HAMILTON, Ohio – More than 50 years ago, Dennis and Marilyn Harget had a fine gymnastics and tumbling gym that was carefully maintained in the historic Lindenwald business district in Hamilton.
These days, that same gym doesn’t sport the sophisticated equipment other high-priced gyms feature, but instead taps into the refined knowledge of hometown gymnastics teacher Dennis Hargis. It’s a place where a diverse group of children frequent after school, rather than spending time on the streets.
After Marilyn and Dennis divorced in the early 1970s, Dennis opened his gym to any child remotely interested in tumbling. The once pristine gym where young gymnasts practiced has devolved into a tattered, cavernous shrine today.
It’s a place that’s taught so many young people the values of sportsmanship for only $7 per session; peanuts compared to other professional gyms.
Does Dennis want his kids to be champions? You bet.
Dennis Harget, a lifelong Hamilton, Ohio, resident, has taught hundreds, if not thousands, gymnastics and tumbling lessons for two generations for only $7 per session. He does so to help keep kids off the street. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO
But for many kids growing up over the years, organized sports were a way to keep out of trouble. Some had a rough family life, and being part of a team showed them how to respect others such as teachers, coaches and peers.
This doesn’t only apply for football or other mainstream sports, but it also applies to Dennis’ gym. Sport makes people feel important to be a part of something, winning or losing, Dennis said. Winning just makes it that much more extraordinary.
Now 82, Dennis has coached 15 world tumbling and gymnastics champions and more than 160 national champions over a storied career that’s spanned two generations. Dennis estimates hundreds, if not thousands of kids, have walked through the gym’s doors.
“I used to spot more than 300 kids Monday through Thursday alone,” Dennis said. “I always loved working with the kids, I love good kids – like anybody else, I don’t like the kids that are smart alecs, but we changed a lot of their attitudes.”
The lifelong Hamilton resident said it’s the best use of his space.
“Whether they know it or not, most kids like tumbling; you see them out in the yard or on the street doing cartwheels and stuff,” Dennis said with a chuckle. “I’ve had parents tell me ‘I’ve got to get him in there, because if I don’t, he’s going to kill himself.’”
Emotional and passionate about his work, he recollects on the kind words both parents and kids have told him over the years. It’s a point of pride, and despite the dozens of champions he’s coached over the years, it’s about the kids for Dennis.
“I’ve had kids say that if it hadn’t been for my gym, the would have been on the street. It makes me feel great. It makes you feel like you’ve done something, plus we’ve won some things (competitions), but you had something to do with their lives and help them out in someway,” Dennis said as his eyes wallowed and his voice inflected.
Teresa Hauser, a mother of five whose four girls train with Dennis, is amazed at how patient he is with her girls. She also appreciates how he can take any child into his gym and teach them for pennies.
“I firmly believe kids kept busy are kids out of trouble,” Hauser said, who now helps spot the kids under his tutelage. “I see a lot of kids that come in there that could get in trouble. It’s something affordable for them to do.
“He’s touched all of our lives – he’s just a good-hearted person. It’s not for the money or the prestige. He does it for the kids."
Her four daughters, Rebecca, Sydney, Jenna and Olivia, learn discipline and social skills in the gym, she said.
He doesn’t tolerate disrespect, which makes raising her own children that much easier.
“I don’t either as a parent and he can take a kid that’s a little mouthy and they end up with an attitude change and that completely amazes me,” Hauser said.
Under Dennis’ guidance, Rick Baker, 59, a retired physical education teacher with three daughters of his own, won two world championships.
“He’s seen people that are inferior to his coaching skill go on and make money hand over fist. They’re not even in Dennis’ league as a coach,” Baker said. “He’s kept his prices low for 30 years as a service for the kids here. He has served the community all his life.”
Baker was on the brink of giving up gymnastics and tumbling altogether until he met Dennis in 1973. Baker was dropped on his head by other coaches and met Dennis after he witnessed some of his students perform advanced techniques a regional qualifying meet for the state gymnastics and tumbling competition.
“I saw these 6 and 7 year olds one day and I called Dennis and ask him if he would be willing to train a 17 year old, because I’m kind of getting dropped on my head by all these coaches. Within one month, I learned more from him than the other coaches taught me in 10 years,” Baker said.
“When he dies, they’re will never be another guy like him.”
Everyday Heroes is a periodic series that spotlights extraordinary Tri-State residents going out of their way to make their community a little better one action at a time. Know a hero? Email Kareem.Elgazzar@wcpo.com