Dennis Pirch's surprise retirement party might have been the best-kept secret since television moguls had millions of viewers on edge wondering, "Who shot JR?" following a March 21, 1980 TV episode of "Dallas."
While "Dallas" producers decided on an alternative cliffhanger to keep viewers guessing, there was no further suspense about Pirch's retirement party when the former teacher and coach walked into the Tonto Apache gymnasium on the afternoon of Nov. 18.
What he saw was a gymnasium filled with hundreds of well wishers, there to greet him and celebrate his retirement last fall from teaching and from coaching wrestling in 2001.
For months leading up to the party, event organizers and Pirch's wife, Kathy, were able to keep the affable coach from learning about its existence.
One of Pirch's former star wrestlers, R.C. LaHaye, built a Web site to inform the public about the event. Still, Pirch remained in the dark.
"I had no idea about the (retirement) party," he said. "I thought I was going there to talk to a bunch of wrestlers.
"When I saw all the people, I thought I was in the wrong place."
For most of the celebratory afternoon, the Roy Sandoval Family Band played festive music, revelers greeted the Pirch family and more than 30 years of teaching and coaching memories were relived.
"I'm still in awe," Pirch said. "I'm having trouble really believing what happened."
As gifts, Pirch received an Arizona lifetime hunting and fishing license, state of the art high-tech binoculars, a top-grade backpack and cash.
During a 28-year coaching career, Pirch led the Longhorns to 10 state championships, 23 regional titles, 100-plus tournament championships and a top-20 national ranking.
In compiling a dual meet record of 378 and 44, he was a 20-time region Coach of the Year winner, 10-time 3A state Coach of the Year and was twice selected All-Arizona Coach of the Year.
In 1997, he was chosen Region 8 and National Coach of the Year by the National Wrestling Coaches Association. Four years later, USA Wrestling Magazine tapped him as Arizona Man of the Year.
Last fall, he was one of five coaches inducted into the Arizona Chapter Hall of Fame for Lifetime Service to Coaching Wrestling.
Pirch was also able to help make those around him better. Assistant coaches Dave LaMotte, Don Heizer and Bruce Sitko were once honored nationally for their service, as was this writer when I was named the 1996 first runner-up to the USA Wrestling Sportswriter of the Year.
Pirch's expertise was not limited to coaching wrestling. He was also a highly popular and successful PHS social studies teacher who touched the lives of two generations of students.
In the classroom, his students knew him for his energy, enthusiasm, humor and commitment.
Payson dentist Eric Anderson, a former PHS student and state champion wrestler, said he now realizes Pirch "was one of those whose greatest concern was to create character."
In October, Pirch's former students elected him the grand marshal of the Payson High School homecoming parade.
An avid outdoorsman and angler, Pirch is now a co-owner of The Tackle Box in Tonto Basin and author of the weekly "Outdoors Under the Rim" column in the Payson Roundup.
His features run the gamut, with subjects including, fishing, hiking, archery, fond memories of bygone days, holiday happenings, physical fitness and hunting.
A spiritual man with strong convictions, Pirch usually wraps up his columns with something like, "Go out and enjoy God's creation."
Dennis and Kathy Pirch have two sons, Clifford and Christopher. Both forged highly successful three-sport athletic careers at Payson High School before graduating as honor students.
Clifford, now a professional bass angler and guide, is married to Alicia. They have two daughters, Kailee Grace and Kassidy Joy.
Christopher, a high school teacher and wrestling coach on the East Coast, is married to Katie.