One tough little trojan

Most legends are long gone. This one isn’t. One of Arenzville’s most lasting icons died in 2006 and with the passing of Don Kemp the town lost something at least as memorable as Burgoo and hybrid seed corn.  Running up a football coaching record of 254-79-9 and a basketball string of 564-236 is one thing, but to do it with Don Kemp’s particular style is quite something else. 

Of course all three Triopia communities share the legend of “The Kemper,” but Arenzville is where he made his home, living for 26 years in a sleeping room in the home of Ron and Faye Kershaw. As Mrs. Kershaw put it, “He came with the house.” 

Our legendary Coach Kemp probably couldn’t spell “malapropism” but he was the master of tangling words and phrases. In fact, he’s still quoted today and loved even more for the way he mishandled the English language. Just a few Kemp-isms: 

“Man! You’re runnin’ around out there like a man with his chicken cut off!”

“Jones! Go to the scorer’s bench and find out what 52’s number is!”

“You see kids, when the sun goes around the Earth..” “ The Earth revolves around the sun.” “Man! Then we’d all fall off!”

“After we win the state championship game we’re gonna have a ceremony up at the Central Park Plasma.” 

“Boys, tonight we’re gonna play a basketball team that’s got a 3-2-3 defense.” 

“Man! You’re out there doggin’ it as far as doggin’ it is concerned on the situation on the deal!”

When a student had surreptitiously stuck a bit of paraffin inside a dissected frog then asked Kemp what it was: “Man! That’s the grizzard!”

One of Kemp’s fellow coaches walked into the athletic office to find him sitting at his desk and pouring peroxide into his ear. When asked what he was doing he said, “I got scientist infection!” 

More than one Triopia biology class has had to stifle its giggles as Kemp mispronounced the word “reticulum.” 

One of the most infamous Kemp tales happened one evening as he was bringing a carload of his players home from a late night ballgame. The Coach had just installed a set of deer whistles on the front of his car and none of the boys had seen such things before. One of the kids asked him what the little black objects were and he said, “Those are animal deflectors! They make a high whistle and the deer hear them and Wheee!…they get out of the way!” Just then, according to the boys, a possum ran in front of Kemp’s car and died a smashing death. The boys looked at Kemp. Kemp looked at the boys and said, “Man! Deaf possum!” 

When Don Kemp died in August of 2006 at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City, he left behind a legacy of not only winning sports teams, but a rich storehouse of memories for all those who’d played under him. Born and raised in Stronghurst, Illinois, Kemp played football at WIU then came to Arenzville in 1953. He taught biology and driver’s education at both Arenzville and then Triopia before retiring in 1989. When the IHSA instituted the football playoffs in 1974, Kemp made sure that Triopia was in the championship game the first three years, winning the title in 1975. 

Many locals attest to the fact that Kemp was a major influence in bringing the three communities together to form Triopia. His dedication to the school sometimes took on aspects as unique as his personality. After the Friday night football games Kemp would launder all the uniforms himself, and it was widely known that when a student lacked funds for a class ring or letter jacket, it was the Coach who’d mysteriously supply the needed cash. 

Any high school coach knows that his job depends upon his record. When Kemp passed his 500 wins mark in basketball, the school held a celebratory roast. Dick Bartholomew, one of his assistant coaches noted, “You wonder…would we still like Don Kemp if he hadn’t won 500 games? Yeah, we would. Of course we’d sure as hell miss him, but we’d like him.” 

Arenzville will never truly discover the answer to Bartholomew’s question since Don Kemp was both a winning coach and a great friend to the community. One might wonder whether his in-your-face style of coaching would be accepted in today’s more litigious world of education. I think it would. It’s hard not to like a winner.  

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About the author

Ken Bradbury is an adjunct instructor of theatre at LLLC after retiring from Triopia. He entertains on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat and is the author of over 300 published plays. Website:

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