By RENEE WEBB
LE MARS – Marty Kurth’s life was forever changed in June when he woke up one day and his eyesight was gone.
“It was overnight,” described Kurth, who was in the middle of baseball season at the time. “I am legally blind. My vision is less than 2,200.”
The baseball coach of more than 30 years has non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy, a condition where the blood flow of blood vessels to the optic nerve is impacted, killing the blood vessels and causing blindness.
“In July of 2016, I woke up and lost my left eye. I went and got diagnosed and figured with one eye, a lot of people deal with that,” said Kurth, who figured he would be fine with vision in one eye.
His sister has the same condition. Since she lost vision in one eye and not the other until eight years later, Kurth anticipated blindness wouldn’t happen in the other eye for many years, but it only took 11 months before he lost vision in his right eye too.
“It was a very trying time,” he acknowledged, the pain of loss evident in his voice. Kurth remained head baseball coach through the season but credited his assistant coach, Solomon Freking, as well as his son Ty Kurth who also assisted with coaching for their “tremendous” work.
Finding his place
Given that Gehlen has been such a huge part of his life for so many years, when the new school year started Kurth wanted to be a part of it. Although, he acknowledged, they are still trying to determine just how he will fit into the school.
And not only that, Kurth admitted, he is still trying to figure out “who I am right now.”
“God has a plan for me, I’m just not exactly sure what the whole plan is,” he said. “Hopefully, the school is part of that plan, but time will tell.”
At the present time Kurth views his work as more volunteer in nature, but eventually it may become a part-time position. Currently he assists the new athletic director/physical education teacher, Justin Ruden, and helps in the school’s Success Center.
Ruden, also a Remsen grad and recent University of South Dakota graduate, said it has been great to have Kurth transition into the position by doing such things as checking game schedules and offering advice for physical education classes.
“He’s keeping me in line and using his knowledge to help me out,” Ruden said. “This being my first year, it’s all new to me. It’s been really helpful to have someone who knows how things go and what to do next.”
Kelly Dreckman, who is the 7-12 Success Center teacher, considers Kurth to be an excellent mentor and role model for students. Kurth will talk with students to get them motivated for school, follow through with homework and have proper behavior.
“They find it easy to talk to him and they can relate to him,” said Dreckman, who noted a lot of the students think he is “cool.” “They feel like he understands them. He is so down-to-earth, nonjudgemental and understanding.”
Given Kurth’s situation, Dreckman felt Kurth is also a great model for overcoming adversity.
“Although this happened to him, he is not going to stop. He will keep coming to school for the kids and will not give up on life,” Dreckman said. “He wants to make a difference in these kids and he is doing it. I think he is amazing.”
Kurth, who has a minor in psychology, talks to the students about what is bothering them, what’s been going well and what the school can do to help them.
Sherri Kraus, 7-12 administrative assistant, called Kurth a wealth of information and said he always wants what is best for the students.
“The students respect him and they have had him for so many years it would have been a huge hole if he was no longer here,” she said.
At home in Catholic school
Kurth pointed out he loves being around the kids and seeing them grow as adults.
“Catholic education has been pretty much where I have been except for four years of college, but other than that, the last 30 years I have spent in these halls. It’s something I love to do every day,” he said.
A product of Catholic education, Kurth graduated from St. Mary School in Remsen before studying at Westmar College in Le Mars. He opted to study there to be close to home to help take care of his father, who also had the eye condition.
“My dad got it real early, in his 30s and they blamed it on his diabetes, but come to find out it may not have been that but the optic nerve problem,” said Kurth, who noted his father died at 56 of cancer. “My sister struggled with her first eye in her early 40s and then the second one in her late 40s.”
So when he hit 50, Kurth was optimistic and hopeful he wouldn’t have the problem.
“I really worried about it through my 40s,” he said. “Then, unfortunately, at 51 and 52, it got me.”
While he is not mad at God and his faith is strongly intact, Kurth admitted he continues to struggle with this change in lifestyle, especially the loss of some of his independence.
“I like to be outside doing things and those things are very difficult for me to do now,” he said.
However, even though he only sees in dark shadows, Kurth still mows his own lawn – which he knows might get some looks from the neighbors – with his work checked afterward by his wife Jen.
Another struggle for Kurth is his feeling of disconnectivity – not being able to look people in the eye and see the faces of students as they walk down the halls or read body language when he is having a conversation with someone.
While he tries not to rely too much on others, Kurth said he can’t say enough about his family. Marty and Jen have three grown children: Ty, who just graduated from college and lives at home; Kendra, who moved back from Des Moines and now works at Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn-Remsen Union (MMCRU) and Mitchell, who lives in Dallas.
“My wife has been amazing through all of this. Sure, we have had some strange times, some funny times – goofy things happen because she is not sure what I can or can’t see,” he said. “So we have had some laughs over it, some tears over it.”
Kurth knows life is full of challenges and said this is just one of them. He is thankful for the support of the school and his family.