When your children compete for their school, whether it’s in the marching band, on the basketball court or, as at our house, on the softball field, you entrust band directors, coaches, administrators, and others with their well-being.
They are the protectors during those hours of practice, during competition and on the bus.
Charlie Crabtree was riding on a bus Wednesday night when he was killed in a tragic, head-on collision on Interstate 74 near Downs. A volunteer with the Normal West High School girls basketball program, he traveled with the team to Champaign Central for a freshman game to keep the scorebook.
Yet, for many years, Crabtree was behind the wheel of buses, transporting Unit 5 athletes and coaches to games near and far. Junior high, high school … it was all the same to him: wonderful.
He drove my daughters and their teams many places during their time at Chiddix and Normal Community, brought them home safely and supported them in every way. We trusted and treasured him.
Here’s why, from someone who was on those bus rides:
“Every athlete in town knew Charlie. When he pulled up in the bus lane for an away game ... we all instantly smiled. He brought joy, comfort, safety and a family-like atmosphere to each one of those rides, whether long or short. He watched us play, cheered us on win or lose, and wished every one of us a good night.”
So many current and former Unit 5 athletes have experienced that warmth and support from Crabtree. Similar posts were everywhere Thursday on social media. This particular post hit home.
It came from one of my daughters.
As parents we constantly ask ourselves, “Did we do the right thing?” The answer for us and thousands of Bloomington-Normal parents on this sad day is yes, putting our children in Crabtree’s care was the right thing, the best thing.
In recent years he has been most closely aligned with Normal West. A retiree from Country Financial, Crabtree, 72, was the scorekeeper on the road and the public address announcer at home for West’s girls basketball teams. He also manned the P.A. for softball games with a booming voice that rustled leaves and stirred dirt on the diamond.
April Schermann could hear it Thursday. Amid the sadness, it brought a smile inside and out to Normal West’s head softball coach.
As Schermann’s 2016 team made a run to second place in the Class 4A State Tournament, Crabtree provided the soundtrack.
“He had a distinct cheer he would do that would get the girls going and get the crowd involved,” Schermann said. “He would say, ‘Westside Wildcats!’ and then, ‘Eat ’em up! Eat ’em up!’
“Oh my gosh … he would do that every game, that Charlie cheer.”
It was part of Crabtree’s infectious spirit. He was there to support the Wildcats and was willing, actually eager, to shout it to the world.
But here’s the thing. Crabtree had room in what Schermann termed “a very generous heart” for more than Normal West. She saw it time and again during basketball season.
As scorekeeper for the girls home games, Schermann sat next to Crabtree.
“He was so gracious to the other team and the other coaches and the officials,” Schermann said. “He was supportive of everyone out there. He was just a very generous, giving, gracious man.”
To call Crabtree a super fan would be accurate. There are a lot of those in sports, but not many consider winning and losing a minor part of the overall experience.
Stan Lewis found that with Crabtree. The final score was almost an afterthought.
“He just wanted our kids to do well and to have fun playing the game,” Lewis said. “He was just happy to be there and be supportive of them and the coaches. I think it’s kind of like with your own family. If things don’t go well and you go home and your mom or dad says, ’I don’t care that you lost. I still love you.’”
Crabtree’s love was unconditional. Occasionally, it was disarming.
Crabtree frequently attended girls basketball practices. Lewis said his timing was impeccable, that more than once he entered the gym just as a coach was taking players to task.
“Charlie would walk in waving his arms and saying, “Go Wildcats!” Lewis said. “Everybody would just crack up. You couldn’t help but smile.”
Crabtree considered himself “blessed.” He said so in a 2008 Letter to the Editor in The Pantagraph. At the time, he had a daily Unit 5 bus route in addition to driving athletic teams to and from games. His letter sought to recruit other retirees.
“I must say I look forward to work each day,” it read. “To see those smiles, hear those giggles and laughs, and to feel the touch of a 'High Five' from these young souls, makes me realize 'all is good in the world,' at least for that moment in time.”
He made the “young souls” feel that way, too.
Ours and so many others.