Stephen Dillard, member of the USCF Hall of Fame and the face of chess in Kentucky, was murdered last week by a former foster child. Fun Fong, president of the Georgia Chess Association, who has worked with Steve numerous times, asked me to write an article about my former teacher and chess coach who inspired my life-long love of the game. I agreed because Steve’s involvement in chess was intertwined with so much more. He was a man whose life, without chess, would still have been worthy of remembrance. But for the chess world, it was a beautiful example of how to take our game and change thousands of lives for the better.
When one man means so much to so many people who never even met each other, it’s very difficult knowing even where to begin. The chess community knows him as “Mr. Kentucky Chess” and with good reason: he didn’t found the Kentucky Chess Association, but nobody even knows what it was like before he became involved. Under his influence, the Kentucky Chess Association grew from a membership of 300, to over 5,000. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the USCF for directing more tournaments than any American, over 1,300. He met with legends like Gary Kasparov. He gave thousands of kids their first chess set, and for many bought their first USCF membership and paid for their first tournament. As this in itself would be considered a full life that accomplished more than most, it would be easy to think this was Steve’s primary identity.
But “Mr. Dillard” was known by at least as many children who never heard of terms like “castling”, or that thought the “#” symbol was used only for tweets and phone numbers. With around 30 years of teaching middle school Algebra, he would have influenced around 4,000 students whether or not they had any interest in chess. But he did more than prepare these students for tests. Sure, he was a stickler for the rules (I remember him walking around with a pad of detention slips for dress code violations every break; it got to the point all of us guys would be tucking in our shirt tails as we walked and talked heading to the break hall; and then it got to the point we kept doing it without realizing it, even on the days he was sick), but he also believed in having fun.
Over his years teaching, he had received several gifts, including various action figures or stuffed animals, which had become like a menagerie of mascots. Routinely one of these mascots would go missing, often with a letter in its place (later printed photos showing the unfortunate creature bound with some impending doom awaiting it) with phrases like, “No homework for Thanksgiving Break, or else Birdy gets it!” (Of course, in our post Columbine society, this would no longer be possible, but Mr. Dillard began teaching in the 80’s, and this was all fun and games). Nobody knows for sure how this started, but it’s generally believed it was done by a student who was disciplined by Mr. Dillard and trying to get back at him. Instead, Mr. Dillard decided to play along: an over-the-top detective drama that could have been published in any pulp-fiction novel of a bygone era: paying informants (with classroom prizes) was his favorite way of collaring the thief, though he could be a bit more elaborate when everyone banded together. Mr. Dillard almost always got his man, at which point the mascot would be returned, and they were all returned by the end of the year. Anyone that managed to elude his investigation obtained bragging rights and admiration from his fellow students. Mr. Dillard was the chess coach and algebra teacher after all; his analytical skills were superb and he was often able to deduce the thief with very little information. The number of students who were able to keep their identity a secret was about as high as the people that could beat him in chess (he had a peak rating of over 2000): very few.
But Steve’s biggest acts of kindness were reserved for his children. Not his biological children (he had none), but his foster children. And not just the unfortunate children, but the children everyone else had given up on: delinquents. He took in older children with criminal records. As much of a stickler as he was for the rules, he was equally big on forgiveness. To him, forgiveness did not mean withholding punishment (this was the man who gave a detentions for an untucked shirts). That wasn’t forgiveness; that was laziness by those in authority, something that was done because either the emotional strain or practical details were so burdensome that you didn’t teach those that broke the rules that there were consequences for their actions. Forgiveness meant truly letting someone start afresh with the benefit of the doubt regardless of their past. He would find the people everyone else had given up on, and let them know, “You can’t give up. You can’t prove them right. You have to prove them wrong.”
Any of the three lives Steve Dillard led would be considered a full life on its own. The fact that one man managed to do all three is almost inconceivable . But to him, each was intertwined; and their coexistence was no more spectacular than the human body possessing the dexterity of a hand, the creativity of a mind, and the strength of its muscles. They are all bound together as one entity, the human body. The same was true of Steve’s various activities.
Steve, ultimately, was a coach. Like all good coaches, he met his players where they needed him, and built them up for later success. Like taking a losing position and gaining equal footing, or taking a drawing position and finding the win, he believed with intentional forethought and action, anyone could gain the upper hand on their opponent, whether it was the guy across the chess board or life itself. But unlike the instruction you can get from a textbook or chess book, the coach understands the ebbs and flows of his student’s game and life. He supports them when they stumble, possibly even backsliding, until they regain their footing and confidence and can once again fight, and win, their own battles.
It is the ultimate tragedy that this identity is what cost him his life. Steve Dillard was contacted by a former foster child, now fully grown asking for a place to stay, and Mr. Dillard opened his doors once again. He didn’t have much; nobody made it rich on a teacher’s salary, and state associations that are the local arm of the USCF are volunteer organizations. But that never would have stopped him from helping one his kids in need, even if that kid was now a grown man. But in an act that nobody can understand, the man who spent his entire life giving of himself was murdered by one of the handful of people he gave more to than any of the others.
And yet, as tragic as his end was, if Mr. Dillard could give us one more message to world at large, I’m fairly sure it would be this: “Do not let my death be used to justify abandoning those in need of help. Do not let my death create fear of forgiveness.” A man of numbers and heart, the plea would be emotional, but he would not hesitate to bring in the statistics. Of the thousands of people he helped, only one repaid his kindness with brutality. And while he helped kids of all backgrounds, he spent more of his time investing in those that everyone else had already been convinced of as hopeless (he worked with inner city students in addition to his foster kids). He took in the people nobody else wanted, and produced productive members of society at a success rate that would make any company’s Quality Assurance Manager green with envy.
After all, as unfitting as his end was compared to what he deserved, it was the ultimate testament of his life as a coach. Now when people remember Steve, in life or in death, his cause will be inescapable; he gave his life to better every student he found, regardless of the circumstances. He didn’t wait for people to prove themselves, he made the first move. And though it cost him his life, the score sheet still shows a beautiful result: 1-0.
-Eric Sparks, Christian Academy Louisville Class of 2006 & Chess Team Member with Coach: Stephen Dillard