Joe Pirtle: A Tiger To Remember

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KCEN’s Sports Director Nick Canizales, the late-Joe Pirtle, and Bob McQueen pose for a quick picture prior to last year’s Bob McQueen/Joe Pirtle FCA Golf Classic.

Many people that knew the legendary Joe Pirtle understands how he bled Belton red-and-white. He was a Tiger through and through.
For 65 years, Pirtle served Belton, even long after his retirement from Belton ISD.
However, many residents and students today are not aware of Pirtle’s history before he served as the district superintendent from 1974-1997.
For the students that went to school in Belton in the 1950’s knew Pirtle as a teacher and a coach. He was the assistant coach in 1957-58 for Mack Birtchet’s Belton Tigers’ boys’ basketball team which won the Class 2A State Basketball Tournament.
Pirtle was a longtime assistant for Belton Football and visited the field house every week after he retired.
“Joe loved kids and loved the Belton Tigers,” Belton athletic director Mike Morgan said. “Every week or so, Joe would come by the athletic complex. We would talk about upcoming games or recap recent events, but he generally just came by to say a few encouraging words before he went about his day. Joe loved watching kids compete, whether it be on the field, court, or track. Often times Joe would talk about what it meant to be a Belton Tiger, but he especially loved watching kids play hard and at a high level. Win or lose, Joe loved to watch the Tigers compete.”
Morgan knows the impact that Pirtle had, as he was also a coach before he took over as athletic director.
“His passing will leave a void in our athletic department that will not be filled,” Morgan said. “It was rare that we didn’t get a visit from Joe every week or two, even if it was only for a few minutes. We would talk about upcoming games and kids in the program. Most times it was just an opportunity for him to say a few encouraging words to us before he went on with his day. Joe Pirtle will be greatly missed.”
“Coach Pirtle was the epitome of what a Belton Tiger is,” Belton head football coach Sam Skidmore said. “He was always encouraging and optimistic. He loved hearing about the kids. He would stop by the Field House once a week to visit about things and the kids. He was always excited about the Belton Tigers and the challenge we were facing that week. He always had an encouraging word for me when he came by. I’m going to miss our visits. They always brightened my day.
“I will always remember Mr Pirtle,” Belton head coach Mark Krueger said. “Coming to the field house before a big baseball game just to chat and give encouragement. Coming into the dugout after a big win or a tough loss and praising our kids. You always knew it was the beginning of baseball season when he would wait for me in the office to get one of the new hats. Showing up at practice and asking if we needed him to do anything. Always asking how my family was doing and calling them by name. He was one of the most genuine and caring people I have ever met. No doubt he was a Tiger, one of our biggest supporters and fans of our baseball program. I will definitely miss our talks, seeing his truck in the field house parking lot, and finding him in his usual spot behind home plate.”
For those who are relatively new to Belton, like assistant athletic director/offensive coordinator Brian Cope, Pirtle made an immediate impact.
“I will remember Coach Pirtle for being an outstanding man who loved Belton,” Cope said. “He would always stop by the field house to check on the coaches and the kids. He also wanted to know what the game plan was and how we were going to beat the opponent. He is someone that I have only known for three years but felt like I knew a lifetime. His presence will be greatly missed.
Pirtle supported each sport and each athlete like he coached them. The student-athletes gravitated to Pirtle, and always appreciated the support.
Belton city council member John Holmes was a Tiger basketball player in the 1980’s and recalled his graduation day on the hallowed ground of what is now Wilson Kerzee Field.
“I shook Mr. Pirtle’s hand in 1984 on old Tiger Field for graduation,” Holmes said. “Regrettably, I handed him a marble that just fell to the pile by his feet. A few years later I apologized, he laughed, and I knew it would never be held against me. When I think of the color red, I will think of Mr. Pirtle. My wife has taught at his namesake school for years. Mr. Pirtle wrote her a letter of recommendation for her application with BISD. I do not think I will ever encounter an individual so committed to a community, its education system, and especially “his” kids, the students of BISD. His years of service are impressive, but his true involvement is amazing. The events, games, support, and desire to continue to be involved can only represent the true love of a district he molded and developed. Joe M. Pirtle truly believed ‘Every Kid a Winner’ not only exists, but thrives in Belton Independent School District. His legacy will continue for years. I hope our entire community dons Joe M. Pirtle red on the day of his funeral and we all take a moment to remember a great man. Godspeed Mr. Pirtle, your work is done.”
Belton ISD school board member Ty Taggart recalls childhood memories with Pirtle.
“From the time that I was a kid…as long as I could remember, anywhere that I went…Joe was there. Joe was the guy!” Taggart said. “He was my dad’s junior high football coach. The stability of Belton schools was really set in place by Joe. He really respected everyone. Joe set the example for all of us. It was a generous, unwavering love for Belton. You just can’t replace a Joe Pirtle…the stature…the compassion…the love for community.”
Belton Journal publisher David Tuma recalled his first meeting with Pirtle and former Tiger football head coach Jack Meredith.
“I remember Joe Pirtle and Jack Meredith coming into my office years ago. It was either the first or second week after we bought the paper. Life was different back then…with face-to-face meetings common. Joe talked to everybody because he cared. It wasn’t an act. He wasn’t here and there for the short term. For years after he retired, he visited whoever was athletic director on a regular basis. Many times I walked in and there he was.”
Throughout Belton’s growth, Pirtle always made sure that he was community-focused.
“Belton is so unique because they really do try to do things the right way,” Tuma said. “Joe Pirtle was a major reason for that. Yes, Belton and BISD have their issues, both then and now. The strength of BISD was always the good Belton people running the district. It was what made what we see today. Back then, they did things the right way. Joe Pirtle was simply an amazing good man with a heart that bled RED.”
Coaches always appreciated Pirtle’s support and input. Longtime coach Denise Petter was one of those people who developed a great relationship with Pirtle.
“Mr. Pirtle was a sweet and dear friend,” Petter said. “He always met me with a big hug and a kind word. Mr. Pirtle was a driving force in continuing the ‘Tiger Traditions in Belton.’ When he would visit the Athletic Complex, he would always tell me to take care of our Tigers. He will truly be missed in Tigerland.”
For those of us who were Marching 100 members, Pirtle came by during summer band practices to see how we all were doing.
He even asked a freshman drumline member how he had the strength the carry a bass drum that was nearly twice his size. That freshman was yours truly back in 1983. He always said that no matter what you do, you represent the Belton Tigers. That was the first time that I had heard the phrase ‘Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger’.”
Almost 30 years later, Pirtle recalled that conversation when I became reacquainted with him upon returning to Belton in 2012. It amazed me how he could remember a short, but meaningful conversation.It has been a tough several months for Tiger Nation. We have seen a few “Old Tigers” pass on. One of Pirtle’s players from the 1957-58 boys’ basketball championship team and curator of Belton’s Wall of Honor, Dr. Billy Wilbanks, passed away October 9, 2018. Shelby Rumfield, a player and another longtime Tigers coach, passed away on March 10.