Life Remembered: Hembrough recalled as 'a second father'

CHAMPAIGN — Gary Hembrough was an active person who was interactive in life.

Some knew him as a teacher and coach at Centennial High School. For some, it was through his knowledge of computers or fixing conversion vans. For others, it was through his healthy love for cooking and grilling.

For all, it was the twinkle and gleam in his eye and his genuine concern for others. His death Tuesday night at age 73 prompted a myriad of reflections and memories.

Centennial physical education teacher Kyle Herges said Hembrough's influence lasted past his 1994 retirement.

"My first year teaching here (1994-95), I told him I felt I was making a lot of mistakes," Herges said. "He said, 'My last year, I still felt I could be doing things better. Don't feel like you have to be perfect every day.'"

From the time he stepped onto the football field as a high school freshman at Roodhouse (south of Jacksonville), Mr. Hembrough was involved with the sport for 41 consecutive years. After playing for the University of Illinois, he was on the Illini coaching staff as a freshman assistant for 11 years.

At Centennial, he was a varsity football assistant for six years under Wes Davis and succeeded him as the head coach for 11 seasons (1983-93). Mr. Hembrough taught in the Unit 4 school district for 32 years.

Former Centennial teacher and coach Sara Seed met Mr. Hembrough in 1985, her first year working in the district.

"I forgot what my name was around him," Seed said. "I was called 'Rookie' or 'Kid' by him. He took me in and showed me what it took to be a good teacher and coach. I was always grateful for that. He took coaching to the next level."

Current Champaign Central athletic director John Woods, a 1988 graduate, played football for Mr. Hembrough for three years and had him as his throws coach in track two years.

"He was very much like a father figure to the guys," Woods said. "As a 17-year-old kid, it's hard to know the behind-the-scenes stuff, but now it's easier to reflect. His teams were always well-prepared, and he was a good leader.

"It didn't matter whether you were the best athlete or a teammate, he treated all the kids fairly and equally."

Andrew Cotner, a 1987 graduate, played football for Mr. Hembrough only as a senior.

"Even though he was an intimidating figure, he knew how to connect to all of the kids," Cotner said. "He was an icon, and we were all blessed to share some time with him."

John Lindgren, a 1985 Centennial graduate, was a quarterback on Mr. Hembrough's — and the school's — first playoff team in 1984. His fondest memory, however, was connected with basketball.

"I got brand new shoes and was going to be late for class," Lindgren said. "I threw them in my locker and went to class. When I came back, someone had broken in my locker, and they had been stolen.

"I had them in my hands less than an hour. I didn't know what I would say to my parents. Without a word, Coach Hembrough put me in his car, we went to the store and he bought me shoes. When I told my mom, we tried to give him money, but he wouldn't take it."

Mr. Hembrough and his wife, Georgine, had no children, but Lindgren said, "the football team was his kids. He treated us as if we were the most important thing in his life. He was there to support you in many different ways outside of football. He was the type of guy, most would say, was like a second father."

Scott Nagy, who started his 18th year as a collegiate basketball head coach Friday at South Dakota State, never played football for Centennial, but had Mr. Hembrough when he played sophomore basketball.

"Football was his passion, but he was a good basketball coach," Nagy said.

The summer before Nagy's junior year, his family situation changed when his mother remarried and moved to Springfield.

"My Dad was in the Central district," said Nagy, who wasn't anxious to change high schools. "Coach Hembrough knew I wanted to stay. He asked if I wanted to live with him and his wife. It wasn't like he was trying to keep some great football player around. It was one of the things I considered."

Nagy wound up spending his final two years with the family of his best friend, Kyle Herges. Mr. Hembrough's offer, he said, "meant a lot."

Mr. Hembrough underwent open heart surgery during the summer.

More than a decade ago, he turned his attention to a non-sporting passion. He formed the Coaches Cooking Team and competed throughout the Midwest. His team was entered in a BBQ event this weekend at Arthur, which Georgine Hembrough said was "his favorite."

Even as a competitive cook, Mr. Hembrough's loyalties were obvious.

"His wagon was 'Charger Blue,' and he had the Charger 'C' on his cooker," Seed said. "Not too many people remain that loyal. He traveled all over the country and remained true to Centennial."

He wasn't just in the cooking competitions for himself.

"He was willing to take his time and teach others," Seed said. "He would share what he'd learned, but he always wanted to learn from everyone else."

Mr. Hembrough's obituary is here.

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