be crowned."
Just before the start of the 1971-72 school year, Zacher made plans to attend a weekend teaching session at the University of Oklahoma's "Consultive Center for School Desegregation," one of about a dozen such facilities across the country funded by the federal government that was intended to help local schools ease the transition to full integration.
The clinics were housed on university campuses and mostly offered lectures to elementary and high school teachers. The training wasn't mandatory, so those most in need of it were free to refuse. But after Zacher heard about the clinic, he quickly signed up.
When Zacher returned to Nowata, he walked into the superintendent's office and complained about the lack of black captains and cheerleaders. Worried about the town's reaction to "black captains and white queens," the superintendent, Glenn Moore, called a meeting of the school's head coaches a few days later and proposed to let the homecoming queen pick which team captain would escort her to the dance. Zacher threatened to quit. They left the question unsettled.
By 1970, there were 3,379 people in Nowata, according to U.S. Census figures, and 268 of them were black. There were five black players on Zacher's 1971-72 squad. One was a skinny senior named Dale Martin.
He wasn't a star, not like Warren Dennis, another black player who was fast developing into a major college recruit and one of the top talents in Oklahoma. Well liked by teammates, Martin served on the student council and made honor roll. He was the son of the school custodian. During summer breaks, he helped his father clean the empty hallways and classrooms.
He was an unlikely pick for captain heading into the school year. Only seniors were eligible, and Dennis was still a junior. Next to Dennis, the team's only returning varsity player was Rick Reid, who was white. But Reid, the popular son of the town doctor, broke his arm during the second game of the football season. While he hoped to play and remained on the team, doctors weren't hopeful.
One day in late November, the team gathered in the locker room and, one by one, players privately scrawled their choices on bits of paper and tossed them into a hat. Alone in his office, Zacher tallied the vote.
By a 15-7 vote, on a team with five blacks and 17 whites, Martin had won.
"I was surprised the guys would elect me as captain," Martin recalled in a phone interview from his home in Colorado. "But I was all in.
"I knew the minute that I was elected, the first thing that went through my mind was the coronation. I told coach, we knew, we looked at each other and he just said, 'What do you think we should do? Do you want to go through with it and leave it like it is?'
"I said, 'Yeah, we can leave it like it is.'
Within days, Martin was pulled out of class for a meeting with Moore, the superintendent. Three decades earlier, Moore flew more than 100 World War II combat missions in a P-47 Thunderbolt and had returned home a decorated war hero. When he died years ago, he was so popular that the town's middle school was named in his honor.
Moore wasted little time telling Martin that "the community wasn't ready for it," Martin recalled.
"I'm going to stay the captain. I'm not stepping down," Martin replied. "We're going to do it the way the coach wants to do it."
Martin's election quickly reignited the earlier private confrontation between Zacher and Moore. With things still unsettled, the school board intervened in December, reluctantly agreeing to let the coach handle the homecoming after Zacher threatened to tell the news media.
As the controversy erupted, Martin and Zacher agreed to drop the kiss from the ceremony. Two high school girls passed up the homecoming spot after they were picked as queen, an honor awarded for selling the most tickets to the homecoming. Finally, a sophomore, who was white, agreed.
But for all of the trouble in Nowata, and whispers that perhaps the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan would show up, the actual coronation, with the first black captain in school history, took place Feb. 4, 1972, without any problems.
"Thunderous applause went forth once more after Martin put the crown in place, and the ceremony — simple, yet harmonious — was over," the Coffeyville, Kan., Journal reported.
Zacher's problems, however, had just begun. Right away, Zacher realized the larger ramifications of Martin's election, and he and his young family — wife Lynda Coley and daughter Kendra Nelsen — would experience, though never talk about publicly, unexpected fallout as the homecoming controversy unfolded.
"Ken was very excited" after Martin's election, said Coley. "He was like, 'This is it, this is it, we've accomplished something.'"
"But I'm not sure we did," she said, only to pause again. "Yes," she said, "we did ... but it was so hard for so many people."
Zacher's daughter recalls other things that happened, things her mother does not care to discuss.
"I can remember the cross being burned," Nelsen said. "They'd beat on windows and run, they cut electricity off, they'd burn a cross. And then all of the sudden people I played with all of the time, or I had gone to their houses, you could see the kids had been influenced by the parents, because I was suddenly invisible to them."
Zacher may have thought the ceremony ended his standoff with the administration, but town leaders were furious about the publicity generated by the homecoming. There were plans under way to make sure the coach's contract wasn't renewed.
"At the end of the year, it just escalated and escalated and escalated to where the board decided they were going to fire the coach, and that's when people started lining up behind him or behind the board, and it was almost always split between black and white lines," said Bob Knoll, the assistant coach.
English teacher Charlotte Kincaide, who is white, was an exception, although not the only one. She said she did not shy away from talking about issues of race during class if questions arose. And Martin remembers how Kincaide took him aside in the hallway.
"She'd always say, 'Hey, hang in there, don't worry, the school board doesn't know what it's talking about,'" he said.
One day, Kincaide was called out of her classroom after school for a special meeting.
"So we went down to the superintendent's office and a couple of the school board members were there," she said. "Right away, I knew something was going on. They were essentially chewing me out for speaking out about how I felt. And they just made me so mad. I told Mr. Moore right then, 'Well, if that's the way you feel, I won't be here next year.' And so I quit."
The school board meeting to decide Zacher's fate took place in Nowata's gymnasium on a Friday night in April. There wasn't an empty seat. Pro- and anti-Zacher factions sat on opposite sites of the gymnasium. It was a meeting that already had polarized the town, playing out for months around dinner tables.
Basketball team manager Blake Rider had shouting matches with his father so frequent and fierce that he became sick from the stress. Then his father, without explanation, perhaps moved by the words of a son who later entered religious life, ran for the school board on a pro-Zacher slate of candidates. He lost.
Before the meeting, Moore handed out copies of a 12-page report to the board and news media. In it, the superintendent called Zacher "a man of high moral character" who was "extremely difficult, if not impossible" when it came to decisions he didn't like affecting his basketball program or personal convictions.
Moore insisted that most of the Zacher opponents from the white community were not racists: "They also recognize that many kinds of discrimination do exist and that it will not end because someone demands authority or defends a principle," he wrote, "but it must be overcome through education, understanding, compromise and compassion ... for both the black and white races."
Cheered in the same gym as basketball stars, Caliman and Sprague returned to their old school to a different reaction when they spoke up for their coach.
"I remember walking up to the podium looking at all the same people who cheered me, boo me when I finished," Sprague said. "And I tell you, that had quite an impact."
When Caliman later returned to the Naval Academy, superiors confronted him about a letter that had been sent from someone in Nowata. It said Caliman was a disgrace to the uniform and that he should be kicked out for getting involved in local politics.
It was advice the Navy rejected, said Caliman, who later graduated from the Naval Academy, with Zacher and his family on hand to celebrate.
One of the school board members that night was an attorney named Bill Maddux, whose son not only played for Zacher but roomed with Martin on road trips.
While other families argued, the younger Maddux, also named Bill, said there was never a divide between him and his father over Zacher. He said he trusts that the decisions his father made as a board member were for the best, because his father, he added, is a smart man.
His only regret about his time with Zacher: "I wish I could have played even harder for him."
In an interview in his home here, the elder Maddux said Zacher was a good coach, but "he had difficulty with authority."
"As a matter of fact, he rebelled against it. And that was the reason he got fired. Dale Martin was a fine young man. He was then and I'm sure he is now."
At 3:50 a.m. on April 3, 1972, after eight hours of discussion, the board voted unanimously against renewing Zacher's contract, citing among other reasons "willful neglect," "insubordinate conduct" and "persisting in a course of conduct that resulted in the loss of confidence, respect and support of many school patrons."
Waldo Jones II, one of the NAACP lawyers who represented Zacher free of charge, recalled the case years later from his Tulsa law office. He said the school board seemed to have its mind made up.
"They nodded and listened politely," he said.
Back in his office in the school gymnasium after the vote, Zacher confided about his uncertain future to Jack McNickle, then sports editor of the Coffeyville Journal, a newspaper about 30 miles north in Kansas.
McNickle didn't just rely on statements from the school board and Zacher in covering the controversy. He spent late nights in Nowata knocking on doors and interviewing black families. He received anonymous threats over his coverage. His car tires were slashed. Even now, people who were once his friends haven't spoken to McNickle in 40 years.
While Zacher said he planned to appeal, he took a look around at the walls of his small office lined with trophies, letters and clippings.
"If they do make me move," he told McNickle, "it's gonna take a while to pack."
Three days after Zacher's firing, in a more sparsely attended meeting in the school library, the board told Zacher's assistant, Bob Knoll, that he could stay on as a teacher but not coach. It was Knoll's first job out of college, and he had a family. He promptly quit.
Students, black and white, walked out of spring sports in protest. Warren Dennis, the rising star basketball player, would never play another game in Nowata, telling McNickle that he was "ashamed" to wear the uniform. The freshman track team quit, and members of the baseball team and school band protested.
Meanwhile, Zacher worked to get his job back by appealing his case to Oklahoma's Professional Practices Commission, but the regulatory board upheld his dismissal. Next, Zacher filed a federal lawsuit against the Nowata school board. Though he later won about $7,000, it didn't help him get his job back.
The lawsuit, obtained through the National Archives, called Zacher the victim of "bitter opposition" from the "overwhelmingly white power structure of the community of Nowata." It said that the Nowata job was more than a livelihood for Zacher, that losing it caused him "severe emotional and mental anguish".
In 1970-71, Zacher's team went 26-3, the best record in school history. He turned down job offers. But after the homecoming dispute, he could find no work in Oklahoma.
Eventually, he landed a job four hours north in Leavenworth High School thanks in part to Ted Owens, the University of Kansas coach who knew of Zacher's reputation. He hired the coach to help out his collegiate summer basketball camps.
When Zacher left Nowata, star player Warren Dennis transferred to Leavenworth, too. And Knoll would rejoin Zacher as an assistant a year later. By all appearances, Kansas was a step up, a bigger program, a fresh start, a springboard to a college coaching position.
McNickle, the sports editor, had switched jobs, too. Working as a sports writer in Topeka, by coincidence he was assigned to cover Zacher's first game in Leavenworth, a school that he said had a tough reputation. McNickle had heard how some of Leavenworth's black athletes bowed their heads and looked away from the flag during the national anthem, giving the raised arm, clenched fist black power salute that had stirred controversy during the 1968 Olympics.
"I didn't know what I was going to see there that night," McNickle, now an assistant women's college basketball coach in Kansas, said. "But I knew Ken Zacher was not going to stand for that."
When the game announcer asked everyone to stand for the playing of the national anthem, McNickle said, Zacher's players all stood at attention, turned and looked at the flag and sang loudly.
Zacher had several good years in Leavenworth, coaching would-be college standouts along the way. But his 1975-76 team had a down year: six wins and 15 losses. Though Zacher's overall record still stood at 52 wins and 34 losses in Leavenworth, Knoll said one bad season gave school board members who chafed at Zacher's coaching style an opening to get rid of him.
One board member complained, among other things, about the coach's temper and how he had gotten more reprimands — six — than any other of his coaching colleagues, the Leavenworth Times reported.
"His behavior appears to get worse as the win-loss record goes bad," she said, the paper wrote.
In a letter in March 1976 to the paper's sports editor, Zacher said his track record spoke for itself: "I sincerely believe that if you polled all the young men I have coached you would find that I have one or two good points in my favor."
In a familiar scene of pro- and anti-Zacher factions, a different school board weighed the coach's fate. This time, he won a reprieve by a 4-3 vote. But he was placed on probation for one year.
Meanwhile, Zacher's personal and coaching life were coming undone. By late summer 1976, he was living temporarily with Knoll, while going through a divorce and fighting to regain his professional footing.
On a cloudy Sunday morning, Sept. 6, 1976, Knoll took his wife and daughter to church as usual.
When they came home, the assistant coach opened the garage door. He found Zacher dead inside, his car still running.
Caliman was on a Navy ship in the Mediterranean Sea when he found out. He has thought often about his old coach since then, but hasn't spoken to anyone about Zacher in more than three decades. He blames his old hometown of Nowata for his coach's suicide.
Some like Caliman believe that Nowata, which has fallen on hard times, could have had something more, could have been something more, if only the town kept Zacher around. Others say that while it's true that Zacher wasn't the same after he left Oklahoma, the town was better off for what happened, for how Zacher pushed for racial change so hard and so fast.
"I know for a fact he did the right thing sticking up for the captain," Sprague said. "It really unfortunately split the town, but I think the town was better off for it."
Then there are the quietly conflicted who say that it's all history, that Zacher was a brilliant coach and a troubled man, that Moore and the school board members weren't racists but good men, that it was just a different time.
"He was a part of some of my favorite memories and some of my worst memories," said Reid. "But I loved him as a basketball coach."
A member of Nowata's school board now, Reid said there hadn't been any tension between the whites and blacks in Nowata before Zacher arrived.
"There were never any bad feelings," he said.
Still, things were not all right before Zacher.
"The reason there was no racial tension is that the black community had stayed in its place," Caliman said, "and then Ken Zacher opened the door for us."
Soon after he was fired, with family obligations and no job, Zacher flew from Tulsa to Detroit alone and checked into a motel room for the 63rd annual national NAACP gathering. The theme of the convention was a fitting one for Zacher — "Confrontation Now" — though his name appears nowhere in the souvenir programs that sold for a dollar apiece.
The audience of more than 2,000 delegates inside Cobo Hall clapped, if only politely, for the coach from an Oklahoma town with a funny-sounding name. Zacher said he wouldn't take but a few minutes, and then he told his story.
"Last year our squad elected Dale Martin, a young man who happens to be black, as captain," he explained.
"He received the votes. After this, the superintendent of schools and the principal of the school and some of the school board members thought that I should ask my captain to step aside and allow the queen to choose her escort, the queen being a white girl.
"I said no. By no means would I do this."
The crowd was not easily moved. They had heard speeches for days, including one from a young Rev. Jesse Jackson. But they listened intently, some even cheering on Zacher.
"They informed me that our community and the power structure in the community would not stand for it, and I said I never consulted with the power structure on who I would play or how I would play or whatever else, and that people are people and we're going to treat them as such and not think of their colors."
Zacher went on for a few minutes more, his Detroit audience louder as each bit of his story unfolded. One school official, Zacher said, told him he would never coach in Nowata again. And yet weeks after his firing, even if nobody else back home believed it, Zacher still had hope.
"Until this happened, I felt like it was a great place to work," he said. "I still would like to, for the benefit of young people in the school — white, brown, red or whatever else."
His time soon up, the crowd rewarded Zacher with a loud and warm ovation. One man rose to speak on his behalf, but the convention's parliamentarian, an aging civil rights lawyer from Chicago named Bob Ming, told the man to sit down. Ming told Zacher, approvingly, that the coach had made his own words.
With that, the coach walked offstage, and then he was gone.
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