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From Mississippi to Midland: Coach Ernie Carter

By Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant

He was the fastest cotton picker in town. As a youngster growing up in a sharecropping family on the outskirts of Bentonia, Mississippi, Ernest “Ernie” Carter was quick to learn the value of hard work. The oldest of seven children (along with his twin sister), he applied his strong work ethic and competitive spirit to everything he did. There are still scars on his hands imparted by the sharp barbs of the cotton stalks as he raced down the rows. The older men in town used to bet money on how many bags he could pick in a day.

As you might imagine, sharecropping was very hard work, and during cotton hoeing and cotton picking, the whole family had to pitch in. They worked long days, only resting on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. From age seven to age fourteen, the only time Ernie would go to school was when it rained, because the economic survival of the family had to take precedence over getting an education.

Electricity and running water didn’t exist in the family home. There were two fireplaces, and Ernie was in charge of getting up and lighting the fires in the morning. “We had four or five people in a bed,” says Ernie, “so we slept across the bed. I didn’t get a bed to myself until much later, when I went to college. That was really fascinating for me.”

“When most kids were thinking about what sports they were getting ready for, we were hoeing cotton, and in the fall we were picking cotton. Because of this situation, getting an education was really difficult. So what I would do is, when I got done in the fields, I would sneak up to my school, go to my classroom, and go to the trash can to try to figure out what happened on any given day. I had to walk up the road about two or three miles. One day my mom noticed the blue ink on my hands (from the dittoed papers I had been looking at). When she asked me about it, I had to tell the truth. You just didn’t lie to my mother. So she forbid me to do it, but after a while I did it anyway, because I was so determined to get an education.”

“One day I was hoeing cotton, and it was really hot, over 100 degrees, and when I finished my row I looked back and saw all these people, many of whom were 60 or 65 years old, and we had no electricity in the home, had no way of knowing what was out in the world, never went to places like the restaurant or the zoo. All I knew was right there in my town. And I thought to myself, ‘This is not going to be me when I’m 65. No way.’ I didn’t know how that was going to happen, but I knew that a lifetime of sharecropping wasn’t going to happen to me.’”

To make things more difficult for Ernie, he had learning problems. Reading was difficult for him, and he stuttered. “So I learned poetry, to recite to myself and to my family, and that helped me to overcome the stuttering.”

Fortunately, Ernie had some people to look up to. “Everybody needs someone to help them along the way, and I’m no exception to that. Because I didn’t go to school, I couldn’t do sports. I was considered a gifted athlete because I could run fast, I could jump, and I could do some things that the average kid my age just couldn’t do. One day I happened to be at the school, playing tag with some eighth graders my age, and the guys just couldn’t touch me! The football coach was watching, and he came up and talked to me, but I said, ‘Coach, I have to be in the fields. I just can’t play sports. Besides, I don’t know anything about football. We don’t have a TV and I’ve never seen a game.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t I go talk to your mom?’ So he asked her if I could go to the fields in the morning, and go to school in the afternoon… and she said yes! Not only that, she said that all of us could go during the afternoons.”

It paid off big time for Ernie. He was a three-sport athlete in high school, went to Alcorn State University, and then got his Master’s degree at Miami of Ohio. And that’s where, in 1972, Mr. Don Chamberlain recruited Mr. Ernie Carter for a teaching/coaching job in Midland, Michigan, where he worked until 2004 while raising a family with his wonderful wife Linda, also a teacher. In 2017, Coach Carter was inducted in the Midland High School Athletic Hall of Fame, and the following was written about him:

“Carter’s boys & girls cross country and boys track teams have won numerous league and regional championships. He has been honored 15 times by the Saginaw Valley League as its cross country coach of the year and three times as the boys track coach of the year. He received the Lloyd Osborne Award in 1993 and was the inaugural Bob Stoppert Coach of the year award winner in 2004-2005. Carter was awarded the prestigious Gerstacker Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1995. He has a passion for storytelling and memorizing poetry and has inspired countless Chemics with his positive attitude and relentless work ethic.”

That work ethic was instilled in him by the many good people in his life, including his firm but loving mother and his football coach. “I was always told ‘You don’t do things just to get by… you do the best that you can.’”
Ernie Carter has faced many challenges in his life… growing up a sharecropper, fighting hard to get an education, and sometimes facing hatred in the segregated Mississippi of the 50’s and 60’s. But he rose to those challenges. “It wasn’t like a I was living a horrible life,” says Ernie. “It was all I knew.”

By the way, Ernie hasn’t lost his love of poetry. He continues to memorize and recite the works of his favorite poets, from Rudyard Kipling to Langston Hughes to Robert Frost. And, luckily for us here at Senior Services, he has agreed to come to Lunchtime Learners (when the current unpleasantness has abated) and share some of their works with us! We look forward to his visit!

44 thoughts on “From Mississippi to Midland: Coach Ernie Carter

  1. Coach Carter…You are one of the best and I always appreciated my time with you. You are a great person and friend. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do for people. You bring out the best in people. Congrats! A poem that reminds me of you.

    f you think you are beaten, you are;
    If you think you dare not, you don’t;
    If you’d like to win, but think you can’t,
    It’s almost a cinch you won’t.
    If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost,
    For out in the word we find
    Success begins with a fellow’s will,
    It’s all in the state of mind.

    If you think you’re outcasted, you are;
    You’ve got to think high to rise.
    You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
    You can ever win a prize.
    Life’s battles don’t always go
    To the stronger or faster man;
    But soon or late the man who wins
    Is the man who thinks he can.

    Walter D. Wintle

  2. My daughter played middle-school basketball with Coach Carter’s daughter. He never missed a game. So glad to hear that he was inducted into the Midland High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Thank you, Coach.

  3. A wonderful man, an inspiration to many Midland young people, athletes or not. Always willing to lend a hand, smile and words of encouragement. I am so grateful to have made his acquaintance while I coached and raised 3 kids here in Midland. He is a treasure!

  4. I have admired Earnie from the moment I met him. He is a great person and someone I have always looked up to. After hearing him speak a couple of months ago, at the Historical Society, and reading the above, I am even more impressed at his accomplishments. He is truly an over-comer, and that is an understatement. I am overwhelmed after learning his background, as I was born and lived part of my life in Mississippi. Knowing how horrific life was for African-Americans in Mississippi, I cannot say enough about his overcoming of the most insurmountable obstacles. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for this great man. His children and mine were in school together, and he and Linda have been great parents and a wonderful example to them. I am honored to know Earnie and his family. I really can’t express how much I admire this man.

  5. Coach Carter is a person who inspired so many students. I will always remember the joy I felt watching all those students who weren’t likely on an athletic teams get standing ovations for their jump roping. We will always love Coach Carter. Thank you for your perseverance, and determination. Love from a Chemic Mom. (Kyle & Alex)

  6. We are privileged to have Ernie and Linda as our neighbors. Ernie was our granddaughter’s jump rope coach and she absolutely loved him! Although it’s been several years, she still talks about Coach Carter and what a great man he was/is.

  7. Coach Carter was my gym teacher at Carpenter Elementary back in the 70’s. Even as a young kid I admired his kindness and soft tone when he taught. He had a great presence about him and was always encouraging. I don’t remember him getting angry or upset with us kids.

    We moved away for many years and left Midland, but since I’ve been back, I’d run into him at a golf show or out and about and Coach Carter ALWAYS has a wonderful smile when he says hello.

    I never knew his background and have even more appreciation for him and the obstacles he faced after reading this story.

    He’s a good man and Midland is better for having him and his family choose our town to live.

  8. Coach Carter is an amazing man! He taught my mother, myself and my little girl. He always had a smile and words of encouragement for you!

  9. I was the 1st Gym Class that Mr. Carter taught @ Mapleton Elementary..
    I have a forever friendship with him, he also had MY children in Gym Class..
    I was so HONERED to be present when Mr. Carter was inducted into the Midland Hall Of Fame & I also was lucky enough to sit at his table that night!!!
    I have NEVER met such a strong & gentle person all wrapped into one!!
    I wish him nothing but great health & happiness!

  10. Hey Coach,

    You were an inspiration in Midland HS cause we knew you had to be second fiddle to coaches that could not hold your jock strap. You were dignified, polite and encouraging. I always had more respect for you, guys like you and the Big O were the real deal. Thanks for believing in me brother!

  11. Coach Carter was the most amazing coach I have ever had! He was such a kind person and also very motivating. I have nothing but fond memories from cross country. You truly are an inspiration to everyone who had the pleasure of knowing you!

  12. I have so much admiration and respect for you, Coach Carter. I remember having you as my gym teacher at Plymouth elementary school in Midland. You were so amazing! My father was also into fitness, so I knew how to do a proper push-up and I remember you having me demonstrate that for the class; my heart soared because you made me feel special to you and helpful to my classmates. You made the best Pumpkin Patch, because of course that was the best time of year for kiddos! And I loved doing the yearly state requirements with you as my Coach. Even though I couldn’t run the mile very fast and tried to lay down in the grass, you made sure to look out for me and tell me to walk it off so that the lactic acid didn’t build up in my body. You are a wonderful person. Thank you for everything. God Bless You!

  13. Coach Carter, you were always one of my heroes growing up. I looked up to you every time you taught me. Thanks for all of your – and Linda’s – contributions to my education growing up.
    -Jeff Bateson

  14. My daughter ran cross country under Coach Carter in 1996/97. I was there one day when he recited the poem Desiderata to his team. It was so powerful. The poem itself is beautiful but the kids were mesmerized. I was so glad I was there. I still remember it well. What a wonderful man, I am blessed that my daughter was able to run under his guidance. She also attended Miami of Ohio.

  15. Thank you for this information about Ernie! I had no idea. I met Ernie when he first taught in Midland. I was teaching at Carpenter School in the 1970’s, when he arrived as the new gym teacher. I was so impressed by the way he handled my class and encouraged them to do their best. He was missed when he was promoted to high school coach, but I was so happy to see him succeed. He surely deserves every award , and I am so proud and happy to have known him. Congratulations Ernie, and thank you for your contributions to our schools and community – then and now!

  16. Coach Carter is a very special person to hundreds of people! His is a huge inspiration to to my husband, Stacey Cowan. Stacey ran track at MHS for 4 years. Coach stayed in contact with him through his 4 years at Albion College. They continue their friendship through today!

  17. Wow! Such an inspiration! I am proud to say that he was my teacher ❤️. So was the talented man that wrote this article 😊. Thank you!

  18. Coach Carter was hands down the best gym teacher ever. I will always remember how he inspired every student to try their best. He was truly passionate about his job and encouraging others. He will be forever remembered by many and missed by all. Panther Pride!

  19. Nice job Tom. Didn’t know Ernie’s background. Great person and loved by many. Thanks for sharing.

  20. I remember Coach Ernie. I was a bus driver that took the team to events. He was always so fun and would talk to me while on the road. He made sure the kids didn’t get to loud and made sure they cleaned there mess up. He is a great guy and wish we had more coaches like him.

  21. What a wonderful story. He suffered through hard times and poverty, but he made it. Students and young adults should keep pushing forward and never give up just as he did. Beautiful testimony of his life.

  22. Coach Carter is a great human being and was a wonderful role model for kids growing up in Midland, Mich. I met him as a student at Carpenter Elementary School and always admired him as a role model and man of integrity. Until now, I never knew much about his background. Thanks for writing this interesting and informative article!

  23. Former student, this reads like an obituary. Coach Carter is an amazingly inspirational person. He deserves acknowledgment. Fyi I was just in tears thinking he had passed, be careful with your writing style.

  24. Congratulations Coach Carter. What an awesome role model you are. You will never realize just how many young lives you have touched over the years. What a truly wonderful legacy you leave and how proud you and your family must be. 💕

  25. Always knew coach Carter was a wonderful teacher and person . My daughter texted me this article about him . My kids all had him in school and talked Quite a lot about him and really enjoyed his classes.

  26. Was not aware of the early history of this wonderful man. Thank you for sharing it. All the world should know of his exemplary life.
    I’ve known Ernie for a long time. He’s one of the nicest guy I know. I played City League Touch Football against him and his team a long time ago. His speed and moves on the field were to be feared.
    He has a special spot in my heart, and the hearts of a couple of my kids for the experience they had with him in his many special programs he was involved in. And his son Tim and my son Jon were best of friends which brought us together on at least one “special occasion”.
    I’ve enjoyed reading of, and hearing of, the involvement Ernie has had in the community over the years and I’m honored to be considered a friend of his.
    God bless you Ernie!

  27. I have known Ernie for 35 years and never knew of his background. I always knew him to be kind, gentle, empathetic, confident, a great leader with excellent sportsmanship while still being a strong competitor. He’s a man I’ve been privileged to know.

  28. So much love and respect for you Ernie! Miss your big smile and passion for all you do! Love from AZ!!!

  29. I was a parent chaperone with Coach Carter and the high school cross country team. 1 coach, about 5 adultsto help and 30ish kids.
    Coach would say “Let’s gather around”. Every kid was there quiet and paying attention.
    I was totally impressed.

  30. Coach Carter made a huge impression on my life. I was one of his elementary PE students, and by no means an athlete, but he instilled confidence in me. I learned to enjoy movement and to treasure my health, and I channeled that into dance. I became a writer. Later on, I taught dance and homeschool physical education at a local health club here in Grand Rapids. I always hoped I channeled a little of Coach Carter into those kids!

  31. We loved our many experiences with the Carters because our girls were friends throughout their school years. However, I did not know Ernie’s amazing history. Thank you for all you have given to Midland, Ernie.

  32. We love Ernie Carter … who doesn’t? This is a great story about a great man. Thanks for writing and sharing it. We will watch for Lunchtime Learners with Ernie!
    Ernie Carter Fans,
    John & Judy Kawiecki

  33. Congratulations to this inspiring man, coach, all around good person and fellow ALCORN STATE UNIVERSITY (Alcornite) graduate.

  34. Dear Ernie, for all the years we have known you through our children( the nash’s and mantyla’s) we never knew the lifetime struggles that made you the wonderful person you became. Congratulations on all your accomplishments and thank you for the privilege of knowing you and your Family!

  35. What a great inspirational story! Coach Carter was a special mentor in the lives of my children as well as so many other students!
    I run into him once in a while and he will always be Coach Carter to me!

  36. Ernie & I came to Midland about the same time and met on the basketball court. He was competitive but always first a gracious sportsman. He always remembered my name when we crossed paths over the next 35+ years. A class act!

  37. Ernie is a wonderful person. I did not know anything about his childhood and now know he is an even more amazing person.

    The article failed to mention that Ernie is the inventor of Paddleton!

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