Newt Loken, truly the father of Michigan men’s gymnastics, was the kind of person you thought would live forever. So when he died last Tuesday, June 28, a little part of me died too.
But Newt was never one to stay sad for long, and he was very clear that any memorial for him was to be a celebration. And there were many things about Newt to celebrate.
His presence always lit up the gym. I loved Mondays during the season, when Newt would come by to tell all the gymnasts how much he’d enjoyed the competition on Saturday. The boys would just glow as Newt complimented them.
The award for best individual performance at each home meet is named for Newt. Until this past season, Newt was always there to present the certificate at the end of the competition. For Wolverines, winning a Newt Loken ranks near the top in career highlights.
For over 60 years, Newt didn’t miss a home meet. He’d come into Cliff Keen Arena with little fanfare, accompanied by Bob Willoughby, a member of that original 1948 team. Despite the incognito entrance, there would be a line of people — gymnasts, gymnastics alumni, parents, opposing coaches, judges and dedicated fans — waiting to say hi and have a minute with the legendary coach.
And Newt didn’t forget people. Mention any former teammate and he’d have a story to tell about that guy. Then he’d tell you everything you could ever want to know about his family. I loved listening to those stories. I could sit transfixed for hours, at the gym and later in the quiet of the Daily library, as Newt spun his tales.
He had a gift for charming people, making just the right gesture. When my beloved dog Angel died, the next day Newt left a bouquet of flowers at the Daily for me. In every e-mail exchange we had after I graduated from Michigan, he’d ask about both of my parents — and never forget good wishes to my new dog, Juno.
I did tons of interviews with people about Newt, either for a feature article or for his biography. No one could ever keep a smile off their face when they spoke of him.
He was more than a coach — he was a second father and a treasured friend to so many people. Former gymnast Jim Hayslett attributed nearly every good thing in his life to Newt’s influence, including his becoming a dentist. Nobody beat Newt when it came to communication. If you were a part of Michigan men’s gymnastics Newt was in touch with you.
Newt wasn’t a person who faded from people’s lives, and I think that’s what we’ll be sad about. We can’t be sad for Newt — he had such a long, full, wonderful life. But now those chatty e-mails and letters will stop. And we’ll only have our warm memories of this amazing man.
Newt was known for his wise and witty sayings — he even made them into a little book for his grandchildren. And one in particular encapsulates him:
“Those who bring sunshine to others cannot keep it from themselves.”
No one brought more sunshine to the world than Newt.
Colt is a former Michigan Daily sports editor.