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Thursday, February 4, 2016

"Coty" and Bob Deering: A Tribute to One of Douglass's Most "En-DEERING" Couples

In February, 2011 Douglass High School Football Coach Bob Deering passed away at his home in Westbury, New York.  His wife Coletta, affectionately known as "Coty" was, as she has always been, by his side.  His ability to push athletes to the best of their caliber was well-known and well-documented in the annals of the old Tri-State Athletic Conference, of which all the former African-American high schools in upper East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia belonged to.

On January 31, 2016, his beloved "Coty" joined him in eternity, passing away.

The following is a never-published interview we did with Coty Deering and pictures of her at the couple's home in Westbury, on Long Island east of New York City.  Bob Deering had only passed away less than a year before.  As was her practice and even though we tried, Coty Deering never liked talking about herself, always deferring to the relationship she had with her late husband, as one.

How are you doing?

I'm doing fine.  I'm enduring all the changes that come along with being a senior citizen, like having problems with my eyes.  I recently had that taken care of, and hopefully for the best.  It's basically cataracts and glaucoma.

With Bob, I just couldn't see going to have surgery, so I just said I'd wait until I have a little more time to have it done.  I kept putting it off and putting it off and Bob was my excuse.  Even though he's gone, I'm still using that excuse because I'm scared (laughs).  The doctor wants to do surgery on the right eye.

Bob wouldn't let me be selfish.  He kept saying to me 'you gotta have this done,' and I would go to look for a spot to have it done, and then he'd say 'well, maybe we ought to wait until next week.'  He was still wanting to be 'Number One,' but we knew it had to be done sometime.  I just had other priorities, and he was it (laughs).

Do you miss him?

Oh Lord, yes.  Yeah.... He used to be such a pain in the neck and I wanted to wring his neck sometimes.  But he was my pain in the neck.  I miss him so much.

He got worse as he got sick, as most people do.  People start losing hope and start getting irritated because they can't do what they used to do.  I was fortunate enough to be able to appreciate what he was going through, but sometimes he could be exasperating.

Even with all that, I still miss him.

I look at his pictures every day and listen to the music I put together for his funeral.. I play that every time I get a chance.  He was just crazy about this particular CD.  Sometimes I'd be in another part of the house and he'd be sitting there at the table I had set up for his entertainment... he had his computer and his materials beside him and I would be upstairs trying to make up the bed and all of a sudden I'd hear 'Coty, Coty, COTY!'  It'd scare me to death.  I'd come rushing back down here, 'yeah Bob, what's the matter?'  He'd go 'put my music on for me.' 

I got him back, though.  I put that music on for his funeral... that's what I played.  When the service was over and all our friends were trying to talk to me, they were saying 'Coty, that was such a unique service,' said 'it was just beautiful.'  One friend told me the poetry in you just came out.'  My best friend who came down from Connecticut to put together my music for me the play the proper song at the right time, said 'Coty.. what I don't understand is, how on earth did you ever think of that?'  I said 'I don't know, Gigi.. I really don't know.'

I was sitting in the family room trying to figure it out, because Bob was not a church-going man.  He'd go to church if I had something going on there, a program or something... he'd go to support me and things like that.

That man hounded me about that CD for months and I think, maybe six months later after everything was over, I think that's when it started hitting me that me selecting that music was the right thing to do because I knew Bob liked it.  It really had nothing to do with me at all, but it was divine action.  My girlfriend had heard it and sent it to me.. I played it (Bob always said 'you play your music too loud) so that he could hear it upstairs and he got to liking it.  He'd come down or sometimes he'd ask me to come downstairs to turn it on, or come upstairs and turn it on. 

He loved that music so much.

Being the perfectionist that his players always said that he was, what do you think he would have thought of his funeral service?

It was him.  It was all him.  He probably wouldn't have changed a thing, probably would have said 'I don't believe how you did all this in such a short period of time,' but he knew I had the gift of gab (laughs).  When the program came down to acknowledgements, I didn't put anybody's name on the program on purpose because I wanted my niece and nephew to do it.  They were coming in from Long Beach, California and we'd just had a big snowstorm here in Westbury.. it was in the dead of winter.  I didn't know if they would be here in time for the service or not and I was afraid to put their names down for fear at the last minute, I might have to ask somebody else to do it if they didn't make it in time.  The minister told me I had done a wonderful job of getting everything set up.

I knew then that God had sent me in the right direction.  I was a little worried at first, but that set me at ease.

It was a military funeral.  Bob had been in the Air Force as a corporal.  He wasn't in there long.  I told him many times over our marriage that he only went in when he knew it was safe.  The war was over in 1945 and Bob and his best buddy went in service soon after that.  I kidded him that they were scared to go in before the war was over (laughs.  They knew they wouldn't have to go overseas.  He knew my sense of humor and we laughed about it all the time... that was the kind of relationship that we had.

Thank God we had humor, 'cause we had some rough times both in healthy times and the unhealthy times.

When we had to put him in hospice, I signed the papers because he had moved beyond the kid of care that would have helped him.. he passed away in February of 2011.

At the funeral when I got up to acknowledge everybody, they all thought I was going to read cards and things.  I thanked them all for taking time out of their schedules to be there for him and for coming out on this blustery winter day, we had gotten 20 inches of snow on the ground.  I told them, 'to me, Bob was an oak tree.  His development came from the support of people like you.  He had beautiful branches in his life, all the time he was growing up, and this beautiful oak tree that I married, would be the members of the Lipscomb and the Deering families, his mother and father's side,' and I had them all stand up.  That was his home family.  Then I said, 'on the other side of the tree and the branches, would the members of the Palmer family, my family stand up.'  I kept going and naming off branches of this big oak tree that was Bob Deering, family, co-workers and friends, golf players and ex-football players, neighbors and everybody else who had touched his life.  It was really nice.

I think I pulled it off, but I was still in a state of shock.

Everybody sure did love him because they had been touched by something he did, or something he said.

I got a beautiful note from one of his kids that played football for him... he lives in D.C. and he wrote me the most beautiful note, talking about how much Bob had inspired him and some of the things he'd taught him.  It had helped him become a grown man.

It's a beautiful thing to be remembered like that.

Tell me about Kingsport and Douglass High School.

Kingsport was Bob's first job.  He loved those kids that came through Douglass.  That was his connection to them.  He really loved them.  I think he saw in them, a place where he had been as a young man.  Bob had dropped out of college and decided he wasn't going back... that's when he and his buddy went off to the Army.  When he came back, his buddies went off to college, but he decided to run the streets... have a good time running with the boys working the coal mines in West Virginia who didn't go off to college.  Then, all of a sudden, he found out just how hard that life was.  That inspired him to go back to school.  Even until the last year of his job as a teacher, he would always remind his students to go to college and get the best rest of their education.  Many of his students have told me over the years 'Mr. Deering saved my life with that advice.'  He could identify with what they might end up going through and he gave them the knowledge that what they did at their high school graduations, could be very important... that THEY are important.  That when they come out of high school, they've got to go on to something better because if they don't, they won't be able to get jobs.  He was so far advanced.  A lot of football coaches as teachers would do A+B+C+D and that would be the end of it.  Bob would put something on there a little more personal toward his students, and he did it all of his teaching career. 

I had students come by and they would tell me 'Mrs. Deering, if it weren't for Mr. Deering, I don't know where I'd be today.'

He taught at Glencoe High School here in New York for 25 years, but while in Kingsport and Douglass, there wasn't much for him to do.  When the Douglass teams weren't playing, he'd be with the other coaches at Johnson City or Bristol playing poker.  He knew they were on the throes of getting rid of Douglass and he saw what was coming.  It really didn't bother him... I think he understood why the school was closing.

There was a rule in Kingsport that husbands and wives couldn't work together at the same school, so while he was teaching and coaching at Douglass, I got on as a secretary... there was only one black school in Kingsport, so where else was I going to work?  Nobody else would hire me.  Eventually, I got on with a school in Kentucky run by Horace Curry's father, and Bob would drop me off on Sunday night, then pick me up again on Friday's.  I only taught there a year and Mr. Curray wanted me to sign on for another year, but then I got a secretary job at Tennessee Eastman and went to work there.

If there is one last thing Bob Deering could have told his students, what would it have been?

It would have been 'boy, I sure did enjoy you kids.  I enjoyed working with you... you made my day... you made my year.'  He really loved those kids.  He put his heart into teaching them.  If he saw somebody not applying themselves, he'd say 'what are you doing, guy?  Where are you working now?  You can't do no better than that?'  That was the kind of person he was.  He was always trying to prod them to do better... encourage them to go on and do something better with their lives.

I remember when Mr. Deering and Mr. Gill would find boys smoking in the boys bathroom.  You'd see them coming down the hall towards the office.  Mr. Deering would have one or two of them by the arm and Mr. Gill would have one or two by the arm or the collar, marching them down to see Mr. Dobbins.

Mr. Gill was one of my best friends.  The first year that Bob was coaching at Douglass, he was taking the team up to Williamson, West Virginia, my hometown, to play a game.  Remember 'The Hatfields and the McCoys?'  That was less than 30 miles from where I was born and raised.  Well Bob had brought the boys up to Williamson one day in March to play basketball against my former high school.  We were due back in Kingsport that Sunday.  Mr. Gill had scheduled the Douglass School Chorus to sing at some event in Johnson City on Monday, and a lot of the basketball players also sang in the chorus.  

Because of a snowstorm that occurred while we were in Williamson, we had to literally crawl back over those mountains down through Kentucky and Virginia to get back home to Kingsport.  Mr. Gill was sitting over there at the school on pins and needles.  He was so mad at Bob he didn't know what to do (laughs).  He was sweating bullets, scared that Bob wasn't going to get back in time with the boys.

Duke Gray was one of them.. Donnie Willie Jones was in the chorus, Major Burnette was there I think.  Mr. Gill was upset because it was going to mess up his singing event.

I've seen Mr. Gill mad so many times and the memories come back to me so quickly.

Bob and I had good times and bad times in Kingsport.  I've always focused on the good times, because in life if you focus on the bad things, you'll never remember the good times.  

I'm so glad that the Douglass alumni have stayed together as a group.  It was really a good school that cared for its students and I'm glad that Bob had a part of that.  I just hope I was a good secretary (laughs).