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Remembering Jim Aisenbrey

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Remembering Jim Aisenbrey

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He may be best remembered here as a championship coach and beloved teacher, but Jim Aisenbrey was all about people, relationships and bringing out the best in those around him — and that included everybody 

Jim Aisenbrey crosses the Freeman High School track for a photograph for a feature story published by the Freeman Courier in January of 2005 — two weeks after he stepped down as the school’s head football coach. Aisenbrey, who was a principal in Baltic for 13 years after leaving Freeman, died last week from pancreatic cancer. PHOTO BY JEREMY WALTNER/FREEMAN COURIER ARCHIVES

 

The laugh. 

That’s what comes to mind when former Freeman Public Superintendent Don Hotchkiss thinks of James Aisenbrey — better known as Jim. 

“He just had a bubbly, enthusiastic personality; always laughing,” Hotchkiss said. “I’ll never forget him sitting there, telling stories, and he would just burst out laughing.”

It is that good-natured, smiling and friendly soul that many are remembering following the passing of Aisenbrey, who on Wednesday, April 18, died under hospice care following a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 60.

Hotchkiss worked closely with Aisenbrey for most of Aisenbrey’s 25-year career at Freeman Junior-Senior High School, which started in 1981 and ended following the 2004-05 school year, when he left to earn his master’s degree before taking over as middle school and high school principal at Baltic — a tenure he held for 13 years and until his death. Not only was he a fun guy to be around, Hotchkiss said, Aisenbrey was both good at what he did and well-liked across the district.

“He had a good rapport with the kids and was very active in the school,” Hotchkiss said, noting that in addition to his role as social studies teacher and head football coach, he was involved elsewhere, from student council and prom advisor to driver’s education instructor. One year, he even drew the short straw — literally — and became the assistant volleyball coach when the Flyers were hard up for one. “He liked doing all those extra things and that endeared him to a lot of students and teachers.”

Hotchkiss said Aisenbrey was a good classroom manager, was always well-prepared and commanded respect.

“He was steady,” the former superintendent said. “You could always count on him to get things done.”

Those same qualities no doubt made Aisenbrey a successful coach — his most obvious measurable claim to fame that came in the public eye. In his first year in Freeman, when he was just 23 years old, he led the football team to the 1981 Class 9AA title in the first year of the playoff system. And he led the Flyers to four more 9-man championships in consecutive seasons, from 1996 to 1999, in which Freeman lost just one game. Following his final season in Freeman, in 2004 when another outstanding Flyers team just missed a deep postseason run, he did what he always did: he gave the credit to the players.

“We weren’t successful because we had good kids,” said Aisebrey, who in 2011 was inducted into the South Dakota High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “We were successful because we had great kids.”

Brett Scherschligt, who was one of the linchpins of that late 90s four-year run, said Aisenbrey was a details guy.

“We watched a lot of film at a time when high school teams didn’t do that,” Scherschligt told the Courier for this story. “He was doing things that college and pro teams were doing.”

Scherschligt said the Flyers were also always well-conditioned and could outlast teams with much deeper rosters, and in the final two years of that late 90s run, teams that were maybe even better.

“He just pushed us,” Scherschilgt said. “We weren’t going to get tired in the middle of the game; we were so well physically conditioned.” And while the amount of talent on that championship teams was at the center of what remains one of the most dominant sports dynasties in South Dakota prep athletics history, it took Aisenbrey to harness it.

“He gave us a small amount of stuff to do, told us to go do it and do it well, and stepped out of the way,” Scherschligt said. “He got the best out of us. We won games that we shouldn’t have won.”

And while Scherschligt acknowledges Aisenbrey’s lighter side — “he had a unique sense of humor; he was funny” — he says the coach was tough. Scherschligt remembers a time his senior season when he had been nursing an injury, yet was taking punts at a practice, and Aisenbery laid into him.

“You’d know it when he was mad,” he said. “I think his softer side was reserved for off the field.”

But Scherschligt carries a “softer side” memory from the football field, too, that came at the conclusion of a 1998 semifinal playoff win over Sully Buttes, when the Flyers survived a 6-6 tie to beat the Chargers late in the fourth quarter. Scherschligt admits that he and Aisenbrey weren’t exactly buddy-buddy, yet the two shared a sweet moment nonetheless via a heartfelt — and no doubt adrenaline-fueled — embrace on the sideline following the dramatic win.

Aisenbrey’s obituary, which the Courier will carry next week, says football was a microcosm of his life, with him “constantly outworking others while attributing all success to the power of the team.” And the obituary notes that “his passion for teaching and coaching extended beyond the classroom and the football field.” He served on the South Dakota High School Activities Association board of directors, the Southeast South Dakota Principals Association board, and was an elder and Sunday school superintendent in his church.

And, for a man who turned out to be a natural born leader, he was always the first one to acknowledge and cherish the relationships that his leadership afforded.

“Put everything aside and get rid of everything else; it’s still the time that you have with the players and other coaches,” Aisenbrey told the Courier for a feature story in January of 2005, a perspective that no doubt transcended both football and Freeman. “Those moments are precious.”

Aisenbrey was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Nov. 11, 2017, underwent chemotherapy thereafter but the disease worsened through the first months of 2018. According to Aisenbrey’s page on caringbridge.com, in a post by his son Cameron, things took a turn on April 15, when it became apparent the end was near. He moved to hospice care on April 16 and passed away around 9 a.m., April 18.

A funeral service was held at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls Saturday, April 21, with burial in the Menno Cemetery in Menno — Jim’s hometown.

“Things like this happen all the time, but when it’s a guy like Jim, it’s an especially hard thing,” said Hotchkiss, who is remembering Cameron, Cameron’s brother Marc, and June, Jim’s wife of 37 years, in this difficult time. “Your heart just goes out. But it’s their enduring faith that will get them through. They know there are a lot of people out there thinking of them and who love them.”