Coach Lawton Roland

As a sports coach and PE teacher at Inverness Middle School, Coach Lawton Roland shaped the lives of many. One thing he was known for — twirling his whistle. Roland died June 4 at age 69. 

Those who knew Inverness Middle School Coach Lawton Roland remember the same four things: his whistle, his golf club, his paddle and his positive influence on kids’ lives.

About the whistle: Most PE teachers and coaches all carry whistles, but not all twirl them like Coach Roland did.

He would hold his cord and swing the whistle at the end of it until it wrapped around his hand and then he’d reverse it and wrap it in the opposite direction over and over and over.

“He’s the reason why I twirl whistles on strings — picked up the habit from him,” said Susan Shipp, who had Coach Roland as a PE teacher in the late 1980s.

His golf club: He was rarely without it. When he wasn’t using it as a walking stick, he would practice his “air swing” with it.

“You would’ve thought he was kin to Phil Mickelson, as much as he carried that thing with him,” said Devonte White, who played basketball for Coach Roland in seventh grade.

His paddle: Coach Roland taught back in the day when teachers could paddle students — days adults still remember.

“I remember looking over my shoulder as I got paddled by him,” said County Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith, “but it was always with respect.”

Luke Simmons also has memories of Coach Roland’s paddle. “Yes, fifth grade I got seven; sixth grade I got four — all for the same thing: talking,” Simmons said. “In seventh and eighth grade I only got paddled on my birthday. We got paddled on our birthdays in front of the team, but that was all in fun.

“If you talk to any of the guys my age (40-something), if you ask them about it, they’d say that getting paddled taught us to be better,” he said.

As for his positive influence on kids’ lives: Coach Roland spent his 35-year career building the character of the community.

Lawton Roland, of Dunnellon, died June 4. He was 69.

“He was the toughest coach I’ve ever experienced,” Devonte White said. “He was my seventh-grade basketball coach at IMS, and to this day I don’t think I’ve ever run so many suicides in my life playing basketball. ... He was tough, but he instilled so much discipline in me that sticks with me, especially when it comes to physical fitness.

“If it wasn’t perfect, we did it over again — and again and again,” White said. “My 2005 seventh-grade team actually made it to the trophy case at the middle school, and we owe it to Coach for always pushing us. He was a very respected person who will always be a legend to me ... and truly missed by everyone.”

Luke Simmons also called Coach Roland a legend.

“He taught us how to be boys, and he was big on team-building,” Simmons said. “He would have us shake each other’s hand every day and hang with each other so we’d become friends. We had Hernando kids, where I’m from, and Inverness kids, and he wanted us to know that we’re all one team, or one PE class.”

Simmons, who is a prevention specialist with Eckerd Connects and mentors middle school-age kids, including coaching them in sports, now uses a lot of what he learned from Coach Roland.

“It’s funny — I’ll say things and I hear Coach’s words coming out of my mouth,” he said. “I wasn’t the biggest guy at the time, and he’d let me know that it’s all right and not to care what people say. ... It’s funny, because I teach that now. He taught us how to manage our emotions, how to make decisions and stick with it and about differences and similarities in people.

“With my friends now, when we get together and start talking, someone will always start talking about Coach Roland at IMS.” Simmons said. “He’d have the team over to his house and we’d go swimming or go fishing. He taught us not to be scared. He’d say, ‘There’s bugs in Florida, so don’t be scared; you’re going to live with them the rest of your life.’

“He was a father figure to a whole bunch of us,” he said.

On Roland’s online obituary, Roy and Phyllis Brice lauded the coach for the role he played in their son’s life.

“(Our son) Anthony Brice, one of the smaller guys at the time, tackled one of the biggest kids on the team and the boy cried foul,” they wrote. “Coach said, ‘He tackled you, didn’t he?’ When Coach gave him his varsity jersey, Tony lit up and was so proud.

“Coach Roland was such an inspiration on Tony’s life — he went on to serve in the military with a distinguished career. As the parents of Tony, we say thank you, Coach. God bless you ... and your family,” the Brices wrote.

Melissa Walker, Key Training Center executive director, recalled her days as an IMS student and said Coach Roland was a “patient PE teacher for those of us that were not physically inclined.”

Steve Bomse, a former fellow IMS teacher, remembered him as being stern with the students, but also highly respected by them.

“The kids loved him,” Bomse said. “He was a real character.”

Jonathan Powers, pastor of Grace Pointe Church in Hernando, said Coach Roland took him under his wing for a short time, and he and his wife helped him study. “I went from Cs and Ds to an A and B student,” Powers said. “He was hard, but he really helped me.”

“He sure kept us in shape and taught us respect,” Susan Shipp said. “And we were afraid of his paddle for sure! But he truly helped shape a lot of our lives.”

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Contact Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy at 352-564-2927 or nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.

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