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Thousands mourn, reminisce, at the passing of long-time coach and educator

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image Coach Tom Lota walks next to the plaque marking the gynmasium named in his honor. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Coach Tom Lota passed away on Sunday. Memorial service on April 27.

By Mitch Traphagen

Tom Lota recently ordered multiple cases of Coca Cola. Even in hospice, he didn’t consider giving up.

“Tom had no intention of not being here,” his wife Lynne said. “He never quit.”

The message on Facebook, sent to the thousands of followers of Tom Lota’s page, was posted at approximately 7:30 a.m. on Sunday. “It is with a hurting heart that I tell you that Hall of Fame Coach Thomas F. Lota went home to the Lord at 7:01 a.m. this morning. Rest in peace my brother, my friend.”

Tom Lota, who was diagnosed with Stage IV colon and liver cancer a few years ago, had passed away after a long, hard fight with the disease that eventually claimed his life.

Almost immediately after the news was posted, hundreds of messages began to pour in, the tears and heartbreak over the loss of the man so many knew simply as Coach was palpable in the words they wrote. But there was also joy in the reminiscence of a man with few peers, a man whose very life was a positive impact on uncounted thousands of young people during his decades as an educator and wrestling coach at East Bay High School. It mattered little that he retired more than a decade ago, his influence and the example he set live on today as much as when he was teaching.

Many of the messages also reached out to his wife, Lynne.

While they may not be such a thing as a perfect couple, through the years Tom and Lynne Lota exemplified the most ideal definition of that concept, and of being together through better and worse. Known as Mom and Coach, they used the better angels of the other to better themselves, all in the service of others. One man wrote that thanks to Lynne, his life was set on a better path, on a path that led to his greatest joy, being a father. Without her, the man wrote, that would never have happened. So many wrote that Coach changed their lives for the better, pointing out a greater, higher course and setting an example to follow. An unusual number of his former students followed in his footsteps, becoming educators and coaches themselves, carrying on what he taught, along with carrying on his spirit. Coach, however, unfailingly credited Lynne and his students with anything he achieved, a mindset that provided an example of humility in the face of success.

And there was much success. Tom’s winning numbers as a coach alone can attest to that. But the true success he achieved can never be measured with numbers, nor will it likely ever be known. His greatest success happened on a more personal, individual level. Such things were not discussed or crowed about, they were things that happened simply because of the man Coach was.

Lynne and Tom Lota in 2011. Mitch Traphagen PhotoWhat is the purpose of a life? Is it to amass money or possessions?  Perhaps for some it is, but at night when asleep, no money in the world can buy your dreams. Coach’s dreams were of the betterment of others, particularly young people.

There were those who were more famous than Coach Tom Lota. There were those with more money, possessions or anything else that society defines as wealth. But few were richer than he in the most important respects. Few were loved more deeply.

Coach was an educator in the truest sense of the word. He dedicated his life to helping young people find better lives for themselves. He made his living as a teacher but he didn’t do it for a paycheck. He did it because helping people help themselves was in his heart. It is what he was born to do. He was among the rare, special people in the world who could truly reach others so personally, so deeply and in ways so long lasting. No one who met him has ever forgotten him. He made a difference in so many lives in so many ways that what he has done has achieved a certain immortality. He lives on in those many thousands who loved him. He lives on in those who found a better path thanks to his guidance.

One person wrote, “Tom not only gave me instructions for wrestling, but for the rest of my life.”

“Most of all, Tom would like people to understand just how much he cared about them,” Lynne said. “It was always about his students and his family. He never met anyone that he didn’t believe in. He believed in all of his students.”

A contemporary concept of solace is that we shouldn’t be sad that Coach has gone, we should be happy that he was here. I say we should be both. Men like Coach are rare and losing him is hard. But then, as the tears dry we should look up and thank him for being the man he was. We should remember him and his heart and we should do something that would make him proud. Coach had the unique ability to see people as they really were, and the picture he had of us was often better than how we saw ourselves. He knew what we were capable of, he believed in us when we would sometimes lose faith in ourselves. He demonstrated through compassion and occasionally tough love that we could do what we put our minds to doing. We could do what was in our hearts despite thinking our dreams had been buried by our own failures.

Those failures didn’t matter to Coach, he saw the ability, he could see the positives. Now is the time to make good on the belief he had, now is the time to make a difference in his memory. If there was a loss or failure, it was never something of permanence. Coach did not give up on us. He believed in us.

We miss the rare man with an incomparable heart. We will miss him tomorrow and next year. But as time passes, turn the tears into action. Be the person that he knew you could be. Coach Tom Lota may be gone from this earth but his faith and his spirit remain, as strongly now as it did last week or years ago. It is in the thousands of young people he taught. It is in everyone he met. Time, distance or physical presence will never change that.

His wrestlers have never forgotten, nor have the kids with whom he made chance encounters in a school hallway. Coach was a special man.

It is accurate to say that he bravely fought the cancer that afflicted him. It is, however, perhaps more accurate and descriptive to say that Coach lived his life and continued to do so regardless of his condition. Upon meeting him shortly after his diagnosis, I found a man happy and comfortable with his place, in that case, more specifically, seated next to Lynne. He smiled, he laughed, and he appreciated the moment. He was a man comfortable in his own skin. He was still doing what he was born to do and cancer would not change that. It never did.

Lynne and Tom Lota in 2011. Mitch Traphagen PhotoMoney, possessions or even fame won’t follow anyone past the unseen gates at life’s last dance. But love can follow and it is love that is the greatest definition of a successful life. Coach Tom Lota, age 63, passed away on Sunday morning. He was gently carried from this life by hands and hearts of love from the uncounted thousands who knew him. At the end of the day, at the end of a life, there is nothing that speaks to a greater success or a greater man.

Godspeed, Coach. Hopefully someday, through your example, we’ll earn the honor of meeting again.

A memorial ceremony will take place in the East Bay High School gymnasium named in Tom Lota’s honor at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 27. A wake will be held at Southern Funeral Home on Riverview Drive on April 26 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. In accordance with Coach Lota’s wishes, in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the East Bay High School wrestling program, the Riverview High School wrestling program, Steinbrenner wrestling or the Florida chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Coach Lota was inducted into the Florida Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2006 and the EBHS Tom Lota Gymnasium was named in his honor in 2011.

The Tom Lota Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/lota.page

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