Whenever counselor Wes Regehr faced a problem at Southeast High School that seemed insurmountable – a challenging transcript, a troubled teen, anxiety over this or that – he would walk into Larry Saksa’s office and sit there a minute.
“Just being in his presence had a calming effect,” said Regehr, now a counselor at Heights High. “From Larry, I learned to slow down and not get overly excited about things that don’t need that extreme adrenaline.”
Mr. Saksa, a former counselor and coach at Southeast who served as a mentor to Regehr and countless others, died Nov. 19 during a trip from Arizona to Wichita. He was 64.
Former colleagues, students and family friends are mourning the loss of a man who they said encouraged people with love and kindness and lived his Christian principles.
“I’m different because of him,” said Casey Casamento, who played soccer at Southeast in the late 1990s and was student leader of the Bible Club, which Mr. Saksa sponsored. “He was one of the most influential men in my life.”
Casamento, lead pastor of City Life Church in Wichita, said Mr. Saksa “embodied what Christianity is all about” by treating students with patience and understanding.
“With teenagers, it’s easy just to get frustrated sometimes,” he said. “But Coach Saksa always knew there was so much more going on in a person’s life than that problem or that moment. That perspective just allowed him to really extend a helping hand.”
Born in Long Beach, Calif., Mr. Saksa moved a lot with his family but eventually settled in Vancouver, Wash., where he grew to love the Seattle Mariners and the Seahawks.
He graduated from West Point in 1973 with a medical discharge but never served in the military because of health issues, said his wife, Sheri. He moved to Wichita, where he worked as a leader for Young Life, a Christian ministry for high school and college students. He met Sheri on a Young Life ski trip.
“I fell in love with him instantly. He was so fun,” Sheri said.
In 1975, a few months before the couple was to marry, Mr. Saksa underwent a kidney transplant. Doctors told him he would live to be only 30 or 35, Sheri said, and was unlikely to have children.
He defied the prognosis. He and Sheri married, moved to Wichita and raised four children – Heather, Blake, Mark and Dane.
Mr. Saksa coached boys’ soccer and tennis at Southeast High School from 1989 to 2001 and is considered one of the most successful two-sport coaches in the history of the Greater Wichita City League. His soccer teams won four City League titles; his tennis teams won three state championships. In 2014, he was inducted into the Wichita Southeast Hall of Fame at the Wichita Sports Hall of Fame.
David Buchanan, who graduated from Southeast High in 2000, said playing soccer for Mr. Saksa was a highlight of his school years.
“He had more confidence in us than we had in ourselves,” Buchanan said. “That time in your life is such a critical time, when you’re trying to figure out who you are. Looking back, I see a coach who was a man of God and someone who truly loved and cared for his players.
“He was always encouraging and always calm. … Boy, we just need more Coach Saksas out there.”
Mr. Saksa, who enjoyed outdoor exercise in all types of weather, would walk to work each day from his home in the east Wichita neighborhood of Crown Heights. Every summer, the family traveled to Epworth Heights, a summer resort in Ludington, Mich., where Mr. Saksa worked as activities director.
Ruth Crispin, a friend and neighbor, recalled a time when one of the Saksas’ sons was “Star of the Week” in her first-grade class at Hyde Elementary School and invited his father to visit the classroom.
“He had the class playing this game – I can’t even remember what it was. But he did it in such a way that I just thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, he must be the best coach ever,’ ” Crispin said.
“They were all really into it. Nobody was left out. And at the end, they all were happy whether they won or lost,” she said. “They just enjoyed playing so much and having him coaching that it didn’t matter who won.”
Coaching was so much a part of Mr. Saksa’s life and personality that his grandchildren never referred to him as Grandpa. They called him “Coach.”
In recent years, when Mr. Saksa’s health deteriorated and he required daily dialysis treatments, he refused to stop traveling, gardening or visiting friends and family around the country.
“He never felt sorry for himself. He just lived,” Sheri Saksa said. “He’d say, ‘I live each day as if it’s my last,’ and I think that really guided his life.”
Buchanan, a former student, said he thought of Mr. Saksa often this past spring as he coached his first soccer team – 3- and 4-year-old girls, including his daughter, Olive – who called themselves the Unicorns.
“We only won one game,” he said. “I don’t know if Coach would have been happy about that or just glad we were out there trying to coach kids.”
A memorial service for Mr. Saksa will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 10 at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, 1958 N. Webb Road. In lieu of flowers, contributions in his name may be made to Young Life Wichita, 6505 E. Central, No. 318, Wichita, KS 67206, or World Impact, 3701 E. 13th St. N., Wichita, KS 67208.