BELLEVILLE — Rita Menke doesn't like being the center of attention.
So the Belleville East Lancers resorted to a lot of trickery Monday to get the former softball coach who is retiring from her teaching post as the chair of the English Department at the end of the current school year to go along with "Rita Menke Day."
"They got me," Menke said. "They did a good job of sneaking it by me."
The first surprise came when Menke was summoned to the softball diamond for an emergency.
"They tricked me to come out on the field saying there was a problem with the irrigation," Menke said. "I was rather annoyed and didn't want to be interrupted, but they brought me down here to look at the field. I still didn't think anything at first because I thought they were putting up the tarp."
When Menke arrived, all the players were wearing T-shirts with "We (large symbol of a heart) Coach Menke" on them and her favorite song, John Fogerty's "Centerfield," was playing on public address system.
Menke said she'd seen a couple of custodians wearing the shirts earlier that morning.
"They made it sound like they just got those two shirts to show, 'Hey, we don't really hate you,"' Menke said. "It's been a joke because we always butt heads about getting our field ready."
Fans, school administrators and dozens of former players all were wearing those shirts later that afternoon for the Lancers' game against the Althoff Crusaders.
"I had had no idea about the all the former players," Menke said. "There were kids here from the 80's and the 90's."
Menke was guest of honor during a pregame ceremony where she threw out the first pitch to current catcher Andrea Roberts.
Again, the Lancers attempted trickery to make sure Menke showed up for the start of the game.
"We've been messing with her for a few days," East coach Natalie Peters said. "I asked her over the weekend to throw out the first pitch for the dedication of our new scoreboard. To that, she had a few choice words to say to me."
Menke's accomplishments -- 609 wins, 11 Southwestern Conference championships, nine regional championships, seven sectional championships, two super-sectional championships and three state championships -- were noted and a banner honor her as "Forever a Lancer" was hung on the right-field fence.
Former player Claire Kniepkamp, who is a teacher at Mascoutah Elementary School, presented Menke with a book of papers done by her third-grade students where they'd assigned words that started with each letter in the word "Coach" that represented the best attributes of a good coach.
"It's impossible really for any of us to put into words what she means to us," said Peters, who played for Menke in high school. "We know that she's retiring from teaching, and we just wanted to give her a big sendoff and get as many former players and parents of players here to support her. Let her feel the impact that she's had on people's lives. Sometimes I don't think she realizes the scope of that. We just wanted to honor her and make her feel really loved."
Former East athletic Dennis Bechtold and former Althoff coach Mary Kloess also were on hand.
The hyper-kinetic Menke, whose hobbies include running, playing golf and reading, isn't the kind to just settle into retirement.
She's already asked Peters if she could help out with the team next season.
"I would like to come back and help them when the weather is nice," Menke said. "I did say I would come back and help Natalie with the stats and organization. The paperwork of a coach takes so much time, so I said I could help with that. I'll come hang around and hit ground balls for her."
Menke also said she plans to spend more time with her family.
"I have such a big family," Menke said. "I have seven brothers and sisters and 22 nieces and nephews. There have been a lot of family things that haven't been able to do because the obligations with teaching and coaching. Now I have a chance to make up for a lot of lost time with family."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.