Harry Meisel, 1922-2010

Humble Educator, Coach, and Mentor

By Bobby Davis ’82

Harry Meisel

For more than 30 years, Rollins students got to know Coach Meisel as the somewhat gruff man in a hat who watched the pool area like a hawk. Little did most of them know that they had met one of Central Florida’s most distinguished swimming coaches, one who touched the lives of thousands of youngsters. Harry Meisel, who taught Central Floridians how to swim for five decades, succumbed to brain cancer in Altamonte Springs on June 25, 2010 at 87.

Jilen Siroky Bouwer, now an auditor living in Chicago, was five years old when she started swimming for Coach Meisel at the Rollins College pool. “Coach gave me a chance to swim on a team at age 5, when other coaches in the area said no. Even though I was young, Coach saw how much I loved swimming and wanted to go to swim practice. My career started right there when he said yes—get in the water and try to keep up.” Jilen went on to swim in the 1996 Olympics for the United States.

Susie Cochrane Aspinwall ’65 of Orlando entrusted her three children, now ages 40, 41 and 43, to Meisel when they were 6. All went on to win college swimming scholarships—at the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, and Miami University in Ohio.

Harry was born on December 6, 1922 in Stamford, CT to Mae and Harry H. Meisel. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and fought at the Battle of the Bulge, which began just 10 days after he celebrated his 22nd birthday in 1944.

According to his son Kevin, “My dad did not open up about his WWII experience until the late 1980s. A planned reunion with his outfit in Luxembourg was cancelled, but he went ahead with my mom and sister. A key link was sending a letter to a family in Junglinster, Luxembourg in hopes that they knew the lady who housed my dad and members of his outfit in her attic. The letter was answered by the Brentener-Picard family and began a friendship that continues to this day.

“The grateful people of Luxembourg hosted veterans annually through a group called US Veterans Friends Luxembourg (USVFL). Numerous reunions and trips included a 1998 trip I took with my mom, dad, and aunt to Ireland & Luxembourg. That trip inspired my dad to have a monument placed in Lake Eola Park to honor Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge (VBOB) and all WWII veterans. He and members of the monument committee spoke to some 35,000 local high school students about WWII and the Battle of the Bulge.

Beginning in 1946, Harry attended Stetson University on the G.I. Bill. With the delay in getting troops home after the war, many soldiers began their college studies in Europe with classes taught by American teachers. His first choice was to go to school closer to his home in Connecticut, but school had already started. He phoned his sister Jean, who had married a DeLand native while serving as a Wave at Coronado Naval Air Station and was living in DeLand, and she mentioned that Stetson had just started classes. Harry arrived the next day.

At Stetson, he joined a remarkable cohort of men who became legendary coaches in Central Florida. Bob Mosher was known as “The Godfather” of track and field in Central Florida while coaching Winter Park High’s powerhouse teams for 33 years, winning Coach of the Year 11 times, and was selected to the Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame. Bill Orr coached several sports at Winter Park High but was best known as the forbidding but caring weightlifting coach. Harry’s close friend, Joe Nelson, whose Daytona Beach Seabreeze teams won three state championships and went 261-48 under him, was also selected to the Florida Athletic Coaches Hall of Fame. Tom Perrin, Charlie Broadway, Hugh Carlton, and several of Harry’s other contemporaries made a name as coaches in the area. Harry was inducted into the Central Florida Sports Hall of Fame in 1987.

On September 3, 1949, Harry married Jeanette in DeLand, Florida, and she remained his loving wife for 60 years. Jeanette is a DeLand native and was working at the Athens Theater when she met Harry. They raised five children, daughters Karen, Mary, and Teresa, and sons Steve and Kevin.

Harry was a lifelong physical education teacher and coach. He taught biology at Orlando Senior High School starting in 1950, after a family friend of Jeanette’s was drafted into the Korean War and vacated his teaching job. He later moved to Boone High School and Bishop Moore High Schol. He coached a variety of sports, including football, basketball, tennis, and tumbling. Although his only formal training in swimming was in a YMCA program while in high school, Harry led swimmers to 20 state swim championships.

“Coach Meisel was my JV football coach and I went into coaching because of him,” said Robbie Robertson of Kennesaw, GA. “He was the perfect role model, a great coach, a great family man, and he inspired me to go into coaching. I had tremendous respect for him and I owe my 42 years in coaching to Coach Meisel.”

In 1963, Harry joined the physical education faculty at Rollins College, where he remained until retirement in 1997 when he was named professor emeritus. While at Rollins, he formed the Blue Dolfins swim club, which still exists today. The Blue Dolphins produced many swimmers who would go on to compete at the college level. Meisel was instrumental in the building of pools at Rollins, Kingswood Manor, and the YMCA Aquatic Center. The pool at Kingswood Manor was named after him in 2009.

“Breaking ground for the building of Alfond Pool at Rollins provided this ‘Renaissance man’ a stage to develop the isokinetic swim bench and revolutionize dry-land training for swimming,” said his son Kevin, himself a talented swimmer, “As aquatics director, he took ownership and great pride in the Alfond Pool's role as a daily congregating point for students. Eleven-hour days were the norm and included Saturday and Sunday morning visits. Rollins College provided my dad a great place to work with learners of all ages, a means to provide for his wife and five children, and a place for this humble educator to help kids pursue Olympic dreams.”

But it was his work with young swimmers that he most loved, according to son Kevin and his brother, Steve. “He believed in Pete and Repeat. Repetition,” Kevin said. “And he did it daily and unselfishly, whether it was in the classroom or on the pool deck.”

“We used to call him Hard-Nosed Harry,” said Charlie Rose, who swam under Meisel and has since taken over the Blue Dolfins club. “Hundreds if not thousands of swimmers, people I still know and keep in touch with, everybody talks about him like a father. He taught us discipline, respect, accountability. He was always extremely consistent and he also was a great motivator. He also kept us excited about the sport. Somebody we felt had always given.”

Will McCarthy, who swam competitively at Winter Park High School and then at Notre Dame after starting with the Blue Dolfins, said, “He finds the potential in every kid. He’s just a good guy who works hard and makes it worth your while to swim.”

Bouwer remembered Harry “excitedly shouting my name every time I walked out on the pool deck. It was an enthusiastic ‘Jiiilllllennn!!’ I remember as a kid thinking it was so funny. He could always put a smile on your face, and make a competitive sport fun. He was a great coach, always making time for each of his swimmers. He made learning swimming techniques fun—by reminding us to ‘wipe the jelly off your belly’ during each freestyle stroke to ensure proper hand and arm motion. Even in my last year swimming (2003), I would still remind myself to wipe the jelly off my belly.”

“He was great with kids. Loved kids,” said Skip Foster, assistant athletic director at the University of Florida. Foster coached swimming at Winter Park High before moving on to the University of Florida, where he helped lead the school to three NCAA championships. “Meisel taught them not just how to swim and compete but also being on time, doing things the right way, not making excuses and trying to do the best every time you stepped on the block,” Foster said.

Friend Tina Bojanowski said, “My children and I have many fond memories of Harry. There was no slacking in Harry’s pool. If a child complained that there was something green in the bottom of the pool, Harry would say, ‘Put your goggles on and keep swimming.’ He expected the best from his kids and they gave it to him. He taught the kids that they had a job to do and not to let the little things get in the way of doing that job. He didn't just coach; he taught life lessons. So many coaches are coaching so they could say how great they are, but not Harry. He coached not for the winning, or to show that he was a good coach, but for the kids to achieve their best.”