Ode to a man I did not know

I didn't know Craig Kruse.

Craig passed away on Sept. 9 from brain cancer. He was 50 years old, six years younger than me. He left behind a wife and three children, many family members and an untold number of friends.

Until recently, what I knew of Craig came from previous news articles and his obituary. A resident of Clarendon Hills, he served as a trainer and strength and conditioning coach at Hinsdale Central High School. His myriad personal and professional accomplishments were impressive. His passion for coaching, football and tough personal workouts imbued his spirit. He was brave and resilient in the face of his disease.

I don't know what inspired me to learn more about him. A stranger drawn to the story of another stranger. What brought him joy? Why did he love coaching? Who inspired him? Perhaps it was the deeply sad reality of his death. A man far too young to leave us, with everything still ahead of him, with so much more to be done.

So, I spoke to a few people who knew him well and asked, deep down, what would they want people to know about Craig. I learned Craig truly believed that every student athlete could achieve a higher standard. He embodied an unwavering black and white philosophy about the benefits of showing up, every day, and putting in hard work. He saw the potential in the young men and women around him and unabashedly tapped into it. He pushed them to be better because he knew hard-learned lessons in sweat equity, determination and self-confidence would pay off in life far beyond high school. Without exception, Craig was true to who he was. And that part of his DNA was palpable to those around him.

As children, or young adults, many of us benefited from the wisdom, guidance and toughness of someone like Craig. A coach, teacher, mentor, rabbi, priest, counselor, friend. Even the smallest pearl of wisdom changed us. We remember these people even now. We can see their faces. They made a difference. They shaped us. In some cases, the power of people like Craig may not have been revealed to us until much later in life, when the kind word, push for better, or tough love from years ago becomes overwhelmingly prescient now.

For those who knew him, if he made your life better, tell him "Thank you." And pay it forward, because I bet that's what he'd want. For people like me who didn't know Craig, but fondly remember many people like him, tell them "Thank you," too. If they are alive, you have a golden opportunity to tell them in person. Or write them a note. When we do this, we honor them all. Especially Craig Kruse.

- Kevin Cook of Hinsdale is a contributing columnist. Readers can email him at [email protected].