Merlene Davis: Roach was a teacher first

S. T. Roach, then 85, posed for a portrait on Oct. 30, 200, in the old Dunbar gymnasium, now the Dunbar Recreation Center.
S. T. Roach, then 85, posed for a portrait on Oct. 30, 200, in the old Dunbar gymnasium, now the Dunbar Recreation Center. LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Julian Jackson played guard for Sanford T. Roach's basketball teams at Dunbar High School for three years during the late 1940s.

But Jackson's first brush with the legendary coach was in Roach's science class, where a model of the solar system sat prominently on his desk. That set the tone throughout Jackson's high school years.

"He was first a teacher and then a coach," Jackson said. "He insisted on excellence from all his players in order for them to participate on the team."

When Jackson graduated from high school in 1948, "every member of the team went on to college, and that was not unusual," he said.

Bells rang in my head when he said that.

For years I had wondered about a statement Roach made to me in 1984 about the deterioration of the Lyric Theatre, the home of some of the best entertainment for black people in the Bluegrass during the Jim Crow era.

Roach lamented the loss of the Lyric, which he remembered fondly, saying that it had begun to lose its luster before desegregation but that the collapse of those racial barriers was the fatal blow.

"I think we lost something when integration came," he said.

I found that a strange statement coming from a man whose career could have been far greater than the legend it was had he been able to coach white basketball players or compete with white teams throughout his career.

Why would he want the return of a time that was so racially repressive?

Jackson's words showed me it wasn't the bad that Roach missed, but the good.

He missed the times when an entire community was vested in the future of its children, vested in being strong enough to succeed despite the obstacles placed in the way.

Roach was one of the quietest, yet most effective, civil rights advocates I have ever met. Instead of shouting demands, he moved behind the scenes using gentle persuasion to change accepted behavior.

He was all about teaching.

Roach taught black boys they could succeed and excel on and off the court. In fact, he generally cared more about their off-court lives.

"He would follow your career long after you had passed through the halls of Dunbar," Jackson said. "He was always proud to learn of things you were doing."

I know that. Even though I was never one of his students, every time I called he would tell me how proud he was of me. He said young people needed to see what I was doing.

In 2002, when he was awarded his second honorary degree, he said he and other teachers at Dunbar would seek out stories, books, anything that portrayed black people who were success stories.

I asked him why.

"Because we thought the youngsters needed to know what we had accomplished through the years," he said. "That it just wasn't a one-sided affair, that whites only contributed to America's civilization. We did also, and particularly here in Kentucky."

And it wasn't just black and white. He wanted the social studies curriculum at every grade level to have multicultural contributions. That would not only be a truer picture of history, he said, but it would give youngsters something to strive for.

"I think we are missing so much by not making this work compulsory," Roach said. "I just think there is so much that people should know."

University of Kentucky history professor Gerald Smith, who often lunched with Roach and enjoyed the stories, good and bad, that he told, said Roach represented community.

"He did so much stuff that folks didn't know anything about," Smith said, "and he was doing it all the way up to the end.

"He was a Christian gentleman, an ambassador. He paved so many roads in Kentucky for African- Americans, and he did it in a quiet and subtle kind of way. He was a barrier-breaker. He was much more than a basketball coach."

Roach epitomized integrity and the kind of diplomacy that was needed to maneuver during segregation and to prosper after integration.

"There were things he had to swallow, I know," Smith said of the bad times. "But he did what was needed to get it done."

He was first a teacher and then a coach, someone my children could look up to and not worry that feet of clay would bring him down.

I am so proud of you, Coach Roach. I hope young people are seeing what you have done.

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