In storybooks and films, the greatest heroes often get the best endings.
They slay the bad guy, get the pretty girl and live in peace to a ripe, old age.
But in real life, heroes don’t always follow that storyline.
Often times, their lives are filled with pain, characterized by controversy, and end in tragedy.
The story of Ken Zacher is the story of a real-life hero in a real-life Oklahoma town who experienced real-life consequences for his heroic actions.
On Wednesday morning, I found myself driving north from Tulsa on Highway 169. My destination was the small rural town of Nowata, Okla.
Farms, ranches, one-stoplight towns — this was the last place I expected to find a historical civil rights hotspot.
After getting a little turned around, I finally found what I was looking for. On my right I saw a sign that read “Dr. Rick Reid: Veterinary Clinic”. I pulled into the muddy gravel parking lot and walked inside, where I met and shook hands with Dr. Reid himself. We walked upstairs to an office in a newly renovated part of his clinic. Sitting in this attic-like room with the dull morning sunshine streaming in the window behind him, he began to tell me a story.
Like most everyone in the small town of Nowata, Rick Reid played sports as a kid. Football, basketball, baseball, just about everything. During his high school years, Reid remembered that Nowata was especially good at basketball and football.
But as exciting as state football championships are, I wasn’t there for a story about small-town Oklahoma football.
I was there for a story about small-town Oklahoma basketball.
More specifically, a small-town Oklahoma basketball coach named Ken Zacher.
Originally from Alva, Okla., Ken Zacher obtained a master’s degree in social studies from Southwestern University and took his first job as a head basketball coach at Nowata High School in the late 1960’s. Zacher quickly gained a reputation as a strong-willed, talented and intelligent high school basketball coach. Dr. Reid described him as a progressive basketball coach; he planned out every minute of practice.
In his five seasons at Nowata High School, he had a 91-46 record and won 12 tournaments. With his fiery passion for the game, his stubbornness to win and his painstaking attention to detail, the boys who played for him were convinced that Ken Zacher was destined to become a big-time college basketball coach.
These qualities and accomplishments have made Zacher an unforgettable and progressive figure in Nowata’s history. But ultimately Zacher is unforgettable because he held progressive beliefs about things bigger than basketball.
Growing up in the nearly all-white town of Alva, Ken Zacher and his wife Lynda never saw segregation. Experiencing the realities of segregation in late-1960’s Nowata, they resolved to do something about it.
For Zacher, that meant having a seating chart. This was a testament to his desire for order and structure, but it also a testament to his beliefs about racial equality.
Zacher’s seating charts were always arranged black-white-black-white.
Whether eating at a restaurant, staying at a hotel during a long road trip or riding on the bus, Jim Crow had no place on the roster of Ken Zacher’s basketball teams.
And on the inside of the door to the locker room, Zacher had a mural painted: a black hand and a white hand sharing a handshake.
But this was the early 1970’s.
Few places in America were fully and harmoniously integrated, and Nowata was no exception.
At the beginning of their 1971-1972 basketball season, Nowata’s players elected senior Dale Martin as their captain.
Dale Martin was black.
This broke the Nowata basketball tradition, because typically there would be two team captains: one white boy and one black boy. During the homecoming ceremony, it was the white captain who traditionally escorted and kissed the Queen (who was also white, according to tradition). And while the ceremony was going on, all the black players remained in the locker room.
Soon the word got out that the basketball team had elected only one captain, he was black. Fearing a situation in which a black boy would escort and – God, forbid – kiss a white girl in front of the whole town, Nowata Superintendent Glenn Moore confronted Zacher and suggested that the homecoming queen be allowed to choose her own escort.
Senior captain Dale Martin was pulled out of class one day by Superintendent Moore, who told him “the community wasn’t ready” to have a black captain escort and kiss a white homecoming queen. But Martin didn’t budge, saying that he wanted to do things the way Zacher wanted to do them.
It seemed that Zacher was getting his way, as was usually the case. He was extremely stubborn, and is remembered to have pushed Nowata’s administration and gotten his way several times before.
But then it became known that the first two homecoming queen candidates had rejected the crown. They said no because they knew that Dale Martin was the team captain, and that Dale Martin was black.
Surprisingly, Zacher agreed to a compromise: Dale Martin would be allowed to escort the homecoming queen, but the kiss would be dropped from the ceremony.
So the 1971-72 homecoming ceremony went on as agreed: an escort, a crowning, but no kiss. Martin crowned the queen with no apparent fallout.
But this homecoming ceremony — and the controversy that emerged from it — would result in a devastating amount of fallout for Zacher, for his career and for his personal life.
As the months and years went on and as it became evident that Coach Zacher’s attitudes on racial equality weren’t going to change, the Zacher family began to feel many of Nowata’s white citizens turning on them.
Their daughter became invisible to her elementary school classmates.
Occasionally their home’s electricity was cut off at night and people would beat on their windows.
Crosses were burned in their yard.
By April 1972, the controversy came to a head and a school board meeting was called to decide if Nowata would keep or fire Zacher as their head basketball coach. In the wee hours of the morning on April 3, it was decided that Zacher’s contract wouldn’t be continued.
Zacher had officially been run out of Nowata.
Despite his impressive record (91-46) and the fact he had been turning down big-time high school job offers for years, Zacher couldn’t find a job coaching basketball anywhere in Oklahoma. Eventually he was hired as the head basketball coach in Leavenworth, Kansas.
It was during his years in Kansas that Zacher’s story would take its most tragic turn.
In Leavenworth, like in Nowata, Zacher’s coaching style and progressiveness led him to clash with his superiors. His overall record at Leavenworth was 52-34, but a 6-15 record during the 1975-1976 season gave the local school board an excuse to put him on probation for a year.
At some point during the early 1970s, Ken and Lynda’s marriage began to fall apart. Many have guessed that the stress from years at Nowata had taken its toll on the coach, his wife and his daughter.
Bob Knoll, who was Zacher’s assistant at Nowata, joined Ken at Leavenworth in Zacher’s second year there. While he was going through his divorce, Zacher would spend many weekends with the Knolls.
Typically, the Knoll family would go to church every Sunday. Whether Zacher normally attended church with them isn’t clear, but their routine almost never varied. The Knolls arrived home from church at 12:05 p.m. every Sunday.
Reid recalled what happened on Sept. 6, 1976. As the story goes, the Knolls went to church one Sunday and somebody wanted an ice cream cone. The ice cream shop was crowded, and so the Knoll family didn’t get home until after 12:30.
When the Knolls arrived home from church that day, Zacher had been sitting in the car with the engine running and the garage door closed.
He was dead.
Most people in Nowata believed this was a cry for help — that he didn’t really want to commit suicide and wanted to be found alive with the car running in the garage. On any other Sunday afternoon, The Knolls would have found him and he would have been all right. But this time, something changed in their schedule.
As quickly as he had exploded onto Oklahoma’s high school basketball scene, Zacher was gone.
We may never know exactly why Zacher’s marriage fell apart, why he was unable to communicate his desperation or ultimately, why he ended his own life. But it’s a safe bet that the backlash he experienced in Nowata played a major role in his downward spiral.
Nevertheless, Zacher is remembered as a hero in Nowata. While he undoubtedly pushed for change in a manner that was too hard and too fast for some of residents, many in Nowata feel that their town is better for Zacher having been there. Even though he was only there for a few years, Zacher’s legacy in Nowata is powerful.
Zacher was a progressive, pushing a small Oklahoma town towards the future.
He was a fighter, and he never backed down from what he knew to be right.
He was a real-life hero.
And as is often the case with real-life heroes, he paid the ultimate price for his heroism.