HAMMONTON – With his left hand, Steve Kordos gingerly picks up one of the two paintbrushes resting on a folded paper towel on the tabletop. He dips the bristles into a small blob of green paint and begins.
In front of him, in his tiny room with walls decorated by the past fruits of his labor, sits a canvas with a beautiful but unfinished mountainous landscape. With his right arm resting on his leg, he slowly and intricately uses the brush in his left to fill in the green grass on the mountainside as the crucifix that hangs around his neck begins to sway.
The longtime Buena Regional High School history teacher and track coach suffered a massive stroke in the summer of 2005.
It ended his career, briefly paralyzed him on the right side of his body, forced him to move into an assisted living facility and even cost him the ability to speak.
But it hasn’t taken his voice.
For the better part of the past decade, Kordos, 62, has been living at The Heritage Assisted Living facility in Hammonton. After the stroke, and after he emerged from a semi-comatose state, Kordos underwent physical therapy for almost an entire year.
Nearly 10 years later, he’s no longer completely paralyzed on his right side. The physical therapy aided by time helped Kordos regain use of that side of his body. He initially began to walk with a walker but now needs just a cane to get around. Kordos is able to walk but never regained the use of his right hand and can speak in only sounds, not words.
Painting as therapy
Within two years or so of his stroke, Kordos started art projects. They began as simple sketches and evolved into more detailed and elaborate paintings.
And it’s all done with his non-dominant hand.
“That’s what’s amazing to me,” said his longtime friend and companion Debbie Orlandini. “That he was able to teach himself to use his left hand, not just for daily living skills, but to paint.”
Orlandini, who has known Kordos since 1982, was aware the former track coach was “artsy” but didn’t know the depths of it. She remembers a younger Kordos drawing, sometimes designing shirts for his track teams if they were hosting a meet or a tournament.
But back then she never thought his art would transform into what it is today.
Along with a plaque from the 2004 Cape-Atlantic League National championship track team and one from the 34th annual Woodbury Relays dedicated to him in 2006, the walls of Kordos’ apartment are covered with paintings. They fill walls but they also fill his walk-in closet.
Kordos, smiling and happy, looks through a stack of paintings until he finds his favorites: two incredibly detailed works featuring tribal people and horses.
The small one-room apartment has a bed, a couch and a table. The square dining room table is his workstation and he sits on a wooden chair with a small cushion for two hours daily.
The Heritage Assisted Living in Hammonton is less than 11 miles from Buena Regional High School, where Kordos created his track legacy.
Ed Zirbsir, the director of The Heritage Assisted Living, sees Kordos send out packages every week. In the years since he began painting, Kordos gleefully distributes his works of art to those close to him.
“He wants to give everybody paintings,” Orlandini said. “Well, we’re all out of walls. Now, it’s like you have to start sharing them with other people because we don’t have room.”
But each painting Kordos gives away is cherished by the receiver.
Kenneth Soboloski was Kordos’ boss at the high school for more than two decades. The former principal retired in 2008 and had a retirement party at the Buena Vista Country Club. To Soboloski’s surprise, Kordos showed up.
“I was shocked that he was there,” Soboloski said. “But I was really happy that he was.”
And, of course, Kordos didn’t arrive empty-handed. His gift to Soboloski was a simple painting of a bird. Those were the days the paintings weren’t yet very elaborate, but Soboloski was so impressed by it that he walked the painting from table to table to show it off. It still hangs on the wall of his bedroom.
Plenty of support
Marcellus Manning, 27, graduated high school in 2005 from Buena, where he competed in track under Kordos.
After Manning graduated from Rider University and eventually returned to South Jersey, he visited his former coach in 2011 or 2012. Shortly after the visit, Manning got a package in the mail: a painting of a snowy mountainside with Kordos’ signature initials in the corner.
“It was amazing. I put it right on my wall,” he said. “And it just kind of inspires me daily. It kind of clicked to me that in every troubling circumstance, I believe that God gives you a gift — if you don’t give up. He could have given up and just wallowed. He discovered a great gift to paint. I think it’s amazing. I think his painting is amazing.”
Manning didn’t learn about Kordos’ stroke until 2007 or 2008, while at a Chiefs’ track meet. When he found out, Manning visited his former coach but not often at first.
Kordos meant a lot to him but Manning wasn’t comfortable initially.
Kordos was the tough track coach and now he couldn’t speak. It was difficult for Manning to see his coach like that and it was tougher when he wasn’t sure how to act.
Recently, though, Manning has been visiting more often — sometimes three times per month — and started a GoFundMe page to raise money for his former coach.
In just over two weeks, the page has raised $1,500 from 26 people, many of whom are Kordos’ former students and athletes. The money will help pay for his residency, clothes and, of course, art supplies.
“The comments (on the GoFundMe page) are really emotional to me,” Manning said. “It’s really, really cool because he enjoys it. I went and I read it to him. I read every single person; I read every single email that they sent and he remembers these people and it makes him happy. You can see it in his face. He gets very happy and very excited. It’s cool for me. That’s my satisfaction.”
Alison Phillips is another one of Kordos’ former athletes who continues to make sure he’s a part of her life. The 2004 Buena graduate and her friend and fellow track athlete Shannon Elbert visit their former coach as often as possible.
Kordos can’t speak aside from sounds and gestures but his personality comes through. And to Phillips, he’s the same guy who coached her a decade ago.
“He’s hilarious,” she said. “It’s tough because you spend a lot of time reading his body language and listening to the tone. Since he can’t form words, you have to listen to the other things. He cracks jokes and he’s really funny. It’s interesting how much you can understand without words.”
For Phillips, Kordos was much more than a track coach. In the winter of Phillips’ sophomore year of high school, her family’s house burned down. It was Kordos who walked her to Soboloski’s office to meet her mom. When Phillips decided she didn’t want to leave school, Kordos allowed her to sit in his classroom for the remainder of the day.
After the school day ended, the pair did a few laps around the school to help clear Phillips’ mind. And that night, Kordos and the Orlandini family took Phillips shopping to buy a brand new wardrobe to replace what she lost in the fire.
“He was just such a rock for me,” Phillips said. “I’ll never forget it. I personally feel like I’m forever in debt to him for that. He was my rock. He played a really important role. It’s really easy for me to want to go see him and take him out. I want to do those things.”
Connection with students
Kordos always connected with his athletes. He was tough on them on the track but cared about them. Orlandini said she’s not surprised about the many former students and athletes who keep in touch and want to remain in his life.
It doesn’t surprise Soboloski either.
“He was real. The kids can tell a phony right away,” Soboloski said. “He wasn’t a phony. What you saw was what you got. He was someone they could talk to and he wouldn’t divulge their problems. He was trustworthy. The kids seemed to gravitate toward someone they trust. He was also a funny guy. Kids enjoy being around him.”
Above Kordos’ bed and on the door to his room at Heritage hangs the U.S. Marine Corps insignia. Kordos is proud to be a retired Marine and his time in the Corps still very clearly shapes his life. He keeps his room tidy and his appointments are always on time.
“He’s very regimented,” said Zirbsir. “If breakfast is supposed to start at 8, it’s supposed to start at 8, not 8:15.”
Zirbsir said Kordos doesn’t care much for the scheduled activities at the assisted living facility. While fellow residents play board games, cards and Bingo, Kordos favors being on his own. He enjoys taking walks and working out in the therapy gym, which is conveniently located next to his second-floor room.
And, of course, he likes to paint. While he doesn’t need to set a schedule, Kordos paints every afternoon from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. During this time, he’d prefer to be left alone.