By Erika Webb
Most everyone called him "Coach".
Sure, William "Bill" Underhill worked as a physical education teacher at Woodward Elementary School in DeLand for 40 years. He was a teaching tennis pro and a member of the U.S. Professional Tennis Association, who taught the sport at the City of DeLand, DeLand Country Club and Brandywine Racquet Club tennis facilities. He also coached tennis at DeLand High School and Stetson University.
But our language allows words to take on deeper meanings; many expand to embrace a broad spectrum of characteristics. Coach, in this case, is one such word.
On Tuesday, Nov. 13, a crowd gathered at Woodward Elementary to honor the man who called it "home."
Though Coach Underhill passed away on Aug. 17, after a lengthy battle with leukemia, his school spirit will officially live on.
The dedication of Coach U's House, which encompasses the pavilion, playground and ball field at Woodward, included the reading of a proclamation issued by the Volusia County Council, declaring Nov. 13 Coach William Underhill Day.
Prior to reading the proclamation Woodward Elementary School Assistant Principal Shannon Hay talked about employee longevity at the school.
"It's often been said that you pretty much have to die or retire out of positions. There's no turnover here," Ms. Hay said. "I personally give part of that to Coach U. He created a family here. On my first day here, he was wearing this crazy hat. He walked up to me and said, 'Welcome, friend, to my family.' I think that describes his life here."
The character, who liked to get into character, was much appreciated by his pastor, The Rev. Rick Chandler of New Light Methodist Church in DeLand.
"I'm sure he never met anybody who wasn't his friend," Pastor Chandler said. And asked if Coach U did a lot of service, Pastor Chandler's response was, "Boy, I mean to tell you!"
He recalled a particular Easter service when Coach U was dressed as Jesus.
"He could be real dramatic. I don't think Jesus, himself, looked like that when he came down the Via Dolorosa," Pastor Chandler said. "It took Bill 15 minutes to get down the aisle. He sure made an impression."
The pastor laughed as he told the story of Coach U showing up at church in a tie bedazzled with LED lights, a Santa hat, red pants, white shoes and a "Rudolph" nose.
"Bill could get away with things no one else could get away with," he said. "When he was in the hospital he kept every nurse, every doctor, everybody entertained. I think he felt like his calling in life was to make everybody's day just a little brighter. He did that too."
Coach U's daughter, Karen Underhill, always breaks out in a grin when talking about her dad. For her, this day was bittersweet.
"He picked every single teacher I ever had here," she said looking at the school.
"He loved it here, and he pulled a lotta ears here," she added, laughing. This was his world. He always liked kids."
Coach Ron Allison, from Citrus Grove Elementary in DeLand, worked at Woodward with Coach U. for 15 years.
"There was a lot of stuff he did behind the scenes. He'd come in on cold mornings and light the furnaces, make sure the doors were unlocked. Every day Bill was here and made sure the school was safe for the children when they arrived," he said.
He shared fond memories of his friend, the character.
"Bill's favorite dance was the disco duck. He'd get on top of a picnic table and do that dance," he said. "Children assume all adults are staid and don't know how to have fun. They'd look at Coach U on the picnic table, just gettin' it on."
Coach Allison said his former co-worker and friend would also take his lunch period to sit at those same picnic tables with children who had managed to push their teachers to the limit.
"He knew the teachers needed a break and he'd just sit at the table, calmly talking and having lunch with those kids," he said.
Del Clark, who owns A Access Lock Service in DeLand, attended Woodward from 1977 to 1983. His memories of the coach are fond ones.
"He was full of life and kids adored him. Whatever letter your last name started with, that's what he called you. I was "Mr. C," Mr. Clark said. "I even saw him in Walmart a few weeks before he died and he said, 'Hey Mr. C!'"
Mr. Clark remembers Coach U's booming voice, "his coach voice," and said the coach's family was always reminding him not to use it just anywhere.
"In Walmart, you could hear him three aisles away," he said.
Asked what he learned from Coach U, Mr. Clark didn't hesitate.
"He taught you how to follow directions," he said, adding, "Absolutely, he was fun, always kidding around. He'd make funny noises with the whistle. He was just a happy, fun guy. You never saw the guy mad, and every time you saw him he greeted you with a big, old smile."
Coach U's wife of 15 years, Jodi Holler Underhill, said her husband could always be counted on by kids, parents, teachers and the school's administration.
"He did the extras, like opening the school at 6:30 each day, safety patrol, special education classes, mentoring and tutoring," she said.
Outside the school he volunteered at the Duval Home, for the Special Olympics, the volunteer fire department, Lions Club, Devereux (behavioral health center for children), Conklin School for the Blind, and he taught Sunday school.
Toward the end of the ceremony Ms. Underhill stood before the crowd and spoke.
"He fought a great battle and he's with his God. That's what we need to remember when we miss him so very much," she said.
Ms. Hay concluded the dedication with, "Please dance on tables this week in honor of Coach U."