Peace Corps reminded a wrestling coach that life is about serving others

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Updated: December 22, 2022

Photo: This 2021 picture is at the gravesite of Augustina Matlala, the wife of the chief that welcomed current Glenbard (lll.) West High wrestling coach Pat McCluskey while he was in the Peace Corps in South Africa. Back row from left: Pat McCluskey, Kamogelo Matlala, Lebogang Matlala, Nare Matlala and Jack McCluskey (Pat’s son). Front row:  Mmathapelo Matlala (Lebogang’s daughter), Mavis Matlala (mother of the four children pictured), Lerato Matlala.

By Sandy Stevens

When Peace Corps volunteer Pat McCluskey headed to South Africa, he couldn’t know that the experience would spur nearly a dozen return trips with a cadre of friends and family members. 

It would also form the crux of his coaching philosophy.

 

Pat, 48, is now in his first season as head wrestling coach at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., his high school alma mater. He joined West’s staff in 2003 as a math teacher and assistant coach in football, wrestling and baseball; the sports he also participated in college.

Shortly after the math education major graduated from St. Louis University, Pat joined the Peace Corps, where he asked to go to South Africa.  

Apartheid had just ended and he was the sole Peace Corps volunteer sent to that country, to a village about 70 miles from Botswana and Zimbabwe. As a teaching-resource person, he hitchhiked to six elementary schools in six different villages. 

“In a small classroom, there could be as many as 60 kids,” he said. “I was kind of a jack of all trades.”

Just one person volunteered to house him: the English-speaking village chief, Comfort Matlala, along with his wife Augustina and their three grandchildren (ages 6, 4 and 3), whose mother worked in Johannesburg to send money home.

“If you want to get into these people’s hearts, learn their language,” Matlala advised, and McCluskey became fluent in an African tribal language.

Eventually, others offered housing for Pat. “No, he’s my white guy,” the chief declared.

A year into Pat’s service, the chief died of cancer. Before he did, however, Pat’s mom came for a visit. The chief asked to hold her hand. 

“It’s the first time I’ve held a white woman’s hand” he said.

“Earlier, he would have been put in jail for it,” Pat said. 

After the chief passed, Augustina’s relationship with their house guest changed. “She was like my mom in Africa,” Pat said.

Pat McCluskey, 48, is now in his first season as head wrestling coach at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn, Ill., his high school alma mater. He joined West’s staff in 2003 as a math teacher and assistant coach in football, wrestling and baseball.

After his Peace Corps service, Pat returned to the village for the first time in 2001. Eight of his high school friends joined him for three weeks to have fun with the children and tour the country. 

“Someone even brought 1,000 balloons,” Pat recalled. “It’s memories, but it really leaves a mark.”

From that point on, except for a COVID year off, Pat has returned every two years with his own corps of family members and friends. 

Jack and his wife Theresa are the parents of Jack, 18, whose middle name is Matlala; Andrew, 17; Mary, 15; and Danielle, 14. Theresa visited the village when she was pregnant with Jack, and Jack himself made trips when he was 6 and last year, during his senior year at West.

Also, the Matlalas’ grandson Nare stayed with the McCluskeys in 2010, while he spent his senior year at West.

Rob Matz, another West math teacher, has been on the trip four times, Pat said. Four years after graduating from high school, former West wrestler Danny Hasso, joined the South Africa excursion. “He said it was life-changing,” Pat said.

Last year, Jack McCluskey brought two friends who’d also just graduated.

“Pat’s a Pied Piper. People just follow him,” said former West head wrestling coach Bernie Botheroyd. “And it’s because of his integrity.”

Pat talks with members of the Matlala family about every two weeks and for the past 19 years, Pat and his wife Theresa have run a nine-hole golf tournament to raise funds for the South African family.

“We support them as they learn to support themselves,” he explained. 

Pat’s goddaughter and her friend in St Louis even raised money to buy about 300 pairs of socks.

“It’s the people who get in your heart,” Pat said. “I learned more from them than they learned from me. I hit the jackpot when they sent me there.”

The experience has also provided the most important lesson he’s learned, Pat said, one that affects and directs his approach to coaching.

“It’s ‘Motho Ke Moto Ka Batho,’ Pat said. “It literally means, ‘A person is a person among people, but really it means, ‘It’s my job to bring out the best in you, and your job to bring out the best in me. If we do that, we can’t lose.’

“Wrestling is so flippin’ hard as a sport, but that phrase — if you have that, you’re going to get better every day, and that’s what God wants. 

“People are at the happiest when they’re helping others,” Pat stressed. “It’s about relationships, not the material. “Relationships are so huge in wrestling because it is so hard. You have to be a little vulnerable in wrestling to get the most out of it.”

(Sandy Stevens is a long-time public address announcer of national and international events and was named to the National Hall of Fame in 1998.)

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