Like many retirees, Keith and Ann VanderWal go south for the winter. No, not Florida or Arizona. The VanderWals retreat to Marietta, Ohio.
“We tell our friends we go as far southeast in Ohio that we can go,” says Keith with a smirk.
The proud parents of Marietta College’s highly successful basketball coach, Jon VanderWal, Keith and Ann love their winter accommodations — even if the temperature rarely rises above 50 degrees. The enthusiasm and excitement inside of Ban Johnson Arena provide all the heat they need.
Since the 2010–11 season, they have left their home of the past 42 years in Cadillac, Michigan, and have taken up residence in downtown Marietta for five and a half months as two of the biggest fans of Marietta College’s men’s basketball program.
“We’re very proud of Jonny,” Ann says. “When we first mentioned to him that we’d like to come to Marietta to watch his games and be a part of their kids’ lives, I couldn’t really tell if he was excited about it. By the time we got back to Cadillac, Jonny had already found us a place to live.”
Keith and Ann almost never miss a game, and Mr. VanderWal also travels with his son on recruiting trips.
“The way this community supports Jonny and the boys is just amazing,” Keith says. “We also like the way Marietta’s students have their special way of cheering on the team.”
Ann adds, “I can’t imagine someone who’s coming to visit the College and is considering playing basketball who wouldn’t want to go to Marietta after seeing how amazing the atmosphere is at a game.”
Jon’s parents remember what it was like during his first season in 2007–08.
“The first time we went to a game, I said, ‘Where is everyone?’ A couple of years later it all changed,” Keith said. “The year he got hired, Jon wanted me to play in a golf outing in Marietta, so we came down that summer. I remember a couple of guys came over and asked Jon if he was the new coach, and they said, ‘Why did you take this job? You’re never going to win.’ I have to admit I was worried about what he had gotten himself into at Marietta. But Jon’s competitive and he’s done an amazing job.”
Jon appreciates every day his parents have spent in Marietta over the past nine seasons. Since Cadillac is about eight hours from Marietta, Jon wouldn’t have time to visit often — especially with a coach’s schedule.
“Traveling that far for Christmas and Thanksgiving is not an option as a college coach. My parents have always been there for my sister and me, and they would do anything for us, including leaving their home and friends to spend more quality time with us here in Marietta,” says their son. “It’s been a huge blessing having them here. Instead of my kids only seeing them once or twice a year, they now have a special bond and relationship with each other. My parents have been a huge help to my wife, Tera, who is basically a single mother during basketball season.”
Jon also appreciates looking up in the bleachers before games and seeing his parents there to cheer on the Pioneers.
“They’ve become our biggest supporters, and they have really enjoyed getting to know our players and their parents, not to mention all of the friends they have made through the foster parent program,” Jon says. “Marietta Basketball is truly a family-oriented program, and I’m extremely fortunate to have my parents and family integrated into the basketball family.”
The players have become close to the VanderWals, and many of them have enjoyed Ann’s home-cooked meals. Senior guard Mel Shuler ’19 also regularly attends church with Keith and Ann.
“Keith and Ann VanderWal have been an excellent support system to the Marietta program. They stay down here the entire season and help out with (their grandchildren) Trey and Kendall,” Shuler says. “Not only that, Keith comes to practice all of the time, so he knows what we are looking for in the games. He also keeps Coach V sane in a crazy time of the year.”
All-American AJ Edwards ’17 says the VanderWals play a huge part in making the basketball program an honor to be a part of for current and former players.
“From the time I first met (Keith) recruiting after my high school game, to hearing from the opposite end of the court the way the VanderWals express from the stands how they feel about a bad call, never missing a game and post-game hugs, I see where Coach V gets his passion and love for the game,” Edwards says.
Relocating to Marietta during the winter also allows Keith and Ann to be closer to their daughter, Jessie, and her family in Ashland, Kentucky.
“We’re only two hours away from them, so we go over there a lot too,” Ann says.
Keith adds: “I think Jon and Jessie would be happy if we just moved to Marietta, but I have siblings back in Cadillac and Ann has siblings. I also have a lot of good buddies that I like to play golf with in the summer — and summers in Michigan are very nice.”
The VanderWals have developed some friendships in Marietta as well, and they include regular card games and dinner dates.
“I would like to thank them for all the sacrifices they have made,” Jon says. “Having them here during the winter is such a blessing.”
His parents have no plans to alter their winter routine any time soon.
“Ann and I just hope Jon stays here forever,” Keith says. “We love Marietta. We love the people. We’re comfortable living in Marietta. If he ever goes somewhere else, it just won’t be the same.”
- Tom Perry