ELKHART — Without realizing it, Tom Kurth's determination became part of Elkhart's cure to a tumultuous late 1960s. It was never his intention, though.
He says he was doing what came naturally.
Fifty years later, the Hall of Fame Elkhart coach remains a shot in the arm to countless former students and athletes in the community.
As a mentor, a father figure and tireless worker for young people of all ages and races, Kurth lives by the "I don't see color" mantra by backing the statement throughout his life.
"He always wanted everyone to have equal opportunities. He wanted the best guys to play," said Levar Johnson, 50, a former Blue Blazer player and assistant coach under Kurth. "I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for Tom Kurth. But there are a lot of stories like that you could tell."
Indeed. The legend and lore of Kurth is boundless, so much so that the Elkhart Chapter of the Indiana Black Expo will present him with the Ben Barnes Community Service Award during a program on Monday – Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"Most people know him as 'Coach,' but he was so much more to our community than just a coach," Arvis Dawson said. "I've listened to past students and players talk about him and it has always had a tone of reverance to it. They saw him as a conduit for bringing people together regardless of your race, creed, religion or economic status. We want to recognize a bridge builder."
Kurth evolved at a crucial time in Elkhart.
He immediately noticed a substantial gap in the community when he came to Elkhart in 1966. The first day he showed up to meet his football squad, he noticed only one black athlete in the ranks.
"I asked where all the other guys were," said Kurth, who then made up his mind to go find the kids from Elkhart's south side.
"I went home with these kids, I wanted to see where they lived, I went to the schools, I talked to the kids," Kurth said. "My approach to them was this: I need you and I want you to become part of the program."
LIFE IN CULTURES
Born and raised in Griffith, Ind., barely an hour from Chicago, Kurth grew up in what he called "a melting pot" of cultures and backgrounds. Connecting with and joining hands with various races was nothing new to him.
"I've never seen color in my life," said Kurth, who spent day after day combing neighborhoods – sometimes tough areas – meeting and greeting the community.
Kurth started by visiting "Cozy Corner,'' an area off West Indiana Avenue with taverns on the corner. He went looking for the adults, not students.
"I told them I was looking for athletes and support of the community. I worked that area hard," Kurth said. "I watched my father do the same thing at Hobart. I wanted to use athletics as a vehicle to educate and to teach the rules of life."
Generations of students admire and are thankful for Tom Kurth, mostly because of his genuine straightforward presence and generosity, traits young black athletes in Elkhart yearned for decades ago. Kids wanted a chance in a time when few opportunities were presented.
Garvin Roberson, a 1970 Elkhart High School graduate and arguably one of the city's greatest athletes, remembers Kurth hitting the hallways of Pierre Moran Junior High recruiting students.
"I happened to be the black quarterback of the seventh, eighth and ninth grade teams at Pierre Moran. I mean 'the' black quarterback, which was unheard of at the time," said Roberson, now 64. "He said to us, 'I want you involved in our program. We were totally shocked because we were all going to just play basketball. We believed in him, what he did and what he delivered."
Roberson was one of hundreds of athletes – black, white or brown – who Kurth helped get into college. The Blazer coach even took Roberson on a recruiting trip to the University of Illinois and encouraged the coaching staff to add a black assistant coach in order to land Roberson, which the school later did by bringing in J.C. Caroline, a former Illini All-American and former Chicago Bears player.
As a young athlete struggling focus in high school, Clarence Thomas absorbed the same kind of much-needed direction from Kurth. While to this day many former students and athletes consider Kurth a second father figure in their lives, to Thomas, Kurth was the only father figure he knew as a youngster.
"I can't begin to put it into words," said Thomas, a 1990 grad who now works with the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart County. "He's had such a hand in molding a lot of lives. I know I would not have graduated high school without Coach Kurth and the belief he had in me. I wouldn't have gone to college without Coach Kurth believing in me."
Thomas believes Kurth's methods would remain relevant today – 50 years after he moved to Elkhart.
"He listens. He'd be a great coach still today for the millenials. Young people need somebody to listen, offer constant direction and feedback," Thomas said. "He created a vision for my life."
Former students still go out of their way to find Kurth today – many to touch base and share what's going on in their lives, some just to thank him for having faith. He still receives "thank you" letters in the mail.
It's an appreciation parade which humbles – sometimes overwhelms – the 80-year-old, who now reaches out to his Blue Blazer family through social media every chance he gets.
His gratefulness at being recognized by Elkhart's Indiana Black Expo chapter is only surpassed by his thankfulness for being blessed by so many great people in his world.
"This means a great to deal to me," Kurth said. "The young men and young ladies, I've always had a great relationship in the community. I'm humbled, surprised and honored. I wanted to mold these young men to become positive citizens. It moves me. It really does."
Kurth moved scores of young people in the right direction. They are thankful as well.
"It brings a tear to my eyes just talking about," Roberson said. "He pushed me to do my books. He was multi-racial and multi-generational. That's the kind of influence he's had. I can't imagine how my life would be without him."
A peaceful march for community unity will be the opening event to a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day program set for Monday, Jan. 16.
The symbolic march for peace will begin at 9:30 a.m. Monday on the Civic Plaza. Participants are asked to meet at 9 a.m.
The group will march to Community Baptist Church, 228 Chapman Ave., near Tolson Park. At the church, the program will feature a youth choir and Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese and Congresswoman Jackie Walorski will address the audience.
The keynote speaker for the event is Jeffery Jackson Jr., an Elkhart native who grew up attending Community Bapitist. Jackson, a 2014 graduate of Tuskegee University with a degree in finance, currently workds for Graybar Electric in New York.