Former Tech athlete Jerry Gaines visits Blacksburg High
BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s first African-American scholarship student-athlete spent a few days in the New River Valley last week speaking to Montgomery County students about making winning choices.
For the 13th year in a row, Montgomery County Public Schools has offered its “Winning Choices” program for its students in partnership with local rotary clubs, the Corps of Cadets and Athletic Department at Tech. The program is intended to promote character education.
Jerry Gaines, a Portsmouth native and former teacher, told Blacksburg High students that success isn’t about grade-point average or how much money they earn.
“The most important thing in life is relationships,” Gaines said. “Success isn’t measured in dollars. It’s all about relationships, and it’s all about helping each other.”
Gaines enrolled at Tech in the late 1960s on a scholarship to run track for the Hokies and built lasting relationships on campus to help him succeed, but the most important relationships to him have come from his former students.
He still holds numerous records in track at Tech and was the first African-American inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Tech, Gaines was hired as a Spanish teacher at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake.
There, Gaines coached track, cross country and football. Gaines’ running success continued as he led the school’s cross country team to eight straight district titles.
Gaines was named High School Coach of the Year by the Portsmouth Sports Club in 1987 and Chesapeake’s Teacher of the Year in 1990.
Although those accomplishments mean a lot to Gaines, he’s most proud of the relationships he built with former students during his teaching and coaching careers.
He can still see the effects of those relationships today.
Gaines told Blacksburg High students about a former student of his named Tim. Tim wanted to run on Gaines’ track team so he could pursue a girl, who was also on the team.
Tim was “the worst runner he’d ever seen,” Gaines said.
By the end of the season, Tim had surprisingly stuck with it, Gaines said. After a season of hard work, Tim became the team’s Most Improved Runner thanks to a little coaching and a lot of dedication.
Gaines told students to learn from Tim: It’s not the gifts he was given, but how he used them.
Many years later, Tim contacted Gaines via Facebook. Tim told Gaines he had joined the Marines and led many soldiers during his two tours in Iraq based on the lessons he had learned from his former coach and teacher.
Gaines asked Tim Neal to stand in front of the audience of Blacksburg students.
Neal stood up and received applause, but Neal stood for something much more. Neal represented the many lives
Gaines had touched through long-lasting relationships during his school years.
Now Gaines, an author, speaks to students on many occasions doing what he can to convince them the importance of realizing how special they are.
“I want to establish that each child is beyond precious,” Gaines said. “That’s why I make it a point to point out they weren’t given their own thumbprint for no reason.
“You have some special purpose that was designed just for you,” Gaines said.
For several Blacksburg High seniors, Gaines was successful in getting that point across.
Senior Ben Sternfeld said the assembly was different from others he had previously been to. He believed Gaines was able to relate to students in a more personal way because of his own experiences.
“I think what really motivated me was his personal definition of success and how it’s not the money in your pocket or the education you got,” Sternfeld said. “It’s how he helped people and what he learned from those people he helped.”
Senior Lindsey Cusimano said it was nice to hear that, while intelligence is a great thing, it’s not the only thing. Gaines really stressed the importance of using your gifts and working hard to succeed, she added.
Gaines hoped he inspired students and felt that it is the responsibility of adults to feed their children positive encouragement to help them achieve that success.
“What happens is that they scream at the adults around them, ‘Tell me who I am,’ ” Gaines said.
“So we need to tell them positive things so they can feel good enough about themselves to move forward.
To emphasize his point, Gaines compared the life of a child to a diamond.
“The preciousness is there, the toughness is there, and the brilliance is there,” Gaines said.
“They’re simply all unique, all beautiful.”
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