After attending the funeral for legendary coach and teacher Jim Hillery today, I wanted to reflect on his life and the profound impact that he had on mine.
When James R. Hillery was born, I suppose there was speculation that he would embark on a career in the legal profession, following in the footsteps of his father, Chief Judge John D. Hillery. Fortunately for myself, and thousands of other students and athletes, he chose to be a coach and teacher instead.
Not only was he my coach and teacher, he was also my mentor and lifelong friend, a relationship that started when I joined the basketball team at Public School #72. That was when he began to teach me life lessons that continue to guide me to this day.
The most memorable lesson came when he named me captain of the basketball team in 1970. He said “Mark, you are not just our captain on the court.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, so he explained how I had to show leadership off the court, too. That meant leading by example, staying out of trouble, and looking out for all of my teammates.
This was especially important, he explained, for one teammate in particular, who lived on the other side of the city and had to walk two miles and then take two buses to get home from practice. So I went with Coach Hillery every day to take my teammate to his bus stop and make sure he got home safe. I learned later that coach was taking him to his bus stop before he named me captain, but he wanted to instill in me the importance of being a leader in life, not just in sports. That meant looking out for other people, especially those who might need a little extra help.
That lesson resonated with me as I began my career as an elected official, and Coach was there to support me every step of the way. I will never forget when I was running for Buffalo Comptroller in 2011, he was the first volunteer to hit the street and collect signatures to get me on the ballot.
We were asking our volunteers to fill one page with signatures, about 25 in total. When Coach Hillery, in his late 70s at the time, returned later that night, he brought two full pages - 50 signatures in one evening. When he was committed to you there was no stopping him, even though he ended up in Mercy Hospital the next day from exhaustion.
I guess he could have made a lot of money as a lawyer or a judge, but there would be no way he could have touched as many lives as he did with the path that he chose. There are things in life more important than money. A great coach taught me that lesson.
God Bless Coach Hillery.
Mark Schroeder, a Democrat, is the comptroller of the City of Buffalo.