Garrett Scott Reminisces: Chess Coach, Normal Town Council Member and Educator
A longtime member of the normal town council, speech therapist and chess educator who helped thousands of school children learn and play chess has died aged 78.
Garrett Scott served on the board for over two decades. He was a long-time state delegate to the United States Chess Federation and a tournament director who interacted with grandmasters and beginners. Scott has served on the federation’s boards of directors and executives and has hosted national championship tournaments in Bloomington-Normal. And perhaps most importantly, he built a thriving school chess and adult tournament scene in central Illinois that lasted for decades.
Scott grew up and spent most of his life in central Illinois, with the exception of two elementary school years in 1950s Alabama, where he first became aware of racism. time. 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 went back at the end of my eighth year to Illinois and I felt like, you know, our country isn’t as good as I thought it was,” Scott said.
He said it influenced his decision as a freshman at Illinois State Normal University to take a spring break trip down south.
“It was 1963. So 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 do the voter registration work,” Scott said.
Martin Luther King Jr. led the SCLC, and Scott said the minister who coordinated the voter registration trip stood with King when the civil rights leader was assassinated five years later.
Scott said he learned years later that this trip to Savannah was proof of concept for a larger voter registration drive 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 there was hope. We’re going to get there. It’s not coming. It may take (a) few years. I was so optimistic about this whole post- noon after his speech,” Scott said.
Normal service of the town hall
Late the same day, Scott’s optimism crumbled when the group was refused service at a restaurant in Maryland because some of them were black. Scott told the podcast that those experiences prompted him to join the effort to pass a human rights ordinance in the city of Normal to protect parts of the LGBTQ community from discrimination. He trailed 5-2 on the first attempt, but Scott said getting the vote was important to show his commitment to the fans. A few elections later, the result changed.
“Garrett was a rock-solid chosen one. He was there for the right reasons. He was not mainstream. He had no personal motive. He loved the community. And I think he saw service on the board as a way to give back,” Peterson said.
Former Mayor Paul Harmon said Scott’s style of operation was thoughtful and focused on what would help the community as a whole. Harmon said he appointed Scott to co-chair the committee to create the Constitution Trail linear hiking and biking park that now extends widely into the community.
“I knew he had a way of working with people who could carry it out. And he did it,” Harmon said, adding that it was not an easy lift and that Scott deserved to be called one of the fathers of the track.
“It’s such a popular feature today that people don’t remember it being controversial back then, you know, ‘We don’t want that in our backyards.’ “We’re going to have a felony. He had to work with that. And I believe it was approved in Normal because of Garrett’s patience and effort to convince people that these bad things probably won’t happen,” said Harmon.
Today, thousands of people use the trail, and access to the trail increases the selling price of a home.
Every politician has a pet peeve or two. Peterson said Scott was a visual clutter of the streetscape.
“I remember he was very opposed to panel pollution, and therefore in favor of panel control,” Peterson said.
Peterson said other municipalities later used part of the sign code adopted at Scott’s insistence. Scott served 23 years on the council, before losing his seat in the 2003 election.
Along with Garrett’s wife, Sandy, a McLean County official, the Scotts were a 1980s power couple, Peterson said.
In his professional life, Scott was a speech-language pathologist at District 87 Schools. Harmon said Scott was also very sharp.
“What I always found fascinating was that he could place someone who grew up in Illinois within 25 miles of where they were raised, listening to his voice,” said Harmon said.
Shaping the local chess community
Scott’s influence on the community and the nation is most evident in chess.
“I can’t think of anyone who has had a greater impact on the lives of chess players in Bloomington-Normal than Garrett Scott,” said Pete Karagianis, assistant director of events for the US Chess Federation.
Scott has coached at multiple high schools and elementary schools for four decades. He created school clubs. He ran tournaments that drew over 200 kids every Saturday. And he would do more.
“He gave of himself, very generous with his time and knowledge with all he really had, opening his home to students and friends. I remember a few times when he had an open house and anybody wanted to come and stop by to talk about chess and play chess,” Karagianis said.
Karagianis said Scott believed in the importance of education and the value of chess as an educational tool, and dedicated his life to following this belief.
Chess preparation today often involves computers, brute force memorization, and exhaustive preparation that takes a player from the opening to the middle of the game before he has to stop and think. That was not Scott’s approach. He said he encouraged children to rate the board themselves.
“I didn’t do a lot of opening. I taught some opening principles, but also pins, skewers, forks, how to promote a pawn. If you have them in your bag, you’ll be fine. And so it was just exciting to teach school players,” Scott said in 2020.
Scott founded and ran a Martin Luther King Day chess tournament for 33 years, which he also used to teach children about the importance of the holiday.
“At the tournament almost every year, I talked a bit about my experience and how no one should ever look down on another human being,” Scott said.
Karagianis first knew 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, sometimes ironic, most often with a touch of humor about the weaknesses of human beings.
“He was one of the nicest people I know. And I think he had a desire to see that kind of generosity and kindness in everyone. He had a way of finding it in people and to bring it out,” Karagianis said.
Scott’s coaching was also very successful, with players becoming state champions at multiple levels of school chess. In a memorable multi-year streak, the college high school team he coached in Normal won 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the state tournament. Scott said that was good. He was proud of it. It was a very difficult thing to do. But that’s not why he coached.
“I had a very good life. And chess played a big part in it. And I enjoyed it. And watching young people develop,” Scott said.