My son and I stepped to the Niabi Zoo ticket window one day when Shoeless was all of age 4.
After I paid our admission, the kind man behind the glass — a man I had known for 40 years — asked if he could chat with my son. “Come over here, young man,’’ the kindly gentleman said. “Do you want to ride the train?’’
My son nodded, and the man slipped him three train tickets. The train would soon become our thing to do at the zoo.
And then that wonderful man, who left us recently at age 79, told my son a story I would not.
“Ask your dad about the time the ol’ coach made a mistake, walked the guy in front of him, and pitched to him,’’ longtime Rock Island High School baseball coach Jack Carroll said to the wide-eyed little boy and his embarrassed father, who had played for Alleman High School. “Big mistake. Just ask him. He cost the ol’ coach and the (Rock Island) Rocks a regional championship. Just ask him.’’
That, folks, is what John “Jack’’ Carroll was about — always making you feel good about yourself, many times doing it at his expense. He was good-natured, big-hearted, honest to a fault, generous, caring, and always thinking about others. His only character flaw, as I saw it, was his lifelong affection for the Chicago Cubs.
In my case, he made a young boy proud of his pop during our first trip to Niabi and every other time we shared a day at the zoo. He never failed to tell my son that story.
Never. But that was Coach Carroll.
Though he enjoyed tremendous success on the field as an athlete and a mentor to many, Coach Carroll’s greatest accomplishment was his 54-year marriage to Marlyne. Oh, how he loved — and respected — her.
Second in his heart were the five children he raised to be honest and caring wives, husbands and parents. Wonderful people, all five. He adored his children, and he was one of the softest, kind-hearted touches when it came to his grandchildren.
“Class act,’’ said Al Gorgal, Carroll’s top baseball assistant at Rock Island, of his longtime coaching partner.
Jack Carroll’s brother, Bob, coached at Alleman. They are the only brother combination to have served as competing head coaches in Western Big 6 coaching history.
“Jack wanted to win as bad as anyone, ‘’ Gorgal added. “But he wanted to make a difference in the lives of the kids he coached. He cared for everyone who came through the program. When he took over, the program needed a boost, and Jack took it to another level.’’
It was Carroll, with Gorgal’s assistance, who funded and built the first — and much-needed — baseball field on the grounds of Rock Island High School. From those humble beginnings in the middle 1970s, the field has become an important showpiece on the Rock Island High School campus.
“Rock Island High School kids deserved a place of their own to play,’’ Gorgal said. “And Jack made sure they had it. He was a tremendous coach and an even better person.’’
After retirement, Coach Carroll served on the front lines of our local zoo. His son-in-law, Tom Stalf, easily the best director Niabi has ever had, knew he had a people person out front with Coach Carroll. I know for certain we were not the only family he happily engaged in conversation at the zoo entrance.
That was Coach Carroll’s way. He was kind; he was caring; and he went out of his way to make you and the people around you feel special.
He did it for me, bringing a proud smile to a young boy’s face each time we saw him.