Louise Marbut: A sports pioneer who demanded the best from her girls

·6 min read

Jul. 21—Jencie Fagan owns a Congressional Medal of Honor citizen's award because she disarmed a teenager who'd brought his parents' .38-caliber revolver to school and shot two students.

She could have fled or hid. Instead, the PE teacher and coach at Pine Middle School in Reno, Nev., ran toward the commotion and talked the 14-year-old boy into dropping the gun, into choosing to live. She then hugged him until police arrived.

No more gunfire. No additional victims.

On that snowy March day in 2006, not long after the chaos of more American school-place violence, Fagan called Louise Marbut, her volleyball coach at The Donoho School.

"I called Louise," Fagan said, "because I am who I am because of her."

Marbut's death Monday at her Jacksonville home has reverberated among alumni of the Anniston private school. With a commitment to excellence and a steely refusal to accept laziness, Marbut, 79, coached and taught at the Henry Road school for nearly two decades — a span that earned enshrinement in both the Alabama High School Sports Hall of Fame and the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame.

But Marbut's death has resonated most heavily among the players who helped Donoho become a small-school volleyball dynasty in Alabama, an endowment that remains largely intact today.

Five times her Donoho teams won state championships. Six times her Falcons finished second. She won 600 of her 795 career matches, which includes time coaching at Anniston High School before moving to Donoho.

In an email to The Star, Alvin Briggs, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, called Marbut "a pioneer in girls' sports" who was "one of those coaches who truly embraced the opportunity for girls in education-based athletics. Her legacy as a leader in high school volleyball in our state will continue to make a positive difference for many years to come."

George "Dee" Gorey, a former headmaster at Donoho during much of Marbut's time at the school, called her "a truly remarkable lady, administrator and coach" whose loss will be felt not only within her community but also in the state.

"I was privileged to have been a colleague of hers," Gorey wrote in a message to The Star. "She was a great friend, and I had complete respect for her impact on the lives of so many. She always inspired those she encountered to achieve a higher level of excellence."

Bill Wakefield, a fixture on the Donoho board of directors, recalls Marbut having few, if any, peers when it came to competitiveness. "If you could imagine Pat Summitt," he said, referring to the late Hall of Fame women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, "that is Louise Marbut."

The humanity — and the humor — are what her former players often recall.

Since Monday, Marbut's Falcons have reminisced about their summer trips to Florida and the tortuous training sessions on the beach. The van rides south were a hoot, but once there Marbut would run her players ragged in the Gulf sand to strengthen their leg muscles so they could jump higher and refuse to wilt. She constantly tested their mettle.

"It was hot and brutal conditions," said Carmen Beam Newsom, who played at Donoho in the 1980s.

"But then (afterward) we would hang out, and she just played games with us, we played games and just laughed. She just really loved us. You have to have love and respect for somebody in order to follow them."

Such were the complexities of Donoho's volleyball coach: unrelentingly fierce one minute, motherly the next.

"She was always positive, and she was very comical, as well," said Deanna Baker Holmes, one of Marbut's standout performers in the 1980s. "She treated all of us as if she birthed us. We just wanted to please her. That's how much she meant to us. We wanted our lives to be pleasing to her."

It is in conversations with Newsom and Holmes that Marbut's innate ability to coax results from widely divergent people is seen.

Newsom laughs when admitting her diminutive stature (5-foot-3) left her ill-equipped for volleyball's taller positions. Marbut didn't care. Failing to try, if not failure itself, was a non-starter.

Marbut called her "Puny Pearl" in practice. Marbut demanded that she jump higher, that she hit the ball harder. Donoho's coach became Pat Summitt in Falcon maroon.

"She was very hard," Newsom said. "She was trying to egg me on, to piss me off, or whatever you call it. But it worked ... It wasn't that she was being mean about it. Once you achieved what you were going to achieve, she just loved you, she hugged you, she doted on you, she praised you."

In Holmes, Marbut saw the obvious — a 5-foot-11 teenager whose potential would be determined by far different metrics.

Problem was, Holmes had never played volleyball. Or, as she describes it, "I couldn't even play volleyball when I went to Donoho."

A familiar theme quickly arose. Marbut didn't care; her DNA refused acquiescence. She crash-coursed Holmes on the sport's particular nuances. She enrolled Holmes in every college-hosted volleyball camp she could find. Marbut, who coached 33 all-state players, believed in her pupil's potential.

Over time, the teenager who couldn't play volleyball became adept at it. And then some. After graduating from Donoho, Holmes played four years at Jacksonville State University, earning all-conference honors as a senior in 1992. Her name lives on in JSU's record book — as does Marbut's, the university's alumna of the year in 2000.

"She was like a mother to me personally," Holmes said. "She developed me into becoming a recruitable collegiate volleyball player. Imagine if I had met her prior to that."

In the years since, Holmes, who lives in Atlanta, became one of the many former Donoho players who kept alive the mentor's friendship they enjoyed with Marbut. Calls or texts were common. Occasionally, they'd visit Marbut at home in Jacksonville, where her husband, Cecil Marbut, operated Cecil's Place, famed for its hamburgers and hand-dipped ice cream shakes.

"I became a wife and a mother and she was just there, always," Holmes said. "She instilled (things) in me. She was a great mentor — spiritually, mentally and physically. She didn't miss a beat."

Two months ago, Fagan traveled from Nevada to Jacksonville to visit her coach. On Mother's Day Sunday, they spent three hours reminiscing and reconnecting, as if time and distance hadn't separated them.

Marbut sat in her La-Z-Boy recliner.

Fagan, knowing her coach wasn't doing well, brought flowers.

It's not unusual for Newsom to think of her sons when recalling how Marbut influenced her own life. Her sons swam competitively in high school, but never did they have coaches who molded them the way Marbut did her, she said.

"Everybody needs a Louise Marbut in their life, everybody does," Newsom said. "If you don't have a Louise Marbut-type person in your life, you are missing huge life lessons."

Graveside services for Marbut are Friday at 10 a.m. at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville. She was preceded in death by her husband, Cecil Marbut, and her parents, Homer and Elizabeth Franklin. She is survived by her sons Tyler Marbut and Wade Marbut and his wife, Michele; grandchildren Cortnee Marbut, Chance Marbut and Graham Marbut; and a brother, Michael Franklin.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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