Mention the name Bob Duncan and Olathe North High School in the same breath and it’s likely you’re going to hear a lot of stories from a lot of different people who are Eagle alums of the past 31 years. Olathe North is where Duncan spent the bulk of his 49-year-education career as a guidance counselor and basketball coach helping students to not only achieve their goals but also helping them surpass them.
But when students return to North’s halls for the start of school this fall, Duncan’s familiar face will not be there. This past school year he decided it was time to retire. It wasn’t an easy decision, he said, but the urge to spend more time traveling with his wife Mary Jane and especially to spend time with his 5-month-old granddaughter Bienna were the deciding factors.
“I thought it was time to slow down a little bit,” he said recently. “The babysitting situation with my granddaughter made it little easier to decide.”
Duncan sat on the base of the steps leading to the basement of his home, which fittingly is just up the street from Olathe North.
His house, and especially his basement, is filled with memorabilia related to his long and distinguished career in education, which began down the road in Melvern, Kan It included stops in Onaga (where he met his wife of 41 years) and Ottawa before signing on with Olathe North in 1981, the school’s first official year as North because of the opening of Olathe South High School.
There are dozens of boxes containing photographs, scrapbooks filled with yellowed newspaper articles, signed basketballs and baseballs, and awards he has received over the years. Many of them are related to sports. He even has one of former NBA star Charles Barkley‘s tennis shoes, which Barkley signed after playing in a faculty benefit basketball game for Project Graduation.
Of his 49 years in education, 39 of them also were as a coach in basketball, baseball and track helping to coach the likes of now New Orleans‘ Saints running back and kick return specialist Darren Sproles.
But it’s difficult for Duncan to reflect on any one athlete, or student, or team to highlight his career.
“Not really,” he said. “Through the years you develop some good report with certain kids and keep in touch with those kids. It’s hard to say that one individual or one team sticks out; I guess they all do.
“That’s what I’ll remember: all the relationships you develop through the contacts with the kids. Everywhere we go, we run into someone I taught in driver’s ed (including Olathe Northwest principal Gwen Poss) or coached. That’s what I’ll remember, all the friendships that I’ve developed through the years.”
It’s the friendships that mean even more than any education or sports awards he has received, which includes two league coach-of-the-year honors.
“Awards? I never put much stock in getting teaching and coaching awards because it’s all due to what kind of kids you had,” he said. “Someone told me once that I was a pretty luck guy to touch all those lives and to make a difference and he was right. The main rewards will be the friendships and relationships you build with people and if you help somebody.”
And it’s that interaction Duncan says he will miss most not only with students but also with parents.
“We’re pretty lucky at Olathe North,” he said. “We have really good kids and good parents in my opinion, and I’ll miss that interaction with those people.”
Duncan said he has seen a lot of changes take place at North since 1981 from remodeling existing buildings to construction of new ones to meet the demand of a growing school population. The biggest change, he said, has been in technology.
“There have been a lot of changes in the way we communicate to the kids and parents,” he said. “But being an old dog, I would rather do face-to-face communication; I would rather talk on the phone than email.
“But one thing I really like is that we tend to hire kids who have graduated from Olathe North and have come back to teach and coach.”
The Duncans have three children: Bryan, Matt and Christina.
“Both sons went into education,” Duncan said. “And my daughter, who works at Price Chopper, is the biggest advocate for Olathe North in Olathe; she really loves Olathe North.”
Bryan, an English teacher and girls basketball coach at Lawrence Free State, this year became a guidance counselor. Matt works with special needs students at South Junior High in Lawrence and also is the assistant baseball coach for Olathe North.
“They must have saw some benefits to becoming a teacher and a coach and I’m so proud of that,” Duncan said.
“A lot of people talk about how they hate going to work everyday. I spent 49 years doing something I enjoy doing. I thought I was lucky to do what I like to do and I would do it over again — do the very same thing. I guess i would have to say that my only big accomplishment was being able to help some people out, to make a difference in their lives.
“That’s what I really care about.”
Duncan said he expects he and Mary Jane will attend a lot of ball games at Olathe North.
Mary Jane, who was a teacher in a small town near Onega when the two met at a basketball game where he was coaching, said Bob’s retirement will be an adjustment.
“For 49 years Bob’s been in education and doing for others,” she said. “I don’t know how it’s going to work; I’m not used to having him home. But I look forward to having some time for us; it’s been a lot of years.”
She said it was a rare moment when Bob wasn’t involved with the youth of the community where they lived.
But what she always will remember is the reunion Bob organized of Olathe players that had played on past state champion teams to help inspire his 1996 basketball squad.
“I will always remember Mr. Bartlet in his wheelchair in the gym waiting for everything to start; he was so happy,” she said. “Former players and cheerleaders came from all over to spend a weekend reliving their high school days. What a weekend for the 1996 team to learn so much from the alumni and to have the Eagles of the past cheer on their team.”
But all the “stuff” Bob amassed during his career is not what’s important, he said.
“It’s the people that created the memories that makes the stuff important,”Bob said. “And I thank all the people for their friendships and support over the years. Olathe North really has been good to me and my family.”
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