The students were going around the table figuring out what their names sounded like backwards. When it was his turn, Mr. Coleman stood up and proudly announced, “DERF NAMELOC: VIKING WARRIOR.”
So what is the tale behind this Viking warrior Thacher students all fondly know as Derf?
Well, his tale leads to many places – seven places, to be exact – before he even entered into the eighth grade.
He was born in Charlottesville, Virginia when his father was in law school at UVA. Two months later, his family relocated to West Point when his father began teaching law at the Military Academy. When World War II hit, Mr. Coleman moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma, where his father trained with the famous 42nd Infantry Division. Soon after, his father went to war in Europe, and Mr. Coleman and his mother went to live with his grandparents on the Monterey peninsula.
This is where Mr. Coleman spent most of his time growing up and what he considers to be his true home.
After Monterey, Coleman and his family moved to Washington D.C., where they lived for three years. Their dizzying travels continued as they spent five and a half years in Europe, and afterwards, came back to the U.S. and lived in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Coleman described his childhood self as “rambunctious and high energy.”
Hence, when it came time for high school, Coleman’s grandparents both thought it best for him to attend boarding school, especially since his mom was disabled and his dad was fighting in Korea at the time. As Mr. Coleman reminisced on his four years at boarding school in Virginia, he explained that they were definitely not the “Thacher Experience.”
He described his high school as “a very unkind, cruel place where kids were tormented physically and even emotionally sometimes.”
Coleman, however, has much fonder memories of college and his experiences in the Army.
Mr. Coleman joined the Army straight out of high school. The Army was in his blood, deeply entrenched in both his mother’s and his father’s family history.
He first went to basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina; next, he attended West Point’s preparatory school; and he finally began studying at West Point in 1960. After graduating from West Point in 1964, he became a fourth generation infantry officer. Mr. Coleman was in the infantry for two and a half years and then went to flight school. In total, he experienced seven years of active duty as well as four years as a cadet.
Mr. Coleman was a celebrated soldier in his eleven years of service. During the Vietnam War, he was decorated with two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star Medal, seventeen Air Medals, the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm and with Silver Star, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, and the Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device while serving with the 183rd Reconnaissance Airplane Company. His other awards included the Ranger Tab, the Parachutist Badge, and the Army Aviator Badge.
When asked what he remembers most about his experience in the army, his response was the camaraderie. He recalled the close bonds that formed when hanging out and talking with his fellow soldiers on the stoops of the barracks.
“It was similar to the bonds that Thacher students feel,” he reminisced.
His closest friends today are, in fact, his West Point peers and fellow soldiers.
In 1970, when Mr. Coleman was thirty, he resigned from the Army and became a pilot in civilian life. Later, he discovered his passion for teaching.
I love teaching. I basically like teaching anything I know well enough to teach.
He began by teaching flying, and then went on to teach math, soccer, and cross-country. He has always loved math, and enjoys “looking at life through a mathematical prism to make sense of it in a mathematical way.”
However, Mr. Coleman has equal interest in English and History, and believed that he probably would have majored in these subjects if engineering was not the only available major offered at West Point at the time.
Mr. Coleman began teaching middle school in Monterey and at three different high schools in Salinas, California. In 1983, after about ten years teaching at public schools, he came to Thacher.
Since he first started teaching at Thacher nearly thirty years ago, he believes one of the biggest changes has been in the physical plan of the school, including dorms being rebuilt and infrastructure being improved. Another huge change he commented on has been Thacher’s transition from a regional school to a national one.
We haven’t always been competing with the Andovers, the Exeters, and the St. Pauls of the country, like we are now.
Along with teaching, another passion Mr. Coleman discovered later in his life has been running. According to Coleman, he had been active his whole life but did not actually begin to run as a sport until he was 27. After four years of being in the cockpit of an airplane in Vietnam, he was curious how long it would take him to run a mile.
I put on a swim suit and a pair of Keds shoes and ran a mile that almost killed me. I was so out of shape, and that’s what encouraged me to start running.
Beginning in Vietnam, running has evolved into one of his favorite past times and has completely changed his life.
Running was what motivated me to stop smoking, to lose weight, to moderate my alcohol content, and to completely transform my life. I don’t think I would have lived pass the age of fifty the way I was going.
His own life-changing experience with running is what makes him so dedicated to sharing the sport with others; he wants others to enjoy the same benefits of being fit that he enjoys everyday.
Running helps your body to stay young. It makes a difference in how you feel, how you perform both intellectually and physically. You age more slowly, your bones become denser, and hip replacements and back and knee problems become less common.
Mr. Coleman eventually moved from running a mile in Vietnam to running 100-mile races called ultra-marathons. Coleman loves the long races. According to him, a marathon is more of a “sprint race” rather than an endurance race.
With ultras, because you go so slowly, you have hours and hours of enjoyment.
One reason Coleman finds running so enjoyable is the meditative state that goes with it. Running gives him time to think about his life, his family, his teaching, his coaching, and sometimes just nothing. Coleman admitted that many times his meditation becomes so intense that he just runs clear off the racecourse.
The advantage of running is that you have mental freedom, complete freedom, to do anything with your mind you want to. I just run, and everything else just takes care of itself.
The other important sport in Mr. Coleman’s life is soccer. He started playing soccer at the age of eight when he lived in Europe.
Coleman continued to play soccer upon returning to the U.S. in the 50s and later became part of soccer history at West Point. He was on the team that was the first of four consecutive West Point teams to make NCAA Final Four appearances in men’s soccer. Many term this period the “the glory years” of men’s soccer at West Point.
After West Point, Coleman gradually transitioned from a great player to the coach everyone knows today.
When I played soccer, I never thought I would be a coach – I just played.
Despite this fact, Mr. Coleman has coached 35 seasons of soccer at Thacher from third team to varsity boy’s and girl’s teams. He admitted that he was not a very good coach when he first started, but gradually became better with the help of various coaching clinics around the world, his predecessors, and his own dedication.
I had a burning desire to [coach]. I really wanted to be good; I didn’t want to be just mediocre. I owe a lot to everybody, and I am very thankful.
Besides the coaching, the teaching, the army, and the athletics, another side of Mr. Coleman that students seldom hear about is his family.
Mr. Coleman has two children. His daughter is currently an emergency room RN in Monterey, CA and is married with three children. His son lives in Mount Shasta and owns a couple of nonprofit companies, including one called “Humanity for Horses” that provides a refuge for retired horses and the other, that brings fresh drinking water to villages in Tanzania.
Mr. Coleman is very proud of both of his kids, who are both married to wonderful people and are both doing work that they have a great passion for.
As a parent, when you see your children doing what they were born to do, it’s a really good feeling. There’s no better feeling that that.
Mr. Coleman also has four stepdaughters. The oldest does deep tissue massage therapy in Monterey; the second oldest is a child psychiatrist; the third oldest is a pharmaceutical representative; and the youngest recently graduated from Thacher and currently lives in Ojai.
As Mr. Coleman reflects on his life and his current job as a teacher, he feels extremely fortunate.
A lot of times, things will sneak up on you and present themselves to you, and you will realize that’s what you should do. I think its is mistake to try to plan out too much. To a certain degree, you got to let life happen and then learn from what happens.
All legends about heroes and “super humans” have their lessons and their take-home messages.
In the legend of Derf Nameloc, this is that take-home message. In every stage of Coleman’s life, he has taken the “unplanned” route and has experienced that route to its fullest.
In the Army, he did not step down until completing eleven years of service, becoming a Ranger and Captain, going to flight school, and getting seemingly every award there was to receive. With soccer, Coleman did not stop until he was on one of the best teams in the country. With running, he ran the longest races available and still runs practically every morning. And with teaching, although it is a career he never envisioned himself in when he was younger, he now teaches at one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country.
With Derf, no matter what the activity, you know he will go the whole way.
Life should be much more than sitting in front of a computer screen.
Words of wisdom from Derf Nameloc, the Thacher Legend.