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Moments In Time: Jerry Mortimer
Jerry Mortimer (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Jerry Mortimer has spent decades in the midst of students, athletes and families. Although he's held positions where disciplinary action and high-stress situations became somewhat routine as a principal, athletic director and Monroe EMS driver, he embraced his career and community volunteerism with a passion that wouldn't quit.

He was born in Reedsburg and lived most of his younger years in Wonewoc, where Mortimer attended Wonewoc-Center schools. He lived on a farm for a while but mostly recalls his youth in town. The middle child could often be found alongside his two brothers and close friends, playing a ball-centered game or at the swimming pool. He said it was a time when he felt safe roaming about town with friends, camping and fishing on the Baraboo River.

"I couldn't even count on my fingers and toes how many times my mother had to come out and find me," he laughed. "The days were certainly carefree."

In junior high, Mortimer started working at a local mink ranch where he was paid about $1 an hour to do chores, and he enjoyed the work. He had a pet mink for a handful of years before returning it to the ranch.

He said his family didn't have a lot of money, but his parents worked hard and he enjoyed Sunday dinners together after church. His extended family on his father's side lived nearby, and he recalls special times with cousins and relatives.

In high school, Mortimer worked as a cook at Club Chapparal, a local supper club that's still in business.

Though he enjoyed sports, he was cut from his high school basketball team. He focused instead on forensics and drama. He was a good student who stayed away from trouble and enjoyed weekend school activities.

"I really enjoyed high school," he said. "I tried to be really active and involved in things."

The 1973 graduate of Wonewoc-Center High School said his goal was to find a career on the railroad. He loved trains, but by the time Mortimer applied, he said the railroads were dying.

His secondary plan was to go into teaching. Mortimer hoped to be an elementary school teacher. He said wonderful memories of his own teachers and moments in school drew him in to the profession.

He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, but after one semester his life fell into turmoil when his father suffered a heart attack, dying unexpectedly. Mortimer felt a need to get home, returning to eventually work for the Juneau County Sheriff's Office as a dispatcher.

But his heart wasn't in it.

"It just kept calling me and calling me," he said of his desire to teach.

After hearing ads for Edgewood College on the radio, Mortimer applied and began school there in 1975. He worked as a night manager at a family-owned A&W, where he studied on slow nights, and started coaching a little during that time. It was the start of a passion he would follow for years.

Before he could begin to look for work after graduating from Edgewood in 1980, Mortimer received a call from a superintendent in Alma, a river town in west-central Wisconsin. The district had lost a teacher to a car crash. Mortimer went for an interview.

He took his first job with excitement but didn't fully realize the difficulty ahead of him. The son of the deceased teacher was one of his students.

"It was the toughest thing," he said. "I'll never forget it."

A veteran teacher nearby stepped in to help his class understand. From there, Mortimer's experience turned positive.

He spent two years in Alma, where he also coached but hoped to move up. His summers were spent working basketball camps at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Mortimer loved coaching. He then took a job in Waupun teaching seventh grade language arts and coaching sophomore-level basketball.

He enjoyed the bigger school and saw a lot of success while coaching, he said. But by then in his late 20s, he was eager to move on. That year, Mortimer took a position in the Black Hawk school district, where he could teach language arts and coach.

Mortimer loved teaching but also felt proud he was able to take the Black Hawk boys basketball team to the first regional championship in school history. It wasn't long before he heard back from Waupun - hoping to reel Mortimer back in. He mulled over the choice.

"That was the toughest decision of my life at that time," he said. "I just really fell in love with Black Hawk."

Mortimer continued teaching, coaching and hosting summer camps. He became the junior high coordinator, which added some stress. After a few years, he decided to return to Edgewood to earn his master's degree and soon became Black Hawk Middle School principal.

Although he missed teaching and having a classroom all to himself, it became a place - and a job - he adored.

"Some of the best years of my life were spent at that middle school," he said, noting how close the teachers, staff and families became. "It was a lot of fun. I have been blessed with the people I've worked with."

Much of the years coaching in his 30s and 40s have become somewhat of a blur, he said. Life went by fast, but he reveled in all of it.

In the late 1990s, Mortimer learned he would be moved to Black Hawk High School to serve as the principal. He was hesitant to go. Mortimer loved working with high school students in a coaching atmosphere, but he wasn't sure about the new role, only enjoying it once he had settled in.

As the varsity boys basketball coach, Mortimer saw success, like the year the team had 17 straight wins. During his tenure, the team won seven regional titles. Beyond the awards or the wins, it is the games and the players that stayed with him.

"When I coached, I had so many wonderful athletes," he said. "Black Hawk has been blessed with terrific athletes. I wasn't easy to play for - I see that now - I was a taskmaster, I expected perfection. I always asked for 100 percent."

Mortimer recalls fondly the intensity of rivalry games and can describe a few surprising upsets in his team's favor he won't forget. He also related to the players he couldn't include, remembering when he was cut from the team as a student.

"I hated the years I had to cut kids," he said. "It was difficult for me."

After more than three decades of coaching, Mortimer retired in 2010 but stayed as the athletic director and high school principal. He wanted time to visit his mother on weekends and was looking to slow down.

"I was getting tired," he said. "It's a lot of nights. I felt I wanted to cut back. Coaching was changing, too."

As AD, Mortimer noted pride in the multiple sportsmanship awards Black Hawk has in its possession.

Mortimer said he missed coaching tremendously but was happy to leave behind the stress and pressure. In 2012 he retired as principal to stay on the better end of an insurance plan change, remaining athletic director until 2016.

"It's not about the kids playing elsewhere," Mortimer said. "You see these men now that you coached and they come up and shake your hand. I had a wonderful time. I wouldn't change it for the world. The only thing I'd change is going to state - I would have liked to experience that."

Before he retired completely, Mortimer began helping WEKZ Big Radio cover games. He enjoys the low pressure and using his coaching background to help give insight. He also has fun - even rating popcorn during his poll at football games.

Mostly, he loves being back in a gymnasium full of spirit, intensity and traditions at each school. He said school spirit has always held high importance to him.

One other constant on Mortimer's plate for 20 years has been his position as a driver on Green County EMS. He signed up when the group was smaller, enjoying the work and helping people. He was selected by the group as Member of the Year two years ago.

He averages between 300 and 400 hours of volunteer time per quarter, noted for going "above and beyond" by Green County EMS.

"I really love helping people," he said. "I see people during their most vulnerable times - and I pride myself as a driver to help EMTs but to also help care for the family members."

Mortimer said he works with an outstanding group of people and it's been a rewarding part of his life, but he noted calls are tough when it becomes personal.

"You have to focus out of that and just do your job," he said.

Mortimer has plans to travel more and still has a love for trains. He is a Badger football and basketball season ticket holder and enjoys day trips. He also often watches old westerns, John Wayne and old comedies. He finds solace after years of stress, sitting on his deck, reading sports-related material and taking in the downtime. He also tries to visit his brothers when he can and goes on walks in the summer months.

"Black Hawk was my family," Mortimer said. "It was the center of my life for 30-some years. I have no regrets."

A quote commonly attributed to privateer Sir Andrew Barton that Mortimer has kept with him, both in coaching and in life, is one he often uses - one that reminds him even when at the lowest point, it's possible to get back at it.

"Here I lie, wounded but not slain. I'll lay me down to bleed a while, but rise to fight again."