So much is being written and broadcast about John Wooden today; an outpouring of love and admiration for the greatest coach who ever lived. His famous Pyramid of Success is the foundation of great leadership. His “Woodenisms” are being quoted with reverence. His life and death affected the famous and the ordinary; in sports, academia, business and everyday life.
Perhaps because Ken and I celebrated our 31st anniversary this week, the story that I find most interesting is the love story of John and his wife, Nellie.
John Wooden and Nellie Riley first met at a carnival in July, 1926. Nellie was the only girl John ever kissed; the first time at the age of 14. They married in August of 1932. On his website, the caption under a photo of the couple reads:
Nell and I were sweethearts for almost 60 years and married for 53 years until I lost her in 1985.
I’ve never gotten used to the loss.
Nellie died on March 21, 1985. Every month since then, for 25 years, John Wooden wrote his beloved Nell a love letter on the 21st of the month. No one ever saw those letters. He stacked them up on her bed pillow. In an interview with Rick Reilly last year, Wooden said that the letters were about his love for Nellie, how much he missed her, and to let her know that he was keeping his promise that there would never, ever be another.
Reilly: How do you make love last in a marriage?
Wooden: There is only one way. Truly, truly, truly, love. It’s the most powerful thing there is. It’s true. It’s true. It must be true.
In a January 2009 interview with the Sporting News, posted on NBC Sports, the following was shared:
SN: Many things here are just so: the books, the photographs. And also many things that belonged to Nell — even the little things, like her lipstick. Are you holding on to her still?
Wooden: Yes. All the things that she used, like her makeup. And her side of the bed. Her gown is stretched out on her side of the bed since I lost her. And once the sheets are changed, then we put everything back the same way. So I wouldn’t want to leave here.
After discussing his great career, the interview ended with a reflection on his life, and his feelings about death. Once again, Wooden’s thoughts returned to Nellie.
…I do know this: I am very much at peace with myself. I’m not afraid of death. I’m at peace. Certainly as I get older, it’s hard to … (long pause)
I’m ready. I wish it would happen now. But I’m not going to try to hurry it. I’m not afraid of death. I’m not going to intentionally hurry it up, but I’m not afraid. I’ve been so blessed in my life. I’m thankful for so many things… I have been so blessed. And out yonder, I’ll be with Nellie again.
I supposed because of his advanced age, the subject of death came up in many recent interviews with Wooden. In the Reilly interview, Wooden said that he used to fear death. He was afraid of leaving his family, his players, and his life here on earth. However, he went on to explain that he no longer feared it.
Reilly: Are you afraid of dying?
Wooden: Noooo. Why should I be afraid? It’s the most wonderful thing that will ever happen. It really is.
Wooden then recited a poem, written by former UCLA and NBA player Swen Nader, that provided insight to perhaps the real reason he didn’t fear death; he knew it would reunite him with the love of his life, his Nell.
Once I was afraid of dying, terrified of ever-lying, petrified of leaving family, home and friends.
Thoughts of absence from my dear ones,
brought a melancholy tear once,
and a dredful fear of when life ends.
But those days are long behind me,
fear of leaving does not bind me,
and departure does not hold a single care.
Peace does comfort as I ponder,
a reunion in the yonder,
with my dearest one who is waiting for me there.
If belief and faith can make it so, then John and Nellie are surely reunited again. May they rest in peace, together in love.