BILL DWYRE

John Wooden, the poet laureate of reason, kindness and decency

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"It was my weakness," he says, "my failing."

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How Wooden wound up at UCLA and stayed there for 27 years is fascinating, almost eerie.

He wanted to be a civil engineer but was told at Purdue that such majors must go to summer engineering camp. Since there were no athletic scholarships in those days, even an All-American such as Wooden was required to pay for his schooling. Wooden needed to work during the summer and couldn't afford to go to engineering camp.

He became an English major.

During World War II, he was a Navy lieutenant about to be shipped out to the USS Franklin, on tour in the Pacific. But on his scheduled departure day, his appendix ruptured, and the man who replaced him on the mission, friend and Purdue quarterback Freddie Stalcup, was killed when a kamikaze pilot scored a damaging hit on the Franklin.

Wooden returned from the war and took a job teaching English at South Bend Central High School. He says he would have been content to stay there forever, teaching English until retirement. But he didn't like the way some of his teaching colleagues were being moved around in their jobs upon their return from military service. On principle, he started looking around at other things, including a basketball coaching job at Indiana State.

He took that, was very successful in two seasons and became a hot prospect for a job at a bigger school. The job he liked most was at Minnesota, since it was close to home and a Big Ten school. Others were in the running, including UCLA, which had just suffered through a 12-13 season under coach Wilbur Johns. Minnesota officials had promised they would call at a certain time, but a snowstorm had knocked down some power lines and they were about half an hour late with their job offer. By then, UCLA had called, and Wooden had accepted.

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Upon retirement, Wooden needed to look no farther than Southern California for the next chapter.

"My father always told me to hold sacred my faith, family and friends," he says. "I always put family first, even though your faith probably should be."

He has two children, James Hugh Wooden and Nancy Ann Muehlhausen, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

"I am blessed," he says. "They are all right here in Southern California, right here around me."

They are all a daily reminder of Nell, who lived for the first 10 years of his retirement and who inspired yet another of Wooden's maxims: The best thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother.

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Wooden never played favorites with his basketball team, and he won't with his grandchildren or great-grandchildren. But there is a special corner in his heart for a great-grandchild named Cameron.

Cameron Trapani is 4 1/2. He had a stroke in the womb about five months into his mother's pregnancy. Doctors didn't think he'd live, and he had to survive heart surgery at age 1 1/2. Today, his disabilities remain severe.

Cameron's mother is Cathleen Amy Trapani, one of Muehlhausen's three daughters. "I am so proud of Cathleen Amy," Wooden says. "When she found out how severely disabled Cameron would be, she went very quickly from 'Why me?' to 'Why not me?' "

Wooden carries copies of a poem he found and gave to Cathleen Amy, something she can pick up and read as needed. Wooden sits down and reads it just about every time he comes home from visiting Cameron. It was written by Lou Franchini and is called "Heaven's Special Child."

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