Words by Terrell Manasco | Images by Blakeney Clouse
Kyle Dutton turned 14 on April 20, 1989. There was no birthday party, no cake or ice cream. Four days earlier, Kyle’s father had exhaled his last breath.
In the 1970s, Jimmy Dutton’s tall, lean frame and wavy reddish-blonde hair were as synonymous with Parrish High School as the Purple Tornadoes mascot. A popular basketball coach and science teacher, Jimmy was loved by his students (including this writer) for his casual demeanor and sly grin.
When Kyle was five, his sister Niki began taking dance under Marilyn Sanders. Kyle was often around the studio because their mother, Loretta, worked there part-time. He became intrigued with tumbling, and signed up for classes. By fifteen, he was teaching them. “Me and one other guy were on a boys team,” Kyle relates, as he takes a break between classes at Marilyn Sanders Performing Arts Center. “There wasn’t anyone to head that up, so Dad started working with us.”
Though Jimmy had coached basketball, he knew little about gymnastics. So he began to attend conferences to learn about scoring and spotting. Gradually he acquired donations for boys’ equipment. “All of a sudden, here we are with our six event gym and a three member boys team,” Kyle says.
Four nights a week, Kyle practiced at the gym and at home. “We had a chin-up bar between the living room and kitchen hallway. We had a row machine in the living room, and I had best get on that chin-up bar and that row machine before I go to bed!” he says with arched eyebrows. “Of course, I’m hating every bit of this, but he knew what was best.”
Kyle admits his limited tolerance for practice often tested his dad’s patience. “I think he would get aggravated,” he snickers, “because sometimes I would be like, ‘Okay… I’m tired… of practicing.’ He had a way of getting it out of us, but I was probably more of a challenge because I was his kid.”
Then Jimmy’s doctor uttered the words “brain tumor” and the world screeched to a halt. As radiation treatments cruelly robbed him of his thick hair, Jimmy resolved not to worry his family, masking his pain behind a facade of strength. One day the mask fell off. “I was doing giants and when I dismounted, Dad said, ‘Wait just a minute before you get back up there. I don’t want to alarm anyone.’ He had gotten light-headed, but didn’t want anyone being scared for him to spot them.”
For three years Kyle watched his father ravaged daily by cancer, and every day, no matter how he felt, his father pushed back. “Prior to and during his sickness, the team increased to six members, who would eventually win three back-to-back team state championships,” Kyle said. “Looking back, it’s amazing to me what he accomplished, feeling the way he did.”
Within months, Jimmy was losing mobility. By Christmas of 1988, he required a walker. His family watched the slow deterioration of their husband and father. “The last few months he was not himself, he was not a coherent person,” Kyle says.
Then one April night, as Kyle and Niki lay in bed, Jimmy Dutton slipped gently into that good night. “We heard the ambulance pull up and we both knew,” Kyle says in a quiet voice.
Jimmy’s greatest strength as a coach was his knack of motivating without raising his voice. “He tried to teach me patience. He was very passive, very calm, and mild-mannered. I wish I had gotten some of this,” Kyle laughs. “He expected a standard, and he had a great way of getting results without being overbearing. He was a good motivator and encourager. He never seemed worried about very much. He was happy about life.”
When Jimmy was Kyle’s age, 42, he was in the middle of his cancer battle. A year later he was gone. “I can’t imagine being at this age and not knowing what my future holds,” Kyle says soberly, before his trademark humor returns. “I’m a hypochondriac. I pay a co-pay every five seconds to make sure I don’t have some disease. My mother says, ‘I don’t know where I went wrong.’ I say, ‘Well, I can’t help it. I’m not gonna die. I’m gonna co-pay myself alive.’”
After nineteen years in education as a teacher, counselor, and administrator, Kyle now works at the Walker County Board of Education’s central office. He still teaches tumbling two nights a week, but his style is less rigid. ”I’ve gotten a little more mellow. I was a little hard to put up with, back in the day,” he admits. “I try to teach like Dad and like Marilyn taught. You have to learn in a progression and get a skill down before you can build on it. Doing things the correct way prevents injuries. You don’t want to rush through something until you’re physically strong enough.”
Tumbling, Kyle says, should be fun. “This is recreational,” he says. “I’ve gotten better with the fun part through the years. I needed to lighten up some but, at the same time, I never want anyone to feel like they’re wasting their money.”
Kyle has been teaching tumbling now for twenty-seven years. He says he’ll know when to walk away when the thrill of teaching is gone. “When they master a skill they’ve been trying to get forever and they’re so excited, I promise I’m just as thrilled for them,” Kyle says. “Until then, I know I’m in the right place.”
A popular coach with a quick wit, an impish grin, and a love for life. A man who loves and is loved by his students.
Sounds awfully familiar. 78