Longtime Sycamore and DeKalb cross country coach John Birkett, a "fixture in DeKalb," died Friday, Sycamore Principal Tim Carlson confirmed.
Birkett is survived by his wife Marti, and children Mark Vagle, Beth Johnson, Scott Birkett and David Birkett. He was 81.
"He's just a great friend, a man always looked up to by, not just the kids in town, but their parents too," DeKalb County Shrine Club President Chuck Slater said of his fellow Shriner. "He was just a fixture in DeKalb."
Birkett coached at DeKalb and Sycamore from 1967 to 2007. He left DeKalb High to become an insurance salesman, then returned to teaching and coaching at Sycamore. In his stint with the Spartans, he won 115 dual meets and lost only 13. The win total is 10th all time in the state at one school according the IHSA website. His 54 straight dual wins at Sycamore is the sixth-longest streak in the state. Birkett finished with a career record of 382-88.
Daryl Graves coached track at Sycamore while Birkett was the cross country coach and an assistant on the track team. He's a Shriner as well and said it was Graves who brought him in.
"I'm indebted to him for that," Graves said. "He's a special guy and a special friend.
"He was one of those guys that always had a smile and a joke," he said. "The room brightened up because he walked in there. He had a great coaching career. ... He worked with kids to motivate them to try cross country and coached a lot of kids to success."
Birkett had a big hand in creating the current three-class system in cross country. He held up a meet in 1995 by standing in the middle of the course before the start of the race with a sign that read “Illinois should have three classes of cross country.”
The 2007 season was the first year with three classes and was also Birkett's last with the Spartans, coaching the girls. The team finished ninth in the state in Class 2A that year. The Spartan boys would win a state title under coach Mike Lambdin in 2007.
"Without him, we probably wouldn't have won that state championship," Carlson said. "He was instrumental in creating the current system."
Lambdin began working with Birkett in 1997.
"He's the guy who really built cross country up in Sycamore and developed it into the sport it is today," Lambdin said. "He took those initial steps. He loved the sport. He loved to talk about the sport. You could sit down with him and the stories, the experiences, he loved to share with you. It was always entertaining to hear."
In June of 2008, he was honored with a tree and a plaque at Sycamore Community Park.
“It represents strength, durability, perseverance and will continue to grow,” Birkett said of the oak tree planted in his honor at the time. “It's not just a plant. It's very touching. That's a beautiful tree.”