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Moments in Time: Chuck Ekena
MONROE - Chuck Ekena isn't the type of person to sit around and wait until there's time to enjoy life.

He's been doing what he loves for decades, and those things just happen to be things that also benefit the youth, athletics and people of the community.

He was born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, and lived with his family on a farm near Brimfield. Ekena was a big part of helping with the beef and hog farm alongside his older brother. He spent many days helping out on the 200-acre farm.

There wasn't much time for play, but Ekena's mother had 11 siblings, his father had five, and everyone lived in the area. He has fond memories of large family gatherings with aunts, uncles and cousins, many who also farmed.

When Ekena turned 10, it was 1950 and he considers himself a true child of those times. His life often centered around work and he had a front-row seat to many changes the world went through during those times.

He attended a country school for about a year and then went to the grade school in Brimfield and on to Brimfield High School. He was active, and loved playing basketball and baseball, the only sports the school offered then.

After graduating in 1958, Ekena went to Western Illinois University where he majored in physical education and minored in business education. He graduated in 1962, earning a teaching degree in both. Ekena met his wife, Marilyn in 1959, who was going to school to become an art teacher.

When it was time to look for a job, Ekena didn't feel compelled to look close to home and landed two interviews. They were both on a Saturday and several miles apart, but his 1955 Chevy got him to both on time. During his afternoon interview at Lena-Winslow Schools in Lena, Illinois, Ekena said once he saw the rolling hills and landscape, he knew which job he would take.

Ekena taught mostly physical education at Lena-Winslow and enjoyed the people and the community. He wasn't yet married, but once Marilyn finished school and the couple tied the knot, she looked for jobs in the area and landed a position in 1963 at Monroe Junior High teaching art.

After two years of teaching at Le-Win, a health/physical education position in Monroe opened and Ekena decided to apply for it. Before moving to Lena, he didn't even know Monroe existed.

"It was absolutely the best thing that happened to me," Ekena said. "I absolutely love Monroe. I wouldn't ever live anywhere else."

He taught junior high boys health and physical education. Although it's an age some find difficult, Ekena said the teachers at the district created a wonderful atmosphere and consequently a group of students who were all-around enjoyable.

"I liked our school," Ekena said. "We had a lot of really great teachers at the junior high."

He also spent even more time with those kids - coaching basketball, cross country, track and football for junior high students. In 1969 along with Bill Hubbard, Ekena also helped start the Red and White tackle football program at the junior high.

He also served as the junior high athletic director for 25 years and was the Badger Conference Junior High Schedule Coordinator for five years. He scheduled all of the basketball and wrestling meets.

He said at the end of their eighth-grade year, he would ask his students to rate their junior high experience, as they are normally years many hope to forget. Ekena said the great mix of teachers at Monroe made the experience special - and their ratings always reflected that.

When John Prien replaced him as the athletic director at the junior high, he honored Ekena by naming a cross country meet after him - the Ekena Invitational, a multi-school meet that's still held in early October and brings in hundreds of runners. Ekena is grateful for the recognition, and respects Prien greatly.

"He always thought my name was funny," Ekena said of Prien. "He tells the crowd that day "you're probably wondering what an Ekena is,' and I tip my hat."

Although his entire career was at the junior high level, Ekena enjoyed high school students, too.

When the 1964-65 basketball team started its season coached by Lee Mitchell, Ekena was hired to keep the official score book. That job turned into a passion and a career. This will be the start of his 51st year keeping the official score book for all of Monroe's home basketball games.

"And I've enjoyed every minute of it," Ekena said.

Ekena was also in the down box at all of the home football games, was the head timer for all of the home cross country and track meets and also kept the official score book for all of the home wrestling meets. He took on those duties for 45 years.

He stuck with basketball, he said, because it's indoors, and he loves it.

"I don't think anybody has seen more Monroe sports than I have," he said. "It hasn't been work for me - it's just fun."

He's always made it a priority to be at the game and hasn't missed more than five basketball games in the gym since the 1960s.

He also helped with the behind-the-wheel part of the driver's education program from 1965-75, spending summers and Saturdays with new drivers, teaching hundreds of students the rules of the road.

But after teaching for 33 years, Ekena found himself at a crossroads. He had a bad hip and felt he could no longer teach physical education. He made the tough decision to retire in 1997.

However, Ekena decided to have hip replacement surgery and said it was a great decision. He quickly went back to doing everything he had before - and signed back up to be with students. He substitute taught at the junior high and high school for another 16 years.

Running has always been a big part of Ekena's life. When he started running in the early 1970s, he said it was something he loved from the start. He was always someone who liked to keep active and through the years he's completed three marathons and likely hundreds of 10K and 5K races. He ran for 25 years, usually finishing his runs before anyone else had gotten out of bed for the day. He enjoyed the time alone and the way it left him feeling.

Ekena was a Monroe Jaycee from 1967-1976 and recalls several community projects. In 1975, he was awarded the Outstanding Achievement in Education through the Jaycees. He served as the secretary of business for the Men's Golf League at Windy Acres for 25 years. He still loves to golf and is currently in a 16-man league. He is actively involved as a volunteer for Cheese Days, helping at the beer stand. He is also a member of the National Historical Cheesemaking Center and volunteers as a tour guide. Ekena has worked the gate at the Green County Fair for the past 29 years and plans to work at least a few more. In May of 2004, Ekena earned the award from the Monroe Educators Distinguished Service to Education Award.

Ekena still loves to work out and has been a member of the YMCA since the day it opened, still using the pool there for power swimming. At 76, Ekena sees the benefits of exercise in his life.

Wherever he goes, Ekena loves to see past students, colleagues and athletes who recognize him and approach him with stories to share. His first students are in their late 60s now, and the players in the games he still tallies scores for are his original student's grandchildren.

Ekena spends his days today enjoying life with Marilyn, taking day trips anywhere that interests them. They enjoy heading out West and often to Florida for nice weather. They also enjoy spending time with family, with their two children and five grandchildren.

"Live each day like it's your last, but plan like you're going to live forever. That's the way I live," he said.