Roy Exum: The Ultimate Valentine

Thursday, February 12, 2009 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Just last Sunday afternoon, John Wooden sat down at his desk and wrote a note to his wife Nell, telling her pretty specifically how much he loved her and how much she meant to him. His was the ultimate Valentine, not some flowery card, but written in his own hand.

He then placed the carefully folded note on the top of her pillow and, as he did, it was yet another reason I consider Coach Wooden among the smartest men who have ever walked on earth. Here is a guy who won 10 NCAA championships in the last 12 years he coached basketball at UCLA, who had a 671-161 record in the years he led the Bruins, but who – as a cupid – was absolutely undefeated.

I bring him forth today as an example for any of us – young or old, male or female – to follow because Saturday is St. Valentine’s Day and, if you have to rely on the mail, today is the day you’d better put the wings on your wishes.

I’ve studied love a lot. I’ve listened to as many country songs about broken hearts and “crying in the rain” as I could and still missed the mark most of the time. But, as I keep trying and studying the masters of the heart, Coach Wooden is far and away the best for the way he never fails to woo Nell each and every Sunday afternoon.

That’s right, ever since he met Nellie Riley at a carnival in 1926, he’s been relentless in his affection for her. They were married in 1932 and went to hear the Mills Brothers instead of having a reception. That first Sunday they were together the weekly letters started, ones she would always act surprised to find on her bedroom pillow, and they continue to this day.

Nell – that’s what Coach Wooden called Nellie – died of breast cancer in 1985, but, still, “The Wizard of Westwood” writes the letter each and every Sunday. When they pile up just so, he takes a pretty ribbon and ties them into a tiny bundle and then puts them with the rest of the letters in the bottom drawer of her dresser that he quietly hopes to one day deliver.

That is how “the big people” do it as the rest of us try to learn the steps to this dazzling dance every February. The merchants have skillfully made us think our Valentine’s cards are incomplete without glitter and perfume and candy, but the true pros scoff, saying a simple handwritten note is all it takes if you really mean it.

Coach Wooden, who used to urge his players to “make each day your masterpiece,” had another saying that fits Valentine’s Day even better: “If you don’t have time to do something the right way, when will you have time to do it over?”

Valentine’s Day is Saturday. The mailman won’t come again until Monday. Coach Wooden also said, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

Now, to take Saturday’s Rite of Romance one step further, when Coach Wooden graduated from grammar school in tiny Hall, Ind., his father gave him what has been widely circulated in the last 50 years as Coach Wooden’s “Seven-Point Creed.”

If you want every day of the year to seem like Valentine’s Day with your “squeeze,” here are the seven tricks each of us should master:

Be True to yourself.
Make each day your masterpiece.
Help others.
Drink deeply from good books, most especially The Bible.
Make friendship a fine art.
Build a shelter against a rainy day.
Pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day.

Well, I believe any couple that takes those seven cornerstones that made Coach Wooden such a legend has one heck of a chance as a year-round Valentine’s success. Not too many years ago the giant ESPN sports network, in an effort to name its top coach of all time, regardless of the sport or the level on which it is played, named John Wooden as the best there ever was.

In my way of thinking, the fact he continues – at age 94 - to put a love letter on Nell’s pillow every Sunday had a lot to do with that.

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