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Harold Ray Lester, 74, died Friday at his home in Seymour.
It’s been something in the neighborhood of five or six years since I last visited with him while we were standing in a grocery store checkout line.
I’m going to miss him.
Apparently, so are many of our friends here in Roane County.
You see, across his three score and 14, in one way or another he touched several of our lives.
If you caught one of my recent blogs on roanecounty.com, you’re well aware of the “six degrees of separation” concept.
It suggests the idea that everyone is at most six steps away from any other person on Earth, so that a chain of, “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in six steps or fewer.
In that particular blog, I touched on how I had a personal connection to Roane County High School football coach Vic King through one of his Crossville colleagues “back in the day.”
Specific to Lester, I’ve also learned that many of you knew him.
While we live in the shadow of Neyland Stadium and the University of Tennessee, it has become apparent over my time here that Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City has been a favorite spot for local folks to continue their education.
A few well-seasoned “old-timers” have also informed me they played football there.
And just about every one of them has expressed surprise when they learned their old teammate, Harold Lester, played such an important role in my life.
He had a lot of nicknames bestowed upon him by his gridiron buddies. Many were, um, a little too salty, so to speak, to share here.
Let’s just say Harold Lester was “old school” through and through when it came to getting it done on the field.
As for me, he was “Mr. Lester.”
He was my high school principal, and I was scared to death of him.
He was a strict disciplinarian. He ran a tight ship. He had high standards and expectations for the students under his charge at Powell Valley High School in Big Stone Gap, Va.
He frowned upon tomfoolery in any form.
From eighth grade to my senior year, I was able to be a low ball in high weeds and stay off his radar.
Well, we did have two serious conversations. One occurred after the summer of my freshman year. The other occurred the spring when I was a senior.
Before learning of his passing I was actually reminded of the first occasion Saturday afternoon when I was covering the Fallen Officer Memorial Bike Ride here in Kingston. Those chrome-covered two-wheelers that roared into town rocketed me back down a memory lane that stretched back 40 years.
I was once a biker, too. I started on a Honda 70. Then came the Suzuki 125 a bud let me ride as long as I would supplement his weekly gas money.
My dad helped me buy a Yamaha 250 that was my primary mode of transportation for nearly two years.
My late brother-in-law let me use his Kawasaki 175 whenever I felt the need for wind in my face when college and work got in the way of bike ownership.
Then I plunked down a big chunk of change in the mid-80s for a Kawasaki 500. I rode it until my son came along, and I decided I needed to be a little more conservative with my pastimes.
I actually kept my motorcycle operator’s permit active until I surrendered it for my Tennessee license some seven years ago.
The issuing officer in Rockwood asked me if I was sure. I assured him that I was too soft and too old to ride anymore.
Biking had a lot to do with my first serious conversation with Mr. Lester. I was a bit on the rebellious side then and spent most of my early ’70s weekends on regional motocross circuits.
That summer I’d picked up a T-shirt that I thought was cooler than cool. I made the mistake of wearing it to school the first day of my sophomore year.
Mr. Lester was not amused.
On the front it provocatively screamed, “Put Something Exciting Between Your Legs.”
On the back was a picture of an off-road biker flying through the air, his bike hanging near his knees at an angle that would make today’s X-Gamers green with envy.
“Young man, we need to talk in here,” Mr. Lester peered over his black horn-rimmed glasses as he grabbed my shoulder with his iron grip and escorted me into his office.
After a severe lecture about what is and what is not appropriate in “his school,” I was able to turn around to show him the back of my shirt.
I swear, he almost laughed when I looked over my shoulder. But he held his composure and said I could go to my next class if I turned my shirt inside out.
The second conversation came a few days before graduation. Mr. Lester demanded exit interviews with all the seniors.
I was a little more than anxious. I shouldn’t have been. During that half hour, I realized he had a heart, cared deeply for each of his students, and had spent endless hours the past five years preparing us for the real world.
He also admitted he had been as scared of us as we were of him. He winked, smiled and grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously and wished me good luck and Godspeed.
On graduation night in a packed auditorium he not only wished us well but also shared that because we were the first class he’d been with from eighth grade on, he would always remember us.
He kept his word across the decades.
And now, with his passing, those of us who knew him should keep the same promise.
We should all forever remember how Harold Ray Lester, 74, of Seymour touched our lives.