Community mourns teacher, swim coach
Folks back in high school knew Mark Hess as a standout wrestler.
His close friends in Indiana knew Hess loved to go turkey hunting.
Hess had a trip to Alaska on his bucket list, his wife said.
And as quickly and as broadly as social media would allow, scores of people this weekend were sharing stories of how they knew Mark Hess. They shared their stories amidst tears and stunned disbelief.
The mega-popular physical education teacher at Indiana Area Junior High School, the storied coach who took his Indiana High swimming teams over and over again to regional championships and state competition, the guy who stood for getting the best from nearly everyone he knew, had passed away.
Hess turned 57 just three Saturdays earlier.
He was enshrined in the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame three months ago. In a Gazette profile of his career that mentioned his stellar record of 546 wins as a swimming coach, Hess told of sharing responsibility and sharing rewards: “If I could have it my way, I’d like to have a coach in every lane,” Hess said then.
He spoke then of relying on his assistant coaches for their contributions and the collaboration, rather than competition, with the local Indiana YMCA Piranhas swimming program for breeding the success that all enjoyed.
Some knew Hess had big shoes to fill as a rookie coach in 1984.
The girls’ swimming team had two straight championship seasons and the coach took a job at a college.
Anita Honacki English, a freshman then a sophomore on those teams, said Hess came in with a confident attitude and led the team to championships in her junior and senior years.
“Coach Hess came in with a different approach, a softer approach,” English said. “But at the same time, he had that confidence and was a motivator.
“It was a good team when he got it, but he didn’t just let it be. He continued to grow it.”
Hess developed his interest and passion for aquatic sports when he was in college, said Athletic Director Pat Snyder, Hess’s classmate and casual friend from back in the high school days in Boalsburg, Centre County.
“He lived and breathed that sport.” Snyder said. “And he motivated the kids. He stayed positive with them, shook hands with every one after every race. He was the biggest cheerleader at the swim meets.”
That’s the high-profile Mark Hess known to most in Indiana.
There was the fun and supportive Mark Hess that the students knew — the one whose name students were eager to see when they picked up their class schedule at the start of each year.
“He was always one that if you had a bad day, he could get you laughing and smiling in no time,” said Lisa Davis, who was in Hess’s gym class in the 1980s, then drove his swimming teams to many, many meets over the past decade as a bus driver for Krise Bus Service.
“He always looked out for the little guy,” said Andrew Chapman, one of Hess’s gym students in 1986.
Emily Johns told of her brother and his friends, dressed as girls on Halloween, getting wolf whistles from Hess when they walked by the gym.
“If you made a mistake in class, he would never call you out on it,” Johns said. “And he was always there to talk to after class, even if you were late ... he listened and walked you to class so you wouldn’t get into trouble ... he truly was like the counselor, or big brother or father type of guy we all looked up to.”
“I have never heard Mark raise his voice with any student. He was so laid back. The students respected him and loved him,” said life skills para-educator Eileen Crawford, Hess’s colleague on the junior high faculty for 17 years.
Laura Helmich Rhodes, of Indiana, said Hess helped shape her son’s future as a lacrosse player.
“Sean was recruited to play lacrosse in college but wanted another sport to stay in shape,” Rhodes said. “Coach Hess and Coach Dave King (of the YMCA Piranhas) convinced him he could do it. Sean loved swim team and the family atmosphere. He didn’t win a lot of races but contributed to the team and worked hard for Coach Hess. …
“Although lacrosse is his first love he is a better college-level athlete for the encouragement Mark Hess gave him. As a parent I will be forever grateful.”
Sherene Hess said she met and started dating her future husband in the late 1980s when he returned to visit his family in the State College area. She moved with him to Indiana when they married in 1992.
The Mark Hess she knew had plans to take Grant, one of their four sons, for a weekend of turkey hunting next month in New York’s Finger Lakes region.
And he had plans to see their youngest son, Gage, through high school and then retiring.
“But I didn’t believe it,” Sherene said. “I couldn’t picture him retiring from being a coach. And retiring from school would have been bittersweet for him. He loved the junior high so much. He loved all those kids, whether they were his students or not.”
Snyder said he knew Hess’s positive attitude went beyond coaching.
“The last I heard on Friday, at the end of the day, he turned to the other phys ed teacher, Mrs. Kinter, and told her ‘Today was a great day.’ That’s how positive a person he was.”
At home after school, the Hesses made plans to attend a folk festival in downtown Indiana.
Before heading out, Mark Hess climbed on the treadmill in their home for a workout, Sherene said. He apparently had stopped for a break, sometime around 4:30.
She found him soon after. He had succumbed to a heart attack.
“My consolation is that he was here in the home that he loved,” Sherene said.
In a matter of hours, tributes to Hess appeared on the Facebook social networking website. Former swimmers, former students, friends posted their memories along with condolences to his family. Many posted photos of Mark with his students and his family.
Sherene said she shared their grief.
“I am heartbroken for me and Mark’s family and all of you,” she wrote on Facebook. “Mark loved you all. He would have loved seeing many of you today at the festival downtown and elsewhere. So go and be with each other and hug your loved ones and don’t waste a minute to tell them how you feel.”
The Rairigh-Bence Funeral Home is handling the arrangements. An obituary appears on Page A-4.