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Pooling His Resources

Jack Pidgeon and Dave Caldwell

Jack Pidgeon (left) and Dave Caldwell

Jack Pidgeon looked as if he’d seen a ghost.

His eyes flew open wide, and his jaw threatened to land in his lap. But it wasn’t fright that overwhelmed him there on the deck of the Memorial Field House pool; it was disbelief.

Head swimming coach Dave Caldwell had just informed his new volunteer assistant coach that IUP did not offer swimming scholarships.

“I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe it,” Pidgeon said, recalling that moment of enlightenment in October of 2003. “I remember asking Dave, ‘Do you mean to tell me that these kids come here every day and take all this baloney from us just because they love it?’”

Caldwell confirmed it was true. That’s when Pidgeon made a momentous decision, one that transferred the look of disbelief to Caldwell’s face. He donated $250,000 to fund an IUP swimming scholarship.

The gesture took Caldwell by surprise. The amount staggered him.

“It was absolutely unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve never been around a situation where someone has offered to give more than just their time. This was more of a gift than I could have ever imagined. From what I understand, it’s the largest amount that’s ever been given to athletics, and it’s probably one of the top five or six gifts to the university.”

The John A. Pidgeon Endowed Swimming Scholarship will leave its mark on the program for years to come, outlasting its benefactor and even today’s beneficiaries.

“This is an incredibly generous gift to IUP, building a solid foundation of what will become an extraordinary legacy of academic and athletic excellence for IUP and its student-athletes,” said Diane Reinhard, the university’s interim president. “Donations like these have the power to literally change lives and shape futures.”

Pidgeon wasn’t sure what his future held when he retired in 2002 after forty-seven years as headmaster at Kiski, a prestigious preparatory school located in nearby Saltsburg. He wanted to stay involved in swimming—that much he knew. Pidgeon had spent most of his life around pools, as both competitor and coach. He excelled at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., before World War II; later swam for Bowdoin College; competed in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1948 U.S. Olympic trials; and then coached the sport for fifty-four years at both Kiski and Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, turning out dozens of future collegiate All-Americans.

Dave Caldwell and Jack Pidgeon talk with a swimmer

Dave Caldwell and Jack Pidgeon talk with a swimmer

When Pidgeon offered his services to the IUP program last season, Caldwell eagerly welcomed him aboard.

“I just help out,” said Pidgeon in his self-effacing manner. “I don’t know how much good I’m doing. I guess I’ve been around the sport long enough to know a bad swimmer when I see one.”

Or a good one. There are plenty of those at IUP. In fact, Caldwell has coached several NCAA Division II All-Americans, most notably junior Luci Plaxton, a national runner-up in the 100 backstroke last year. Pidgeon simply assumed such top-flight athletes were scholarship recipients. After learning otherwise, he decided to mimic his swimmers and dive right in. To his bank account.

“These are such wonderful kids,” Pidgeon said. “I thought I was going to be coaching a bunch of hoodlums, but they’re a lot like the kids I’ve been coaching all my life. I wanted to help, so I scraped this money together. No big deal. It was my retirement plan. So now I have to hope that I die early, so I won’t be a pauper.”

No big deal? Caldwell begs to differ. The impact of Pidgeon’s gift will resonate throughout the program.

“Before I was hired. there were a lot of rumors that the men’s swim team was going to be cut,” Caldwell said. “It’s a trend across the country. This basically solidified both the men’s and women’s programs. We’re going to have financial stability for both, and that’s big. The other thing we’re going to have to look at is the fact that our facilities are aging rapidly. The lifespan is a pool is twenty-plus years, and we’ve kind of doubled that. So that’s a concern.” 

“These kids work their butts off, and they’re doing it just for the love of swimming,” Pidgeon said. “It really struck me that I had a chance to help.”

Pidgeon’s gift will alleviate all sorts of concerns. Of course, Caldwell valued his contributions to the program even before he stepped into the role of Santa Claus. While Pidgeon’s title is volunteer assistant, it’s apparent he’s so much more than a coach.

“He works mainly with our distance swimmers, and he does stroke work with a lot of our kids,” Caldwell said. “He’s also a fantastic mentor. When we had our first swim meet at home this season, these kids were bringing their parents down from the stands to introduce them to Jack. And that says something there. These kids view him as the grandfather they didn’t have or didn’t know, or as a surrogate for the parent they don’t have. I think that’s huge, that they can go and talk to him and he kind of helps them through some hard times and gives them advice. He gives them that family-away-from-home feel.”

Jack Pidgeon

Pidgeon is glad to assist in any way he can, even if it means raiding his retirement fund. The swimmers inspired him to act with their unconditional dedication to a sport that imposes grueling demands and yet operates well below the radar, attracting only a fraction of the attention lavished on football and basketball.

“These kids work their butts off, and they’re doing it just for the love of swimming,” Pidgeon said. “It really struck me that I had a chance to help.”

And so he did, by pulling out his checkbook and signing over a quarter of a million dollars. Call it payback for that day in 2003 when Caldwell left him flabbergasted.

This time, Caldwell was the incredulous one. For when he read the amount on the check John Pidgeon handed him, his eyes flew open wide and his jaw nearly landed in his lap.