Howard Gerken, far left, and Sandie Gerken, left, gather with their son Greg, right, and daughter Melissa, far right, at Greg's graduation from West Chester University in 1997.

The sounds of soccer are in the air.

The yelps and shrieks emanating from nearby fields punctuate the placid, sun-drenched Saturday morning air near Frankford.

The River Soccer Club’s travel and recreational teams are dribbling, passing, defending and scoring goals.

Coaches enthusiastically shout encouragement, and referees’ whistles shriek as parents and friends encourage and exhort the athletes.

A few miles away, at Indian River High School Stadium in nearby Dagsboro, the Indians’ girls’ soccer team is beginning to warm up in preparation for a DIAA state tournament playoff match.

Both of these scenarios are part of Howard Gerken’s legacy.

Earlier in the week, students at Selbyville Middle School collaborated in small groups during an English language arts class. They were enthusiastically brainstorming with each other prior to writing a presentation that they will deliver verbally to their classmates the ensuing week.

This, too, is part of Gerken’s legacy.

This level of learning, participation and achievement in the classroom and on the soccer pitch will continue.

They will continue because Howard Gerken had the foresight and the vision to help lay the groundwork for an outstanding middle school, and for two soccer initiatives that will forever serve student-athletes in local communities.

A soccer visionary

Howard Gerken, a beloved educator, coach and soccer visionary, died on Wednesday, May 3, from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He spent his last six months at his Dagsboro home with the assistance of Delaware Hospice.

He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Sandie; daughter Melissa Timmons and her husband, Tom; son Gregory and his wife, Michelle; brother Glenn and his wife, Judy, and nieces Christine, Debbie and Diane; and three grandsons, Josh Timmons, Jonas Gerken and Liam Gerken.

Family, friends and soccer players are being invited to attend a Celebration of Howards’ Life event on Saturday, July 8, 2023, at 2 p.m. at the Indian River High School auditorium. In lieu of flowers, the family suggested donations to the River Soccer Club, P.O. Box 1366, Ocean View, DE 19970, or to Delaware Hospice, 100 Patriots Way, Milford, DE 19963.

Gerken passed away more than 25 years after starting the River Soccer Club, initially known as River Recreation Program. He foresaw the need for RSC, and he secured the funding and managed the construction of RSC. Today, thousands of children participate on the organization’s recreational and travel teams each season.

Not just the talented and driven students and players. All of them — 100 percent inclusive. In tandem with his wife, he started the TOPSoccer program at RSC for children with special needs.

“As a soccer visionary, Howard took the initiative for both of us to get certified as TOPSoccer coaches,” said Sandie Gerken recently. “He introduced the initiative at River Soccer. We paired the special-needs players with high-school- and middle-school-aged buddies. We created activities for these players to build a team of their own. Friendships between players and their buddies grew. And the buddies learned what special-needs means. This program is still active at RSC, and Howard’s vision about the program’s growth came true, with new, younger coaches who adopted his own enthusiasm and vision began to take over the initiative.”

Gerken also played a major role in Indian River High School boys’ and girls’ soccer programs for more than 30 years. He was the program’s first head coach, from 2001 to 2004. He later served as an assistant coach for the Indians’ first two DIAA Division II championship teams, in 2013 and 2015.

“Howard was a true leader,” said Sandie Gerken, who met her husband when the two were students at the University of Delaware. “He was able to convince Sussex County that soccer is a wonderful game and provides so much fun for youngsters. He was always out front as the standard-bearer, and he never hesitated to get behind the group and got them going. And his legacy continues. They got it done, and RSC is still a wonderful place for participation and competition.

“As a soccer visionary, he wanted a place for kids to have fun playing soccer — a ‘Field of Dreams’ scenario, if you will,” she added. “He was able to gather a team of like-minded citizens and led the way to make River Soccer Club a reality. He never gave up on making the complex and the fields as fulfilling as possible.”

An enthusiastic educator

As an educator for more than 30 years, Gerken also dedicated his life to the development of children through education. As a mathematics teacher, he enjoyed interacting with his students. He set the standards high for his pupils, according to Sandie Gerken.

“He had tough discipline in his classes, and his students respected that,” she recalled. “He always expected the students to do their best and provided extra tutoring help for those who needed it. He also went out of his way to get to know his pupils’ abilities and work ethics. He expected and received honesty, politeness and good behavior.”

As an administrator, she said, Gerken valued his teachers’ and staff members’ thoughts and opinions. He let everyone know that what they felt and said mattered.

“He made them want to strive for excellence,” said Sandie Gerken. “He stressed the meaning of the word ‘TEAM — Together Everyone Achieves More.’ His teaching and administrative style was to encourage consensus by listening to everyone. He set the bar high for standards, and if someone made a mistake, Howard would expect them to ‘suck it up and fix it.’ He was always out and about in the hallways and at school activities. The best interests of the students were always his No. 1 goal.

A devoted family man

In addition to serving players, coaches, teachers, students and the community at large, Howard Gerken was also a devoted family man.

“Howard always took the time to play with our kids when they were younger,” said Sandie Gerken. “This included playing with building blocks, racing cars and pushing them on the swings outside. He made sure they were well-rounded, behaving and — most of all — doing their best and having fun.”

His involvement with his own children continued into the next generation as a devoted grandfather.

“When my son Josh was born with Down syndrome,” said the Gerkens’ daughter, Melissa Timmons, “Dad was very supportive in making sure he had opportunities to be included in all aspects of the community. At that time, there weren’t any programs for young people with disabilities that enabled them to participate and enjoy sports. Dad researched and brought TOPSoccer to life at River Soccer Club. TOPSoccer paved the way for other sports to create similar experiences.

“Dad was a wonderful grandfather to Josh,” Melissa Timmons added. “He always played with him. This included Matchbox cars, baseball, mini golf, soccer and riding on the tractor. Josh loved to talk with ‘Pop’ about what he liked to do. He listened to Pop, who always wanted him to do his best and do the right thing. Josh enjoyed making Pop proud.”

‘The godfather of Sussex County soccer’

Gerken was aptly nicknamed “the godfather of Sussex County soccer” by former River Soccer Club director of coaching and Indian River High School head coach Steve Kilby.

The dynamic duo first met when Kilby interviewed for the director of coaching position at River Soccer Club. He knew about Gerken’s enthusiastic commitment to the game, which enabled Gerken to lead Christian High to the 1973 state title.

“His commitment to the game gave him the desire to provide the best for his players,” said Kilby, the IRHS head boys’ and girls’ soccer coach from 2005 to2022. “He was strongly committed to building successful programs at the recreational youth level, the club travel level and at the high-school level. I can safely say Howard was all-in with any undertaking he had with the game. He came across as intelligent and well-versed in the game.

“After I was hired at RSC, we worked closely regarding the club’s structure and how to train the players,” Kilby added. “His main focus was how to develop players. He asked me to assist in building a culture at the club that would impact the players.”

Kilby and Gerken built the boys’ and girls’ IRHS soccer programs into perennial Henlopen Conference and DIAA state championship challengers. The boys’ team has captured three Division II crowns during the last decade, while the girls have reached the state championship game on two occasions.

A committed leader in the community

Rebecca Mais recalls meeting Howard Gerken when her son, current IRHS soccer head coach Brandt Mais, was 7 years old. The following year, Rebecca Mais volunteered to assist the Gerkens with serving the long lines of parents who were registering their youngsters for recreational soccer.

“That was 30 years ago,” recalled Rebecca Mais, the current president of RSC. “Howard had an amazing way of getting people to help. He was a true motivator. That was probably because he never took ‘no’ for an answer. He always made himself available to help with virtually anything.”

When Brandt Mais entered Selbyville Middle School under the leadership of then-Principal Gerken, the chief administrator asked Rebecca Mais to serve as president of the parent teacher organization.

“I told him I couldn’t, because I was way too busy, but I would help with projects and events,” she recalled. “He asked me to come to his office to discuss it. When I left his office, his secretary smiled at me, and I said, ‘Yes, I am president of the PTO! How did that happen?’”

Richard Mais, Rebecca’s husband, served on a strategic planning committee for the Indian River School District when he initially met Gerken, said Rebecca Mais. “Richard told me that he had met one person at that night’s meeting, and that person certainly understood education,” she recalled. “That person — of course — was Howard Gerken. That was the first time we had heard his name.”

She identified Gerken as a kind, loving and hard-working professional who instantly created relationships with his uncanny people skills.

“He was also known to be stubborn, and he didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said. “This characteristic came in handy on many occasions when he needed to get something done.

“He always told it like it was,” Rebecca Mais added. “He was always very direct and truthful. I loved that about him. I never had to guess what he was really saying or thinking, because he said it. That’s a rare quality. Sometimes you didn’t like this about him, because honesty can be tough. But he was always respectful and caring.”

Grateful and fortunate to have known ‘the Godfather’

Indian River High School boys’ and girls’ soccer head coach Brandt Mais said he felt grateful and fortunate to have had Howard Gerken in his life as a mentor, coach, role model and friend.

“Beyond my family, I can’t think of many other people who have had such an important, positive impact on me,” said Brandt Mais. “Honestly, my direction in life as a player, educator, coach and director would have not been possible with the experiences that he helped shape and create.

“Howard was responsible for introducing me to the sport of soccer that has evolved into my lifelong passion,” said Coach Mais. “My first soccer experience was the recreation program at Indian River High School on the field hockey, baseball and football practice fields. Honestly, at that moment I had no idea how far the game would take me. Recreational soccer later grew into more competitive play at travel level, high school and eventually collegiate. I was supported throughout my youth soccer career by RSC and Indian River High School soccer, which Gerken was my head coach for all four years. High school was some of my favorite soccer-playing moments, playing with my friends, under lights and for my community. I can’t thank Gerken enough for facilitating the program over those years.”

After playing NCAA Division II soccer at and graduating from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., Brandt Mais returned home unsure about his life’s direction.

“Howard’s belief in me inspired me to step up to my career as a social studies teacher and soccer coach at Indian River High and River Soccer Club,” admitted Brandt Mais, the IRHS boys’ and girls’ soccer lead assistant coach from 2008 to 2022 before he earned the head coaching position prior to the 2022-2023 season. “Having been a player on his teams and working with him at RSC, I recognized that he instilled within me the realization that the most important part of coaching young players and students is teaching valuable life lessons. Every day, I try my best to stick to those core values. I am so grateful for Gerken’s guidance over the years. I truly feel privileged to have had him as a coach, mentor, and friend.”

Revisiting his ‘Field of Dreams’

Gerken fulfilled a wish to revisit his “Field of Dreams” on Tuesday, April 11, through a collaborative effort involving Delaware Hospice. Accompanied by his wife, grandson Josh and Kilby, Howard toured the 10 soccer fields, locker rooms and executive offices at the River Soccer Club.

According to Rebecca Mais, Gerken refused to let his Parkinson’s disease get the best of him. He used his own golf cart to maneuver around River Soccer Club.

“People would make a point to approach him and reintroduce themselves,” she said. “They would say, ‘Hey, Mr. Gerken, I’m so-and-so. Do you remember me when I was in middle school?’ I don’t ever recall Howard saying that he didn’t know that person. He remembered everyone. You could see the respect these folks had for him.”

Even during his last few months, according to Sandie Gerken, Howard Gerken was still dreaming of new ways for River Soccer Club to reach more student-athletes.

“He wanted to develop more interest in soccer and provide even more space for the kids to play the game,” she said.

“He was one of the greatest individuals I have ever known,” Rebecca Mais said. “He cared so deeply for kids at school and in soccer. He worked harder than all the rest of us put together. He loved his wife, Sandie, and his kids and grandkids, beyond words. He knew what sacrifices they made for him and his goals.

“I just wish there were a few more Howard Gerkens in this world,” she added. “It would be a better place.”

Staff Reporter

Mike is a veteran sports journalist, covering generations of student-athletes in Pennsylvania, Texas and Delaware. He moved to the area in 2018 with his wife, Colleen. His passion for people and sports enables him to honor young athletes’ achievements.