A big 'heart for kids'

<I>The Eagle/Angel Carpenter</I><BR>Coach Ken Purnell instructs the Prospector soccer team Sept. 12 during practice. Purnell retired as Humbolt Elementary School's PE teacher last June, but continues to keep kids in his heart.

CANYON CITY - When Ken Purnell started his job as Humbolt Elementary School's first PE teacher 19 years ago, there was no gymnasium, so his classes were held in the school cafeteria ... but not for long.

Once Humbolt had a PE instructor, the school board approved the construction of a new gym with input from the community.

Dean Nodine, who was superintendent when Purnell was hired, said that money "saved over the years from timber receipts" paid for the building.

"I think the fact that they had a PE program in place helped tremendously," Purnell said.

The well-loved gym teacher retired at the end of the 2007-08 school year, but continues working with local kids.

Before Humbolt, Purnell taught at East Gresham Elementary for four years and McCarty Middle School, also in Gresham, for seven years. He followed his brother, Kevin Purnell, to Eastern Oregon from Gresham. Kevin had just been hired as a teacher at Prairie City School and told Ken about the PE opening at Humbolt. The pair started teaching the same year, 1989, at the neighboring schools.

"That was fantastic," Ken Purnell commented.

Throughout his career at Humbolt, Purnell was known for his friendly, teasing manner.

"He always told jokes," said Charli Bowden, one of his former students who is now a sixth-grader at Mt. Vernon Middle School.

"He was never mean to us," she added. "He would make us work hard, and we always had a great time - we had a great time square dancing."

His students were careful to remember to bring their PE shoes and keep their hands out of their pockets to avoid being placed in the "trash can" - a plastic can that holds a variety of balls.

The class was not without some thrills.

Purnell remembered an obstacle course he was running students through in the gym years ago. He watched the kids zip around safety cones, walk on the balance beam and jump over hurdles as he checked them for quickness and agility.

There was also a tunnel Purnell had made by stacking gym mats on a balance beam.

He recalled, "One of the little guys, instead of running and sliding under (the tunnel) hits his head on the balance beam."

Seeing a "big goose egg" on the boy's forehead, Purnell sent him to the office, and later got an earful from the boy's mother, who also worked at the school. The mother had one look at the boy, and told Purnell that he needed to make his gym safer.

The boy was actually Purnell's son, Brian. And Ken Purnell's wife, Karri, is the one who chided the PE teacher.

Purnell paid attention. He modified the tunnel by stacking mats on mats - no balance beam.

The Purnells have two other grown children, Dustin and Valerie.

Square dancing was a big project Purnell would take on every other year with his PE classes. This tradition started in his youth.

"I square danced when I was in PE in elementary school," Purnell said.

When he taught PE in Gresham, he assisted another PE instructor as she taught her middle school students square dancing.

During his first year at Humbolt, he started teaching square dancing. Purnell noted that he didn't want to take it down to kindergarten and first grade, but co-worker Becky Rhinehart challenged him to try it; she taught square dancing with younger grades at another school.

Humbolt Principal Kris Beal calls his square-dancing program, "miraculous."

"Mr. Purnell has had a very positive influence on students in our district over the last 20 years," she noted. "I know he's not done working with kids so we'll look for that positive influence other places."

For years, after working with children all day at school, he spent his extra time working with youth in Young Life, a nondenominational Christian youth program.

He's notching up his involvement with Young Life in retirement, establishing other clubs around Eastern Oregon and starting WyldLife for middle schoolers. He receives a small stipend for his work, but he added, "it's nothing close to full-time wage."

"It's pretty much volunteer," he said. "It's a great fit for me."

Besides keeping busy with Young Life over the years, Purnell has also taken opportunities to coach youth sports.

He says he's retired from coaching also, however, last school year he told his high school soccer team that if school officials couldn't find a coach to replace him, he would continue on until one was found.

The Prospectors soccer team - with coach Purnell - has played, and won, five games so far this season.

On why he decided to retire, Purnell noted, "It was just the right time for me - I was ready to retire." But he said he loves working with youth, and he'll continue that effort.

"I just have a heart for kids," Purnell said. "I think I got that from my dad."

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