(Larry’s Note: Earlier this month word was received of the passing of Lester (Bear) Jensen, beloved and most respected former Claremore High School football coach. While their paths never crossed, the following is another gentleman who answered to “Bear”.)
When someone tells you his name is “Bear” and he could pass for a real bear in size, you probably shouldn’t disagree with his choosing.
I first saw him at a Claremore Zebra baseball game back in 1971. He was hard not to notice sitting down the third base home side of the stands.
At that time Legion Field was not the baseball showcase that stands now at the corner of Blue Starr Drive and Sioux Street. The high school team played 15-18 games each spring and usually only parents and a few students would be in the wooden stands.
Even had the stands been packed I believe Bear would have been easy to notice. He was big; not tall, just big. He took up some space. Probably two or three inches under six-foot tall, he was large in circumference. He located a good share of territory.
Now he wasn’t fat…far from it. He was solid from head to toe. When I was a youngster I would watch the Tulsa Channel 6 wrestling matches on Saturday afternoons. Bear had the same look as those guys.
FIVE O’CLOCK SHADOW
Dressed in casual shirt and trousers, his hair was cut in a close flat-top. He had a five o’clock shadow look that would remain the same if he shaved twice or three times a day.
He walked with a slight limp, but somehow managed to do so with graceful movement. In time I would learn why the limp.
After seeing him the first time I saw him at another game. By the third game appearance I knew I had to visit with him.
Now that’s the beauty of baseball for me. Keeping score and details of football and basketball one must keep consistent vigil of the rapid play of the contest. At a baseball game, for the most part, the pace is much slower. A viewer can keep score, eat a hot dog, and visit with a neighbor all at the same time.
Our first visit was a dandy. We hit it off right from the start.
“Just call me Bear,” he said when we exchanged names.
Looking back I don’t remember if I ever learned his given handle. If he wanted to be Bear that was good enough for me.
During a short time over the next several games I learned quite a bit from my new friend.
He had just arrived in Claremore and was staying at the Keller Bath House and Cabins on Seventh Street. He had coached basketball and baseball…at a Kansas penitentiary while serving as a guard.
During an attempted prison escape Bear grabbed two convicts and was holding them in head holds. The trio fell from a watch tower. Bear suffered back and leg injuries that ended his career as a guard.
Both prisoners were killed from the fall.
It was his lingering pains that brought him to Claremore. He was undergoing the baths in Radium Town. He said they seemed to help.
Baseball season ended but he was back the following school year for football and then basketball.
Bear didn’t drive or if he had a car I didn’t know it. He usually walked to the games and downtown to Dot’s Café for meals. Several times he would go with me for some of the out-of-town games.
There is one time in particular I don’t forget even though it has been more than 40 years ago. Bear and I were on the way home from a basketball game at Sand Springs.
I don’t remember if Claremore won or not but that drive home is as clear as most of yesterday. It was a dark and rainy and the traffic was extra heavy for that time of evening on the expressway between Sand Springs and downtown Tulsa.
Due to the downpour and the inability to see more than a few feet in front of the hood, I started to pull over in the right lane in order to slow down. I never saw the speeding vehicle coming up fast in the same lane.
How Bear saw the approaching danger I don’t know.
Somehow he was able to warn me and saved a very possible multi-vehicle wreck.
Was he my guardian angel that night? If so, Bear certainly didn’t look like any angels that appear in books and the movies.
The reason I even mention the angel angle is what happened next.
I took him back to his cabin that night and we bid our good-byes, see you later.
Only we never did. I went to his place a few days later and he was gone. The manager and a couple of neighbors said he had moved out. He left no forwarding address.
I can’t shake the feeling maybe his mission was finished here and it was time to move on to another. Anyway, I like thinking so.
Sometime later a career change caused me to drive that same highway daily for about four months. Several times on the way home I would catch myself looking for a large hitchhiker alongside the road.
I never saw one. I guess Bear was busy elsewhere.