When I joined the full-time faculty at Luzerne County Community College in 1990, Brooke Yeager, one of my new colleagues, was already a legend. I had been working in local journalism for the previous 23 years, 15 as a sportswriter, and in those days, the name Brooke Yeager was almost synonymous with wrestling. Not only was Brooke a district champion in high school and then a standout at Wilkes College, but he also started the first wrestling program at LCCC in 1968 and two years later coached a national champion in Joel Kislin, who went on to become an All-American at Hofstra.
Spin the clock ahead and at the 50th anniversary celebration of LCCC two years ago, I looked across the banquet room at Mohegan Sun Pocono and said to myself, "My goodness, I think that's Joel Kislin." Sure enough, it was. He was one of several former LCCC wrestlers invited to the affair as guests of Brooke Yeager.
I was not surprised. Whether you were a student in Brooke's class or a wrestler under his tutelage, Brooke Yeager claimed you. And he claimed you for life.
At the college, I include Brooke and his wife, Libby, among the small group I refer to as "The Usual Suspects." These are the folks who show up at every event, whether a gala 50th anniversary banquet or the annual alumni craft fair or the spring student art exhibit. If it involves LCCC, you can count on the Yeagers being there. I admire Brooke Yeager for this and draw inspiration from him. From the time I arrived on campus, I decided I wanted to do professor the way Brooke Yeager does professor. I still do.
Brooke is on my mind this summer because when the Luzerne County Sports Hall of Fame honors me with its annual media award on Sunday, Aug. 11, Brooke, along with Coach Bob Barbieri, will be inducted into the Hall. Unlike Barbieri, as well as fellow inductee Joe Karcutske of Wyoming Area, Brooke is not a Greater Pittston person, but in his 51-year teaching career at LCCC, he has touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Greater Pittston people. One is my wife.
Mary Kay vividly recalls how, when she enrolled in Brooke's biology class, back when LCCC was located on River Street in Wilkes-Barre, he took the students to the riverbank to talk about the Dutch elm disease plaguing the trees.
"The best way to teach about organisms," he told me the other day, "is to show what they look like in nature."
While wrestling is in Brooke's blood — he took second place at 123 pounds at the NCAA tournament in Iowa as a senior at Wilkes in 1959, and weighs about the same today — so, too, is education. When he coached those first wrestling teams at LCCC, they had to practice at the CYC from 1 to 3 in the afternoon because that was the only time available. After practice, Brooke had the wrestlers stick around for tutoring.
"Years later," he said, "many of them told me they would not have made it through their four-year colleges if not for those tutoring sessions."
Brooke sees a lot of similarities between teaching and coaching especially over the past few years, he said, since he incorporated the concept of "Reading Apprenticeship" into his classes.
"In coaching, you coach to a kid's strength," he said. "It's the same in the classroom. You have to teach to a student's learning style." Brooke said just like motivating athletes, a teacher must encourage learning. One way he does that is by building on a student's prior knowledge.
"Students already know something about almost any topic," he says. "If I am going to teach about atoms, I begin by asking the students what they already know about atoms. They usually surprise themselves."
Whether as a coach or a professor, Brooke always saw his job as teaching the whole student. When he took his wrestlers to a tournament at Ocean County College in New Jersey and heard many of them had never seen the Atlantic Ocean, after weigh-ins on Saturday morning, he loaded them in the school van and drove to Seaside Heights.
"They got to stick their toes in the ocean," he said, "even though it was March 1st."
His goal was always to develop good people, and along those lines he encouraged his students to give blood. He encouraged them with 10 bonus points. A heart issue a few years ago prevents Brooke from donating blood these days, something, he said, that breaks his heart. He has donated more than 5 gallons in his lifetime.
"And God knows how many gallons were donated because of those 10 extra points," he adds.
Tickets for the Hall of Fame banquet may be purchased at luzernecountysportshalloffame.com or by calling Carol Hurley at 570-824-7133.