Madonna. Cher. Oprah.
Only a certain number of people are known by one name, rather than a first name and surname.
Kobe. Voltaire. Elvis.
It’s not that these people don’t have first and last names.
The mononymous people of the world have been anointed with the prestigious right to change and/or shorten their signature because of the monumental impact they had with the time they were given. And while it’s not on a global scale, for the regulars and employees at Veterans Foreign Wars Post 6885 in Canyon Country, they have “Coach.”
“My name is Ambrose Emard,” he says as he takes your hand with a strong, yet warm handshake. “but everyone just calls me Coach.”
Emard was born Nov. 4, 1928, in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, to French-Canadian immigrants who had come to be homestead farmers.
“We had 160 acres given to us through the Homestead Act … and we grew everything from corn to wheat to pigs to chickens,” Emard said. “My whole (extended) family had farms nearby also, so it was basically just us living in this Minnesota valley.”
He was the fourth youngest of 13 children, and as he tells it, his family might as well have been half the population of his rural farm town.
When he reached high school, the 5-foot-nothing, 140-pounds-when-wet Emard was setting himself apart from his nine siblings who had come through before by being “a hammer” on the football field.
“I was small but I could hit,” said Emard. “I was a halfback/fullback … and when I hit that hole, I’d meet the eyes of the (linebacker) coming up to tackle me, and they’d see my eyes, and they’d always hesitate.”
After graduating high school with multiple varsity letters in 1948, Emard decided rather than attending college or trying to continue with football that he would enter the workforce immediately.
But in 1950, the government would be in need of soldiers, and the 20-year-old former running back was a perfect candidate.
Earning His Stripes
After his draft number came up and he enlisted in the Army, Emard was sent to basic training at a stateside base where he would put years of working on a farm and running through people on the field to use.
After basic, Emard would be sent to Tokyo — the first time the farm boy from Minnesota had gone overseas — for his military occupational speciality training in heavy machinery.
After two months of learning how to use bulldozers and forklifts, Emard was then sent to Busan, Korea, and arrived to what he called a “shocking thing.”
“When I got there, I remember it clearly, I was getting driven to where I was supposed to go first, and I saw all the refugees for the first time,” said Emard. “And I saw a lady, holding her unclothed naked baby in the air. She was having him (defecate) in the middle of the street.”
He says he’s never forgotten that image because it changed how he saw a lot of things in life.
For over a year, Emard drove a forklift on the Busan docks and railyards, helping the military ship anything and everything needed for the war effort near the DMZ a little further north. And while he would unload the cargo from back home, the Korean refugees, much like the woman and her child in the street, would load the returning cargo back on.
“I mean, some of them would be begging, and would pinch their baby to cry so we’d give them something. And the guys loading the ships with me were some of the hardest working people … they’d go 12 hours a day, seven days a week a lot of them. They worked so hard because they had nothing and needed the job,” said Emard.
Earning His Whistle
When Emard was honorably discharged as a private first class in 1952, he returned home to Minnesota, got married, had his first child and held down a couple temporary jobs before he was asked by an old football coach to come out to North Dakota.
“(My old coach) was working as the baseball coach for the University of North Dakota,” Emard said. “He was an important person in my life, so when he asked to drive out to North Dakota to meet with him and he told me I should use my G.I. Bill to go to school there, I said I would.”
But he needed a job.
“‘I’ve already got a job for you,’ he said back to me,’” he recounted. “He sent me to this bar that was in town and told me to tell them (my old coach) had sent me.”
Emard had never tended bar before and said he had never been much of a drinker, and when he told the owner of his inexperience the confession was waved off and the owner asked him if he could “start tomorrow.”
In the same year Emard had been discharged from the military, he had also returned to school with a physical education major and earned himself his first bartending gig.
“I was working full time as a bartender while going to school full time as well,” said Emard. “I used to fall asleep in class and tell the professor that, ‘I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’ll be able to stay awake today.’”
Earning His Name
Coach moved himself and his family to Southern California in the early part of the 1960s, he says, with his physical education degree and a minor in history in hand, seeking work.
“I came out here when Placerita Canyon Junior High School was basically the only junior high school out here. But I had heard there was a job, so I moved the family here,” Coach said. “I taught at Placerita Junior High and then I became the only P.E. teacher for Sierra Vista Junior High School once it opened a year later.”
Over the course of his three-decade-long career in education, the Korean War-veteran turned teacher impacted thousands of students’ lives, with each one of them knowing him only as “Coach.”
His junior high school students probably remember him for being the “strict, but fair” gym teacher who pushed them on the track or in the weight room. Others have come up to talk with him because, starting in 1977, students had heard that their teacher led gym class by day, and owned a bar at night.
“I used to own the spot where Mabel’s Roadhouse is now, and it was called the Valencia Room back then,” Coach said, noting this is where his nickname was solidified in both of his worlds. “One of the employees asked me to come up with a training program for him, so I did … and he loved it. And every day after that he called me ‘Coach’ and so did everyone else.”
In 1989, Coach would hang up his bar rag temporarily and sell his bar to retire. He left teaching soon after, in 1992.
But in his retirement, he needed something to do and he saw a need in working with his former comrades in arms: the VFW Post 6885 on Sand Canyon Road was run down, bleeding money and had seen a decline in membership.
The manager at the time knew of Coach, that he was telling people “he wanted something to do,” and that he had run a number of successful bars before. So, after the manager came to him in his retirement, Coach told his friend that if he was going to do this, he wanted to do it his way.
“So, we moved the VFW Post 6885 to where it is today from Sand Canyon, and we built this place up.”
Since the move two decades ago, Coach has added to the clubhouse everything from a dance floor, to barbecue/outdoor area to monuments for former-Post 6885 members who have died.
“We’ve got our membership up, and guys now always want to come here and see what they can add to make it better,” said Coach. “People love this place. I love this place.”
You’ll be shocked to learn, after meeting him for the first time, Coach is 90 years old.
“I work out every other day and the only thing I don’t do now is run,” he’ll respond after you ask him to give up the secret to being a Korean War veteran who in 2019 is still the type of person to have a bright red Mini Cooper that matches the grey Mini Cooper driven by his two-decades-his-junior girlfriend, Dianne, a former stuntwoman.
He’s been a bar manager most of his life and the way he sits across from you early in the morning, in the VFW he helped manage for decades, you can tell he’s always been good at the job.
He and Dianne, who he met three years ago, still come to the veterans’ clubhouse regularly even though they’re not as involved as they used to be with its operation. A few weeks ago, Dianne threw Coach a 90th birthday party at the post.
“It was a ’20s theme, ’cause our slogan was ‘Born in ’28 and still going great,’” said Coach. “I was dressed up like one of those old-time gangsters, you know the hats and three-piece suits.”
On the day of the party he said he pulled up in his Mini Cooper, walked into the building, and was greeted by a massive chorus of “Coach is here!” and “Hey Coach!” and “Good to see you Coach!” and some people just exclaimed that one name he’s earned as a sign of affection and respect: