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Garrett Scott remembered: Chess coach, Normal Town Council member, and educator

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Garrett Scott teaching one of his many chess students.

A longtime Normal Town Council member, speech pathologist, and chess educator who helped thousands of school children learn and play chess has died at the age of 78.

Garrett Scott served on the council for more than two decades. He was a longtime state delegate to the U.S. Chess Federation and a tournament director who interacted with grand masters and beginners alike. Scott served on the federation's policy and executive boards and brought national championship tournaments to Bloomington-Normal. And perhaps most importantly, he built a thriving school and adult tournament chess scene in central Illinois that lasted for decades.

Scott grew up and spent most of his life in central Illinois save for two grade school years spent in 1950s Alabama, where he first became aware of racism. The landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, had just happened. Scott told the Chess Underground podcast in 2020 that he was appalled to hear classmates and adults say they would bring chains and other weapons to school to prevent integration.

“I moved back at the end my eighth-grade year to Illinois and had this feeling that, you know, our country is not as good as I thought it was,” said Scott.

He said that shaped his decision as a freshman in college at the then-Illinois State Normal University to go on a spring break trip to the south.

“This was 1963. So, in going to Savannah, Ga, we were going to go down and help a Black organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC. We were going to help the local chapter do voter registration work,” said Scott.

Martin Luther King Jr. led the SCLC, and Scott said the minister who coordinated the voter registration trip was at King’s side during the assassination of the civil rights leader five years later.

Scott said he learned years later, that trip to Savannah was a proof of concept for a larger voter registration campaign that became a well-known part of the civil rights movement. Later that year, he was part of another church trip to the March on Washington where he heard King deliver his famous, "I Have a Dream" speech.

“It was just an experience that said to be there is hope. We’re going to make it. It won't come. It may take (a) couple years. I was so optimistic about everything that afternoon after his speech,” said Scott.

Normal Town Council service

Late that same day, Scott's optimism came crashing down when the group was refused service at a Maryland restaurant because some of them were Black. Scott told the podcast those experiences pushed him to join the effort to pass a human rights ordinance in the Town of Normal to protect some parts of the LGBTQ community from discrimination. It failed 5-2 on the first attempt, but Scott said it was important to have the vote to show commitment to supporters. A couple elections later, the outcome changed.

Scott's town council service touched many areas. Former city manager Mark Peterson said Scott's approach to governance was much like himself — affable, low key, and collaborative.

“Garrett was a rock-solid elected official. He was there for the right reasons. He was not a grandstander. He had no personal motives. He loved the community. And I think he saw service on the council as a way to give back,” said Peterson.

Former Mayor Paul Harmon said Scott's operating style was reflective and centered on what would help the community as a whole. Harmon said he appointed Scott to co-chair the committee to create the Constitution Trail hiking and biking linear park that now twines widely through the community.

“I knew he had a way of working with people that could bring it to fruition. And he did that,” said Harmon, adding it was not an easy lift and Scott deserves to be called one of the fathers of the trail.

“It is such a popular feature today that people don't remember it was controversial then, you know, ‘We don't want this in our backyards.’ ‘We're gonna have crime.’ He had to work with that. And I believe that got approved in Normal because of Garrett's patience and efforts to convince people that these bad things are most likely not going to happen,” said Harmon.

Today, thousands use the trail, and trail access boosts the sale price of a home.

Every politician has a pet peeve or two. Peterson said Scott's was visual clutter of the streetscape.

“I recall he was very much opposed to sign pollution, and therefore in favor of sign control,” said Peterson.

Peterson said other municipalities later used some of the sign code passed with Scott's urging. Scott served 23 years on the council, before losing his seat in the 2003 election.

With Garrett's wife, Sandy, a McLean County official, the Scotts were a 1980s power couple, said Peterson.

In his working life, Scott was a speech pathologist in District 87 schools. Harmon said Scott was razor sharp at that, too.

“What I always found fascinating is he could place somebody who was raised in Illinois within 25 miles of where they were raised, by listening to their voice,” said Harmon.

Shaping the local chess community

Scott's influence on the community and nation is most evident in chess.

“I can't think of anybody who made a bigger impact in the lives of chess players in Bloomington-Normal than Garrett Scott,” said Pete Karagianis, the assistant director of events for the U.S. Chess Federation.

Scott coached at several high schools and grade schools over four decades. He seeded school clubs. He directed tournaments that would draw 200-plus kids every Saturday. And he would do much more.

“He was giving of himself, very generous with his time and with his knowledge with everything he had really, opening up his home to students and friends. I remember a few times when he would just have an open house and whoever wanted to come over just stop by to talk chess and play chess,” said Karagianis.

Karagianis said Scott believed in the importance of education and the value of chess as an educational tool, and dedicated his life to following that belief.

Today, chess preparation often involves computers, brute force memorization, and exhaustive preparation that carries a player from the opening well into the middle game before having to stop and think. That wasn't Scott's approach. He said he encouraged kids to evaluate the board themselves.

“I did not do much opening. I taught some principles of the opening, but pins, skewers forks, how to promote a pawn. If you've got those in your bag, you’ll be OK. And so it was just exciting to teach scholastic players,” said Scott in 2020.

Scott founded and for 33 years directed a chess tournament held on Martin Luther King Day, which he also used to impress on the children the importance of the holiday.

“At the tournament nearly every year, I have spoken about a little bit of my experience and how no one should ever look down on any other human being,” said Scott.

Karagianis first came to know Scott when Karagianis was a school-aged player at one of those King Day tournaments. Then he brought his own children to them. Scott was affable, occasionally wry, most often with a glint of humor about the foibles of human beings.

“He was one of the kindest people I knew. And I think he had a desire to see that sort of generosity and kindness in everybody. He had a way of finding it in people and bringing it out,” said Karagianis.

Scott's coaching had a lot of success, too, with players becoming state champions at several levels of scholastic chess. In one memorable stretch of several years, the University High School team he coached in Normal won 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at the state tournament. Scott said that was nice. He was proud of it. It was a very hard thing to do. But that's not why he coached.

“I have had a very good life. And chess has been a big part of it. And I have enjoyed it. And watching young people develop,” said Scott.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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