One of the wisest things the Community School ever did was hiring John Remington as a history teacher 24 years ago.
His enthusiasm for world geography is legendary at the school. And his knowledge of sports made him the best candidate for the position of athletic director—a role he has held for the last 23 years at the Sun Valley independent school.
Congenial and professional, Remington became one of the most respected athletic directors in Idaho. By the force of his character and manner of dealing with people of different backgrounds, he elevated the stature of the Community School around the state. He got things done in an organized manner and emphasized sportsmanship in athletics.
"I have the utmost respect for John Remington and the job he's done at the Community School," said John Billetz, fifth-year executive director for the governing body of sports called the Idaho High School Activities Association (IHSAA). "He's a hard worker, very professional, very above board—a fantastic advocate for education and activities in general."
Over the years it wasn't always easy for Remington to crack through deeply held perceptions that the Community School was an elite institution that had little in common with schools in Idaho farm towns.
He has fought through a dense thicket of skepticism. But Remington was and is an educator with a strong work ethic and common touch—just the man for the job.
"Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception of the Community School around the state," said Head of School Andy Jones-Wilkins. "John Remington spent more than 20 years shaping an alternate perception of that. He established good, meaningful, personal relationships with people across a state where relationships really matter. He knew everybody."
Boys' soccer coach Richard Whitelaw, entering his 20th year guiding the Cutthroats, said about the man known as "Rem," "He has been the face of the Community School with regards to athletics, the true constant through many years.
"For most people, the only contact they ever have with the Community School is through Rem. He's unassuming and has an easygoing demeanor. When other coaches or athletic directors have an issue, they say, 'Let's call John Remington, he'll sort it out.'"
For these reasons and more, revealed in interviews with Remington's colleagues, it was a real head-scratcher when the Community School included Remington's job as history teacher and ath-letic director among its staff reductions of eight full-time jobs and three part-time positions this past February.
Remington was the senior member of the school's history department and a 1994 Woodrow Wil-son Fellow in American History from Princeton University.
Tough economic conditions that resulted in declining revenue necessitated the staff reductions announced Feb. 17. Remington's contract was one of those not renewed for the 2011-12 fiscal year. He was allowed to continue his job through the end of the school year.
As of this week, the school has yet to announce a replacement for Remington, or even whether it will have an athletic director for 2011-12.
"He will be sorely missed," said Lee Cook, coach and athletic director at Carey High School, a member along with the Community School in the 1A Northside Conference for small high schools in southern Idaho. "John Remington was our contact at that school. He was our only contact."
Added Northside Conference President Diana Butler, the Bliss High School athletic director for 18 years, "I don't think the people at his school have any idea of what John has done behind the scenes dealing with all the different teams, conferences and issues. It will be very difficult to cover all his bases when he's gone. His loss creates a huge ripple effect that makes it tough for the rest of the schools in our conference. We hate to lose him."
The job losses have been hardest for those directly affected.
Stunned by the job terminations that reflect what's going on all across the U.S., Remington and the other affected staff members have spent the last three months dealing with ramifications like the shattering of self-worth and the inevitable questions of what if anything they have done wrong.
Remington, 54, in a recent interview acknowledged the soul-searching that goes with losing a highly valued job. He's gone through a tough time.
His regrets at leaving the job mainly have to do with the students he'll leave behind. Character-istically, he has approached the end of his long tenure at the school in organized fashion, tidying up his desk, leaving behind the fall athletic schedules that need to be done before school is out, and polishing up a photographic wall in his office of memorable Cutthroat teams.
Remington said, "The main thing is, I've had the finest coaches and I feel I'm leaving the school with the finest coaches, and leaving the programs themselves in excellent shape.
"I'm grateful for the job itself because it has enabled us to live here and allowed me to meet all these fine people along the way. The best things were the kids. That has never changed. That's what I'll miss most, that and my geography class."
Fittingly, but unbeknownst to him beforehand, Remington was honored a week ago with a plaque honoring him as 4th District Middle and High School 1A Northside Athletic Director of the Year. The 4th District Coaches Association unanimously voted Remington as the recipient in early May.
The man who opens the gym for the kids
So, who is John Remington, and why should we care about what happened to him? First and foremost, he's one in a long line of curious people who came to the Wood River Valley not to make a fortune, but simply to live here, enjoy the mountain and do something constructive along the way.
He's a Renaissance man with many different interests and talents, like most of the teachers who built the Community School from the ground up since its founding in Ketchum in 1973.
One of the school's longest-tenured teachers, Director of College Counseling Bob Brock, was asked to comment on his good friend and had to assemble his thoughts by categories that summed up Remington.
Brock's "Rem" list:
Historian, local, Idahoan, map-man, teacher, athlete who can dribble with either hand, recycler, planner, negotiator, politician, manager, physical education teacher, musician, mechanic with a good ear for a well-tuned engine, collector, advocate of students' rights and fair play, astute judge of character, father, husband and a loyal friend.
"He's proud to be a working man from west Ketchum," said Brock.
Remington came to Ketchum from Washington state, via Aspen.
A 1975 graduate of Arlington High School north of Seattle, Remington played football, wrestling and tennis for the Eagles. He was one of five children of hospital administrator Allan Remington and his wife, Marcia, an office manager.
He had a strong work ethic from a young age. As a teenager and young man, Remington worked the night shift, seven nights a week, for seven summers in a frozen vegetable factory. During the high school year he would work five mornings a week, from 5-7:30 a.m., at a grocery store.
He drove a 1939 motor scooter to and from work. It was the first in a long line of older, unique vehicles, especially micro cars, that Remington has always enjoyed working on and maintaining.
Remington graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham with a degree in his-tory in 1979. After a brief stint in New Jersey deciding not to live on the East Coast, he moved to Aspen.
He was a bartender at an upscale restaurant there and did some substitute teaching at Aspen High School. More importantly, he became an avid telemark skier in 1982 and met his future wife, Rita, on a backcountry skiing trip near Aspen.
The couple has been married for 26 years and Rita is a third-grade teacher at Hemingway Ele-mentary School in Ketchum. They are proud of their two children, Alden, 22, a Community School graduate who lives and works in Seattle, and Miles, 14, who will be a Wood River High ninth-grader.
One of the first things Remington did after moving to Ketchum and taking the Community School teaching job from newly hired Headmaster Jon Maksik in 1987 was inherit the girls' basket-ball coaching job from Jim Cogan, a thespian best remembered locally for his inspired portrayal of Fagan in the musical "Oliver."
The startup team was 0-25 in Cogan's first two seasons. New coach Remington had nowhere to go but up. He coached the girls' team for six full seasons before deciding it would be better off in the hands of a female coach, hence coaches Deborah Brun and Ryan Waterfield.
Remington reflected, "I come from a long line of female role models," his mother having been a direct descendant of 19th-century women's rights advocate Susan Brownell Anthony. That back-ground has affected the way he has done the athletic director job.
He said, "I decided to focus on supporting girls' athletics to the best of my ability. The boys seemed to take care of themselves. There was a need for the girls."
Remington started the girls' soccer program at the school. In fact, he started plenty of things: banners in the rafters, promptly updated with the latest Cutthroat successes, and meticulously de-tailed basketball game programs complete with facts about visiting Northside schools. He helped fully accredit the school so students in Sun Valley could participate in Idaho interscholastic sports.
Inviting Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation cross-country ski coach Rick Kapala to join the Cutthroat cross-country running staff was Remington's first step to what the school is now calling its Sun Valley Ski Academy.
Remington said, "Rick and I were sharing the same kids, so I decided to combine the SVSEF and our athletic program. I feel that was the start of what has become the Sun Valley Ski Academy."
When the school petitioned the IHSAA several years ago to stay in the small-school 1A Division 2 ranks instead of moving to 1A Division 1 because of its larger enrollment numbers, Remington twisted all the necessary arms to keep the Cutthroats where they were.
"The potential reclassification would have bumped us up and put a bigger strain on our aca-demic programs because of increased travel time," said Jones-Wilkins. "I was in my second year as head of school. Rem talked me into going to the meeting in Boise. He knew everybody there. They asked about his wife and family. Few at our school realize all Rem has done over the years."
Remington is proud of becoming a Certified Master Athletic Administrator. For 23 years he has been a member of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) and has taken a leadership role during a time of great change in the responsibilities of athletic direc-tors.
Thinking back to his days as Gooding athletic director 35 years ago, Billetz said the responsibili-ties of the AD position have changed considerably from just turning on the gym lights, taking the tickets and locking the doors. "There is so much more involved—discipline issues, budgets, legali-ties and parents. Becoming more professional like John has done is vital," Billetz said.
Away from the gym and playing fields, Remington also established the National Geography Bee for Idaho in 1989 ("I had to give up my spring break for that," he said with a smile). That's when brainy Erich Muehlegger of Ketchum, now a Harvard professor, was an eighth-grader and a con-testant who very nearly made it all the way to nationals.
Remington said, "As I reflect back on my career, the best thing was teaching my world geogra-phy class for 24 years. It was my favorite subject growing up and how fortunate was I to have been able to teach it for so long. I enjoyed every single day I taught that class."
His colleague Brock added, "No Remington classroom was without maps of the world and the Northwest. Two decades of his students were asked to draw maps and label them—to connect them-selves physically to the lay of the land. You have to know where you are before you can ascertain what's what. As a teacher he connected his students to the world."
Accompanying his athletes to tiny Magic Valley farm towns with their ancient gyms and hall-ways, Remington always impressed upon the kids that the buildings weren't just old but they also meant something. He said, "It seemed like there were hundreds of years of grooves made by stu-dents in the staircases and hallways. You could look in the trophy cases and go back in time. Just by being there, we learned something about how it was."
He added, "My philosophy has always been the importance of interaction with other people. I wanted all of our kids to be on friendly terms with kids from other schools. I wanted them to buy into the concept that they represented our school, and the team was bigger than the individual. I felt it was an important part of the educational process."
About 12 years ago, Remington was instrumental in starting what Butler called a "Sportsman-ship Conference," where Northside high school students and athletes gathered during the school day.
Butler said, "We would tour a school, Bliss, Richfield or Ketchum, have guest speakers and just get kids together so they knew each other off the field. We did it for several years and it was a great experience."
Remington's passion is history. His impressive home library includes what he calls the world's largest collection of books on the history of Washington's San Juan Islands, where he has vaca-tioned each summer for 23 years in a cabin on the island of Waldron. His hero is explorer Ernest Shackleton, and he is knowledgeable about Pacific Northwest Indian tribes.
He has traveled extensively and been enamored with different cultures. He once spent six weeks with indigenous people in the Amazon jungle.
The summer break on the San Juans has been vitally important to "maintaining my sanity," after the demanding school year, he said. "I've always looked at my life as 10 months on the job, 24 hours a day, and two months off, 24 hours a day," Remington said.
And the San Juans is where he'll be heading again this summer, clearing the cobwebs to decide what he'll do next.
Shortly after arriving in Ketchum, Remington was a founding member of the Ketchum-Sun Val-ley Historical Society. According to Brock, he knows the background and stories behind many of Ketchum's old buildings.
Aware of a change in Ketchum zoning laws that now permits detached dwellings on lots, Remington spent $1,000 eight years ago and snatched up the 1950-vintage log cabin built by well-known Ketchum dump picker Orville Black. The two-story cabin was located on a lot next to the Mountain Express. He had it moved a short distance to his property, spent $50,000 on the move and remodel, and is renting the cabin.
That's pretty much a visit to his world, one where Remington understands small towns and their constituencies as well as his own, one in which he knows where to find the best southern Idaho café for chili. But a few other topics need to be touched on—soccer and the issue of Daniel Gomis.
Soccer has been the dominant sport for more than 30 years at the Community School—a school that has been a pioneer in the growth of Gem State soccer. And Remington has been an authority in soccer.
His opinion on everything from rules to scheduling of games and tournaments is sought first and foremost by coaches and ADs from all over the area. He is as proud of the state championships won by his coaches as he is about the leadership his school has shown in developing the sport.
"Rem lets coaches coach and he administrates," Whitelaw said. "He has never interfered and always backs up his coaches. He's so easy to work with, and a friend as well, making the whole thing even smoother. The things that need to get done, get done. I've been the luckiest coach in the world."
Two years ago, Gomis was a talented basketball player from Senegal who was ushered into the Community School realm just at a time when the IHSAA and the entire Northwest were being con-fronted with an influx of international students who sought to be placed in Idaho high school ath-letic programs.
In the summer of 2009, the IHSAA quickly had to come up with a new set of regulations to "clamp down on international students and try to protect our own students who have worked so hard to participate when their time came in high school," Billetz said. "We wanted to maintain a fair and equitable balance among all of our schools."
Billetz said, "We came up with an eligibility regulation waiver, or a hardship, that a kid would have to submit and have reviewed by a seven-member committee in order to become immediately eligible to play sports. That's what John did in the case of Gomis, file a hardship, and it was denied.
"So John asked me, what can we do to have this kid play? I said he can play during the regular season if the schools in your conference are agreeable, but we can't let him play in the district and state tournaments."
Trying to get the best deal he could, Remington convinced the voting majority of the Northside Conference to let Gomis play one season of varsity basketball on the condition that he wouldn't be able to play in the post-season. "It took all my years of experience to make it happen," said Reming-ton.
It turned out to be a memorable season for college prospect Gomis, his teammates and Cutthroat fans. Opponents were less thrilled, although they marveled at Gomis' talent.
When it was over, though, some parents and two of the team's coaches blamed Remington for not fighting hard enough to enable Gomis to play in the post season. It was an acrimonious time at the school, letters and emails flying around, and it took a heavy toll.
Cook, from Carey, recalled, "I thought John (Remington) was the one to allow Daniel Gomis every opportunity to play. Unfortunately, some at the school didn't recognize all John had done to make it happen. It may have cost him his job."
Billetz said, "They'll replace John, but it won't be the same."
Whitelaw said, "John was pretty upset at losing his job but he's ready to move on."
Remington, not ruling out a return to the classroom but definitely ruling out another stint as a high school athletic director, said, "I'll look at the options after the summer and see what devel-ops."
He added, "The reality is, I believe I lobbied for what's best for all the kids in the state while also lobbying hard for my own program. I'm also so proud of both our boys. They've shown good sportsmanship and have been supportive and have reflected what I wanted all the kids to demon-strate."