“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
You never know where a walk down the street or an open, honest conversation will lead you. For Coach Tommy Rhea these simple life experiences have helped him discover connection, purpose and love. Through small, consistent acts of kindness and humanity, Coach Rhea does his best to make the world a better place with each person he encounters, and over the course of his career he has encountered many.
Coach Rhea has been a teacher and coach for 46 years, with 27 of those spent as an Episcopal Knight. He has taught four different subjects in five different classrooms and coached hundreds of student athletes. Walk across campus with Coach Rhea and you immediately notice that students are eager to greet him and share the latest news. “Tommy helps students to realize their full potential because he teaches them that they are loved,” says Middle School Division Head Mark Engstrom. “By loving them, Tommy teaches them to love themselves and that confidence plays out in students trying out for new sports, plays, or joining a club they might not have otherwise considered.”
“This man gave up his life for this. He is my hero.”
Coach Rhea’s science classroom is well known for its enthusiastic display of artifacts. As you enter the room, you immediately notice an array of notes, cards, insect collections, microscopes and tree samples. The room reflects what you would expect to find in a space designed for discovery and exploration. A prominent position on a wall near the front is reserved for a large, framed image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Initially, the image may seem out of place until you speak with Coach Rhea about the significance of the man he calls his hero. With true emotion, Coach Rhea discusses how Dr. King dedicated his life to making the world a better place for everyone and how in his own life he strives to do the same. “The more I learn about him the more I appreciate that he was willing to give so much,” he says.
Fueled by that message of compassion and connection, Coach Rhea approaches his role as a teacher with love and joy, letting his actions speak for themselves. As a seventh grade teacher, he readily volunteers to spend a week with eighth graders at Mo Ranch every year. While there, he takes night duty, staying up with students until everyone is sleeping. “The legend among our student body is that ‘Coach Rhea sleeps standing up’ since what they saw each night at Mo Ranch was someone so dedicated to making sure they get their rest that he wouldn’t sit down or leave until they were asleep,” says Engstrom. Coach Rhea also shows his commitment to student athletes. While he no longer coaches as many sports as he once did, he can still be found on the sidelines supporting the team. During a traditional school year, he can be counted on to take Middle School cafeteria duty where he stands, observing and ready to help. Even Coach Rhea’s carpentry hobby is used to help others. “He also listens to what other people need and will spend his weekend in his woodshop to bring in some of his handiwork for others,” says Engstrom. “For example, Tommy has built covers for our lab sinks, bookshelves, etc., for his fellow teachers.”
An Unlikely Episcopal Educator
Even after a tremendous career in the classroom, Coach Rhea says he is an unlikely Episcopal educator. He grew up in the northeast Louisiana town of Lake Providence, just a few miles south of the Arkansas border very near the Mississippi River. At that time, the population of Lake Providence was quite small, segregated and impoverished. Coach Rhea wasn’t a scholar and actually considers himself “a late bloomer” when it comes to academics. “I didn’t take school very seriously,” he says, although he later went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from LSU. However, as a young boy in the ‘60’s, Coach Rhea’s priorities were sports and spending time with friends.
Later, when his high school integrated, Coach Rhea says some of his classmates transferred to an academy, but he remained. He took physical education with three Black students, and they quickly became genuine friends. Coach Rhea remembers getting ICEEs with his friends when the frozen drinks first came out. “It was a hit,” he recalls with a smile. While getting ICEEs, Coach Rhea befriended another Black teenager named Henry, who worked at the store. Coach Rhea and Henry became very close, having long discussions about life, sports and their future plans. During this time and in this place, such close connections were unconventional, and Coach Rhea remembers others questioning his choices. “I developed friendships with kids that I wasn’t supposed to develop friendships with,” he says. These relationships were meaningful for Coach Rhea and even today he speaks fondly of those times. Then, in April 1968 something occurred that would change Coach Rhea’s life forever.
Coach Rhea was on a trip home from a band festival when he heard about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “It scared me,” he says. Equally as profound was how he felt about the reactions of those around him. Coach Rhea knew that some considered Dr. King to be an agitator and initially he went along with that. However, on the day that Dr. King died, everything changed. “I made a deal with myself that I’m not going to be like that.” Coach Rhea found the inspiration in Dr. King’s message that would define him for decades.
Coach Rhea, the unlikely educator, has done so much for so many. His ability to notice, listen and comfort makes Coach Rhea one of the most loved teachers at Episcopal. The quiet, authentic way in which he approaches others with support and compassion has inspired the Episcopal community for decades. An unintended result of how he has lived his life is that through giving to others, he has also received. A chance meeting outside of LSU’s Hodges Hall led to a lasting relationship with Episcopal Cross Country Coach Claney Duplechin. Through that relationship, Coach Rhea helped the Episcopal coaches with track meets, scouted for the football team and coached girls basketball and volleyball. When an employment opportunity arose, there was no question in the minds of Episcopal administrators that Coach Rhea was the man for the job. He began as a rotating teacher without his own classroom. One teacher he shared space with was Lorren Magee. Lorren and Coach Rhea became close friends and that friendship blossomed into something more. The two were married two years later. This year, they are celebrating 25 years together.
Among the inspiration in his classroom, Coach Rhea displays the friendship wall that originally decorated the walls of Lorren’s room. The colorful, bright drawings and words represent what students value in a friend. Over the course of his tenure at Episcopal, Coach Rhea’s Middle School students have added to those first messages. Also among them are notes students have drafted showing how they value Coach Rhea.
“You were the best teacher and I miss you.”
“Thank you, Coach Rhea for being the best teacher ever.”
“Dear Coach Rhea, Thank you so much for being the greatest teacher ever. I miss you so much.”
With his hero as his guide, Coach Rhea has lived a life in service to others and there is no question that he is ready to do more. We thank him for sharing his kindness with us.
Share a message of appreciation with Coach Rhea in the comments section below.