Fremont's Irvington High School class of '74 celebrated its 40th reunion in style last weekend. There was a bocce tournament Friday night, wine tasting and sightseeing the next day, followed by the big dinner-dance. But attendees won't remember anything more fondly than the Sunday farewell barbecue, where Bob Buum, the long-ago track-and-field coach, was reunited with David Hamilton, a special needs student he took under his wing.
They embraced, they smiled, and they posed for pictures as cameras snapped. Then they fondly reflected on four years during which they developed a near father-and-son relationship.
"(Special education teacher) Bill Stanley asked me one day if I could use a young fellow as a student manager," Buum said, "so I met with David. He could reel off the batting averages of every player on the A's, so I knew he was into sports."
"My favorite part of high school," Hamilton said, "was being a manager for coach Buum. He treated me with respect and a lot of goodness."
The kid picked up towels, toted the first-aid kit and handled equipment, but mostly he acquired a self-confidence that doesn't come easily to those with learning disabilities.
"Coach Buum took him under his wing," said David's younger brother, Paul. "He was his protector. It was a different time back then -- there was no such thing as political correctness -- and David was different from other kids. But nobody picked on David because they'd have to deal with coach Buum."
Buum prefers to remember the way Hamilton accepted responsibility. ("He was the kind of kid you could trust with your keys.") Whatever job he was given, he completed. If there was a deadline, he met it. He soon earned classmates' respect.
"I was a disciplinarian," Buum said. "Athletes had to have their hair cut and beards shaved. What amazed me was the way juniors and seniors would listen to David. If he told them to go home and shave, they did it."
The youngster with the learning disability became a part of every pep rally and a presence at every game. "At football games, he'd get down on the field and tell people to cheer," said classmate Karon Giovannoni. "Everyone in school loved him because he was everywhere."
Classmates remember a basketball game against Newark, when Hamilton was in charge of sweeping the court at halftime. Not to be deterred from his duties, he innocently swept through the middle of a Newark pep team midroutine. When two Newark fans rose to shove him out of the way, a sea of Irvington students rushed to his side. "I thought we were going to have a donnybrook," Buum said.
"High school was the best time of David's life," Paul said. "He was somebody at Irvington High. There were 600 kids in his class, and when he walked across the stage at graduation, his whole class stood up and gave him an ovation."
Buum had other student-managers, but he said none was as memorable as Hamilton. Classmates clearly felt the same way. When they learned that Hamilton, who lives in a group home in Sherman, Texas, would be unable to afford to attend the reunion, they pitched in to cover his travel expenses.
"I think he had a ball," said Giovannoni. "He was all over the dance floor Saturday. There wasn't anyone who didn't want to have their picture taken with him."
Best of all, he saw his old friend coach Buum, the man who made a special needs student feel special.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.