Column: Gene Boyle: An influencer for his time

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The late Gene Boyle’s wife Barb Boyle, daughter Brenda Boone, son Tanner Boyle and wife Ashtin and daughter Deanna McElwee at the Gene Boyle Gym dedication on Jan. 31 at Flathead High School. (Photo courtesy Bryce Wilson)

A fixture at Flathead sporting events for the better part of 30 years, it is fitting that the late Gene Boyle has his name affixed to the new gym at the high school.

It’s not just there, by the way. In 2015 Flathead renamed its softball field for Boyle, who took over as the Bravettes’ coach in 1998 and guided them to a state title in 2003.

Last week the brand new gym was memorialized for a man who died in May of 2016. It’s the teaching/coaching equivalent of retiring two jerseys, numbered 8 and 24. Kobe Bryant had nothing on this guy.

“We both came here in 1976, me as an assistant (football) coach,” Fred Merrick said Wednesday. “I ended up coaching a little bit of basketball with Bill Epperly, but I started in football with Gene.

“One of probably the biggest things is he could relate to anybody. It didn’t matter if it was a little kid or a grownup, he could relate to anyone. And especially a high school kid.”

Boyle, a Cut Bank native who competed in football, track and – this is surprising, but it popped up on newspapers.com – golf for a time at Carroll and had some wildly successful years coaching in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Not just in football and basketball: He met his wife, Barb, there. They were married in 1968. She followed him to Lewiston, Idaho, in 1970; then to Choteau in 1972; then to Flathead in 1976.

Merrick remembered people telling him that Boyle was an unknown quantity in 1976, but that he aced the interview here. Back in Idaho he was better known, especially by basketball officials.

“Seventy-one technicals in eight years,” Barb Boyle says, laughing.

These numbers are documented on a pen and pencil set Gene received when he left for Montana. So he was fiery, but not so fiery that a Catholic school thought to take any more action than immortalize it on a stationary set.

His record in five seasons as football coach of the Flathead Braves was 24-23, but things seemed to be trending up: His final team went 8-3 and lost to Great Falls CMR in the 1980 State AA championship.

Not much later, Merrick said, principal Bill Vogt approached Boyle about becoming activities director.

The idea was either stay put and influence his football players, or have the same positive effect on a lot more students as AD. It was for the greater good.

“I think his wife thought so,” Barb said. “We’d lost to CMR in the state finals and we had beat them during the year. That was a pretty hard pill to swallow. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to be a coach’s wife.”

Then she added: “If I thought I was going to see any more of him, I was wrong.”

The first year was tough; at one point Boyle told his wife he’d rather be selling shirts at JC Penney.

“He missed the coaching, that’s for darn sure,” Barb said. “But as the years went by a big part of him was really happy that he was able to know a majority of kids.”

One, Barb said, stopped them at a grocery store to update them on his life. He hadn’t been an athlete, but Boyle had still made an impression.

Another student, Dan Hodge recalled, accidently locked Boyle in the equipment shed at Legends Stadium. He was in there for hours before somebody else using the track heard him banging away.

For a guy that helped lay down the track at what was Rawson Field, what’s a few more hours? Rawson is now called Legends, and Boyle is one of those legends, his name on a plaque there as well.

Losing legends is hard and so it was with Boyle – who became ill with Alzheimer’s not long after retiring from St. Matt’s in 2009.

Merrick recalled a fantasy football draft – Boyle was the commissioner of a league they’d started in 1980 – where someone drafted Drew Brees and Boyle asked, “Who does he play for?”

“I thought he was kidding, just a little bit,” Merrick said.

As the disease progressed Boyle’s usual friendliness diminished; longtime friends would go unrecognized. But Merrick would occasionally drive Boyle to football games in Missoula; Boyle’s golfing buddies – Epperly, who passed away in 2017, Ken Siderius, Jim Scalf, Tracy Walsh – took him out to the course through the summer of 2014.

They hung with him, just as he hung with thousands of students in his long career.

So it is fitting that his name be prominently displayed, so people can ask, “Who was Gene Boyle?” The answer is: He’s a guy that once knew everybody.

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