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So long, Coach: Community bids farewell to a friend

September 08, 2010 - Sal Agro. The name shows up again and again in The Lake Orion Review archives, and when it does, it's nearly always accompanied by a photo of the man surrounded by a group of young athletes.

Baseball, basketball, football, softball, soccer. Over the last four decades, Agro spent countless volunteer hours in the sun and the wind and the rain, pushing Lake Orion's young people to work harder, run further, run faster – to be the best they could be.

On Thursday, Sept. 2, Agro, 67, was moving about in his hospital room, ready to put the hip surgery of two days prior behind him. Shortly after hanging up the phone with his wife Barbara, who told him she'd be there soon, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Services were held Monday in Lake Orion.

"I don't know who's going to make me laugh anymore," said Barbara, who spent 45 years married to the man she says was a comedian, who was always dancing, always singing. "He made me laugh every day. He aggravated the hell out of me sometimes, but we always ended up laughing together. I'm going to miss that the most."

Sal, who ultimately retired after working 32 years as a supervisor for General Motors and American Axle, moved to Lake Orion -- Barbara's hometown -- after the couple married in 1965.

The oldest of their three boys arrived the following year.

"Sal just really loved those kids," she said. "He loved all kids, and oh, did he love his grandkids. We never missed any of their games - every baseball game, every football game. We were always there."

And it wasn't just the games his kids and grandkids played in.

Over the years, Agro coached in one capacity or another for a number of sports at LOHS, as well as in the district's middle schools. He coached Little League football and baseball. He coached Lions basketball at St. Joe's, lent a hand from time to time in Waterford schools, at Notre Dame Prep and even did a stint at an urban Detroit school. All for the kids.

Many said his death leaves a void in the community.

"It's such a loss," said Jane Snage, a longtime friend and retired Lake Orion Community Schools' teacher.

Snage described Agro as "that gruff Italian guy who's really a big marshmallow," noting she first became acquainted when he signed on as an assistant softball coach to her husband, Ken.

"I was talking with a friend and wondering if some of the younger teachers realize what a loss this is for the community," she said. "You talk about bleeding Lake Orion green – that was Sal Agro. I'm really going to miss him."

Todd Brittingham said Agro, who helped coach the Dragon's defensive line, was a "football coach's football coach."

"The kind of hard-nosed guy you'd see on a TV show," said Brittingham, a 1995 LOHS grad now living in White Lake. "He could say a thousand words just by looking at you, and when he did, you knew what you had to do. He got a lot out of his players."

Demanded a lot. Insisted they give it everything they had.

"I was scared to death of him," Brittingham said. "He pushed us real hard, and I hated it."

Hated it at the time, that is. After the season was over and life took its course, it all made sense.

"I understood why he did what he did," he said. "It brought us together as a team and taught us to work hard. We had a great year, and I'll never forget that as long as I live. Those nine games my senior year were some of the best times I had in high school."

But while he was known for his tough-love style and boisterous, outspoken manner, Agro had a definitively soft side, as well.

"He was truly dedicated to the children of this community, always," said Kathy Hubbard, who's son Todd played for Agro. "If there was a kid standing on the sidelines because their parent couldn't afford cleats, Sal would put his arm around that kid after practice and say 'Hey, let's go up to Dunham's.'"

Mary Ostrander said her husband Marty and Agro coached Orion/Oxford Little League Football together.

"The ref would call the play and Marty and Sal would be out there giving him hell," she said. "Sal would always out-yell my husband."

Those who met Agro, she said, never forgot him. When he talked, people listened.

At the funeral home to pay her respects last week, Ostrander was impressed with the number of "kids" – now grown – who came back to bid farewell to a favorite coach.

"He had a way with all of them, and there wasn't much he wouldn't do for the kids," she said. "They worshipped him."

The adults liked him too.

Lake Orion Community Schools Athletic Director Bill Reiss said he and Agro go back to the mid 70s, when they first met at a local park where Agro and his boys – Mike, Tony and Nick – were running bases on a baseball field.

Over the years – Agro finally said he'd coached his last game this past spring – Reiss recalls the coach always wanting to do more, to take on more responsibility.

He also recalls the golf club.

"He always walked around with that golf club," Reiss said, admitting he was never quite sure why. "I saw him use it to knock on a few football helmets to get the guys' attention."

But it was one brief exchange, when they bumped into one another at a gas station back in the 70s, that stands out in Reiss' mind.

"I was just a young coach back then," Reiss said. "But he stopped to talk a minute and said I was 'one of the good ones.' I always remembered that. He was already a very respected member of the community and it meant a lot to have his endorsement."

Reiss is set to return the sentiment as best he can.

In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations to be made to the Lake Orion High School Athletics Program.

"We're going to honor Sal," Reiss said. "We're going to do something really good with that money."

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