Belleville East softball field dedicated to longtime coach Rita Menke
Rita Menke "retired" from Belleville East High School in 2005.
That's "retired," not retired. Those quotation marks draw an important — if technical — distinction between Menke's absence from the District 201 payroll and her ongoing presence at the school's varsity softball field.
She remains, as always, that ball of unbound energy as dedicated to the Lancers as she was back in 1981 when she took their reins.
Menke was head coach for 24 years, during which the Lancers won 78 percent of their games. Her 613 career wins rank 15th all time in Illinois, and her three state softball championships remain the standard for large-school programs.
Those championship trophies were on display behind the home-team dugout Tuesday as High School District 201 administration, scores of former players and teaching colleagues, members of the Lancers baseball team and about 50 or so 12-and-under players with the Junior Lancers softball program gathered to rename the home of the Lancers in her honor.
But the District 201 School Board's decision to display Menke's name below the scoreboard in all-capital Columbia blue letters has less to do with the records than the woman.
She'll tell you that memories of sharing Rice Krispies Treats with her players during a long, laughter-filled bus ride from a road game are as precious to her as those final, triumphant outs in Peoria.
In fact, most of those who stacked themselves in rows along the hill on the first-base line didn't share a championship moment with their coach. Yet, they use words like "inspiration" and "mentor" to describe Menke's impact, both to the program and to the individuals who made it a success.
That's Menke's legacy.
"Coach Menke has always been a role model for me, and I became a teacher and a coach just like her," said Kelly Wamser Remijan, PhD, a 1992 graduate of Belleville East. "I'm just so proud to have had her as a coach and experience her leadership. Every girl here has had a chance to learn from her."
Who understands that influence better than the Natalie Peters?
She was known as Natalie Bennett when she graduated from East in 1997, part of that Lancers team that won it all when she was a sophomore. She had a solid college career with the Florida State Seminoles before returning to East in 2006 to take her former coach's place in the Lancers' dugout.
Menke, remember, was only "retired," with the quotation marks. Her continued involvement with the program could very easily have cast a long, cold shadow over a young coach trying to make her own mark.
Peters said she knew that risk but never felt that chill. Her mentor would never have allowed it.
"She wanted to make sure people were looking at me as coach," Peters said. "One of the first things she said to me was, 'I'll do whatever you need me to do ... but I will not come onto that field or into your dugout until all the kids who have known me as coach are gone.'
"I'm extremely grateful for that. She does everything the right way."
The right way ...
That extends to making sure the student scorekeepers are accurate, that the equipment is gathered and accounted for, that the infield tarp is rolled either on or off her diamond in accordance with the weather forecast, that there are resources for the next generation of players coming up through the Junior Lancers program she still leads.
And that every girl who puts on a Lancers uniform gives the program her best and is imprinted by the example she has set with stunning consistency since 1981.
"She's always been there for me, and she has always had a lot of faith in me, which has meant so much," Peters said. "There are times in your coaching career, especially early in your coaching career, when you're going to doubt yourself and what you're doing. She's always been my biggest encourager and supporter.
"She's super positive. That's who she is."