North Salem High loses a giant of a man, coach
Longtime teacher Ken Slack continued to coach long after retirement
He only stood 6-3 or 6-4 depending on who you asked, but Kenny Slack was a giant of a man in a metaphorical sense.
A longtime fixture in the social studies department at North Salem High School, Ken spent 25 years educating, encouraging, and guiding teens at the city’s downtown high school, and only retired in 2015 when health problems took their toll.
But the beloved 67-year old Slack would not be deterred from working with the North football program, continuing to serve as a volunteer coach right up until the day before he passed away on Wednesday, September seventh.
“For Kenny, North Salem High was family, and North football was family,” said a clearly emotional Jeff Flood—head coach at North, now in his fifteenth season.
“He always felt closer to life when he was involved at North.”
And close to North he was—sending a text message to the Viking football coaches on Tuesday, the first day of school, that read in part:
Only a few people know how are you guys work from sunrise to way past sunset.
To be a coach takes special talent and skills.
Thanks for your service and caring. Because great coaches are always great school employees.
It was the last message the coaches received from their beloved colleague.
Kenny played four seasons at defensive tackle for Willamette University coaching legend Tommy Lee. One of his longtime friends and Willamette teammate is the head of the local football officials association. Larry Staab was stunned by Kenny’s passing, and was the first to share it with me. He described his friend as a huge man with an even bigger heart.
“I officiated many games with him on the sideline,” recalls Staab.
“My favorite part of the game was when I could make him laugh that big laugh of his.”
After his time at Willamette, Kenny moved into the teaching field, working for eight years at Central Catholic High School in Portland—according to former students there—before landing a job in the Salem-Keizer School District. His coaching pedigree was unchallenged—he had coached in the Salem-Keizer School District for 40+ years, first at McKay High School, and then at North—where he spent the majority of his career.
Kenny never aspired to be a head coach, instead embracing his role as an assistant—coaching the freshmen, focusing on line play, scouting… whatever was needed to help the Vikings to succeed. As his health declined, Kenny went from using an old pole vault pole as a staff to a wheel chair to move around on the sidelines during practice. At the end, he used Zoom calls to chat with Coach Flood about his observations of game video and adjustments that could be made in the Vikings offense or defense.
But through all of his years at North Salem, Ken Slack did what came naturally to him: he built strong bonds with kids.
A case in point is current McKay teacher Chris Feskens, who played for Kenny at North. Ironically, Feskens’s son—Chris Jr.—like Slack, attended Willamette University and also played football for the Bearcats. Junior is also a teacher at North and an assistant coach for the Viking football program.
“One of the best men I ever encountered,” Feskens Sr. wrote in a Facebook tribute to Kenny.
“He is a huge reason why I'm a teacher today.”
Kenny was also a man of compassion who would identify a person in crisis—and work to assist them. Joe Cho was such a person. He was at North from 2004 to 2010, teaching and coaching both football and boys’ basketball. In 2008, Joe lost his beloved wife to cancer. And Kenny Slack reached out to him.
The two had known each other for years—living in Hawaii (Kenny for his senior year of high school), both playing football at Willamette and graduating the same year. It was a relationship that lasted right up to Kenny’s last day of life. Cho says Slack gave him all the support he needed to grieve and get through the pain of his loss.
“He was somebody who always was about other people, and not himself,” recalls Cho.
The two maintained a solid relationship, even after Cho moved back to Hawaii in 2010. Joe began calling Ken every morning, just to chat.
“His health problems cropped up after I left,” says Cho. “So I felt like I owed it to him to help.”
“We talked almost every day since I left in 2010… the last twelve years.”
During that time, Kenny was in and out of the hospital almost every two weeks. Issues ran the gamut of medical problems: diabetes, gout, failing lungs and kidneys… high blood pressure. He suffered a heart attack during the summer. Cho says a second heart attack is what finally did him in.
Not all their conversations were downbeat. Cho recalls talking to Kenny about how in Hawaii that you never see stray dogs and cats on school campuses like on the mainland, but chickens and roosters instead.
“Kenny was fascinated by this, especially after I shared a video from my campus where I teach,” recalls Cho.
“I told Kenny… we call (my school) the McKinley Tigers… they should be called the Chicklets. We had a good laugh.”
Cho was still emotional when talking about his friend, telling me in reverent tones that “The Lord got a good person today.”
Kenny and Joe would talk every morning as Cho took his morning walks before his teaching day began. They last talked on Tuesday, the day before Slack’s departure from this world. With the death of his friend, Cho says he will be changing his routine to include afternoon walks instead.
I was also honored to know Kenny in my 23 years at North Salem—nearly twenty of which were with him as classroom teachers. For a time, we were just two doors apart in the same hallway. I would frequently visit Kenny during our common prep period to exchange jokes, catch up on our respective lives, and maybe look at a funny video on our phones. Like most people, I always looked forward to hearing Ken’s booming, baritone laugh—which came easily in every conversation.
Ken Slack was so unselfish that it was difficult to find photos of him. He has a handful of pictures on his Facebook page from his younger days—but was downright reluctant to have his likeness recorded at school. I thought I might have to find a grainy photo in an old yearbook, but a student Kenny and I shared—Autumn Helmick (Johnson)—came to my rescue with a great candid of the two of them.
Autumn recalls when the picture was taken back in 2004:
I remember asking him when I graduated to take a picture with me.
He laughed and said “You aren’t going to take no for an answer, are you?”
To which I replied, “NOPE!”
Classic Kenny Slack. And the photo showcases his magnificent grin.
There is so much more—so many more stories, thoughts from friends and family, and maybe even a few photos—that are just Kenny. He would be embarrassed about all the lionizing aimed at his memory. But like the photo request just referenced, anyone who knew Ken Slack well would never let his death go without proper edification.
The North Salem Viking football team and coaches aren’t going to let it go, either. They are discussing at present just how to best honor their longtime coach and friend for the remainder of the 2022 season.
Kenny Slack might have waved off such fanfare, but secretly, I think he would have loved it—as a member of the North Salem family.
We love you, Kenny.
Mark do we know of any memorial or funeral events for Ken Our kids Zach and Brenna Ryan loved him as did Dave And I could you please let us know the where and when. Thank you
Rest in peace to a great coach and an even more incredible human being.