Earlier this month, John “Cheeseburger” Witherspoon received an award for community impact from the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce.
Witherspoon has been a coach and mentor for Salem youth for over four decades, and is especially involved in the Boys & Girls Club and Four Corners Elementary School. At the event, he told Salem Reporter that he doesn’t care about awards, and does it all for the sake of the kids.
“I just try to do what I can do,” he said during the ceremony.
Salem Reporter’s article about the recognition received hundreds of comments on social media from former students, players and parents with fond memories of the longtime mentor.
We reached out to some of these commenters, asking them to share their memories of “Cheeseburger.” Submissions were in writing over email and Facebook Messenger, and have been lightly edited for spelling and clarity.
Katy Brockway, former student at Four Corners Elementary School:
I met Mr. Cheeseburger in 2002 when I was in kindergarten at Four Corners Elementary School and he was a reading instructor and coach. He would bring a big tub of Red Vines licorice with him to his reading sessions and he would have students sit with him in a quiet spot to help with pronunciation and reading comprehension. Everybody was always SO excited to have a reading session with him because they knew they would get a candy.
I have a terrible habit of bouncing my legs when I’m nervous, which had me bouncing off of the pages and stuttering when I would read out loud in class. During my sessions he told me to focus on not bouncing my legs when reading/speaking so that I could better focus on the words and pronunciations; he was totally right, my voice didn’t shake as bad and I no longer lost my spot when reading.
Mr. Cheeseburger had a deep, loud voice and he would always push us to project when we read so that we were heard. He was always so funny and confident and cool, he made it easy to want to be like him, so when I read, I would try to be as loud as him.
As an adult looking back, it is such a funny and simple solution to my reading problems but it really helped my confidence when I was younger and got me to kick a bad habit and really be unashamed to speak up in classes.
Cheeseburger impacted my confidence greatly as a student and I’ve never forgotten those reading sessions. I credit a lot of my literacy skills and interests to my early childhood education and Cheeseburger was definitely a key figure in that. I was much more inclined to read out loud after my sessions with him and this only furthered my interest in English/Language Arts studies throughout my entire life. I got into reading and writing festivals later in elementary school and continued to thrive in Honors and AP English classes through secondary education, and now have a B.A. in IDS (interdisciplinary studies degree) with focuses in Communications, Education and Humanities.
Loni Marin, Cheeseburger coached all four of her children in the 90s and 2000s:
I’ve known the “Cheese” for A LOT of years. He coached our older boys in the mid-90s and our youngest in and around 2007ish. I’m a momma bear and when I seen this giant, overall-wearing face splattered with paint hair a mess, pull up in his late model 70s 4-door yacht, I thought “Lord the league is desperate for coaches.” His gruff voice, his harsh tone quick revealed a Grinch’s heart. “COME ON SON…USE YOUR HEAD…IT’S COMMON SENSE”
We had many conversations while we sat and watched the team eat ice cream after yet another loss. Win or lose, he always had the same twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of them. He always waited for the last kiddo to be picked up. You could often hear his stomach grumble ‘cause you knew he came from work right to practice. He was never in a hurry to leave them.
I did not hear the beginning of an argument at a game, but I did hear Cheese turn around and say, and I quote…”I DON’T CARE WHAT DAMN COLOR HE IS, HE’S A KID!” Those words have solidified in my heart that Cheese is more than what you see.
I want to thank you from the depths of my heart for honoring a man with such a humble spirit. He hates all this I am certain, but he is worthy beyond words.
Geoffrey Snyder, who played local football in the late 1980s:
I’m here to share my days with Cheeseburger! He was rough and kind all in one back in 1989. I was chosen to be quarterback on the football team (Lions) and he pushed me to be better and stronger as a team leader for the next 2 years. As my mother was a single mom raising 3 kids (me being the oldest) she wasn’t always able to take me to and from practice and some games as she worked 2 jobs, well Cheeseburger took time to make sure kids other than myself got home and some days would even take us to Dairy Queen for treats! This man went above and beyond for his community and asked for little in return! I also remember myself coaching my son’s baseball team in 2010 and Cheeseburger was home plate umpire in multiple games!
Cheeseburger will always live in my heart and remind me to push forward and give back!
I’m known by him as the next Joe Montana!
Neil Johnson, met Cheeseburger when he was 12 and went on to work with him:
I met Cheeseburger when I was 12 years old as he was a Boys and Girls Club Football Coach for the Lions tackle football team. I did not have the opportunity to play for Cheeseburger as I played for another team. My friends got to play for him. Cheeseburger then umpired many of my baseball games in Babe Ruth, high school, and American Legion. I got to know him on a personal level when I was 18 working for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Salem where I worked for 13 years. Cheeseburger volunteered for about every event that took place at the Club.
He would take about half (well 6 or 8 kids) from his Boys & Girls Club Football team to and from practice and get them dinner. That is amazing as otherwise these kids would not have made it to practice or to the games.
He would typically coach kids who came from disadvantaged circumstances who lived in low-income areas of town.
Another memory—Parents and kids from other teams were scared of him because he was large and loud. Little did we know that he was the most loving and kindest guy on the planet. I was jealous of my friends who go to play for him.
Cheeseburger showed me how important it is to serve our youth as they need guidance and role models. If we could duplicate John Witherspoon by a few hundred, we would eliminate many of the negative issues in our community.
A few things he taught me:
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Stand up for yourself.
There is no such thing as a bad kid.
Serve your community.
Scott Hardin, South Salem High School class of 1991:
I can’t say enough about this guy. He was my first father figure. He made us feel loved, like we were important. He gave us the confidence we needed when we were lacking male leadership. He has such a special connection with children. He has no children of his own, yet he loves all of them. He teaches kids how to read for the 4H center. His life revolves around our kids and younger generation. He is a blessing in so many ways. I love him with all my heart. There will never be another John Witherspoon.
Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.
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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.