By LESLIE COLLINS
October 30, 2013
It’s difficult to describe a man who’s impacted so many lives over the years.
But, in one word, Bill Kanan represents integrity.
“You can’t say anything bad about Billy because there’s nothing bad to say,” said Steve Sosa, a friend who graduated from Northeast High School with Kanan.
For 30 years, Sosa taught and coached in the Kansas City Public Schools and on Oct. 8, Northeast High School (NEHS) declared it Bill Kanan Day.
“It was a nice tribute,” Kanan said. “I was surprised, and I’m glad they recognized me. It was a great honor.”
Kanan grew up in a rough neighborhood in Northeast, where youth didn’t think twice about dropping out of school or stealing a car.
“I was so fortunate I got into sports and church. That really helped me as a teenager to get out of that neighborhood and become the person I did,” Kanan said.
In a way, Kanan and his four siblings grew up in a single parent home.
“My dad was in the Navy; he was hardly at home because he would go on these tours. My mom was Japanese, and she was not used to America’s way of life. She was bewildered it seemed like sometimes. That’s why we didn’t have the discipline we should have had and that’s why we made our own bad decisions sometimes.”
For awhile, Kanan hung out with the wrong crowd, becoming an accessory to his friends’ mischievous ways. But, after a friend’s mother invited him to church, he became a regular church goer and sports took up his free time.
Two track coaches impacted his life: Richard Haskell and Ray Wade.
“He (Haskell) was my big influence in high school,” Kanan said. “He was real fair about stuff, a guy I really relied on. He probably took the place of my dad in a way. Without him, I probably never would have been a teacher.”
Haskell also taught his athletes about punctuality, Kanan included.
“He was a real disciplinarian. I remember one time we were going to a meet in Chillicothe and we were supposed to be there (at NEHS) at 8 a.m. We were about a minute late and he took off. He didn’t care who he left behind. There were four of us in that car – the best runners. He was going to leave us behind; that’s how fair he was.”
With track meets, Wade opened Kanan’s eyes to a world beyond Kansas City. Wade searched for track meets and races across the Midwest, including several in Colorado.
“Ray was a very generous person,” he said. “He was a person that really helped us a lot in life, I think more than anybody, because he got us on the right path. He was a great person. We had a great bond with him.”
Years later, Kanan asked Wade to be the best man in his wedding.
One of the highlights of Kanan’s high school athletic career happened his junior year in 1974.
During a morning assembly, Kanan was voted the best athlete at NEHS. Hours later, he competed in the Interscholastic League Championships and became the first track athlete to win four gold medals in one day. His events included the two-mile run, two-mile relay, mile run and the half mile run.
“A lot of people thought I couldn’t do it – There’s no way you can do that. We had a lot of good competition, too…
“You only had a 10 minute rest from the half-mile to the two-mile run. My best time was 1:58 (minutes), but I ended up running a 1:57 on the half-mile. I wish I still had that speed now.”
At Central Missouri, he received almost a full ride scholarship to compete in track and field, and one of his records still stands at the university. In 1977, he competed in the 1,000 yard run for indoor track and clocked in at 2:13.84 minutes. He’s still No. 1 on the university’s Top 10 list in that category. Kanan also competed in a 4 x 800 team relay, which still ranks as the second best team in the university’s history.
Asked what he liked about coaching and teaching, Kanan said, “I like helping kids be successful in life. That’s the main thing. A lot of kids need guidance and they don’t have it. They kind of get lost and they need somebody to really help them.”
In addition to teaching special education, Kanan coached a variety of sports over the years, including basketball, track, cross country and volleyball. For 15 years, he worked at his alma mater.
Kanan said he wanted to give back to the neighborhood and serve as a role model in the inner city.
“I made it out of the neighborhood; you can make it out of the neighborhood. I wanted to help them become successful,” he said.
During his coaching career, a number of his teams placed at state or became state champs, and several athletes also became state champions. Some of his athletes went on to play for Division I and II schools or became coaches themselves.
“One of my students almost made it to the WNBA,” he said. “She did a great job.”
“Kids loved him,” said NEHS Athletic Director Jim Conaway. “He’s very patient. He’s the type of coach that would look for the good and overlook any faults or shortcomings any of them had.
“It’s not everyday that you have someone that puts in as much time and service with the school district. We as the N Club just felt everything he did was unique and special.”
But Kanan was more than a coach. If an athlete was hungry, needed a ride home or couldn’t afford athletic shoes, Kanan “was there for them,” Conaway said.
“He wouldn’t hesitate to dig in his pockets to help them out,” Conaway said.
“He was always pushing us to the limits, a very outgoing coach,” said NEHS junior Thierno Sy. “He taught us about sportsmanship. That is one key I remember.”
NEHS senior Jordan Beaman only had Kanan one year for track and field, but said, “He made sure everyone was good before the game. He would keep us in good spirits and cheer for us.”
Whenever Beaman needed a ride home, Kanan didn’t hesitate to drive him home, he said.
“He was a good coach,” Beaman said.
Sosa described Kanan as the type of friend who’s there when you need him.
“I can ask him to pick me up at 10 o’clock at night and he’ll be there for me… I got my second job because of him.”
When Kanan recommended Sosa for a Kansas City Chiefs’ parking job, the boss needed no other recommendation. The boss told Sosa, “Billy said you’re okay, so we got you.”
In 2000, doctors diagnosed Kanan’s wife, Sherry, with breast cancer. It came back twice. By 2006, cancer had spread throughout her body and Sherry lost the fight. They were married for 25 years and Kanan called her his “soulmate.”
During her battle with cancer, Kanan ran everyday – morning and night – for 15 months to prepare for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.
“It was a tough time, but I did it for her sake because I wanted to help beat cancer,” he said. “I ran the cancer races throughout the year. With every race I wanted her to overcome cancer and I always wanted to do my best at the same time.”
Two months after Sherry died, he ran in a local Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and came in second in his division and 51st overall.
“That was a real fond memory that I’m never going to forget,” he said.
This past spring, Kanan retired from the Kansas City Public Schools, but still works part-time as a parking lot captain and gate supervisor for the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals.
One of his ambitions for retirement is traveling. Last month, he visited Colorado and plans to explore other states in the U.S. Eventually, he’d like to travel abroad.
“I’d like to go to Japan and see where I was born at,” he said. “That’s my big goal is to go back to Japan.”
Although retirement is starting to settle in for Kanan, he will forever be known as “Coach” to his friends and former athletes.
“They don’t call him teacher, they call him coach,” Sosa said. “He’s the No. 1 coach out there.”