“This place is me”

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Coach Joe Syer brings in some of his basketball players for a hug during February 2018 basketball final.

LCCVI veteran Coach Syer retires

If you walked through the halls of LCCVI on most mornings, you’re likely to see Joe Syer – Coach Syer to most – standing in the doorway to his classroom, a cup of steaming black coffee in hand, saying good morning to the students.

Sometimes it is just a hello. Sometimes, he teases a student he knows particularly well. Sometimes, he calls out one of this athletes for taking his time getting to class.

But when LCCVI students return to the halls Monday, Coach Syer won’t be there.

Forty-five years after walking into LCCVI and 33 years as a teacher, Coach Syer has retired.

Syer packed up the last of his items from his special education classroom Friday and he took some time to remember the first time he walked through the doors of LCCVI and became a Lancer for life.

Syer grew up in Enniskillen. His mom, Donna, and dad, Glenn, went out of their way to make sure their children could be involved in the things they enjoyed. Syer jokes they would sometimes “pass each other on the Sixth Line” bringing someone to some sports event.

When Syer turned 12, the family moved into town. He went to Queen Elizabeth II Public School and Coach Jim Churchill introduced him to basketball “and I just kind of fell in love with it.”

In Sept. 1974, Syer – who everyone knew as Darren – walked through the doors of LCCVI, earning the title he loved. Syer was a Lancer. He had no idea at the time what an impact the place and the people inside would have on him.

Several of the teachers and coaches became his mentors; Vince Lyons – the Lancers football coach, John Hay and Paul Allen would become an important part of his high school years. Syer played basketball and was on the junior team which went 36-2 on the year winning the Western Ontario junior title. One game – as a senior – Syer scored an incredible 50 points in a 85-47 Lancer victory over St. Pat’s.

He also played three years of football and he remembers the final year as one of the best times of his life. The team didn’t win much, but Coach Lyons made it memorable.

“There would be nights at practice where we could only run plays to one side of the line because we didn’t have enough guys,” he laughs. Their best player, Larry Leckey, he says, never came off the field.

As his high school years ended, he worked for a surveying company returning to LCCVI to help out with some of the sports. He also went to Fanshawe College and helped lead that team to a Canadian championship. That earned Syer and the team a place in the London Sports Hall of Fame.

But when Syer was 24 and pounding surveying stakes into the frozen ground in January, he decided this wasn’t what he wanted to do. He went to Wilfred Laurier – where he continued to play basketball – and where he met his wife, Sarah. When he arrived, he knew he wanted to be a teacher. Syer went to Queens University in Kingston for teachers college. And his mentors at LCCVI found a way to get him back to Petrolia for his practical experience.

When he graduated, Syer walked back into the halls of LCCVI – this time as a coach. Those men who had mentored him as a teen were still there and they formed lifelong friendships.

“Those guys just provided me opportunities that were out of this world like my first Tiger game was with Paul Allen, and my first university basketball game, in Michigan…John Hay taught me how to order my first steak,” he told The Independent Friday as he sat just outside the library doors in the cool fall sunshine, mask dangling from his ear. And he teared up.

“Thank you is not enough from what they’ve done for me,” he says wiping a tear rolling down his cheek.

Syer had an inside look at how a good teacher could be a positive influence on young people. It was what he hoped to inspire in the young men he coached.

“It’s never really been about winning or losing, if it was, I would have got fired years ago,” he laughs.

“It’s about creating that young man, trying to give them like a bar to live by…my expectations are pretty high. Like, the kids dressed up on game day, like when they came in, when it’s game day at LCCVI, you should be in a shirt and tie and when you’ve got class, your shirt is all tucked in…If you weren’t coming to practice, you came to me and told me, right, but I think all those things are important.

“If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

And he tried to instill in the young men on his team how special it was to wear the Lancer colours. “I would tell them only 12 people in the whole school gets to wear this,” he says tapping the Lancer letters on his shirt and cap.

When one of Syer’s mentors – Vince Lyons – was about to retire, he asked him to consider taking on the “People Phys Ed class.” It was a program designed by Lyons to get some of the special needs students involved in physical education to help with their social interactions.

Syer thought he might take on the class for a year to give it a try. He stayed with the program for years. Until his day of retirement, Syer taught special education at LCCVI and loved every minute of it.

“I love my kids. Like it’s just a fact – being in special ed – it impacted me in ways I don’t even know.”

And he says his final years working with Kathy Young and Karen Knight were amazing. “I marveled every day that I came to work.”

But Syer realized in August that the workplace he loved would not be the same. He had planned on retiring at Christmas but as the electronic meetings on COVID-19 protocols continued, he grew increasingly uneasy. Syer has always been the teacher to shake a hand or put his arm around a kid to pass on an insight. He knew that wasn’t going to happen this year. “I want to give people a hug. I’m that kind of guy. And I find it really difficult not to be able to do that.”

And, there would be no sports for the foreseeable future – a sad way to finish off his career.

At the end of August, Syer and his wife had a long talk about his future. Then, Monday morning around 6:30 am he took his dog for a walk, like he did every morning, and when he came back he knew it was time to retire. “Sarah came into the room and I said, “I’m done.'” He wrote is resignation letter and hasn’t regretted it.

Syer says he feels terrible for his colleagues who are starting a school year full of uncertainty but he’s always loved walking the halls of LCCVI and he didn’t want to end his career dreading going to work.

“My wife asked me this morning ‘what are you going to miss the most’. I said, ‘Well, besides my kids, the the interaction with the kids in the hallway, right? Like, I would stand outside my room and my cup of coffee and, you know, try to chat about this kid say this stuff and tease this kid about that, you know. That’s what I enjoyed the most about being here.

“When I stand in the hallway, and you see the kids… you’ll see a boy in Grade Nine that is scared of his own shadow and would never even look at it girl – like he would be so embarrassed right? Then three years later he’s walking down the hall holding a girl’s hand. It was something watching kids watching kids evolve and grow.”

He’ll still see some of that. Syer plans to help out with senior basketball – when they play again – until his son, Trevor, graduates.

And he’ll see some of those kids – and their kids – on the streets of Petrolia. And he says it will be good to catch up.

Syer says it has been an emotional week of saying goodbye and he’s shed some tears – not because he’s sad to leave, but because he’s happy he’s been able to live life as a Lancer.

“This place is me,” he says, sitting outside the doors of the building on the last day of his teaching career. “I grew up here.”