By Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Pioneer High School basketball player Laura Stroud feels a bit sorry for the girls who play on the team years from now.
They may work hard, have fun, and win lots of games.
But they’ll never know the pleasure of playing for Coach Crystal.
“It’s just crazy to think that years down the road, girls will go in that gym and never know who was in there,” said the junior, her voice breaking. “They’ll never know.”
Crystal Westfield, the long time Pioneer art teacher, women’s basketball coach and track and field coach, died last month at the age of 49 following a decade-long battle with cancer.
Students, athletes, friends, and colleagues will honor Westfield at a memorial program at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 21 in Pioneer’s Schreiber Auditorium.
Four of those who were close to Westfield gathered in a PHS athletic office this week to talk to The AAPS District News about the friend they’ll miss so much.
They said the mother of two was a maternal figure to many, gladly taking in kids who had no home.
She was a tough coach who was also “soft as a marshmallow.”
She was a top-notch basketball player who loved to paint and sculpt, sing and dance, play the keyboards and direct the gospel choir.
She would show up at school every day in sweatpants and sneakers, but dress up like a model on game day, tugging a wig onto the bald head chemo had created.
“The most important thing about Crystal is that she cared; she genuinely cared,” said Laura.
“She didn’t know where to separate coaching from being a mom,” added Laura’s teammate, fellow junior Corinne Griffin.
Pioneer High School Athletic Director Eve Claar recalls the tough battle Westfield fought as cancer spread throughout her body. Everyone told her she should slow down, but giving up what she loved would have hurt her more than anything, Claar said.
Sometimes she’d arrive for a practice straight from chemotherapy, “tough as nails,” said Claar.
Added Laura: “She wanted to just keep going until she just couldn’t do it anymore.”
“Who does that sound like?” asked Claar.
“Her dad,” said fellow Pioneer coach and teacher, James Robert, as the others nodded.
Bryan Westfield, the celebrated Women’s Track & Field team coach, died in July at the age of 72.
The father-daughter duo coached track together, although her passion was always basketball. In fact, the 1984 PHS graduate is among the highest-scoring female basketball players in the school’s history. She never lost her love for the game, or her talent.
“When she could barely move, she’d stand there and shoot and never miss,” said Laura. “She’d say, `This is how you shoot.’ Swish. `This is how you shoot.’ Swish.”
She was extremely competitive, and always seemed sure that her girls were the best, and her girls were going to win.
“She’d trudge through the snow after chemo into the gym and she’d be like, `My girls are going to win!’” said Laura. “We’d get smacked by Huron by 40 and she’d be like, `You guys should have won! You could have won that game!’ Every time!”
“They’d be down 25 at halftime,” Robert said, “and she’d be, `This isn’t over yet!’”
On Saturday, Robert will talk about how Westfield progressed as a coach. Though she was already remarkable, he said that after she got sick, she blossomed that much more.
“This other side of her started to grow, which was this beautiful, loving, motherly, gorgeous light that she was,” he said. “Her core was deeply spiritual. She belonged to Bethel AME on John A. Woods Drive, and was the piano player in the gospel choir. It just flowed out of her fingers when she would accompany the singers. That spirituality: She lived it to the fullest.”
Robert said she was exceptionally generous, often wanting to pay for meals for the girls even when there were funds earmarked for it.
“I’d say, `This is what we did the fundraising for!’” he said.
An artist and an athlete
Laura said she took Westfield’s art class only because she figured that if she needed some art credits, she might as well learn from her favorite person.
“I went to her art room and I was like, `WOW! She’s so talented,’” Laura recalled. “All I can do is sports, but she can do everything. She can play piano, sing, draw, paint. Every thing.’”
“And she could teach it all,” added Robert. “She ran the shock clock at U-M. She was an art teacher in the high school. She was an art teacher at Washtenaw (Community College). She was an art teacher at Rec & Ed. She was a musician. She sang in the choir. She directed a choir. At the Martin Luther King assembly, it was always her beautiful work synthesizing the slides with the soundtrack. She got life from all of this. When she got ill, literally it was like a chemical thing. It was an exchange of energy that she got that she needed to keep herself going.”
“We all knew she was sick, but nobody wanted to admit how bad it was,” said Laura. “But when she started missing things, that was a huge red flag. Because she was there when she could barely walk and was on oxygen. So when she wasn’t there … we knew it was bad.”
Crystal Westfield leaves behind her husband, Dan LaPointe, daughter Coby, a freshman at Pioneer, and son Corey, a fifth grader at Eberwhite.
Creative writing teacher Jeff Kass was a good friend of Westfield’s and has written the following poem about her, which he’ll read at the memorial:
On losing a colleague
By Jeff Kass
The days will slip into their stride
and there will be tests and homework
and new laws for what shape learning’s supposed
to engender; there will be questions about
off-campus lunches and deadlines for essays.
There will be malfunctioning heat and no access
to Google Chrome, and her room will still be
inhabited by students and a new teacher
who will urge the creation of new art
and at some point it will be just
another room, just another number
on a schedule, but there will always
be Crystal in E-Hall, her patience
when I ask her one more time
to stay late and make a correction
to the certificate won by a student,
her gift of get-well cards painstakingly handmade
and origami’d open for other teachers suffering
trauma, her cluster of tables at the diner, her athletes
around her, ordering pancakes and waffles,
her next to me in the bleachers as we watch
our daughters play softball, there will be
the unrelenting onward, the threats
of in-house suspension for any student
sneaking off-campus, the watersheds of interims
and common assessments and conferences
the days growing cold and short and the edicts
of no-hats, no earbuds, the onslaught of days and days
without her easy loud laugh, her Kass, I gotta
show you this, her room will one day just be
a room and students will make art and not know
who made art before them, who made the room
a room of art before them, who said you can take
a photo and you can make it mean something
and be something and you can mean something
and be something and there was a woman who
showed up and trudged in, and showed up and trudged
in, and showed up and trudged in regardless how
lead-heavy she felt, regardless of what was festering
inside her and inside her father and she straightened her wig
to sit on the sideline and watch her players give buckets
and she was my friend and she was my friend and there
are no days where I don’t think of her, no days where I don’t
wish I could walk into her room and hear her say,
Kass, I gotta show you this. Kass, here, look, Kass,
I got something to show you.