By Ken Morse and Kyle Brennan, Citizen’s News
NAUGATUCK — Some of the greatest lessons in sports never take place during games. Fred Scheithe proved that time and again during his 39 years coaching the youth of Naugatuck.
“Coach Scheithe was such an amazing coach and a key figure in all of our lives,” said Brielle Behuniak, a senior three-sport athlete at Naugatuck High who played for Scheithe on the City Hill Middle School basketball team. “He was such an inspiration to all of us and always will be. Every time he walked through those gym doors, he had a smile on his face.”
Behuniak was a seventh-grader at City Hill when Fred was first diagnosed with cancer in November 2014. She was part of the team that his wife, Jeanne Scheithe, calls “Fred’s Little Angels.”
“They will forever be his little angels,” Jeanne told Citizen’s News in a 2015 interview. “They took his mind off everything he was going through.”
Playing on one of Fred’s teams was a life-changing experience because it went further than wins and losses — it was about creating memories that would last a lifetime.
“I will forever remember singing our hearts out on the team bus,” said Shannon (Mesaros) Russell, a former player and coach alongside the man who influenced her life. “I’ll never forget the fun we had at the volleyball car washes and the team dinners we shared.”
“MR. SCHEITHE TREATED all of his players and students like his own kids,” said Alana (Wesche) Piccirillo, a 2009 Naugatuck High graduate and former volleyball and softball standout. “He and Jeanne invited everyone into their home. They made everyone feel like family. Always. No sport is stress-free, but Mr. Scheithe made everything easier and fun. You wanted to go to practice. You wanted to be there.”
Scheithe’s teams were true family experiences. Fred and Jeanne Scheithe didn’t have children of their own, but biology be damned, they developed an ever-growing extended family.
“They didn’t have children, but they had thousands of kids,” said Pete Calandro, who coached the Vipers travel softball team with Scheithe from 1998-2000. “Every kid he coached was his child, and he was very, very generous. He loved the family atmosphere. I know how close he was with the kids, but he was that way with the parents, too. He was like a cousin to the parents, just like he was a dad to the kids.”
The relationships developed among the Scheithes and the athletes didn’t end at high school graduation, either.
“Once you played for him, you were lifelong friends,” said Jessica (Lengyel) DeGennaro, a 1999 Naugatuck High graduate who played on the Greyhounds’ 1998 Naugatuck Valley League championship volleyball squad.
“It didn’t end with the end of the season. When he would see you (over the years), it wasn’t just a ‘hey.’ (Fred and Jeanne) genuinely cared. It’s amazing in a way because they had so many kids — we were their kids because they didn’t have any of their own.”
Over the years, those kids grew up to have families of their own, and the Scheithe clan just kept getting bigger — meaning there were more birthday cards to mail, more weddings to attend, and more games to cheer on former players.
“He wasn’t just my coach,” Behuniak said. “He was my friend, and eventually I came to see him as a grandparent. Mr. and Mrs. Scheithe were family to me and to a lot of other kids in Naugatuck. They attended almost every one of my sporting events.”
THE SCHEITHES FREQUENTLY could be seen in the bleachers or along the sidelines of sporting events, even after Fred retired from coaching at the high school level.
“He ate, slept and breathed Naugatuck youth,” said Brian Mariano, a Naugatuck High administrator who was formerly a standout athlete, coach and athletic director. “He was everywhere, at every graduation, at every event and I was never surprised to see him. He always found a way to lend support or a word of encouragement.”
That presence extended to his former athletes who became coaches. At Woodland, DeGennaro has been a head coach for girls tennis and an assistant coach for volleyball and swimming, and she still regularly saw Scheithe at competitions.
“He supported my coaching career,” said DeGennaro, who teaches Spanish at Woodland. “Sometimes as a teacher or coach, you don’t know the impact you’ve had on a kid until 15 or 20 years later. I think his biggest gift he gave me is me as a coach now. I’m the coach I am now because of him. There’s a piece of him in me, and I wouldn’t be the coach I am without him.”
The most important lesson DeGennaro applies to her coaching has nothing to do with fundamentals or skills.
“Scheithe never played volleyball, but that didn’t matter,” DeGennaro said. “He taught me that if you care more about your teammates and your team than about yourself, that’s when great things happen. That’s when you win that fifth game in a volleyball match. Even if the odds are against you, that’s when you can do something special.”
THAT’S THE SAME REASON WHY Scheithe was Calandro’s first call when he sought an assistant coach for his new travel softball team in 1998.
“I called him, and I don’t think he even heard the whole conversation before he said yes,” Calandro said. “It would take up his whole summer and he was involved with sports camps over the summer, but he wanted to do it. Even if you were playing against a team whose coach was yelling, he was even-keeled. That’s the reason when I was picking coaches, that’s who I wanted. It was important that the kids had a good time, and he was there for that. With him, you didn’t even realize you were getting coached.”
Scheithe and Calandro first met a few years earlier when Calandro’s daughter, Kim, approached him for permission to play on Scheithe’s summer basketball team. Calandro wanted Kim to focus on summer softball.
“I said, ‘You need to be pitching, hitting, getting ready for high school,’” Calandro recalled. “She said, ‘No, no, Fred Scheithe wants me to play basketball.’ I said, ‘Who’s Fred Scheithe?’ I wanted to talk to him. I go to the first game, she’s playing, and I walked up to him and said, ‘If you weren’t such a nice guy, she would only be playing softball.’ Mostly because of her, we then became great friends.”
Calandro thinks that as Scheithe’s former players enter coaching careers of their own, they will model their styles after the one they all respected.
“Win or lose, it felt the same afterwards,” said Calandro, who is an assistant softball coach at Woodland. “After the game, it was all about getting dinner together. That’s how he coached. We weren’t going to get mad at them or yell at them. How he coached will be an influence on them when they coach. You’re going to get more people coaching with that even keel and not coaching after the game. That’s the way Fred was. He was influential in how they were brought up. He loved seeing their success.”
THE SCHEITHES’ INFLUENCE in the community stretches back at least to 1982, when Fred first started coaching at Hillside. That influence grew without bounds over the last four decades.
“What I found most extraordinary about Mr. and Mrs. Scheithe is they seemed to be everywhere for everybody,” said Ken Stone, a former student, Naugatuck athlete, and committee member on the Naugatuck Hall of Fame, of which Fred served as president since 2015.
“They were at graduations, birthday parties, weddings, when our kids were born, sporting events — they just seemed to be everywhere. I will never forget the birthday cards I got from them when I was growing up. I am a better husband, father, coach and person just from knowing Mr. Scheithe. I have great memories that I will hold onto for the rest of my life.”
As the president and secretary of the Naugatuck Hall of Fame, Fred and Jeanne have been instrumental in the seeing several of their former students and athletes become inducted in recent years. They both know the feeling of receiving that honor as previous inductees (Jeanne in 2006 and Fred in 2016).
“Fred and Jeanne have the pulse of Naugatuck at their fingertips,” said Ray Rossi Jr., the organization’s treasurer. “They are so well connected to the kids in Naugatuck they have been a huge help in keeping the committee knowledgeable on who’s who in the sporting community. Between the both of them, they have forgotten more people than I will ever know. They were very good communicators and we will certainly miss Fred and the influence he had.”
One recent inductee to the Naugatuck Hall of Fame was longtime Naugatuck High boys soccer coach Art Nunes, who received the honor in 2017. Nunes and Scheithe frequently crossed paths in the high school as their head coaching careers overlapped by 15 years.
“Fred just connected with everyone,” Nunes said. “If you talked with him once or he knew you, he would reach out to you if he found out something about you and your family. He was that genuine of a person. You always saw Fred smile. That’s how I’ll remember him.”
THE THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE whose lives were better for having known Fred Scheithe will all remember him in a unique, yet surely similar way. There are hundreds of personal anecdotes that could fill these pages for months.
Calandro called Scheithe’s contributions to the youth of Naugatuck “unbelievable,” and the first word out of Calandro’s mouth when asked to describe Scheithe to someone who didn’t know him? “Happy.”
“He had the gift of gab — you were not going to walk away from him in a half-hour,” Calandro said. “It’s sad because he had cancer for six years, but even then, you would talk to him and you weren’t sad. He would talk you out of it. He was always upbeat. This makes your heart sad, but you think about him and it’s all happy memories.”
For DeGennaro, it’s all about her former coach’s legacy being passed down through the generations.
“He’s going to carry on. Every kid he had (in class) or coached will carry a piece of him,” DeGennaro said. “Two weeks ago, three of my swimmers from this senior class were over my house having Chinese food, playing board games, watching a movie, and playing capture the flag with my kids. The girls I’ve coached become part of my life, and I think I become part of their lives, too. That’s how I knew he was still with me, because that’s what he was to me.”
The Republican-American’s Mark Jaffee contributed to this report.