In 1973, Gerry Uchytil took a leap of faith in a homemade glider off a Lake Superior bluff, back when maybe just a few dozen people were hang-gliding in the U.S. Like every sport Uchytil tried, he excelled. He won the Hang Gliding National Championship in 1985. Decades later he told a reporter, “You can go up and see the world like nobody else sees it.” Except maybe birds.
I became Facebook friends with my former gym teacher, Mr. Uchytil, after seeing his raptor photographs: phenomenal closeups of eagles, hawks, or barred and great horned owls. In one of his posts, he wrote about birding on a below-zero morning: “It’s a pretty cold.” That phrase prompted my flashback: sophomore year at McDonell Central Catholic High School in Mr. Uchytil’s first-hour phys ed class, held outside, of course. I shivered so hard playing badminton that a senior boy offered me his letter jacket and even his clingy girlfriend didn’t seem to mind. Mr. Uchytil likely was wearing his usual polyester shorts and collared short-sleeve shirt. He never had to tell us to “shake it off.” We just knew. One classmate recounted that after four years of Coach’s twice-a-day football practices in the August heat, his military basic training was a breeze.
Uchytil taught at McDonell from 1976 to 1987. His first year — after winning an All-American wide receiver trophy while at UW-Superior and trying out for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals — he assisted Macks football coach Ted LeDuc. The team went 0-6 in the conference. The next year, at age 23, Uchytil became head coach; he led the team for 10 years, focusing on what he called a “controlled passing attack.” His signature air raid offense — shotgun formation, throw the ball nearly every play — set several U.S. records.
Four of his quarterbacks from the 1980s still hold records at the state and national levels.
Next, Uchytil took a health teacher position at Hudson High and served as head football coach until 2001. He gave up football when he and wife Shelley had two small children, though he continues to coach pole vaulting even after retiring from teaching six years ago. His youngest graduates tomorrow from UW-Eau Claire.
Uchytil was inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008. More important may be his influence on thousands of students both on and off the field. Most teens in Mr. Uchytil’s classes were not stellar athletes. Now in our 40s, 50s and even 60s, many of us still work out. Besides learning to type from Sister Paul Marie, I can’t imagine any other skills from high school that I use every day.
As a college freshman doing research in the library, Uchytil stumbled upon a National Geographic story on hang gliding. He told me recently he cut out a picture and saved it in his wallet as a reminder: “I’m doing that.” No wonder, given that as a kid he built a Wright Brothers-influenced “biplane” out of sticks and a sheet, which he used to jump off a picnic table. His dream at 10 years old: fly like the red-tailed “Charlie the Hawk” that circled over the Uchytil house so often he and brother Dan named it.
Uchytil sent away for a hang gliding kit from southern California. He and his best friend Paul assembled the aluminum poles and sail. The first time they tried the glider, they nose-dived and broke it. Once their replacement poles arrived, they fine-tuned their launch: run downhill, go airborne for five seconds. Just long enough for one or the other to think, “You’re flying!” They made around 50 flights that first day.
Uchytil’s first big jump came after discovering a bluff off of Skyline Drive in Duluth, Minn. He and Paul — then later brother Dan — would glide close to a mile, land in a field, and carry their glider back up the bluff to do it again. From that moment on, any chance Uchytil could fly, he did. His longest flight was seven hours, catching thermal after thermal; his furthest distance was 160 miles. At age 69, he’s been hang gliding for nearly 50 years. He still enjoys what he calls “working a ridge;” he often soars with eagles, hawks and recently peregrine falcons.
Uchytil admits, “I’ve been fascinated with birds my entire life.” When he retired, he invested in a quality camera and started driving country roads within a 60-mile radius of his Hudson home in search of snowy owls, a magnificent breed he spotted only once as a kid. In the process of seeking (and often finding) this elusive bird, he’s stumbled upon many other beauties. He’s happy to photograph any wildlife, but he tells me, “I’m a raptor guy.”
Though you can’t put a price on happiness, a new study confirms that just being around birds offers an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to earning an additional $150 per week. That’s no surprise to us bird lovers. My son said “birdie” long before “mama.” He spent a few days a week with my parents who planted baby Alex in front of their windows to watch backyard feeders. Every day, my husband eyes his suet and seed from his perch at our kitchen counter. He sometimes plays birdsong on his laptop to better identify what he hears outside. These recorded chirps actually sound like “Hey sweetie” and attract eager black-capped chickadee mates to our windows or sometimes rose-breasted grosbeak ready for seduction.
I recently showed my husband Mr. Uchytil’s photos of a pair of great blue herons building a nest. “These should be in a book,” Bruce says. I know what he means: how spectacular to see one heron pass another a 12-inch twig, mouth to mouth, as they assemble their home two stories off the ground.
A few summers ago, I kayaked into a side slough on Lake Hallie and spotted a great blue guarding her nest. As I glided in, she let loose a 3-foot stream of poo that ricocheted off the water. Any closer and I would have been doused. Some say it’s good luck to be pooped on by a bird but probably never one that big.