YODER – If you wear Southeast High School Cyclone blue, you’ve got a Bruce Sinner story. No matter when you were there, no matter what your interests were – you know Mr. Sinner.
For Tim Williams, it was personalized math tutoring sessions at 7 a.m.
“I was a terrible student, especially in math,” Williams said. “Bruce was just not going to accept that. The LaGrange bus got here between 7 and 7:10 every morning because our bus driver had to go back. Every single morning, I went into his classroom and that is where I just really realized that he cared for you as a person more than he ever did as a student. He did that for so many kids.”
For Chase Lovercheck, it was the time Sinner pushed him and his teammates to break a long-time school record on the track.
Crockett Herring said that, for him, it was drawing up plays on the bus headed to football games – and then running that play in the game.
Hunter Woodruff said it was a chest-bump after he made some key blocks on a playoff touchdown drive.
And it won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows Bruce, but Macie Murphy’s favorite memory of the retired Southeast High School math teacher and coach is the same as Tim Williams’ – despite more than a two-decade gap between the two.
“He was a real inspiration to me,” Murphy said. “I mean, his dedication in the classroom. He knew we had basketball practice or whatever it would be after school. I’d come in, my brother and I, we’d come at 7 or 7:15 in the morning before school and we’d get help with math.”
Those were the kinds of stories – ones that can only come from Sinner’s kind of dedication to his career and community – were being told Saturday in Yoder. Sinner, who is battling cancer, was joined by well over a hundred former students, co-workers and admirers for a one-of-a-kind classic car show and tribute on Main Street.
Sinner taught and coached for 38 years in Goshen County. Most of those years were at Southeast – and the Southeast community came out in force Saturday. Muscle cars, ranging from a classic Chevrolet Monte Carlo to a modern, fire-breathing Dodge Hellcat, lined both sides of the village’s only paved road so Sinner could see and hear them roar by.
It was a tribute to a man who, by all accounts, was a pillar upon which the tight-knit Cyclone community was built.
“I don’t know if you can put it into words,” Williams, now the Dean of Students at Southeast. said. “I think it speaks volumes that he retired several years ago, and he still has kids thanking him in the senior night program. He’s an amazing person, and amazing teacher and an amazing coach.
“You just always knew he absolutely cared for you. We would complain about him, because he made us work so hard, but the minute you get out of high school you just cherish him because he made you accountable.”
A teacher and coach
Dozens of cars lined the street in Yoder.
From the modern cars to the classics, Sinner took his time to see them all. The drivers pulled their classic rides down a dirt alley to parade in front of Sinner, who watched from the door of the Yoder Community Building.
After the parade, Sinner picked his winner – a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. He used a walker to make his way around to each vehicle, but he spent a little extra time checking out a royal blue Ford square body pick-up. It took second in the show, Sinner said, because of the color.
“I’m Cyclone blue, through and through,” he said. “If you cut me open, I bleed Cyclone blue.”
That’s not a surprise to those who know him. He figures he taught nearly 1,000 students during his career – and he loved it.
“I ended up being in the perfect place at the perfect time,” he said.
He almost wasn’t. Sinner said he originally started teaching to put together finances to be a farmer.
“I was going to go teach for a few years then I was going to be a farmer,” he said. “When we went to look into it, the interest rate was at 14 percent. You can’t farm at 14 percent interest. The next five years, at the 10-year mark, I was the head math teacher and I loved my job. That was the end of farming.”
Goshen County was the beneficiary for the next three decades. During his career, Sinner coached football, basketball and track. He was a part of multiple championship teams in football and basketball, and coached several individual state track champions.
“In 1981, I was the head coach of a championship basketball team – we went 22-0,” he said. “Then I was an assistant coach on five championship football teams.”
And while he made an impact on young athletes, he made a bigger impact with young people in general. Lovercheck, now an NCAA Division 1 track athlete at Portland State University, said Sinner was an inspiration in the classroom, just like he was in the arena.
“Mr. Sinner has been a big part of us,” Lovercheck said. “He’s been there in athletics, he’s been our teacher – he’s definitely been the most supportive individual for everybody in my class the last few years.
“He’s still there, no matter what. He’s been a great role model to me. I’ve always looked up to him. He’s lived an awesome life. He’s been there for me through everything, and he’s the one who kept me into track and football. I appreciate him for that.”
And according to Herring, that’s been the case for Sinner for decades.
“He is such a good guy,” Herring said. “You always knew where you stood with him. He was always there for us when we were screwing around.”
A lasting impact
Of the roughly 1,000 students Bruce Sinner taught, he said he’s taught between 50 and 60 future teachers, and just as many engineers. He’s coached and taught entire families, through multiple generations. He taught them how to win, how to lose and how to persevere.
The crowd on Saturday was a testament to his impact.
“I didn’t do it for the adoration,” he said. “I did it because I love the kids, I love parents.
“I just loved the kids. My job was to make kids who didn’t like math, like math. And even if they didn’t like it, they tolerated it. I said ‘we can do this. Together, we can do this.’ That’s what it was all about – getting kids to like math and work hard at it.”
For Williams and Herring, Sinner was the inspiration to take up the teaching profession.
“Bruce was the hardest, best math teacher I’ve ever had or ever will,” Herring said. “I tested out of all of my math classes before I even took them in college.
“Him and I clicked. That’s what I was interested in, I just didn’t know it at the time. He was very influential – you just trusted what he said. We had that relationship. You busted your ass for him and he was were there for you.”
Williams said Sinner was one of his main influences to become a teacher and coach.
“As a part of our final project in college, we had to write a letter to someone who made a difference in our education – I wrote it to Bruce,” he said. “He means the world to me and to so many others.”
Williams and Herring are just two of the many teachers who drew upon their years with Sinner as inspiration when they were trying to figure out which direction to go in life.
“It’s amazing,” Sinner said. “I can’t believe it. I think it’s because they see how much fun we had, because we had a wonderful staff. We were like a teacher school, where we had four or five kids every year go into teaching.
“It feels good. It feels great. That was one of my pride and joys – how many teachers we put out, how many quality teachers, master teachers.”
A dream life
Most teachers never get to see the scope of the impact they have on their students. Students visit once in a while, but for the most part, it’s all over after high school graduation. But on Saturday, Bruce Sinner got to see the impact he’s had.
He saw it in the way Stephanie Hopkins, the mother of one of his former students, was able to rally the classic car community and make downtown Yoder look like Talladega, if just for a day. He saw it in the near endless crowd of people who flooded into the community center. He felt it in their hugs and handshakes.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Sinner said. “I just love that they showed up.”
Sinner said it was a good day. He got to ride in the winning ’56 Chevy, and he got the experience of a lifetime when he climbed into the Hellcat.
“That was pretty awesome,” he said. It goes sideways, then it just takes off. It’s awesome.”
And, in the midst of his battle with cancer, he was decked out in Southeast gear, surrounded by his former students and athletes. From the stories they told, there was no doubt – after all these years, Bruce Sinner is still Cyclone blue, through and through.
“It’s pretty awesome. I just love that they showed up,” Sinner said. “I’m just glad they’re here. I’m glad to see all of my boys. Except for getting cancer, this is a dream. I’ve had a dream life.”