Longtime principal remembered
Don Wilmoth may be best known as a longtime principal at Iola Middle School, but athletics also played a big role in his life, according to Bill Shirley, who served as Wilmoth’s assistant principal and took over the job after Wilmoth retired in 1995.
Wilmoth died Sunday at the age of 85. Funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Before he became principal in 1977, Wilmoth was a teacher and a coach at schools in Iola and Colony. He served as a football and basketball referee for the Kansas State High School Activities Association throughout his teaching career.
Prior to that, he played football for Kansas State Teachers College in Pittsburg.
But go even further back, to Wilmoth’s youth, for one of his more entertaining sports stories, Shirley said. Wilmoth told him about playing baseball as a child at a country school, back when one teacher taught children of all ages from nearby farms.
The teacher served as pitcher. A young Wilmoth approached the plate, settled into his stance, swung the bat and connected with a satisfying “thunk.”
Next pitch, same result, except the ball smacked the teacher right in the center of her forehead. Down she went.
“I thought I killed her,” Wilmoth told Shirley.
Wilmoth ran home to his family’s farm where his father took the woman to a nearby hospital.
School was dismissed for the rest of the day. The teacher survived.
But from then on, the students eagerly awaited Wilmoth’s turn at bat, hoping he might give them another day off school.
“I was the hero of the day,” he told Shirley.
Fast forward a few decades. Wilmoth continued to serve as a champion for students as an administrator.
“He loved the children,” Shirley said. “‘The only reason we’re here is for the kids.’ He said that many times.”
Wilmoth encouraged his staff to remember that not all children come from loving, supportive backgrounds, and that’s why they sometimes act out. It’s important to keep a sense of humor, and find ways to appreciate every student, he said.
Wilmoth started a Teacher’s Advisor program to recognize students, including those who may not have been high achievers. Students were featured on a bulletin board with their picture and a short biography.
He also ensured teachers met with small groups of students on a regular basis to talk about their activities and any problems they faced.
“It’s easy to forget that kids have problems,” Shirley said. “I think Don just had a good heart.”
WILMOTH also was a hero to teachers.
Tom Lane, who now lives in Marble Falls, Texas, taught math at IMS from 1978 to 1988.
His classroom was next to Wilmoth’s office “so he could keep an eye on me.” But just before Lane’s first class on his first day on the job, Wilmoth pulled him into the hallway to tell “one of his five-minute jokes.”
The bell rang, but Wilmoth kept talking. The tardy bell rang. Wilmoth hadn’t delivered the punchline yet, so Lane interrupted: “I’ve got to get in there.”
“I’m the boss around here,” Wilmoth told him, and finished the joke.
“I knew we were going to get along just fine,” Lane recalled.
Lane said he saw Wilmoth a couple of years ago on a visit to Iola, but wishes he had done a better job keeping in touch over the years.
“He put up with me for 10 years,” an emotional Lane said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “When I left, I was crying just like I am now.”