Jason Van Meter is the new Chief of Police for Black Butte Ranch, near Sisters.
More than 30 years ago, Van Meter was a young, scared teenager when he walked into the wrestling room at Churchill High School in Eugene, knowing how hard it would be and thinking, “I am going to die today.”
Randy Robinson was an assistant coach in 1988 when Van Meter first joined the team. A former state champion wrestler for South Eugene High School, Robinson came on board the Lancer program in 1979, when he was still in his early 20s. He became the head coach at Churchill in 1990, when Van Meter was a junior, and coached the team for 19 years. He was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Oregon Chapter, in 2007.
Robinson approached Van Meter that first day, not as an authority figure but as a friend.
“The wrestling coach walked up to me with a huge smile, and a laugh I would rely on over the next four years to get me through the tough times and shook my hand with energy,” Van Meter recounted recently. “He was genuinely happy to see me, as he was with all his wrestlers.”
Van Meter wasn’t a standout wrestler at Churchill. He lost as many matches as he won.
“I could always count on coach’s energy, the laugh, and the smile to quickly heal my disappointment or savor my victories with humility,” he said.
After high school, Robinson was a four-year letterman at the University of Oregon, where he was influenced by his coaches, Ron Finley and Jeff Smith.
Robinson called Smith, aka “Pops,” “one of the finest human beings I’ve ever been around.”
Finley always greeted his wrestlers with a firm handshake and one-of-a-kind smile.
“It was genuine and I’ll never forget it,” Robinson said.
Robinson, who was voted “Most Inspirational Wrestler” by his Duck teammates in 1975, brought his unique brand of positivity to the wrestling room at Churchill once his college career was over.
“Smiles bring smiles,” became part of Robinson’s mantra. His smile would always be the first thing his wrestlers would see.
“I know it’s a good way to start practice,” Robinson explained.
After practices, Robinson preached to shake five hands, look them in the eye, smile and tell them “good job.”
Robinson had his wrestlers smiling for another reason, Van Meter recalled.
“He would say things like ‘only the dangerous ones smile, so always have a smile,’” Van Meter said.
A master class in leadership is to tell teenagers if they smile, they will be dangerous on the wrestling mat, Van Meter explained.
“We smiled a lot as a team,” he added. “Win or lose we smiled, because we wanted to be like our coach, and we wanted to be dangerous on the mat.”
Van Meter was in tears after his last practice as a senior.
“Coach and the mat room made me a better human,” he said.
Van Meter went on to enlist in the military and soon became a Marine Corps Infantry Officer. He was responsible for leading and mentoring Marines, while stationed in the sweltering desert of 29 Palms, California.
“As a leader of Marines, I was shaped by my wrestling coach, his smile, and his laugh despite any adversity,” Van Meter recounted. “I strove to be that person for my Marines. The hotter it got, the heavier the pack, the more I smiled. I would check my Marines’ feet during hikes (Corpsman habit) and laugh about how miserable we were, just like coach would do for my wrestling team…The years were long and busy as a Marine, but like coach, I always had a smile.”
Robinson left Churchill in 2008 and coached three years as an assistant at his alma mater. Eight years ago, he moved to Black Butte Ranch. “Pops” lived in Sisters and he invited Robinson to help him coach the middle schoolers there. Robinson did that for five years before moving on to help the high school rebuild its program.
“Coach Robinson is a blessing to our program,” said Gary Thorson, the school’s Athletic Director and head wrestling coach.
Van Meter was preparing for the Fourth of July parade in Black Butte Ranch this year, his first as Chief of Police, when, as he said, “I hear THAT laugh, see THAT smile and feel THAT same confidence being in the presence of my coach, Coach Randy Robinson. He shook my hand with energy and was genuinely happy to see me, as he is with all his wrestlers.”
Van Meter’s son, Carter, is a wrestler on the Sisters team.
“He’s a great kid,” Robinson said. “Very respectful, works hard and is very coachable just like his dad was 30 years ago. Must run in the family.”
“I’m honored that he is now coaching my son at the high school level,” Van Meter said. “I love knowing my son is getting those invaluable life lessons of being one of Coach Robinson’s wrestlers. Being a good human was the most important part of being on Coach Robinson’s wrestling team.”
Van Meter’s words were all part of a newsletter he penned this month, as Chief of Police, to Black Butte Ranch residents.
“Coach Robinson helped strengthen the fiber that would get me through months in combat as a Marine and 18 years of service as a street cop,” Van Meter wrote near the end of the newsletter. “Coach Robinson is a huge part of who I am today.”
“It was a very nice letter that Jason wrote,” Robinson said. “It’s interesting how and what athletes think and remember about their coaches.”
Robinson plans to grow the Sisters varsity program by going back to the middle school PE classes to try to spark interest in wrestling and get the numbers up.
“I do enjoy coaching and, if I can bring out a smile or two, it’s worth it,” he said.
Robinson concluded our correspondence with this salutation: “Have a great day and keep smiling.”
Smiles bring smiles.
I am smiling today.