I first met Fred Rakers when he was just starting out as the Mater Dei volleyball coach. It was 1978, and I was a first-time reporter at the Clinton County News and covered everything, including sports. The girls team, helmed by Fred, came in fourth at state that fall. Pretty impressive, considering how Title IX was fairly new. (We did not have competitive girls' sports in high school, but my sister, who graduated in 1980, played volleyball for both Belleville West and SWIC, so I had a little info, not much! Fred taught me a lot about the sport, and was very patient with me).
I moved on to the Suburban Journals, but still covered Clinton County, and then worked at area dailies, and our paths would cross over the years, especially living in Breese and freelance-writing the "County Lines" column. I wrote about Fred's trips to state and his triumphs and those few near-misses.
As a reporter, you develop good relationships with sources who are accessible, helpful and quotable -- Fred was all of that. I just knew he was a good guy, the way he dedicated himself and how fiercely loyal he was supporting his teams. Oh he'd get frustrated with this or that, and he'd have that crooked grin, his eyes crinkling with merriment -- he found humor in many things. "I'm only the bus driver" he would often say. But you knew he was well-respected and a pillar of strength. He put the program on the map, and became known far and wide.
With a work ethic second to none, he continued to carve out a legacy that reverberated for decades. His players got great scholarships. The teams got wider press coverage. You saw the ripple effect, as the grade school feeder programs, team volleyball, and other things played into making Breese a volleyball powerhouse.
The past few years, no longer having the column as an outlet, I only read about Fred's accomplishments, then Chad's. I knew Chad from directing him in Mater Dei's spring musical "Anything Goes" in 1990, when he was a freshman. His sisters Jennifer and Erin had also been in our Breese Junior Women's Club summer musical "Bye Bye Birdie" that year. Fun clan, lots of spirit.
It was with great sadness that I processed the news of Fred's terminal illness. Unbelievable really, especially when the guy had never used a sick day at Mater Dei. Having dealt with a family cancer situation this year, I talked to Chad a few weeks ago about how overwhelming it is, but also how amazing people are, being there to help you through it. I knew the people of Clinton County had rallied around the family in an incredible outpouring of support. Of course. You know who you can count on, and it means so much.
Fred's life came to an end too soon Wednesday but his impact is vast, and will be remembered for a long, long time. That's all you can hope for -- is that you live a purpose-filled life, that you made some sort of difference.
While proud of his program, Fred was modest. He deflected credit, preferring to give credit to others. He appreciated effort. He wanted what the girls accomplished to matter, the lessons they learned working as a team. He was one remarkable role model.
Through all the seasons he coached, all the miles he racked up serving his teams and his school, he was a devoted family man. He understood what being an ambassador was, too -- you would see him at chicken dinners and church picnics.
He is now the subject of many tributes. I just had to express how grateful I am to have known him, see him in action, and was able to see the development of a program he built through sheer determination and resourcefulness.
My deepest sympathy to his dear family -- Rosie, Jennifer, Erin and Chad. It has been a difficult time, so awful to see someone you love suffer, and my heart goes out to them. I hope they are comforted by the many condolences coming their way.
Rest in peace, Fred.
Lynn (Zipfel) Venhaus