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Coach Cavender’s Retirement

In a follow-up to last week’s canine report, Coach Cavender, whose relationship with his beloved Yorkie Gig should and does concern his wife about her own place in his affections (I would not care to speculate about the outcome of a Sophie’s Choice involving the two) was just as pleased and proud as a new mother to see his little sidekick gracing the front page. Normally the coach considers the AVA more of an aid to starting fires than reading material, he being a rock-ribbed, dyed-in-the-wool, no-nonsense conservative of the old-school, but he intends lobbying the Pulitzer committee to consider the piece for an award. 

I call him Coach because once a coach, always a coach, retired or otherwise, and after 35 years teaching and coaching at Ukiah High, he can no more stop doing either than stop breathing. He coaches his wife, me, the dogs, the mailman, whomever enters his orbit is in for some training, like it or not. Dragged out of retirement this last season in a desperate bid to turn around a team that had won only 9 games in the last 8 years, Coach took a group of undersized kids from an underfunded school without any bench to speak of under his wing and, as defensive coordinator and offensive line coach, took the Willits Wolverines to a 9-2 record and the second round of the playoffs, where they were a beaten by a very strong Ferndale. Along the way defeating powerhouses St. Helena and El Molino, Willits confounded both their opponents and the pundits with a nearly impermeable defense and a surfeit of heart and grit. 

So I tend to listen when he instructs. Gary Cavender came up from a childhood of poverty and neglect in gang-infested Hawaiian Gardens in L.A. County, on his way to a bad end as a thug and a drunk when he discovered a latent aptitude for math and science right around the time of his spiritual conversion. He and Jesus battled their way clear of his deterministic fate and into Cal State Fullerton, where he distinguished himself in wrestling and football and received two master’s degrees. As an athlete, one of his many honors was the title of California State Powerlifting Champion, and as an entomologist became the world’s foremost recognized authority on three species of insect. As Gary will tell you, though, he is “addicted” to kids and found his niche in the classroom where he racked up a raft of Teacher of the Year awards and made deep impressions on generations of Ukiah kids in his math classes.

Coach Cavender

Retirement means different things to different people and the rarest position you are likely to find Gary Cavender is sitting down. Seven days a week he is up with the birds and tackling one project or another, generally improving his gorgeous riverside property where, in addition to housing over 60 foster children over the years (one of whom has starred in these pages of late, accused killer Caleb Silver), he occasionally provides housing for homeless people. In the beginning he had a grand vision of a place where lost souls could rediscover sobriety and Jesus, learn some marketable skills and a decent work ethic, and turn their lives around, but quickly discovered how many of the homeless are in that predicament for a reason and have absolutely no desire for improvement of any kind, self or otherwise. He has not quit on his desire to help them, though, and is currently designing and building portable sleeping pods to at least give them a place to sleep safe from the elements.

Several days a week, Gary collects food from area merchants and distributes it around town to the needy (once being chastised by the Ukiah PD for bringing cold drinks to the residents of the old tent city by the airport during last summer’s heat wave), absorbing the costs of time and fuel in his insatiable effort to help others.

Despite his property appearing the domain of an upper-middle class country squire, Gary drives a 28-year-old pickup truck and appears to dress in the same ratty shorts and sleeveless t-shirt every day, only donning long pants and a shirt with a collar for his Sunday gig, pastor at the Calpella Community Church, where he not so much shepherds as coaches his flock into heaven. His sermons are more pedantic than charismatic and often feature lessons with more mathematical formulae than scripture, occasionally confusing the ragtag congregation but always bringing it back around to his primary message of love for God and reaching out to the less fortunate. The fact that my secular-humanist ass finds itself in a pew every Sunday tells you something about the charm and simplicity of the church and the earnestness of Gary’s mission. 

It was an odd confluence of events that led me here and I’ve become something of an anomaly in my relationship to the place and the people. Gary and I disagree on pretty much any subject requiring an opinion and argue our positions regularly and usually civilly, but we have become close—as close an association as I have right now—and this just goes to prove my long-held assertion that any beliefs or opinions about meaningless abstractions or things that have nothing to do with you, e.g., politics and/or economic systems, are not only the least interesting things about you but the most ineffective at determining your character and suitability for friendship. 

There is a very small percentage of serious, competent people with the ability to get things done in this world, the folks we slackers, dullards, and layabouts depend upon to advance civilization for us while we snack, nap, and amuse ourselves with internet memes, and it’s been a real pleasure and learning experience to be around one.


  1. Heidi Walter December 7, 2019

    Dear Flynn,

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I recognize your name from conversations with my dad. As his daughter of the man you are highlighting, I experienced a variety of emotions within each paragraph.
    I understand feeling simultaneously annoyed by and drawn to this man who is…so salty.
    He is complicated and simple, from humble means and on an extravagant mission.
    There were moments in this article that I wanted to choke you (wrestlers daughter), and moments I found myself trying to figure out your logical agenda (mathematicians daughter); I found myself sympathizing with you and your perspective (foster parents daughter), I even wanted to put my hand on your shoulder and firmly point out the ways God is using this willing man, flaws and all, to share hope and love (pastors daughter). Ultimately though, I realize that you get it- you understand that he walks his talk – and he’s got more miles logged than the majority of us.
    At that moment, I wanted to high-five you (coaches daughter).
    He has equipped me to better approach this world, and live on mission, with consideration and love, because that is what I have seen him do. For everyone. And I’m not alone in this realization. Some of us will take more time to come to this conclusions than others.

    If we get caught up on the dinged up box holding the gift, we might miss the beauty of the gift. That’s on us.

    I pray that God gives us eyes to see and ears to hear all the many ways He is doing a good work. Thank you for seeing and hearing my dad.
    Thank you for giving me the chance to do the same.


  2. Flynn Washburne December 8, 2019

    Heidi, I assure you that not a word of the article came from anywhere but the deep well of love and respect I have for the man. I presume this was your introduction to my work, but as my regular readers will tell you, my columns tend to the toothy and their subjects rarely fare so well as the coach. My inherently caustic nature inhibits anything more than about 60% sincerity on any given day before I start reflexively shredding people (in the name of humor, of course), hence my poking a little gentle (for me) fun at Gary. Heck, as he himself will tell you, he’s a fish out of water as a clergyman and so falls back on what he knows best to carry him through and oddly enough, it works. I’m actually considering sitting down with him for a series of interviews, if I can get him to hold still long enough, in preparation for a long-form piece I might be able to stack a few simoleons with at some other, more remunerative publication. I hate to sound disloyal to the AVA and will continue contributing there until one of us dies, and at this point it’s a toss-up as Bruce will likely hold office as Mendocino County Inciter General for years to come, vexing and pestering his foes into an early grave. It’s tough to extract a thorn from one’s side.
    Thank you for taking the time to write and I’m glad your appreciation ultimately outweighed your criticism and again, ‘twas a labor of love. I look forward to meeting you one day.

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