Benefield: Non-swimmer mentored Montgomery kids who competed for him

Jack Vallerga played football at Cal for Pappy Waldorf, and, as a non-swimmer, he was an unlikely selection to be Montgomery’s swim coach when the school started a program in 1959.|

Jack Vallerga was a football player. He was a competitor who played for Pappy Waldorf's Golden Bears at Cal.

A natural athlete, yes, but a swimmer? No.

So when the just-opened Montgomery High School launched its first-ever swim team in 1959, and school officials looked around for a coach, Vallerga might not have been an obvious choice.

But Vallerga, a history teacher who had coached a little football, raised his hand.

'He did not know a thing about swimming,' said Gary Smith, a Montgomery grad who swam for Vallerga the first two years of the school's existence. 'But he went to all of the swimming clinics he could go to, he talked to coaches, read books, educated himself on techniques.'

He became an expert who guided the Vikings to six North Bay League titles in 11 years.

'The man seemed to have the ability to do everything right for the people around him,' Smith said.

Coach Vallerga will celebrate those titles and be celebrated by those swimmers at an 85th birthday party in Healdsburg on June 27. The hosts? All those swimmers from all of those teams who say Vallerga taught more than how to be better athletes.

More than 50 people have called to say they'll come, to give thanks to their coach and reunite with old teammates.

The attendees will be swimmers who call Vallerga a mentor and a friend, who promise their affection for their tough old coach is no cliché. They swam for coach in an unheated, too-short pool with no lane markings, using homemade starting blocks painted Viking red and made by woodshop students. They say they wouldn't change a thing, that Coach Vallerga was what a coach should be: tough and fair. And he believed in them.

But Coach Vallerga corrects me on this.

'They were taught to believe in themselves,' he said.

Frank Noonan, an attorney in Portland who swam for Vallerga before graduating in 1960, called the man a hero.

'He was a pretty rigorous coach,' he said. 'But not a yeller, an extremely kind man. I never heard an unkind word from Jack Vallerga. He had a way of talking, of inspiring us, of telling us what we needed to do to get better.'

Noonan went on to swim at the University of Oregon.

On the pool deck Vallerga asked his swimmers to go a little farther than they wanted, to push beyond what they thought they were capable of.

'I think I wore out two or three stopwatches,' Vallerga said.

'It was kind of his life's purpose,' Noonan said.

Vallerga and his wife, Eleanor, would host team dinners and later fishing trips with the athletes. The pair took them to college and Olympic-level swim meets to see how the big dogs raced.

And Vallerga would stick around afterward and quiz coaches on technique and strategy — anything to make him a better deck leader.

'My wife would take notes on what they said while I was talking to them,' he said. 'I learned an awful lot from them.'

So much of a quick study was Vallerga that when the regular Neptunes swim club coach was drafted into the Army, the club asked the newbie coach Vallerga to fill in.

So the guy who wasn't a swimmer, didn't know too much about the sport, was now doing it year round — and winning.

Ron Tonelli, a class of '65 Viking and the second fastest swimmer in the area who happened to be a teammate of the first fastest swimmer, said Vallerga went out of his way to divvy up race assignments so Tonelli wasn't constantly bringing home the silver. Not every coach with a competitive streak would do that, Tonelli said.

'That meant a lot to me,' he said. 'I hated being in second all the time.'

Despite the wins, the team remained under the radar of school officials, says Vallerga. At one of the first spring sports picnics, he and Eleanor didn't think the school had anything planned for the swimmers so they purchased medals for the boys themselves. They didn't arrive on time.

When attendee Hugh Codding heard that the coach had to pop for medals for his own team, he stepped in.

'He said, 'Whenever you get them, let me know and I'll pay for them,' ' Vallerga said. 'Later we had a pizza feed. He and his wife came to my house and gave them out.'

Jack coached and Eleanor, who died in 1990, regularly opened her home to athletes. Team dinners turned into fishing trips as the boys turned into men, some still needing a little coaching in their lives.

'He did a lot to keep us on the straight and narrow,' Noonan said. 'I think he really loved the job. He liked working with kids and dedicated a lot of his life and energy to it.'

Smith remembers Vallerga, after a day fishing for steelhead, turning a simple question into a gentle push of his former student.

'We were sitting around the campfire one evening. I had not been doing well in junior college and I quit and went to work as a field surveyor,' Smith recalls.

'He says 'Smith, what do you want to do with your life?' And I looked around and I had been fishing all day and I said, 'This.' ' Smith recalled.

Vallerga encouraged him to go back to school, study biology and make a life's work out of something he loved.

Smith went on to earn a master's degree and spent nearly four decades as a fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and was a key player in the successful fight to end diversions from Mono Lake and its tributaries.

'He was able to help the students set their goals and be successful in life,' Smith said. 'I would never have been there without Jack Vallerga.'

Coach Vallerga piloted the Vikings to six league titles in the school's earliest days, but also provided a guiding hand to young athletes.

Not bad for a guy who's not even a swimmer.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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