John Vickers sits in his office at Truman High School, with his file cabinets, desks and chairs bunched in the middle of the room, as the walls are about to receive a new coat of paint.
He takes a look around the office that features photos of his children and other personal items, which will soon be boxed and taken to his home in Independence as Vickers is retiring as an assistant principal at Truman High School at the end of this school year.
He was a teacher and basketball coach at William Chrisman High School, the 2014-15 Independence School District Teacher of the Year and, for the past three years, an assistant principal at Truman.
It’s hard visualize the past three decades without seeing Vickers on the bench of his beloved Bears, a team that made national headlines when he brought the Grinnell University run ‘n gun offense to Independence.
“I remember calling you, asking if you were going to cover our first game at Fort Osage,” Vickers said, grinning. “We had been practicing the Grinnell offense, but we had run it at camps in Springfield and St. Joseph. We didn’t want anyone here to know what we were going to do. And in that first game, we were down 20 before most people even found a seat, and my guys are looking at me. And I told them, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’”
And it was. The Bears, who lived and died by the long-distance 3-point basket, went on a sizzling 17-0 run and claimed a victory for the ages.
Vickers compiled a 161-232 record while at Chrisman and led the Bears to conference titles in 2001 and 2009. In 2009, he guided the program to its first district championship since 1980.
But you do not define Vickers by wins and losses. For years, his Bears and coach Steve Broughton’s Patriots hooked up in some classic battles.
“We played Truman in a district game over at Blue Springs,” said Vickers, who like Broughton graduated from William Jewell College. “I’d suspended three of my kids for breaking team rules, and the guys we had playing really went after Truman.”
“Steve’s kids wound up beating us, but after the game he shook my hand and said, ‘You guys deserved to win that game.’ I picked up The Examiner the next day, and he said the same thing in your story. When I was offered the job at Chrisman, Steve was the first guy I called. He was a great coach and such a good man.”
A good man.
That’s how Vickers should be remembered. The impact he made in his students’ lives will be his legacy. Here are a few examples:
Nick Richardson and Adam Woods played on a 2009-10 William Chrisman High School basketball team that didn’t win a game. Yet they were winners, and their story transcends the basketball court.
It goes deep into the community – a community that was a much better place while Nick and Adam attended Chrisman.
“You want to talk about a couple of remarkable young men, you can talk about Nick and Adam,” Vickers said.
“Every month in the Independence School District, we have a word of the month. In October, the word was ‘integrity,’ and a student from our high school is honored for having great integrity.”
The student who received that honor was Richardson.
And in a twist, he shared it with a Chrisman faculty member – his coach, John Vickers.
“To win that honor was pretty special,” Richardson said, “but to share it with someone you respect and admire as much as I respect and admire Coach Vickers made it even more special.”
The next month’s word was “citizenship.”
Guess who won? Adam Woods.
“It’s a real honor,” Woods said, when asked about joining Vickers and Richardson in the real-world winner’s circle. “There’s so much more to life than basketball, but right now, with the season coming up, we want to have a great basketball season and we want to make a difference in the community.”
The two Chrisman grads came up with an idea that helped fill the pantry shelves at the Salvation Army on Truman Road.
The young philanthropists started a program called Live to Feed.
They met with Salvation Army officials, who donated barrels that fans can fill with non-perishable food items at all William Chrisman home basketball games.
“Can you believe that?” Vickers said. “It was all their idea. How amazing is that, two young guys hear about the food pantry being empty and they go out and decide to do something about it.
“I’ve been proud of my players in the past. You know that Jon (Ekey, a former Bear who played basketball at Illinois State) ran the program where he collected school supplies for needy elementary school kids.”
“Nick and Adam are helping to feed hungry people right here in Independence.”
Success in class
When he resigned from coaching in 2013, he continued to play a huge role in the lives of his students as he was named the Independence School District’s Teacher of the Year for 2014-15.
He was selected by a panel of community judges that said: “Vickers has set the bar high for his students by having them routinely score in the top tier of the End of Course assessments.”
Those tests, Vickers said, are like postseason games.
“The End of Course exams were special, because those classes became my teams,” Vickers said. “I always felt like I was a teacher when I was coaching, and I became a coach in the classroom and my students never let me down.”
“I know John has impacted hundreds of students,” wrote Matt Beem, president and chief executive officer of Hartsook Companies, in an editorial piece in The Examiner. “He’s taught me two things. First, whether we win or lose really isn’t what’s most important. How we play the game truly defines us.”
“Beyond that, our greatest victories – whether coaching basketball, leading a Cub Scout den or being a good parent – are the positive ways we impact the people around us. Living our lives for others brings us the greatest satisfaction.”
Vickers attended Randall Elementary School and played basketball at William Chrisman, graduating in 1985. He went played basketball and graduated from William Jewell and spent seven years at Liberty High School, where he did everything from coach girls tennis to serving as an assistant on the Blue Jays 31-0 state championship basketball team in 1997-98.
“When I graduated from Chrisman, I never thought I would come back to Independence and coach and teach at my high school,” Vickers said. “If I hadn’t come back to Chrisman, Terry Parker and his wife would have never introduced me to Stephanie Horner, my wife, and we now have four kids of our own – Sophie (who was recently named the ISD Freshman of the Year), Isaac, Lydia and Sam.”
“And now, I’m packing things up in my office and about to retire from teaching.”
He’s not going to do what so many Missouri teachers do – leave the state and get a coaching or teaching job in Kansas.
“I just know I’m retiring,” he said. “I’m a people person, and I’ve been an Uber driver and have really enjoyed that. I see every drive as an adventure, and I’m going to keep doing that.”
“Looking back there are so many people to thank – the staff at both William Chrisman and Truman, Dan Ogle and John Ruddy (administrators) for taking a chance on me, Dr. (Pam) Boatright (principal at Truman) and Dr. (Brad) MacLaughlin (assistant superintendent) for giving me an opportunity in leadership the past three years and all my players, students, coaches – there are so many …”
“Someday, if the timing is right, I would like to coach again. But for now, I’m just going to see what this retirement thing is all about and enjoy spending time with Stephanie and our kids.”