Coach was determined to the end
Appeal Staff Writer
Tom Rippee will be remembered for many things, but four themes ran through conversations Tuesday with those who knew the coach. Strength. Dedication. Love. Bubble gum.
On Saturday, one day shy of his 59th birthday, Rippee’s heart -working overtime to make up for his failing lone kidney – did what Rippee never would, it gave up.
“He had a saying, ‘You always have to find a way to do what needs to be done,'” said his son, Tyler Rippee, 26. “The guy had so much pain in his legs in the end that he could barely walk, but he found a way to get to school to do what he had to do. The lessons that I learned from him are you don’t just quit and you don’t give up. Things aren’t always going to be easy, but you make it work. You find a way.”
Put on dialysis four years ago and with only one kidney working at 40 percent, Rippee still went to work every day, making the 66-mile round-trip from his home in Sparks to teach wrestling and physical education to Carson Middle School students.
“Tom was a very proud, very strong man,” said Carson Middle School Principal Sam Santillo who called Rippee his friend. “But he was slowly coming to the realization that even though his will and his might were there, his body couldn’t hang anymore.”
Despite the grim prognosis that his life was doomed without a kidney transplant and heart-valve surgery, the effervescent jokester would still tease his students and had a contagious smile that peeked out from beneath a full silver mustache. He did those things on his final day at school Friday. By 3 a.m. Saturday he was gone.
Born Oct. 1, 1947, in Boulder City, the middle son to Frank and Barbara Rippee, Coach Rippee graduated from Yerington High School before heading to Taft Junior College where he played baseball and was an All-American in football. He then headed to Brigham Young University where he was a starter for two years on the football team.
Coach Kyle Walt, who for 12 years shared an office with Rippee above the middle school’s locker room, said Rippee was the second leading rusher in the nation behind O.J. Simpson then.
Tyler Rippee said his father intended to try out for the Oakland Raiders at one point but instead finished college with a teaching degree from Southern Utah State University in 1972.
With the promise of paying off his student loans, Rippee took his first coaching job on a Navajo reservation in Sanders, Ariz. Then he moved onto another school in Cottonwood, Ariz., before taking a position at Bishop Manogue High School in Reno where he coached baseball, basketball and football.
He led the school to a state championship in football in 1982. Then led the baseball team to three consecutive state championships in 1984, 1985 and 1986. For the last 18 years, he’s been a fixture at Carson Middle School. Up until last year, he coached football at Carson High School with Walt. During his final year at the high school his son, Tyler, joined the coaching team.
“He said even though the record didn’t show it, it was one of his funnest years,” Tyler Rippee said.
Coach Walt said when students were overcome at the news of Rippee’s death, he took them aside and give them a pep talk.
“Coach was a fighter, and he would want you to go on like he would have if he could,” Walt told them. “We used to call him the company man ’cause he was always here. He was here for the kids, here for the principal, here for the camaraderie and the great school atmosphere. He traveled from Sparks to Carson every day just to teach. He liked it here. He liked the people. He liked the community.”
After 34 years as his bride, Sandy Rippee knew the ins and outs of her husband. She knew he was stubborn and determined and motivated. She said their lives revolved around coaching and laughter. And she knew he could plow through some bubblegum – a forbidden prize Rippee would give those students who did the right thing.
“I said, Tom how much of this gum do you go through everyday,” Sandy recalled Tuesday with a pained chuckle. “And he said, ‘Don’t you worry about it. I’ll be using as much as I need!'”
Principal Santillo laughed when asked about Rippee’s penchant for handing out gum.
“The other teachers would complain, ‘Coach Rippee is giving out gum again,'” he said.
Sandy Rippee, confined to a wheelchair from a car accident in June, said she can’t believe her hero is gone.
“How devastating this is going to be. I’m in shock, and I hope to God it never goes away,” she said. “You were really fortunate if you knew him. Your life would have been much richer if he were your friend.”
Tyler Rippee said his family is lost without its “idol.”
“This is the worse week of our lives,” he said. “For us, it’s like we lost our emperor. It’s too much to take right now. The world will not be as good a place without that man around.”
Rippee is survived by his wife and son; daughter Amanda Rippee and her husband, Richard Miears, of Reno; sister, Barbara Jean and her husband, Lonnie, Gipson of Green River, Wyo.; brother Pat and his wife, Niki, Rippee of Kingsville, Texas; brother Mike and his wife, Bonnie, Rippee of Gardnerville; mother-in-law, Fae Steele of Orem, Utah; and many nieces and nephews.
A funeral Mass will be 7:30 p.m. Friday at Immaculate Conception Church, 2900 N. McCarran Blvd. in Sparks. Visitation will be 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Walton’s Funeral Home, 1745 Sullivan Lane, Sparks.
In lieu of flowers the family asks that contributions be made to the Thomas Rippee Memorial Trust Fund at any Wells Fargo Bank branch.
“He just had such a good time. He just lit up a room when he walked in,” said Rippee’s wife. “People loved to be around him. He was just that kind of person. He made your day.”
• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1213.