The first time I laid eyes on Ernest D’Agnelli, he was overseeing a group of older students at Maimonides Day School in Brookline, Mass., who were playing … truthfully, I have no memory what it was. I was around 4 or 5, too young for school, accompanying my mother who was dropping something off for one of my older siblings.
As I watched, I was awed and, to be sure, terrified, by the phys-ed teacher’s stature, confidence, and air of authority. He was an enormous man — all muscle — with a mustache and his dark hair in full retreat down the middle. Once I got to first grade the terror waned (somewhat), but the awe continued through my senior year of high school and until today.
Early last month I, and presumably every student who attended Maimonides since 1977, was stunned to learn that D’Agnelli, a seemingly invincible force, had succumbed to a heart attack. He was 64.
The association of Jews and athletes, of course, is not a strong one. The perception of Jews as feeble and nebbish-y is inaccurate, and of course there have been those who have gone on to star at the highest levels of professional sports. But over the centuries the Jewish people have overwhelmingly distinguished themselves more often through their scholarship and acumen than in the field or on a court. After all, we are commonly referred to as the People of the Book, not of the Weight Room.
Unsurprisingly, this mindset trickles down to Jewish day schools, which offer long days and schedules with a cursory nod to athletics during school hours. For me, that meant two gym classes a week in elementary school, and once a week between grades seven and 12, when we were on the premises for 10 hours four days a week. But ask me and the bulk of my classmates about those years and our most vivid memories will be of games we played at the instruction of D’Agnelli, Mr. D, as he requested his students call him.
Though we had regular units for basketball, soccer, hockey, volleyball, and softball, Mr. D was known for his creative games such as two-base kickball, where, after kicking the ball, we had to run the length of the gym to the back wall, which served as one of the bases, and we could run home whenever we thought we could score. There was also a kind of water polo game, just without the water, and Bam Bam, like baseball but played with a thick plastic bat and a tennis ball. And our absolute favorite, the annual Pillo-Polo tournament, similar to hockey, except the sticks had soft foam at the ends, and instead of a puck we used a large foam ball.
Mr. D. had a way of making gym class special, even for students who had no interest in sports, and he did his best to ensure that the kids who were not athletic didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of being picked on, or picked last.
Take Bean Bag Bombardment, one of his classic games for the elementary school. It was a much gentler take on dodgeball, with teams sliding bean bags across the floor; get hit with a moving bean bag and you were out. Like dodgeball, the bean bags were initially spread along the center line at the start, but instead of blowing a whistle to commence a free-for-all, Mr. D began each game as follows: “You can grab the beanbags and slide ‘em back to your teammates IF you’re wearing …” Sometimes he would say red or blue and a bunch of us would sprint to the center line. But he would mix in things like corduroys or belts — often worn by the less athletically gifted among us — giving them the opportunity to get in on the action, collect most of the beanbags, and choose who to share them with, an enviable position.
As much fun as we had in phys-ed, Mr. D’s greatest contribution to our lives, however, was how he taught us respect. We learned Jewish law and ethics through Torah and Talmud in our regular classes, but this man, who was not Jewish, was the one who showed us how to treat each other. Insult someone who missed a shot or struck out and he would scold us with his booming voice and make us sit out the rest of the period. Worst of all, we would be disappointing Mr. D, and that was more than enough to keep us in line.
For the first time in more than 40 years, students at my alma mater will return from winter break for gym classes led by someone other than Mr. D. They’ll still get to run around and expend some of that nervous energy that builds up when you’re sitting in classes all day, but it won’t be the same.
For our 10-year reunion (more than a decade ago now), our class made a special request of the administration: Invite Mr. D. Even though it was the Saturday night after Thanksgiving, he came to the school to hang out with us one more time, clearly delighted to see his kids grown up and still friends. He even organized a game of Bean Bag Bombardment.
Lucky for me, I was wearing corduroys.
Gabe Kahn can be reached via email, email@example.com, or Twitter: @sgabekahn.