Chloe Williams had tears in her eyes as she stepped onto the podium in the Milam Joseph Community Building on the Bishop Thomas K. Gorman Campus on Sunday evening.
The ICU cardiac nurse at Baylor Medical Center said the Rev. Jerome R. Milton was a second father, mentor and friend who taught her lessons of perseverance, grace and integrity.
Mrs. Williams was one of a list of dignitaries, former coworkers and students who spoke at a special reception to commemorate the retirement of the “most winning track and field coach in East Texas.”
In his 25-year tenure, Milton brought the Gorman Crusaders to 16 girls’ district championships, 10 girls’ state titles and two boys’ state titles, as well as sent more than 150 students to college on athletic scholarships.
Ms. Williams said her parents told her to listen and obey Milton before she was ever on four of his state-bound teams.
“My parents knew what I would come to learn and appreciate over the last 16 years of my life,” she said. “He is a visionary; he is a compassionate leader; he is a trendsetter; he is a philanthropist with the heart of a thousand men; and most importantly, he is what his title implies — worthy to be leader.”
Former student Kristina Ross, a Dartmouth College graduate and lawyer, said Milton inspired her to never give up and that quitting was not an option.
“You made a million-dollar difference in my life,” she said. “There is not a day goes by that I don’t thank my dad for sending me to Gorman, and a day that I don’t thank God for making me one of your athletes. Thank you for teaching me to have ‘pride in my stride,’ ‘pep in my step’ and ‘grace in my pace.’”
Gaylon Taylor started the Grace Community School’s track program near the time Milton began his work at Gorman, and the reverend had a heavy hand in shaping not one but two athletic programs. At the time, both schools were beginning and Grace’s team didn’t have a track of their own to practice on.
Taylor said Milton started hosting track meets to allow the athletes an opportunity to compete and often shared resources and knowledge.
“We were training Grace Community students on T.K. Gorman hurdles …” he said. “He saw the competition and the benefit of teaching his kids to compete and helping me teach my kids to compete. ... He had the vision of developing his opponents because he wanted to develop his kids.”
Taylor presented Milton with a baton from Grace as a small thank you for the early days.
Mayor Barbara Bass proclaimed the day Jerome R. Milton Day in the city of Tyler and Smith County Precinct 4 Commissioner JoAnn Hampton proclaimed the day in the county.
U.S. Rep Louie Gohmert said God worked a miracle in Milton’s life.
Milton was put into a foster home with terrible conditions and abuse. He was placed in 13 different foster homes and suffered more abuse before he landed in his final home with Florence Johnson Brown, who told him, “Don’t let your abuse be your excuse,” U.S. Rep Louie Gohmert said, before presenting the coach with a flag flown over the nation’s capital.
Milton accepted Christ and went on to play football and run track at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“She told Jerome before she died, ‘All you can do for me is if you can do for a group of children what I’ve done for you, then my living was not in vain. I don’t have a million dollars, but I hope and pray I made a million-dollar difference,’” Gohmert said. “We in this town know Florence Brown did make a million-dollar difference.”
Scott Terry, master of ceremonies, said Milton coached several of his children, and it was hard to see another man become a mentor and help raise them.
“Jerome, you do not know how special you are, and I don’t care how many times we tell you, you will never appreciate how special you are,” he said.
At the end of the ceremony, Milton thanked his colleagues and friends for his tenure at the school, and passed a baton to the new coach, Monica Davis.
“One of the scariest things about being a track coach at Gorman is being compared to the great Rev. Milton …” Ms. Davis said. “The legacy is not that he is finished, it is the ability to start something and make it continue. … Thank you for trusting me with what you have done, and thank you for allowing me the opportunity to continue what you have started.”