I'm not entirely sure how it was that I came to work for Sonny Taylor at the Minden Aquatic Club. Through a quirk of scheduling, I'd never taken his history class at Minden High School, and I was a basketball player, not a swimmer. But I did have his wife Donnis for junior and senior English, so perhaps she, against all evidence to the contrary, had put in a good word for me. Whatever alignment of the stars had brought us together, it was, as Bogart so memorably put it at the end of Casablanca, "the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
To know and work with Sonny Taylor was both a privilege and an adventure. Our first challenge as newly-hired lifeguards was to scrub the L-shaped pool from top to bottom, ridding the walls of off-season slime and the gutters of a narrow, organic green band that skirted their length. Sonny made the labor fun somehow, peppering our teenage brains with improbable tales of his own growing up experiences or of past swim team exploits. He had a laugh that defied mimicry, try as we might to reproduce it. A grown man should not be able to hit notes that high, but Sonny's laugh was infectious and marked him as a person for whom we would all throw ourselves into ice-cold water if he asked us to.
He was the master of the practical joke. It was an honor to be pranked by him. One hot day towards the end of those gutter-scrubbing sessions, Sonny, situated at the shallow end of the pool, sent an ominously dark mass of Skoal floating down the gutter towards those of us who had just pronounced our section spotless. Amidst the squeals and shrieks of horror that this precipitated, Sonny stood there laughing until he cried, his too-thick glasses slipping down to the end of his nose.
With Sonny Taylor, we learned to scrub bathhouses, backwash the pool, fine tune the chlorine pumps, and even drive his decrepit black truck. He taught us how to teach a new generation of Minden kids to swim. More importantly though, he taught us to save lives. He showed us how to step outside our narcissistic teenage selves and understand the gravity of the job he had hired us to do. Even when he occasionally had to lecture us when we fell short of his expectations, we knew that he had our backs, that he was on our side.
I later babysat for the Taylors, more than once. And in that gesture of trust, they fulfilled for me and for others who sometimes shared the duty the critical need that we all harbored: to be given a task that required of us more responsibility than we thought we were equipped to handle. Sonny and Donnis, (they were inseparable to us even then) instinctively knew how to shepherd us along to that stage, whether by lecture or example, and in the end, make us think we'd arrived there magically on our own accord.
I can't speak for the hundreds of swimmers that Sonny coached over the years, or the students who reveled in his history lectures, or the thousands of special needs students that he loved as his own. I can only record my own debt to the man and attribute my own long career as a teacher to the influence he had on me when I needed it the most. More often than I ever got around to fully admitting to him, when I'm working with a student who seems to need encouragement or motivation, I wonder to myself how Sonny and Donnis would have handled it. It's a problem-solving rubric that I now know by heart.
I never actually knew how old Coach Taylor was. Not when we first got to know each other during those idyllic early summers, or even when I sat with Donnis and him this past Christmas when I was in Louisiana for a short visit. Just as teachers sometimes freeze their students in time, hardly recognizing them years later when they've grow up, a student will often freeze his teachers as well, locking them into a kind of timeless immortality. The good teachers never age, really. They live on in us in myriad ways, urging us to always give our best or to make good decisions, long past the time that we actually shared in classrooms.
Sonny's gift to us all is that he remained true to the youthful optimism of those he taught and mentored. I will still defer to his influence, even in his physical absence. And I will always remember him as the man who was tickled to death to live life to its fullest. One had only to hear him laugh to understand that.
Former Minden Resident
MHS Class of '71