Ask anybody on the Seacoast about Jim Tufts and you’ll get many answers; “great high school coach”, “the coach from Exeter”, “he taught me to swim” and so on. The point being that pretty much everyone has an answer because pretty much everyone knows Jim Tufts.
His teaching and coaching career spans 44 years starting in Hampton Falls at the Lincoln-Akerman School and culminating in 36 years of teaching and coaching at Exeter High School. Jim officially retired last year, referring to the Spring of 2019 as his “Rocking Chair Tour”. His retirement was no secret and it was something of a year-long celebration. He was even named Grand Marshall for the 2019 Exeter Holiday Parade!
As far as retiring goes Jim hasn’t quite hit the rocking chair yet. He’s doing some part time coaching at Phillips Exeter Academy and he is still coaching for SONH. His service to athletes on the Seacoast has been as stellar and storied as his service to the school department.
His path to Special Olympics started with his mother. Jean Tufts was the principal of the Rockingham School for Special Children in Exeter in the 1960’s until it closed in 1973. She took note of the very first Special Olympics Games in Chicago in July of 1968 and according to Jim Tufts, rallied her friends, family, and teachers to bring Special Olympics to the Granite State.
Those first games took place in 1970 on the grounds of Phillips Exeter Academy. Jim Tufts can still rattle off the names of the schools and teams that were there that day. Jean Tufts died in 1983 and coach Jim admits that the biggest part of his mom’s multi-faceted legacy would be her service to the country as Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services under President Ronald Reagan.
In 1980 Jim became a dad for the first time when his son Matthew was born. Matt has intellectual disabilities and joined SONH when he turned 8 years old. Matt and his grandmother had an all too brief, but very special relationship. Jim credits “mum” Jean with “a great lesson to (Jim’s wife) Leslie and I on how to raise a child” noting that Matt has fond memories of his grandmother to this day. Jim also notes with pride that the Jean and Arthur Tufts Scholarship continues to be awarded every year at Exeter High.
Jim Tufts hopes his legacy is the thousands of children he has coached over his four-plus decades of being an educator and a coach to children with and without intellectual disabilities. When asked if he knows how many students he’s coached over the years “it’s a big number” is the best estimate he offers. Regarding the Exeter Area Athletes SONH Local Program he refers to it as the “Special Olympics Family Tree” and proudly talks about his son’s accomplishments as an SONH athlete, other SONH athletes, and the “peer coaches”… high school students who volunteer their time to help coach the Exeter Area Athletes.
Jim describes some of his best moments with SONH as watching his team enter the Summer Games. His pride comes from watching not only the 50-60 athletes on his team, but the 100 or more peer coaches who join them. He describes the Exeter SONH team as “the most meaningful thing I do” noting that on his wall at home he still has the picture of the Exeter Area Athletes receiving the Ray Kroc Award at Summer Games from Larry Johnston of McDonald’s/The Napoli Group.
The highlights of Matt Tufts’ SONH activities? Carrying the torch during the SONH 25th anniversary games and again for the 50th anniversary. Jim says that those moments have been when Matt has felt “most connected” to his grandmother Jean.
While Jim credits his mother for making him a better parent, he feels that his experiences with son Matt made him a better coach.
Jim Tufts retired from full-time coaching just as the coronavirus pandemic was taking hold. He’s had the opportunity to spend more time with Matt and he’s cherishing that. His experiences with his son and other SONH athletes over the years makes him uniquely qualified to understand how far beyond sports Special Olympics goes. The social interaction that is now missing from the lives of many athletes because of the pandemic is being keenly felt by Matt and so many other SONH athletes. While there is no real solution to that problem right now, Jim Tufts’ advice is elegantly simple: “Just walk” he says. “If you take a walk it gives you time to spend together, to talk and to be active.”