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Fortin’s legacy is wrestling and life lessons

Dave Campbell was a 21-year-old first-year wrestling coach full of fire and energy when Dave Fortin offered him a job as an assistant at South Williamsport in 1988. After deciding not to compete in his final year of eligibility at Lycoming College, Campbell was about to begin his student teaching at South Williamsport and was a perfect candidate to join Fortin’s staff.

Campbell’s fire showed through on the sideline each match with the Mounties. He’d be out of his chair contesting nearly every call an official made.

One day, Fortin handed Campbell a small yellow notepad and had his assistant coach draw a line down the middle. Fortin instructed Campbell when to make a mark on each side of the line during the course of the match. It kept Campbell calm and quiet for three or four matches.

At the end of those matches, Fortin and Campbell tallied the marks on each side of the line. Fortin explained to Campbell they were tracking calls which went against their team and calls which went in favor of the Mounties.

“Wouldn’t you know they were within one or two calls of being 50-50,” Campbell said. “He looked at me and said, ‘now shut your mouth because it’ll all even out eventually.’ He had a perspective that was beyond comparison.”

A lover of wrestling until the very end, Fortin died Sunday at 77 from complications of diabetes. The head wrestling coach at Montoursville from 1966 to 1979, Fortin guided four wrestlers — Gary Walk, Carl Lutz, Rick Snyder and Brett Snyder — to state championships. He later was the head coach at South Williamsport, coaching his sons David, Pat and Mike. Fortin is a member of the District 4 Wrestling Hall of Fame and the West Branch Sports Hall of Fame.

Fortin also spent time as an assistant coach with Budd Whitehill at Lycoming and returned to Montoursville in the mid-1990s as an assistant coach with Mike Millward.

“The combination of those two at that time was irreplaceable,” said Lycoming County District Attorney Ryan Gardner, who was a state placewinner in 1996 under Millward and Fortin. “Millward was a supreme technician. Fortin always had that constant presence of pushing you and guiding you. He had an omnipresence about him that was always well intentioned. He was pushing your own envelope to get you better as a wrestler.”

Fortin was an accomplished wrestler in his own right. A 1961 graduate of South Williamsport, he was a District 4 champion that year before he went on to wrestle at Lycoming. He became the Warriors’ first freshman to win a MAC championship when he took the 177-pound title in 1962. He also helped the school win its first MAC team title in 1962.

As successful as Fortin was as a coach, those who wrestled for him or coached with him found he was teaching far more than just a sport in the years he spent coaching. He understood the big picture beyond one wrestling match or even one season and tried to help his wrestlers see that big picture as well.

“He was one of those coaches who was not only teaching you a sport, but he was teaching you life and what to do when your sport is over,” said former Montoursville wrestling coach Jamie Yonkin, who wrestled for Fortin at Montoursville. “He was all about how do you carry those lessons into your life when you become an employee, when you become a dad, when you become a husband. The really good coaches pass those things onto kids. And it’s those lifelong lessons the kids take with them.”

“When he talked, he was stern, but you listened,” said Fortin’s nephew Erick Fortin, who wrestled for his uncle at South Williamsport. “You trusted him. You may not always agree with him, but you trusted him. You would do anything for him.”

Campbell has carried the lessons he learned from Fortin as a coach with him through his own career in education. As the superintendent at Line Mountain and the former District 4 wrestling chairman, Campbell tries to maintain the same levelheadedness taught to him by Fortin with the small yellow notepad in 1988.

Fortin understood how to reach kids and how to make sure they were mentally prepared for a sport which can be as mentally stressful as it is physical. He understood how to keep pressure off the kids so they could perform at their best.

“He could focus the issue for you,” Gardner said. “You’re all over the place as a teenager and your mind is flooded with things. He could focus you. Coach Fortin had this innate ability to be a guiding light. He was a natural at dealing with people.”

“He was commanding and welcoming,” Campbell said. “He had a great way of making everyone around him feel like they’re part of something. Whether you had zero talent or all the talent in the world. Whether you could offer the program something or you couldn’t, he made you feel a part of it. I loved the guy.”

Fortin’s love for wrestling never dwindled. After his time coaching at Lycoming, he was instrumental in raising funds to boost the Budd Whitehill Endowment Fund which provided money to the wrestling program for recruiting and other expenses. It also led to a memorial plaque being placed at Lycoming’s Lamade Gym entrance way to honor Whitehill.

Fortin also organized a Montoursville wrestling reunion in 2018 at Johnson’s Cafe in Montoursville which brought together generations of the Warriors’ wrestling history. Fortin held court that day, seated on a stool in the middle of the dining room, telling stories of the past and eliciting laugh after laugh.

During his tenure as Montoursville’s head coach, Yonkin could expect a call just about every Sunday from Fortin just to talk about the team. No matter how well or how poorly things were going, he did his best to provide an uplifting talk to Yonkin.

“He was always there to help you see things you’re not seeing,” Yonkin said. “And I’m not talking about this technique or that technique, it was mental stuff to help build me up as a coach. He helped make me a better coach. He was very positive, very upbeat. And he always found the best in people.”

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