In one short school year, Ooltewah High School coach Norma Nelson has seen some of the best — and the worst — of her students.
Her 15 softball team members in May brought home her first state championship as head coach, but the year began with a former student shooting a firecracker at her house that is believed to cause its total destruction — and death of her Cocker Spaniel, Okie.
Staff Photo by Lori Yount -- Ooltewah softball coach Norma Nelson stands in the doorway of her new home, which she plans to move into this weekend. She said her team and the community has helped her get through a fire that destroyed her home in August.
This weekend Ms. Nelson said she hopes the roller coaster ride of the year ends by moving into a new home.
The night her house of 15 years burned down, Ms. Nelson was visiting her father’s house that night because the air conditioning wasn’t working at her hers.
Fire investigators couldn’t figure out the blaze’s cause until the former student, with whom she had problems while teaching physical education classes, called a friend from jail and confessed to shooting the firecracker at her home. Ms. Nelson said she was chilled listening to the recording in court last fall. He received less than a year in jail for reckless burning, she said, and the incident shook the 20-year veteran teacher.
“It’s kind of like, do you let (students) just do anything?” Ms. Nelson said. “You better watch what you say and do.”
But in that dark moment, she also found how much generosity could be found in her students and community. Within days after the fire, Ms. Nelson was in a town home with furniture donated from parents of her softball team members, and coaches from opposing teams offered help and donations.
“It almost makes me cry — people I don’t know helping me,” she said with tears welling in her eyes, standing in the garage of her new home as workers installed an alarm system Thursday.
Gary Neil, president of the softball booster club for three years, said there was no hesitation to come to Ms. Nelson’s aid.
“When her home burned, everybody in the community, a lot of people, jumped on board,” said Mr. Neil, whose daughter, Kaitlin, played on Ms. Nelson’s team all four years of high school. “I feel confident she would’ve been there for us.”
Six months after moving into the town home, the owners sold it, so Ms. Nelson had to move into a new town home near Chattanooga with the help of cross country coach Jason Hamrick and student Cody Sliger.
But even if her home life was shaky, she didn’t let it disturb her focus in coaching softball, said Linley Gannon, who played second base and was one of five seniors on the team. All the seniors are going on to college, and three of them have chosen to play softball, though all had the option to play.
“She didn’t even look like it affected her,” Ms. Gannon said. “On the field, it never showed.”
Ms. Nelson said she knew her team had the right stuff to win the AAA state title early on in the season win the team won a tournament in Soddy-Daisy, and it definitely felt good to beat Soddy-Daisy High School later on in the season for the first time in eight years.
“(Softball) was almost kind of an outlet,” she said. “When at the softball field, everything else went away.”
In March, Ms. Nelson said she decided to buy a new house, and with the help of her cousin, Lynn Curtis, had one built in a new Ooltewah subdivision in a matter of months. Ms. Nelson said she already has picked out the room she calls the “Ooltewah room,” which she will deck out in red and keep tokens from this year’s championship season.
She lost her state championship rings from when she was an assistant coach in the early 1990s and countless memories at the high school in the fire.
“Besides the dog, the hardest stuff (to lose) was what I gathered throughout the years,” Ms. Nelson said.
She said she plans to get another dog eventually, but for right now, she said she’s focused on settling in her new home and preparing for next softball season — and a more tranquil start of the school year.
“It just can end the same way,” she said.