By Mike Mikula (TM ’84)
Teacher. Coach. Mentor. Colleague. Friend.
Those were just some of the many words that described Norbert Wishowski (DB ’54).
It is difficult to capsulize the many facets of this man in just a few paragraphs. I was fortunate, like many, to have known Norb on these various levels. To the people reading this article, know that I am merely scratching the surface, and the few anecdotes I provide are a mere microscopic view of his life. Everyone has, I am sure, their own stories and memories of this legendary man, and by reading my account, I hope you also can recall some of your own memories of him.
Norb was, in many rights, iconic and his impact stretched beyond just Thomas More. His resume was vast, having taught and coached at Thomas More High School, Pio Nono High School, Burlington High School, and Burlington Catholic Central High School, to name a few. He taught Spanish and coached just about every sport in his career. Norb earned too many accolades to mention; he is enshrined in various high school athletic halls of fame, including St. Thomas More, as well as the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
His gift in teaching the Spanish language was unmatched. His memory and knowledge of the subject were guideposts for his fellow educators. I can still hear him snapping his fingers—his way of asking students to recite the language back to him. The sound was truly deafening.
One story about Norb that I would like to share defines his humbleness and coaching ability. He would always be the first to tell you of his setbacks—that things were not as easy as they seemed and emphasizing that success does not come easy. He told me that when he started coaching cross-country back in the 1960s, he knew nothing about the sport. Burlington High School needed a coach and he decided to take on the challenge.
For their first practice, Norb and his student-athletes decided to take the literal meaning of the sport’s name and go for a walk along the railroad tracks and trails of Burlington. After realizing there was much more to the sport than just running, success came fast for Norb, although not without setbacks. One of Norb’s top runners was injured in a farming accident, preventing the star athlete from ever competing again, and several others would also succumb to injury before his departure from Burlington High School.
While he only coached at Burlington for two years, he laid the groundwork for future success. That autumn that team would qualify for state, and they are still the only boys’ team in Burlington history to accomplish this feat.
Fast forward to the 1970s when Thomas More was in its renaissance of sports, specifically in cross-country. The team originally did not have the trademark uniforms that most teams enjoyed. The runners would compete with school-colored generic shorts and t-shirts that simply said “Thomas More Cross-Country.”
Regardless of what the team wore, however, Norb’s runners were usually victorious. Thomas More’s first invite where the runners debuted their new uniforms—a big step up from the old garb—was not only a success but a bit of a mystery to the coaches at the meet. Noticing a gleeful Wishowski, a rival coach said to him, “I don’t know why you are smiling so much today, Norb. The team that had ‘Cavalier’ on their singlet beat us all today.”
Instead of gloating or bragging, Norb just smiled and walked away. He was never about accolades. Every time another state championship was won, he always took on the Vince Lombardi philosophy: “act like he had been there before.”
Some people will say it was luck; others will say he had a genuine gift. During Norb’s induction to the Thomas More’s Athletic Hall of Fame, I spoke about the gratitude I had for him. “In my years of running for you, my father never attended a meet/invite, but I would like to think he was there in you, Coach Wishowski, and I thank you for that.”
Regardless of what one may think, one thing is for sure: Norb’s “father figure” role in and out of the classroom—and on and off the field/court—impacted so many lives and helped so many Thomas More alumni to become better people.