Coach Blanke: Creative Writer

Spiro Athanas graduated from McKinley in 1960, where he played football, basketball, and baseball. After graduating, Spiro had wanted to attend Washington University in St. Louis and asked Coach Blanke to write a letter of recommendation for him. This is the story of that letter and how some thoughtful writing by Coach Blanke impacted Spiro's life.

Spiro has published a book of short stories, The Voice of the Titans. For more information about Spiro's book, please click on the picture of its cover to the left.

After graduating from McKinley in 1960 I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t have much money and neither did my family. A friend talked me into enrolling at Southeast Missouri State, and I spent a miserable year there hitch-hiking home every weekend to get a decent meal. I quit school for a year and worked for my brother in construction to save enough money to go back to college. I wanted to go to Washington University in St. Louis because I knew it was a great school and because I had heard about something called a Francis Scholarship. To qualify you had to have the financial need (no problem), you had to maintain a 'B' average (I had gotten good grades at SEMO), and you had to be playing a major sport like football. The athletic department, which meant the coach, decided who would be offered one of those full tuition grants.
I went to see coach Blanke at the end of the 1962 school year and asked him if he would write a letter of recommendation for me to the new coach at Washington University. That new coach was Dave Puddington, who in 2001 was inducted into the Washington University Hall of Fame. He had had a very successful coaching career at Kettering High, one of the several high school football powerhouses in Ohio. Coach Puddington didn’t know anything about St. Louis high school football, but he soon found out about Coach Blanke’s reputation. McKinley had won the Public High League football championship four out of the past six years, and was the mythical State champion in 1960, the fall football season after I graduated in 1960.
Upon receiving the letter of recommendation Coach Blanke had written for me, Puddington called later that summer to tell me the university had granted me a Francis Scholarship. We had never met, so he asked me come see him in his office on campus. I showed up at the designated time of our meeting and his secretary announced my arrival. I’ll never forget the look on that poor man’s face when I walked into his office. I don’t know what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t the five foot seven, 145 pound midget striding toward his desk. He seemed to look over my head to see if the real Spiro Athanas described in Blanke’s letter was behind me.

To this day I don’t know what Coach Blanke wrote to Coach Puddington. Puddington was holding the letter as we chatted, and he mumbled something about 18 touchdown passes in 1959, which was true. Later, after I had gotten to know Coach Puddington who, despite a gruff, no-nonsense exterior, was a good-hearted man, he told me that if Coach Blanke ever gave up coaching he might have a promising career in creative writing. I had saved enough money to go back to SEMO or some other state school, but I would never have been able to go to Washington University if it weren’t for Coach Blanke’s “creative” letter writing. I have often wondered how differently my life might have turned out were it not for that letter.

Spiro Athanas