By Jesse Chua
Wandering the Albany High School gym for much of the past five decades is a creature highly regarded by all who meet him. From teachers to students to parents, the man in the matching track suits and cowboy hats strikes a positive note with all.
As a P.E. teacher; long-time coach, known especially for building a wrestling powerhouse; a quipster whose signature line is “It’s great to be alive”; and mentor to thousands, Kermit Bankson has been the foundation of much of Albany High School’s success.
After 42 years of coaching and teaching, Bankson is finally taking a step down from the podium. He coached his final home wrestling dual meet on Thursday (another win) and will walk off the mat for the last time when the season ends, leading to his retirement from Albany High in June.
“I coached and worked with Coach Bankson for my 35 years at Albany High and ever since my first day, he’s always been Bankson: high energy, boundless enthusiasm, funny, with 100 percent commitment to his teaching and coaching career at AHS,” retired Albany High School counselor Doug Kagawa said.
While it is quite apparent that Bankson has had an immensely positive impact on the school, he manages to always turn the spotlight away from himself.
Although he may tell all his students he was born in Nome, Alaska where “it was so cold your spit froze before it hit the ground,” Bankson was raised in the East Bay and attended San Lorenzo High School. In his high school days, he immediately took a liking to wrestling and football, even wrestling his way to the state championship tournament.
His collegiate career was no different. At San Francisco State University, where he studied physical education, he played on numerous championship teams in both football and wrestling. Although wrestling is his passion nowadays, he claimed, “I was always kinda better at football.”
In college, he was recognized as an all-conference offensive lineman and he also made the All-West Coast team in football.
When he began working at Albany High School in 1971, Bankson taught both geography and physical education. He also coached the football and wrestling teams.
After 30 years of coaching football, Bankson stepped down from the position to further advance the wrestling community in Albany. Bankson aligned the wrestling program with the Albany Police Activities League, a program devoted to athletic activities predominantly for elementary and middle schoolers. The APAL program’s success continues today with a steady stream of wrestlers ready for high school competition.
There is no doubt that Bankson has contributed much to the Albany community, but when faced with the question of how he feels about it, he responded, “Oh it’s not much. If I said anything about it, it’d sound like I was bragging.”
Longtime co-worker and friend David DeHart remembers his first memories with Bankson dating back to DeHart’s student teaching at Albany High School in 1982. DeHart’s first impression of Bankson: “jokester.”
“He was always grabbing people, messing their hair up, making comments; you never knew which way he was gonna come at you. You had to be on your toes. But it was clear that people enjoyed his classes and his stories, especially the wrestlers. They loved Kermit Bankson.”
Bankson always had a special bond with the wrestling team. He’s coached 23 league championships, 153 individual league champions, countless entrants in the North Coast Section meet and two state medalists.
As Albany High School grad and wrestling alum Daryn Singh said, “It’s an understatement to say he’s had success.”
Among the successful varsity teams is the girl’s wrestling squad. In 2007, after almost 40 years of coaching, Bankson and official girls coach Jason Griffin successfully coached the first two girls, Alexandra Chua and Maia Matalon, to win the Girls North Coast Section Championship tournament. Both wrestlers were the first girls to get onto the famed “wrestling wall” that recognizes champions at Albany High, and Matalon went on to win the CIF State tournament.
Matalon still applies many of the lessons she’s learned from wrestling under coach Bankson: “Ask any Albany wrestling alumni how they feel about ‘Cougar drills’ and they will invariably roll their eyes and grimace. Beyond their immediate athletic application, Cougar drills are just one of the many ways that Bankson taught me the meaning of heart,” Matalon said.
To many students at Albany High School, Bankson was as much a mentor as he was a teacher or coach.
Retired counselor Doug Kagawa remembered, “Often Coach Bankson would offer to take a troubled student under his "wings,” meeting during lunch, after school, break time or whatever time was convenient to personally spend the time with the student. I remember a number of specific instances when things looked bleak for the student, but Coach Bankson would somehow use his magic and get the student through the crisis.”
Albany High School alum Aaron Penn-Kruger remembers the times Bankson took him under his wing: “Whether it was homework, behavior, or getting to class, he’d come up with his own way to crack the whip. I remember senior year, missing a couple morning classes before he started showing up in front of my house at 6:00 a.m. and dragging me to school every day.”
Kermit Bankson will indeed be dearly missed among the entire Albany community.
Some of his final words of wisdom: “Teachers and students should do what they can to make a difference. And make them do a lot of pushups.”
Jesse Chua is a senior journalism student at Albany High School. He has also endured four years of “Cougar Drills“ as a member of the wrestling team.
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