Some of us, though sadly not all, at some point in our educations have had the fortune to learn from a really great, impactful teacher. We remember them all our lives. My husband and I always tried to impress on our kids that whenever they found a really great teacher they should take every course they offered, be it Russian history or auto mechanics. Great teachers make a huge impression on growing minds and often influence the direction of lives.
But beyond imparting to students the love of their subjects, some teachers go further and provide real wisdom, even a moral compass. Robert Shegog is one of those rare teachers. Even in retirement he continues to touch lives through his writing, and is still in close contact with dozens of former students who hold him in the highest regard.
“We all have more power and influence than we realize. The question is, how are we going to use it. Are we going to lift people up? Or break them down?” — Robert Shegog
Overcoming the odds
Robert grew up in rural Michigan, raised by a single mother working two jobs who maintained strict rules and high expectations for all her children, though their means were limited and opportunities for African-Americans growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s were restricted. Robert loved school, and remembers a grade-school assignment to write an essay about his career goal. He wrote about his wish to become a teacher, then got the paper back with the comment, “You need to be realistic.”
Rather than discourage him, this proved to be one of the many “significant emotional events” in his life, galvanizing his will to pursue this career. He thrived throughout his education and became a very accomplished wrestler in high school, earning a scholarship to go on to college. Ultimately he reached his goal and became a physical education and health teacher as well as a wrestling coach.
He taught for many years in Phoenix before moving up to our area, where he served the Humboldt and Bradshaw Mountain school districts before the pandemic nudged him into more formal retirement. During the shutdown he wrote his autobiography, Wrestling with the Truth, and has been touring the state visiting bookstores and giving talks. In 2018 he gave a TED talk at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on diversity.
Robert was a demanding and disciplined teacher, but his passion for coaching and the level of achievement he coaxed out of his wrestlers was exceptional. Students could only go out for wrestling if they maintained a high grade-point average. He kept copies of all his wrestlers’ course schedules and would periodically check to make sure the students were where they were supposed to be. He went to every academic department at the school and procured textbooks that he kept on a cart in the wrestling-practice room, so when students were not wrestling, they could study. Parents knew that if their kids were on the wrestling team, Coach Shegog had an eye on them and made sure they were succeeding in school. At meets other coaches would complain about having to drop students from their teams due to poor academic performance. Robert never had that problem.
One of the unique practices Robert instituted with his wrestlers was holding exit interviews with them at the end of their senior year. He’d say, “All of your life people have been making plans for you. Now you have to make your own plans. I want to know what those plans are.” He made appointments for each student to visit his office with a portfolio they had assembled that included lists of all their activities during the four years of high school and three letters of recommendation. Coach knew that trying to get letters of recommendation from teachers during the summer was tough, so he wanted his students to get them early and have them ready when they needed them. He also asked for an essay on each student’s career goals.
One of his wrestlers was a boy named Nick Kehagias. Along with his siblings Nick was being raised by a single mother and would not be able to pay for college without a scholarship. He was an excellent student, a champion wrestler, and wanted to go into medical research. Coach Shegog got on the phone with the University of Chicago, then a top school for medical research, and found out they had a wrestling team. He called the UC wrestling coach and arranged an interview for Nick. Robert went with Nick’s mother to take Nick to the airport, and told Nick to keep his portfolio always with him on campus, because you never know when you’re going to meet a provost or a dean in an elevator and get into a conversation. Nick ended up getting a full ride at UC, and later became an anesthesiologist.
“All my kids are doing something constructive. They are contributing members of their communities,” says Robert with pride. He was utterly devoted to the success of his wrestlers, not only in the sport, but as human beings. “I did these things because I loved wrestling. But I also did them because I thought I was going to die.”
Fight for life
Robert was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, which at the time meant you had about 18 months to live. Fortunately he became a patient of Dr. Kenneth Fisher, who was doing cutting-edge work in HIV/AIDS treatment, and started Robert on AZT before he even developed symptoms. Robert credits Dr. Fisher’s early intervention with saving his life, and has lived productively and successfully for decades with the diagnosis.
While Robert had to keep his private life and diagnosis in the closet through his professional life to avoid getting fired, there were some who eventually could be trusted with the information and have remained close and supportive friends over the years. Many, many former students remain in close contact with the man who had such an impact on their lives.
When the pandemic arrived and it became clear to school officials that they could no longer put students and staff at risk, the word came abruptly one day that everyone should go home and stay home until further notice. Robert still recalls the shock of that announcement, like stepping off a cliff. That same afternoon he received four phone calls from former students, each offering to do his grocery shopping and whatever errands needed doing so he could remain safely at home. The students were all in Phoenix, and Robert lived in Prescott, which tells you how much they were willing to do to keep him safe.
One of the calls was from Nick Kehagias, who said, “OK, Coach, no more excuses. You’re writing your book now!” Nick came up and spent four days interviewing Robert. Together they got it done.
In a recent phone conversation with a former coach, Robert was asked, “Do you think that you’ve hurt the sport of wrestling by coming out?” Some people might imagine that a kid would read the book and it could make him gay. Robert looks at it from a different perspective. “If there is a young wrestler out there who is gay and reads my book, he’ll know it’s going to be okay.”
These days Robert stays busy traveling around the state speaking about his book, but he is still in contact with many former students. He is currently writing letters to students that he coached as seventh- and eighth-graders and are now entering their senior year in high school. He wants them to know that he still cares about them and expects them to succeed.
We should all be so lucky as to have a teacher like Robert. You can find Wrestling with the Truth by Robert Shegog and Nick Kehagias at the Peregrine Book Company here in Prescott.