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Oppel, 45, dies following battle with cancer

January 05, 2011
Dr. Kenneth L. Oppel died Friday, Dec. 31, 2010, at Norton Hospital in Louisville after a battle with cancer. He was 45.

Dr. Kenneth L. Oppel
Keith Oppel, former athletic director at NHHS, said his nephew kept a great attitude and sense of humor throughout his illness.

"His chemotherapy doctors said if they didn't have it in front of them, they wouldn't think anything was wrong with him," he said.

A 1983 North Harrison graduate, Oppel returned to his alma mater to teach social studies and government for 17 years and, in 2005, was named to succeed Ed Pitman as the assistant superintendent for the North Harrison Community School Corp. He also served as interim principal at North Harrison Middle School in the fall of 2003 when Jon Howerton was on medical leave and was a varsity basketball coach from 1995 to 1999. He also coached tennis and baseball.

"He was North Harrison through and through, starting from day one," said Gary Geswein, a former North Harrison High School teacher.

When hired as assistant superintendent, Oppel said he would miss the classroom and interacting daily with students. He often warned his senior government students, many times in vain, against coming down with "senior-itis" and wasting away all the previous three years of hard work. Students also remember his weekly true and "falsey" quizzes. Oppel often was the first teacher to break up a fight or step in when he thought he could help students avoid trouble, on and off the school grounds.

"He was always there for us, even after we graduated," said Cody Wetzel, a 2001 graduate who played basketball for two years under Oppel. "He would always say, 'Anything you need, letters of recommendation or anything, let me know'. "

Another former player, Charlie Pitman, said Oppel was an incredible motivator.

"He had the ability to create this unbelievable air inside the locker room," he said. "He could convince 12 kids to run through a brick wall for him. And that is not easy to do. I think the only way you can do that is if you can get the kids to completely believe in you, and he was absolutely able to do that. We would've run through a brick wall for him, because we knew, without a doubt, that he would've done the same for us. The man wore his heart on his sleeve, and we all respected him for that."

Pitman, who graduated in 2000, was a member of the 1998 squad that lost teammate Dave Minter, who was killed in an automobile crash.

"As a teammate and as a friend, I'd never experienced anything like that. The entire community was shell-shocked. Nothing could've prepared us for that kind of loss. Coach Oppel was the glue that kept us together, not just as a basketball team, but as a family. I think that experience changed every single one of us. In my eyes at least, he became a lot more than just a coach that year."

Pitman said he couldn't think of anyone who cared about North Harrison and the community more than Oppel.

"He made an impact on so many kids' lives. He was a good coach, a great friend and an even better person."

Many from the community that Oppel cared so much about began paying their respect Sunday evening when visitation began at Unity Chapel United Methodist Church, south of Ramsey, where Oppel and his wife, the former Chrissy D. Crawford, were members. After just two hours, more than 10 pages of the guest book were filled with about 500 names.

The line of those who went to pay their respects stretched from the front of the sanctuary back to the foyer and around to the entrance of the family life center.

In the church's foyer, there was a table display of photos of Oppel reading to students, coaching basketball, a team photo of the last squad to win a sectional at North Harrison in 1996 with Oppel as head coach, a scrapbook of his coaching career and a letter from former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight congratulating him on the sectional victory. A plaque from the Ramsey Lions Club recognizing a donation to cancer research in Oppel's name was also on display, as was a photo of Oppel being introduced as coach of one of the teams at the alumni basketball game. Oppel has coached in the game, which is the school's largest Relay For Life fundraiser, the past few years.

As part of his involvement in the community, Oppel served as moderator at the "meet the candidate" events in Frenchtown.

Last night (Tuesday), there was a celebration of life service for Oppel in the North Harrison High School gymnasium.

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