St. Helens legend was a versatile, demanding coach but also a longtime AD and highly regarded biology teacher who became a master on the whitewater
He’s remembered as a winning coach.
And for being able to recruit athletes from the hallways of St. Helens High.
And not just for winning and having numbers but for coaching with innovative ways and unique, motivational techniques.
He’s also remembered as a longtime athletic director who hired successful coaches.
And as an AD who kept a close watch on all aspects of the athletic department.
And he’s remembered for doing all of the above while keeping his students — non-athletes included — interested and inspired.
And beyond that, he is remembered as a teacher whose classroom extended far beyond school walls, reaching into the great outdoors and onto various rivers of the West.
And, for that, he is remembered as an accomplished rafter who gave students, friends and others some of their most memorable life experiences by leading them through the whitewater.
• • •
Today, all this seems like it came from so much another time, another era.
Yet, despite the many years that have passed, these things still make Gene Strehlou a memorable figure not only in the history of St. Helens High and Lions athletics but also in the hearts and minds of those who competed for him or learned from him.
Strehlou served as the Lions’ head coach in basketball, track and field and cross country. He launched the cross-country program. He also was an assistant coach (offensive and defensive line) in football. He is a member of the St. Helens Sports Hall of Fame.
And he taught biology and advanced biology during a St. Helens career that spanned from 1959 through 1992.
Strehlou died in St. Helens on June 17 at age 86.
His life will be celebrated in a gathering at the Columbia City Community Hall at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug. 30.
Strehlou’s journey took him from a remote area in Idaho to military service to basketball fame at College of Idaho to teaching, coaching and administrative jobs in high schools.
St. Helens was where he spent most of his career, and it is where he is best remembered.
• • •
Bill Rawlings played and coached for Strehlou, competing in basketball and coming back as head softball coach.
Rawlings was on the 1961 Lions hoop team that made the state tournament and performed well, giving eventual champion Klamath Falls a memorable run.
“We were ranked No. 16 and opened against No. 1,” Rawlings recalled. “Our tallest guy was about 6-1, and they had a guy 6-9 and two others bigger than anybody on our team. But we gave them their toughest game of the tournament (losing 46-43).
“That was a proud moment in the history of St. Helens athletics. We just played our hearts out.”
Strehlou had worked at K-Falls.
“I don’t know if that helped him get some inside information or not, but I know he did a great job scouting them and getting us ready to play,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings remembers that Coach Strehlou “had a pretty good temper. In practices, at times he’d throw clipboards. He’d get our attention. He didn’t put up with any nonsense.”
Years later, Rawlings was teaching middle school when Strehlou tabbed him to take over the high school softball program. Rawlings went on to coach the Lions varsity for 12 years, winning three state championships (1986, 1990 and 1991).
Rawlings stepped down after the 1990 season, but Strehlou talked him into coming back for an encore season.
“We were at the Village Inn, and he made me sign the contract for ’91 on a napkin,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings also remembers Strehlou as both very involved and very competitive.
“Gene would come to our practices,” he said. “One day, one of our girls challenged him to a 40-yard dash. Gene of course accepted the challenge, but he didn’t warm up, and he ended up with two pulled hamstrings.”
• • •
Jerry Tinkle, the Lions’ former and longtime track and field coach, was a Strehlou hire as well.
Tinkle had heard the stories about the methods Strehlou used to get the most out of his athletes.
“He drove his athletes really hard,” Tinkle said. “Some of the workouts I heard they used to do, I don’t know how they did that … but those guys stayed loyal to him. And he won a lot of trophies in track and cross country.
Later, as the overseeing AD, “Gene was very demanding, very hands-on,” Tinkle said. “He wanted to know everything that was going on. He knew all the players and the teams. He wanted to know your philosophy and your expectations, and then at the end of a season he wanted to know what you thought went well and what didn’t.
“And he wanted a winning program out of you.”
Tinkle said Strehlou’s intense ways and desire for success in athletics “rubbed some people the wrong way. Some coaches didn’t last very long. But for people like me, and he pushed me very hard, it made me work harder.”
Tinkle said Strehlou “ran a very tight ship financially, too. Things were in the black. All the money had to be wisely spent.
“But when I got there, he told me, ‘I’m going to let you run the program and not try to tell you what to do.'”
Strehlou was there to offer advice, though, Tinkle said.
“He showed me a lot of stuff. He was a mentor,” Tinkle added.
To Strehlou, “the dual meets were really important. He passed that down to me.”
Overall, “I always thought he was fair, and he remained a friend for all those years after he retired.”
• • •
Marc Knudsen ran track for Strehlou in the days when dual meets were aplenty, graduating in 1974.
“We’d have 15 to 20 a year,” Knudsen said. “And he always gave all the kids a chance to compete and get points, so a 15-year-old sophomore could get a letter, and that always made you feel good.
“He was a tough coach, but kids wanted to come out for track.”
Knudsen’s father, Andy, was a fellow coach and good buddy. Marc’s brothers, Chris and Larry, also competed for Strehlou. Marc Knudsen remembers the coach as meticulous.
“Going into a meet, he’d have it calculated down to how many points we should game. And we always had a good team,” Knudsen said.
And on the rare days when the team wasn’t so good, Strehlou would let them know it.
“He’d make the whole team, weight men and all, jog down the highway, and then the bus would pick us up,” Knudsen said. “But from Scappoose, all the middle- and long-distance men would have to go the whole seven miles.”
Needless to say, the Lions “always competed well,” Knudsen said. “He had good athletes, state champions and people who placed high at state. And he made sure we got to compete against some of the best teams in the state, in those days teams like South Eugene and Jesuit and the Portland schools, if they had fast kids.”
• • •
Alan Painter was another runner for Strehlou, along with his older brother Ralph. Alan graduated in 1976 and recalled that the track team did not lose a dual meet during his four years at St. Helens High, winning the district title every year.
“Gene was one of the best track coaches in the state,” Painter said. “He could coach everything, but I think maybe he was especially good with the distance runners.”
Painter concurred that Strehlou could be a taskmaster, as was more common in those days.
“You never wanted to tick him off or question him too much, because he’d stop the bus and say, ‘Oh, let’s go another mile and two.’ He’d take us out for training runs in his old Ford pickup with the underclassmen in the cab and upperclassmen up front.
“He demanded a lot, but he had this way of making you want to please him. And even when you had to do the toughest workout — and of course you’d be complaining about it — you’d do it because you knew in the long run it was going to make you better.”
Painter said he learned a lot from Strehlou the biology teacher, too, and will always remember being part of a four-day trip down the Deschutes with other students between his freshman and sophomore years.
• • •
Strehlou was born on Sept. 14, 1932 in Wisconsin, during the Great Depression. The family moved to Vancouver, Washington, and then went east, and he grew up in the mountains of Idaho.
He started school early. “His mother taught him to read at age 5, and he ended up graduated from high school early, at 16,” said his daughter, Sandy Strehlou.
He was tall but not beefy, so he didn’t play sports, other than to run a bit of track — until he moved to Lewiston, Idaho, and then went into the National Guard and was called up during the Korean War.
In the service, he began playing basketball and football and running track, based in Fort Carson in Colorado.
Because he was playing on military sports teams, he ended up not going overseas, as the bases teams competed against one another.
Later, taking advantage of the GI Bill, he was able to attend College of Idaho, where he competed in all three of those sports he had done while in the service.’
Strehlou wound up with a couple of athletes who would become famous — Elgin Baylor and R.C. Owens, who would go on to star professionally in the NBA and NFL, respectively. All three of them were on the 1954-55 C of I basketball team that is regarded as perhaps the best in school history — and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2005. Those Coyotes went undefeated in the Northwest Conference and reached the NAIA District 5 championship game.
Strehlou, a corporal in the National Guard, also got a teaching degree while at C-I.
His first teaching job was in Prairie City, a small town in Northeastern Oregon.
He moved to Klamath Falls in 1958 and to St. Helens in 1959, with wife Lucille, who had met him while he was in the military.
In 1964-65, Strehlou was selected as the outstanding young educator in Oregon. He went to Washington, D.C., to be honored with teachers from other states.
At St. Helens High, Sandy Strehlou wound up in her father’s advanced biology class.
“My dad was a really interesting and pretty innovative teacher,” she said. “He took his class hiking in the Olympic Mountains, and he had a saltwater aquarium in his classroom, and they collected fish and animals.”
She remembered that he had his advanced biology students take responsibility for their learning in various ways.
“He would give each of us a chapter in our book, and we would teach it,” she said. “You learn better when you’re teaching.”
• • •
Strehlou had a masters degree in biology from the University of Oregon, and early in his St. Helens teaching career he would spend summers doing research.
He shared his love for whitewater rafting with some of his students during the summers as well.
He took that responsibility and safety seriously.
“He always researched the rivers to get any information he could about the hazards,” friend Jack Carter said. “He wanted to be able to guide and direct people correctly.
“He prided himself in not getting into trouble on the river.”
Strehlou spent countless hours on the Deschutes River, his favorite place to fish. He also rafted the Rogue, Snake, Salmon, Selway and Colorado rivers, among others, making friends or engaging students along the way, and often teaching others how to become guides themselves.
“He was basically self-taught,” Sandy Strehlou said of his whitewater abilities, “and over the years he became a very masterful guide. He ended up doing most all of the significant rivers in Oregon and Idaho and floated the Grand Canyon in his own boat, and did a trip in Alaska.
“He really understood rivers and was a very avid fisherman. To me, he always seemed graceful on the water in a way that a lot of people, myself included, would never have been. He just understood the ebb and flow and what whitewater meant.
“He probably introduced rafting to maybe 1,000 people in his life, and he would spend all summer on the water with my mother.”
Rafting with Gene Strehlou was “no frills,” his daughter said. “It was not gourmet food or chilled wine — he wasn’t going to have any of that — so he had a real loyal following of people who went with him.”
• • •
Sandy Strehlou remembers that she and her brother Ed, five years older, and their parents didn’t have a consistent schedule at home, largely because Gene and Lucille were so busy and active.
“It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized there are families that have dinner together every night at the same time,” she said. “At our house, we’d all have dinner, but not together and certainly not at 5 o’clock.”
Gene and Lucille Strehlou were a lifelong Democrats, Sandy said, and Lucille worked as a precinct captain along with her day job as finance secretary for the St. Helens School District.
“Both my parents were really involved in things,” Sandy said. “If I followed in my parents’ footsteps in any way, it was in that sense of civic involvement and responsibility. I learned by watching them that you vote, and you vote in every election. We had lots of conversations about politics. I grew up reading Life magazine reporting on the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, and we watched the news in the evening reporting on those things and more.
“My father spoke his mind. My mom was more soft-spoken. My mom was Hispanic, born here, but we had this sense that you had to be aware of what was happening politically in this country.”
Gene Strehlou wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers.
“My father had very definite opinions, and he would let you know if he thought something was wrong,” Sandy said. “Anybody who does that can step on toes, and I’m sure my father sometimes did.”
• • •
Lucille died in 1987, and Gene would retire in 1992, but not until he had left a legacy in many ways.
“He was definitely a gruff character, and he had very high expectations for people,” Sandy Strehlou said. “He also was as honest as the day is long — he spoke it as it was — and he expected a lot out of his athletes and students.”
Even if that meant tracksters and cross-country runners having to climb off the bus and run part or all of the way home after a meet.
“No one speaks badly about that,” Sandy Strehlou said. “I just think it was part of his commitment to training, to making them be the best they could be. I never heard anyone say they thought he was being mean in doing that.”
Gene Strehlou also did some innovative things as the track coach to give his athletes unique experiences, have fun and build both camaraderie and chemistry.
He’d set up multiple teams of Lions to run the long relay at the end of a meet.
“He’d put together teams of unlikely characters,” Sandy Strehlou said. “Weight guys would make up a team and run the relay, and they weren’t kidding around, they would run as hard as they could. Or my dad would put together three or four or five different teams, and everyone who ran took it seriously.”
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