I wish every boy in America had a PE teacher like Jim McBurney.
I wish every man had a friend like Jim.
The longtime Tempe Gililland Middle School physical education teacher, ex-ASU track star, husband and father of two died last week at 66 years of age after a courageous struggle against cancer.
He will never be forgotten.
I first met Jim in the early 1970s when we were both teachers at Gililland.
We were also roommates — he, my 6-year-old son and I shared an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment on Rural Road in Tempe.
Remembering Jim means recalling yesteryear when we rode bicycles every day to school, taught our tails off, coached almost every sport and loved nothing better than wrapping up the day hustling pool games in local pubs.
Jim was an old-school physical education teacher who made sure when classes ended the boys were breathing hard, sweating and eager to return the next day for another fast-paced and spirited session.
The most famous of his PE activities was hall hockey.
He closed off both ends of the hallway with goal nets, doled out the hockey sticks and then turned loose the kids for a spirited game.
Jim almost always joined in to play, as did teachers on their prep hours.
As intimidating and competitive as the games sound, Jim always kept the emphasis on fun.
But that doesn’t mean when the games ended and body checks into hallway lockers were over, there weren’t plenty of bruises and abrasions to nurse.
The games became the stuff of which legends are made.
I checked on Jim’s online funeral guest book and found out many of his former students remembrances concerned the hall hockey games.
I don’t know if today’s PE teachers, due to the parental and administrative constraints they work under, could pull off the games and activities that Jim did.
But I do know that after 40 years at the school, administrators, parents and students thought enough of him to name their new gym, “Jim McBurney Gymnasium.”
When I heard of that christening, a lump rose in my throat and a tear trickled from my eye.
I think Jim and I got along so well as roommates because we were at similar points in our lives.
Both of us were coming off nasty divorces, we were pinching pennies and scrambling to find meaningful lives.
We were often asked if two 30-year-old men and a 6-year-old boy living in a dinky apartment was a challenge.
Remembering those days, they were not the least bit trying. In fact, they were downright fun.
Because Jim and I were both single, we were usually in search of just the right soul mate.
Thankfully, we achieved that goal a couple years later when he married, Jan, the love of his life, and I met my beautiful wife, Kay.
But the years leading up to our marriages were lessons in futility. They, however, are some of my fondest memories of my friend.
With a smile on my face I recall the day an attractive, tall and shapely photographer showed up at Gililland for student photos.
Jim spotted her and dropped by my classroom to boldly declare that before the day ended, he’d have her phone number.
Before the story goes any further, readers must know that in the 1970s there was a “Dial-a-Prayer” phone number that could be called to hear spiritual messages.
OK, back to the story.
At the end of basketball practice that day, Jim had in hand, as he had predicted, the phone number the woman had given him.
I was impressed.
At our apartment that evening, he eagerly dialed the number and then stood quietly for several minutes listening to what was being said. He then hung up, turned to me and sheepishly uttered, “She gave me Dial-a-Prayer’s number, not hers.”
He never saw the photographer again.
I remember Jim as having a great sense of humor, very intelligent and a master of the pickup lines.
Not like some pickup masters, Jim was just a friendly guy who loved to make new friends.
On Fridays after school, we sometimes headed to around 24th Street and Camelback where there were a flux of clubs and pubs that the drop-dead gorgeous and well-heeled were known to frequent.
In those affluent restaurants, bars and clubs, Jim was at his best with his one-liners like, “Do you have a map, I just got lost in your eyes” or “Are you a magnet, because I’m attracted to you.”
Before we continue, let’s again take a moment to remember the ’70s. During those years, teachers didn’t have state-of-the-art copying machines as they do today.
Rather, reproductions of tests and practice worksheets were done on “ditto” machines that were hand-cranked and had to be frequently refilled with nasty smelling printing fluid.
OK, let’s return to Jim and I in the pub on Camelback corridor.
Upon entering, we noticed there was a very nice looking young lady sitting with a group at a corner table.
She immediately yanked Jim’s attention.
So, he strategically maneuvered over to the table to strike up a conversation with the attractive stranger. Once he was in just the right location, he began what I was sure was going to be one of his finest lines.
“You must be a teacher,” he said.
Looking up, she grinned, kind of squirmed in her chair and replied, “Yes I am, how did you know?”
His answer left me bending over in laughter, “Because you have ditto fluid on your face.”
Needless to say, that friendship ended before it ever had a chance to get started.
I now believe some of Jim’s gift of the one-liners might have accidentally rubbed off on me.
That’s because I met my wife using a bit of his elixir-like vernacular. Seeing Kay for the first time — which occurred one Friday afternoon in a Tempe Mexican food joint and waterin’ hole called Nacho’s — I thought she was absolutely stunning. I wanted to talk to Kay but three chaps trying to electrify with their bubbling personalities and big-city charm surrounded her.
Gathering all the McBurney-like charisma I could muster, I strolled over to the group and interrupted their conversation to ask, “Honey, did you get the alimony and the child support check I mailed for our four kids?”
Hearing that, the three suitors fled like a covey of quail under shotgun attack.
The rest is history — 34 years of marriage and nine wonderful grandchildren.
In Jim and my never-ending quest to be sociable with the opposite sex, we once decided the romantic approach might be a winning strategy.
We decided to try our plan on a night we were double dating two very nice young ladies we had met only a few days earlier.
Our plan for just the right evening was to launch my ski boat at Saguaro, motor up the lake to a secluded and sandy beach spot we knew of. There, we’d lay out blankets, build a cozy fire, slow-cook ribeyes, pop open a trendy bottle of Italian red wine and relish the starlit evening.
Wow, what a plan it was — we were geniuses.
Most of the evening, our elaborate scheme seemed to be a smashing hit with our dates.
Feeling fairly smug, Jim and I decided about midnight it was time to head back to the boat dock for the return trip to Tempe.
But just as in John Steinbeck’s novella “Of Mice and Men” our best-laid plans went awry when the boat motor sputtered, coughed and quit.
To make matters worse, in my hurry to get the evening off to a roaring start, I hadn’t loaded the oars.
But, we did have a pair of water skis.
So, Jim and I began to slowly paddle the boat back to the dock while our dates sat with arms crossed and seemingly bent out of shape over the entire ordeal.
We couldn’t figure their disgust out — they weren’t the ones paddling against the current.
With biceps throbbing and sweat pouring from our brows, we scooted into the dock about the time the sun was peaking over the Eastern horizon. After hours of paddling we finally made it. But, our relief quickly turned to chagrin when only a few steps out of the boat, both ladies spun around and unleashed a verbal barrage low-lighted by threats to never call them again.
Jim and I figured that was their loss.
Not long after Jim married Jan, Kay and I decided to pull up stakes and take our family to Show Low where I had a teaching and coaching job offer. After that move, Jim and I drifted apart, but I kept track of him through his younger brother Tim, a high school football coach, who I often met at conventions and passing league tournaments.
Jim and I saw each other only occasionally, but each time we did, there were plenty of belly-busting laughs and great tales to tell.
I’ll miss Jim greatly, we all will.
In the years of good times and Tom Foolery we enjoyed, he remains one of the most honorable and principled men I’ve ever known.
Thanks for the memories, Jim.