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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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