Category Archives: For What It’s Worth

An Observation of Ernie Vornbrock

My recollection of Coach Vornbrock is during a swim meet in the 1950’s when he is walking along the pool deck, carrying a stop watch, wearing the obligatory white shirt, white trousers and white tennis shoes. Ernie, who was in his 50’s, was a tall lanky man who wore wire rimmed glasses on his angular face, looking more like a studious accountant than a staff member of the Bi State Chapter of the American Red Cross. He was never officially associated with a swim team at a YMCA, a high school or a university, and yet, Ernie was recognized as a member of the coaching fraternity by his peers. Everyone at a scratch meeting knew him and more than once I saw the great Yale coach, Bob Kiphuth, who was also a multi-time Olympic coach, get up from his desk and walk across the large lobby of the famed Payne-Whitney Gym at Yale to shake Ernie’s hand and visit.

 No one really knows why Ernie had such a passion for coaching swimmers. I don’t recall his ever mentioning that he had been a competitive swimmer himself, and yet he already had exceptional knowledge in the 1930’s when he met a high school student with a poor self image named Jim Counsilman.

 In the early ‘50’s Ernie would appear at our six lane, 25 yard pool, two or three times a week…. sometimes more and sometimes less. Because his job required travel during the 40’s, he would often leave written workouts with the resident coach, Ted Ohashi. In the 1950’s, the Downtown Y had no coach so we swimmers coached ourselves between Ernie’s sessions. While his approach and technique could change over the years, there was one thing that was consistent and that was his concern for developing the whole person. He not only coached swimming skills but he could be a confidant and advisor about life skills. We were all from blue collar families and Ernie opened windows of awareness for many of us.

 He had attended college, appreciated art and was an accomplished classical violinist. So it’s not surprising that he introduced some of his swimmers to the appreciation of art, music and fine literature. Some have said they were influenced more by this side of Ernie than his coaching.  

My favorite memories are the auto trips to the National AAU Swimming Championships at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and in Tucson, Arizona for the National YMCA Championships. (The National AAU was the predecessor to USA Swimming). Five swimmers would squeeze into Ernie’s new Packard sedan and with our mentor at the wheel; we would take off on a great adventure, stopping at a motel or two, depending how far it was to our destination. Afterward we’d usually drive, non stop, back to St. Louis. (Those were the days before interstate highways.) 

I can’t speak for my teammates but I always felt calmer on the block when Ernie was nearby, stopwatch in hand. He was a quiet man, soft spoken and totally focused on what his swimmers were about to do.  His wide grin and congratulary hand shake, before you even got out of the water, in response to a personal best or better yet, a win, was a reward indeed, sparking pride in the recipient. 

Ernie never married nor did his sister. Their parents had immigrated to America and after their father died, the siblings focused on caring for their rather frail mother, which in those days was often the case with first generation Americans. Perhaps the lack of family and children motivated Ernie to take a personal interest in his swimmers.  

While less typical today, in the first half of the 20th century, it was commonplace for grown men to volunteer their time to sports organizations, passing on the enthusiasm and support that their generation had been given by adults in the community when they were young. What was remarkable, in retrospect, was that Ernie never asked for, nor was he ever paid for his efforts. In fact he would often spend his own money to pay part of our expenses. We never knew he was doing it. “It was just taken care of.”    

Considering all of us grew up playing in neighborhood alleys, vacant lots, construction sites and occasionally with “the wrong crowd” before we entered high school, we were fortunate to cross paths with Ernie and his standards. Some of his swimmers achieved recognition in swimming as national finalists, national champions, international competitors representing the United States, world record holders and national and world champions in masters swimming. These same swimmers and other teammates went on to develop successful careers in business, coaching, law, medicine and dentistry. The lives of many of us would probably be different if we had not met Ernie Vornbrock. 

Ernie died suddenly in 1959 while on assignment in Japan. His death was untimely and created a financial dilemma. Finally, Harry Queensen, who was one of his swimmers and had become a successful businessman, flew to Tokyo and at his own expense brought Ernie home to St. Louis…. I know that many of the champions and Olympians later developed by Doc Counsilman are not aware of where the wellspring of Doc’s curiosity, dedication and love for the sport originated….. Much of it was from the lanky man in white, holding a stop watch and watching.   

The Vornbrock Cup has been established by his former swimmers and friends, out of respect and gratitude for his guidance; and with the hope that this unique man’s values will be passed on to a new generation.

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Joe’s Favorite Quotes


  1. “Don’t confuse the urgent with the important.”
  2. “The ability to adjust is a sign of leadership.”  – William H. Danforth, Founder of Ralston Purina
  3. “People base decisions upon what they think rather than what they know.”
  4. “Don’t forget to do the homework.”
  5. “Who says?”
  6. “Who is “they”?”
  7. “Prove it.”
  8. “An answer is not necessarily the same as the correct answer.”
  9.  “When a client doesn’t pay, wait for a choke point and then choke.”
  10.  “Stay focused.”
  11.  “You must take risks to make money.”
  12. “Information is your friend.  Knowledge is your partner.”
  13. “Don’t trade one set of problems for another set of problems.”
  14. “Never assume anything without remembering you’re probably wrong.”
  15. “Facts don’t lie.”
  16. “When you fix a mechanical problem, it usually stays fixed. When you fix a people problem it seldom stays fixed.
  17. “What are you going to do about it?”  – James E. Counsilman, PhD
  18. “You can delegate authority, but not responsibility.” – US Armed Forces

Sometimes Genius is a Few Steps From The Obvious

During the run up to the Final Four several weeks ago, one of the TV networks did a segment on Pat Summit, the coach of the woman’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee. She has the most wins among the coaches in woman’s basketball and her team finally lost in the semi-finals of the Division 1 NCAA championships. She has been called the mother of woman’s basketball having won 800 games with the Lady Vols. Her techniques and coaching have been legendary and her athletes have been exceptional students on and off the court with many earning top scholastic marks. 

In the mid-90’s, in an effort to push her woman players to a higher level, she recruited a men’s basketball team to scrimmage with the woman’s varsity. These were not members of the varsity men’s team but rather the top Intramural team on campus. The purpose was to have her women play one on one against opponents who were bigger, stronger and weighed more than women. The results were quite positive and today with few exceptions, every contender in the Division 1 woman’s competition trains with men. 

The moral of the story is “sometimes genius is a few steps from the obvious.”

Sent to CH Team in 2005

The Abiltiy To Adjust Requires Leadership

Last Saturday I had the privilege of visiting a friend who operates a shop that repairs and restores old slot machines. In twenty minutes, he showed me through his inventory of these vintage gambling devices which were interesting to look at as well as hearing their stories.

 The oldest slot machine in his collection was manufactured in 1912 by the Mills Company. It is cast iron with the price of 5 cents in the casting next to the slot which shows little concern for inflation. The most interesting thing about this machine as well as others of that era is that there are vertical windows of approximately 1 x 8 inches in the front which are called mint windows. When the coin was dropped in the slot and the handle pulled, a mint fell into the tray. And on occasion, multiple coins would also drop into the tray. Because each pull of the handle yielded a mint, it was considered a candy machine and thereby avoided the definition of a gambling device which was outlawed during that time.  

During the first half of the 20th century, the Mills Company was the ‘General Motors’ of slot machines with 80-90% of the market. All other manufacturers made up the balance. Each of these sought ways to make their product stand out in their effort to stay viable. One company was Watling, which made eye-catching ornate machines. Some had cast aluminum faces and were sought out by many with one or two machines in their place of business. During World War II, another company changed its design by using wood face and sides to offset the scarcity of metal due to the war effort. 

In the 1950’s a federal law against transporting slot machines across state lines pushed the industry into crisis, which demanded adjustments to survive. Watling diversified into making ladders, from short stepladders to extension ladders. Mills moved their operations to Nevada believing that their best chance was in the state that had the greatest potential for slot-machine usage. At that time a small company introduced electro-mechanical slots with flashing lights etc. Mills did not adapt to this new technology quickly enough and the demand shifted to the slots made by the upstart, Bally. Mills later disappeared from the market.  


The ability to adjust requires leadership.


Sent to the CH team on April 15, 2005


Art of the Deal

Donald Trump wrote a book called Art of the Deal, which underscores my belief that there is more art in our work than science.

“Art” is somewhat synonymous with years of experience, i.e. past experience which has influenced the response by CHA to two similar, but different, recent situations.

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