Baldwin High School graduate pens book on legendary Bulldog coach
photo by: Contributed photo
When Baldwin High School graduate Chris Ridley was recovering from a cancer surgery once, he remembered hearing an instantly recognizable, booming voice outside his hospital room.
His visitor was his former high school football coach Merle Venable, who was coming to encourage his former student and player as he started his recovery.
“He brought me a book on history that I still have,” Ridley, a 1974 graduate, said. “He said reading it would be something I could do when not making lesson plans.
“He didn’t have to come see me,” Ridley added. “It was an indication of his loyalty to people.”
This month, Ridley will celebrate the coach’s inspiring story with the release of a self-published book — “Venable: Part Legend, Part All American” — which shares stories Ridley gathered from scores of Venable’s former players, students and colleagues.
The book gives an account of Venable’s life from his boyhood in Hooker, Okla. to his service in Korea and coaching career. Venable was the BHS football coach from 1966 to 1985. His BHS career highlights included a 1968 squad that was awarded a state championship in the days before the state playoffs were introduced, a state championship in 1981 and state runner-up finishes during Ridley’s sophomore year of 1971 and again in 1978.
The book on Venable, who died in 2012, is Ridley’s first. Ridley, who formerly taught English and journalism at the junior high and high school levels, said he has always enjoyed writing. The book stemmed from a collection of stories about Venable he started collecting about a decade ago.
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
“I didn’t start out to write a book,” he said. “I was writing down stuff people told me and from emails I received. I shared it with some people and got good feedback, so I decided to write a book.”
The stories — and information that Venable’s wife, Janet, provided — show a different side of Venable than the outsized personality documented in many tales from his legendary coaching career, Ridley said. The former students’ and players’ stories reveal a man who influenced their lives by taking a sincere and enduring interest in them.
“He was very loyal to his students and players,” Ridley said. “He was a lot of fun. He was hard, but you realized afterward that he was doing it for your own best interest.”
Ridley left Baldwin City to enroll in Washburn University and stayed in Topeka — first as a teacher and coach in the Auburn-Washburn school district, and later as an athletic director and an assistant principal for the same district. Now in retirement, he is still the freshman coach at Washburn Rural High School.
Ridley said he has pre-orders for more than 500 of the 1,000 copies of the book he had printed. Those wishing to reserve a book can email him at email@example.com, he said. In addition, Ridley will be at a “meet the author” event from 6 to 9 p.m Friday at The Nook, 703 Eighth St, in downtown Baldwin City.
Ridley also said he is planning more books. The next will be similar in structure to the Venable book and will focus on another Kansas coaching legend, Ron Bowen of Washburn Rural. Ridley has collected materials on three other subjects, including his father-in-law, a World War II veteran, he said.
Meanwhile, he is hoping readers of his first book will discover more about Venable.
“I believe those who knew him will probably learn different aspects of him from the book,” he said. “He was very smart and very well-read. He was a gentleman and a scholar.”