A macho man with a soft heart in Natchitoches: PART 1

By Nico Van Thyn

Bettye and Jim BruningWith his children at home, and with his kids at school — particularly the football players — Jim Bruning was a tough, old-school disciplinarian.
Also, underneath an often gruff and opinionated exterior, he was good-natured, funny and fun, and full of mischief. Still is, when he can manage it.
And here is what anyone who spent much time around one of the best-known men in Natchitoches knows: He was a light-hearted true friend, with an endearing personality.
What he achieved in coaching and teaching, with his family, and the people in the town where he spent almost all his life, was everlasting love and respect.
And in football at Natchitoches’ public high school, Bruning and his 1969 Red Devils team stand alone. He was the head coach for the only state championship in the program’s history.

That magical 14-0 perfect season came in the last year of old Natchitoches High School’s existence.

The next year, the school became Natchitoches-Central High School … a court-ordered integration of most all-white Natchitoches High and all-black Central High. The athletic teams’ nickname changed from Red Devils to Chiefs.

A new facility housed the combined school on the west side of the city; Natchitoches High was on the Northwestern State University campus. But the head football coach remained the same.

In the only coaching job he ever had, Bruning — a fine athlete at Natchitoches High and then Northwestern State — was an assistant to his own coach, Trent Melder, for eight years and then his successor, starting in the 1966 season.

His 12 years as head coach (1966-77) included six consecutive playoff seasons, four district championships in a six-year span … and 1969 when Natchitoches ruled the state in Class AA.

He is 83 now, and his health has been a concern. The issues have multiplied. Walking is difficult, he can’t hear much, and even breathing is a problem. Being in an assisted-care facility and in a hospital is a burden he doesn’t like accepting.

He’s had a lonely existence of sorts since 2009 when Bettye, the attractive dark-haired girl he married in 1956, died of breast cancer, eight years after the first diagnosis. They spent a lot of their last two decades traveling together.

Their three children — Janyce, 59; Harryette, 55, and Jim Jr. (“Bubba” to everyone), 52 — are long gone from Natchitoches. Two live in Texas, one relatively closeby in North Louisiana, but they check on Dad often. So do his many friends.

And he’ll call those friends, anytime he feels like it. He likes to stay in touch. It’s mutual. His existence isn’t quite as lonely because of this:

“I’m amazed that every time we visit,” said his son-in-law, Allen Kinley, “there are a lot of his ex-players around to visit with him.”

Bruning’s oldest child, daughter Janyce Kinley, said that even in the assisted-living facility and the hospital, “He’s very social. The more people around, the more he likes it.
“He cares about people. He’ll tease them, get on them about their bad habits, and so on, but he has a bigger-than-life personality.

“At the hospital, a nurse asked him, ‘Is there anyone in town who doesn’t know you?’ ”

To be continued…Read PART 2 Sept. 9

Nico Van Thyn was a sports writer/editor for more than 45 years, including stints in his hometown with The Shreveport Times and Shreveport Journal. He finished his career with a decade at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is retired, living in Fort Worth with his wife Bea. They have two children and four grandchildren.