Thirty-three years ago, when he was settling into his first year of teaching, Woodstock High School math teacher Steve Erwin did not expect the mid-year favor asked by Athletic Director Jim Shipley. Girls track and field head coach Dave Lichtenheld was retiring, so Shipley was hoping Erwin could fill the vacancy.
Hesitantly, Erwin accepted.
“I hadn’t thought about working with girls, and I wasn’t really interested in being a head coach right away,” Erwin said.
After Lichtenheld talked with Erwin about the position, the WHS science teacher assured Erwin he would be there to help out.
“That first year, Dave was there just about every day, and, if the girls had a question, they might have looked at me but they asked him,” Erwin said jokingly. “He made the transition real simple.”
Erwin recently retired from teaching and coaching at the end of the 2016-17 school year, but his name will live on in the Steve Erwin Invitational, the former Woodstock Invite which was renamed in his honor in its 30th year.
Despite brief doubt he had about his profession early on and a moment thumbing through a newspaper in search of a new job, Erwin went on to teach and coach for three decades for the Blue Streaks. Though his teams did not always have the numbers he hoped for or the depth of talent some of the bigger schools brought in, he still turned out a few state champions, several state medalists and a lot of grateful student-athletes.
“Coach Erwin was an amazing coach. His dedication and motivation was so inspiring,” said 1998 graduate Mindy (Wolf) Thompson. “He was always encouraging us to do our best and push the limits. We accomplished a lot because of his determination and devotion to our team.”
Erwin said he has found success in following the mantra: “Be their coach, don’t be their friend.”
Cas (Whiting) Creighton, another ‘98 grad and Woodstock North High School cross-country and track coach, said Erwin came across as “extremely strict.”
“I always thought he was picking on me,” she said. “He knew what I was capable of before I even knew. … I am grateful for the times he spent pushing me and driving me to my goals. … As a coach I find myself running my program as he did. It’s funny when I hear the same comments about me being strict as a coach. I laugh to myself and hope one day they too will look back and know it’s because I wanted the best for them.”
Similarly, ‘99 grad Laura (Valldeperas) Benjelloun said she came to appreciate Erwin’s “tough love” demeanor. Erwin convinced the long-time soccer player to give track a try for at least one season once she got to high school.
“It was one of the best decisions of my life, and I thank Coach Erwin every day for pushing me,” Benjelloun said. “He made me who I am and drew the path for where I stand today. He and his wife, Donna, will always be a huge part of my life, and I will never forget what he went through to keep me focused, and I apologize if I was an annoying teenager.”
Benjelloun went on to compete in the heptathlon for the 2002 Olympic Central American Games for El Salvador, qualifying for the 2002 Athens Olympic Games. At age 29, she came out of retirement to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games in the 400-meter hurdles.
Elise Beattie, a 2010 grad, said Erwin was instrumental in building on the passions she and her four siblings — Kayla, Maura, Luke and Grace — share for running. Erwin coached the Beatties from around 2005 through 2016.
“During this time, he became not only a coach and teacher to all of us, but a close family friend,” Elise Beattie said. “His dedication to track and field helped fuel our love for the sport and also helped us become the runners we were and are.”
Erwin’s interest in track and field stemmed from his father’s love for the sport. Bob Erwin, who happened upon the sport because of a coach, coached track for 37 years between Clear Lake, Iowa, and Rochelle Township High School in Rochelle. Bob, Steve and his brother, Scott, talk track at almost every get-together. Scott, an Illinois High School Association, NCAA- and USATF- certified track official, has been in the business for 35 years. Between them, the track family has 105 years of experience in the field. The three have even been to two Olympics and a World Championship together just to watch track events. Bob Erwin, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, comes to as many Woodstock High School meets as he can and occasionally helps coach and time.
“I’m proud of him and the job he’s done over there,” Bob Erwin said of his son. “Steve’s one who really gets to know people easily and he’s easy to like. And he’s done a good job with his job in Woodstock.”
Steve Erwin’s dad is still perplexed, however, that several years ago his son was able to snag the Illinois license plate, “TRKFLD1” and now “TRK FLD” when Bob Erwin was only able to get his hands on “TRKFLD4.” “I don’t know how he got that!” Bob Erwin said. “Someone must have given it up.”
Steve Erwin and his wife, Donna, said they recently moved to a new home just outside of Woodstock. He said his new job will be redecorating his house and spending time with Donna and their dog, Nola. He said he can’t thank his wife enough for the endless support she has given him in his teaching and coaching career.
“She has just been incredible. She’s been a trooper for all that time,” he said of Donna. “Also, I want to thank Roger Wilson and Tom Reimer, the administrators who took a chance on me in 1984 and made a place for me in Woodstock. I really appreciate all the teachers like Dave Lichtenheld, Gordie Tebo and RB Thompson, teachers and coaches, those people I really watched and listened to, to help me figure out how I was going to teach and coach. Thanks to all the students and athletes who gave me so many memories that I will cherish forever.”