"The Lord don’t want me and the Devil won’t have me so I’m kind of in limbo." Ask
Jerome Robert Van Meter the secret to centenarianship, and that’s the answer you’ll
get. He goes on to add, "I’m not sure there is any secret; just hanging in there,
Van Meter, who graduated from IWU in 1922, will turn 102 this August, making him the
university’s oldest alumnus. He currently resides in an assisted-living facility in
Beckley, W. Va., where his earlier coaching prowess earned him honors almost too numerous
to mention. In a recent poll of sportswriters and coaches, he was named one of the
10 best West Virginia high school coaches in the 20th century. Those voting established
several criteria, one of which was, "You had to be wildly successful in coaching at
least two sports."
He is also in West Virginia’s Athletic Hall of Fame. But his acclaim doesn’t stop
with the Mountain State; in July of 1997, a month prior to his 97th birthday, he was
inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame. "They tell me I’ve got a plaque
hanging in the National Hall of Fame up in Springfield, Massachusetts," he reports,
"but I’ve never been there to see it."
Van Meter was born in 1900 and grew up in Williamsville, Ill. "I was a Cubs fan,"
he’s quick to mention. "When I was a kid, my friends and I would find ways to go to
some of their games. We went on passenger trains a good deal of the time, but we’d
ride up on freight trains if we had to. This was before Wrigley Field was built, when
the team was still playing on the West Side Grounds."
He is thus one of the few living Cub fans—or Americans, for that matter—who can remember
the last time the team won a World Series (1908) and also Sammy Sosa’s continuing
assault on power-hitting records in the early part of the 21st century.
At age 18, in 1918, Van Meter served in the military as an infantry man in "The War
to End all Wars," a.k.a. World War I. But as the war was winding down, he was able
to enroll at IWU in the fall of that year. In his four years on campus, he majored
in math and science while finding plenty of time to compete as a multi-sport athlete
for the Titans. He played football, basketball, and baseball.
IWU’s 1922 yearbook boasted that "Wesleyan’s prospects for a successful season this
year are especially bright. This year’s captain, Jerome Van Meter, a veteran from
last year’s team, is the proper man to lead the team to victory this year. ‘Van’ is
one of the steady ‘get-results’ kind of player. There isn’t anything flashy about
his playing but he has a habit of putting at least one over the fence in every game."
Jerome’s older brother LaRue was a versatile Titan athlete as well. He, too, graduated
in 1922 and enjoyed a successful high school coaching career, mostly in Southern Illinois.
"When I graduated," says Jerome, "I looked out of state for coaching and teaching
opportunities. I didn’t want to be competing with LaRue for recognition—we’d been
doing that most of our lives. Besides, math and science majors who could coach were
in demand most everywhere. I had a lot of choices and options. I picked Point Pleasant,
West Virginia, almost out of a hat. I’d had no previous exposure to West Virginia
but it just seemed like a right fit somehow."
After teaching and coaching for six years at Point Pleasant, Van Meter took a similar
job at Beckley’s Woodrow Wilson High School. "They offered more money," he says, "and
we certainly needed it." The we, in this case, included his wife Aline, who eventually
became his marriage partner of more than 70 years.
It was at Woodrow Wilson that he became the legendary coach known as "The Gray Eagle."
He coached the Flying Eagles in football and basketball for all or parts of four decades.
His teams enjoyed stunning success. From 1930 through 1959, his Beckley-based basketball
teams won 501 games while losing 159. During the ’30s, his teams were consistently
winning and challenging for various championships. But it was after that other "war
to end all wars" (WW II), which put his coaching career on hold, that Van Meter moved
his Woodrow Wilson teams into even higher gear.
"I spent ’42, ’43, and ’44 in the military, training troops. I trained troops in Alabama,
Long Island, New York City, and New Jersey. I was anxious to get back into coaching
at Woodrow Wilson just as soon as the war ended."
Upon his return to Beckley, he led the Flying Eagles to state basketball championships
in 1946, 1951-54, and 1957. Years earlier, in 1940, they finished as state runners-up
with a record of 25-3. Part of the reason for so much bounty was Van Meter’s modern
approach to the game; he was ahead of his time. "I wanted players with lots of speed,"
he says. "Quick, quick, and quicker. I tried to change the nature of the game by changing
its tempo. We liked to press all over the court and run fast breaks whenever possible.
It was a strategy which really caught some of our opponents off-guard."
His football teams were no less dominant. He compiled a record of 155-55-12. Woodrow
Wilson captured state titles in 1947, 1948, and 1951. All three teams were undefeated.
His final three teams (he stopped coaching football after the 1954 season) all finished
with 9-1 records.
"I always insisted on discipline," Van Meter explains. "If you didn’t have discipline
you couldn’t play for me. The greatest athlete in the world is not necessarily going
to be beneficial to your team if he can’t follow coaching directions and work as part
of a team." Scores of his athletes went on to enjoy college athletic success. One
of them, Bob Pruett, is the current head football coach at Marshall University.
Many of his former players recall his leadership qualities and his compassion as well
as his vision with the X’s and O’s. One of them, Beckley resident Robert Young, says,
"I always get the chills when talking about this man, because I have always looked
on him as a dad, coach, and friend....He is one of the greatest coaches I have known
and is a legend in West Virginia and throughout the country."
Young and many other former players and friends were there to rally around the coach
when he returned to Beckley a few years ago—a move prompted by wife Aline’s progressing
Alzheimer’s condition. "We’d been living down in Leesburg, Florida, for about 17 years
when Aline’s condition deteriorated to the point where I couldn’t really take care
of her," he explains. "I decided to return to Beckley, where everybody knew us and
we had a network of friends to help us out."
Aline died two years ago. "She recognized me, knew who I was, right up to the end
of her life. She would squeeze my hand and look me in the eye. She knew who I was."
The secret to a 74-year marriage? "You have to like each other," Van Meter says. "It’s
not hard to fall in love, but you have to like each other to flourish together over
the long haul."
Van Meter and Aline liked each other from coast to coast and border to border. "We
used to travel every summer in an old Holiday Rambler. Eventually we bought a trailer.
We visited every state in the union, and that includes Alaska and Hawaii."
Many of these summer sojourns included stop-offs at coaching clinics. "I went to different
coaching clinics over the years," Van Meter recalls. Several of them were at the University
of Illinois, where he collaborated with the legendary Bob Zuppke, and Notre Dame,
where he worked with another football icon, Knute Rockne. "Rockne and I got to know
each other pretty well over time; he used to call me ‘West Virginia.’ Zuppke was a
fine man and an excellent coach, but he was a little more reserved, not as easy to
get close to."
All the while, Van Meter hasn’t forgotten his connection to Illinois Wesleyan that
began more than eight decades ago. Although his last campus visit was in 1988, he
maintains contact with IWU administrators and coaches, and a scrapbook of Van Meter
memorabilia maintained by friends is filled with photos from his Illinois Wesleyan
On the eve of his 102 birthday, Jerome Van Meter views his long and fruitful life
with gratitude and humility. "It was a great life for me to start coaching at [age]
22 and still be teaching till 1972." Buoyed by a strong spirit and blessed with the
support of his many fans and friends, the "Gray Eagle" soars on. Who knows?—he may
yet see his good ol’ Cubs win another World Series.