What a Run!

Mr. John Donodeo P'02 shows some freshmen the ropes.

John Donodeo was nervous. Walking into Regis High School on his first day in 1982, the new physical education teacher felt “intellectually defensive,” acutely aware of the lofty academic reputation belonging to the school’s faculty and students.

A friendly face approached, but his greeting only made it worse. “Welcome to my school,” Fred Donodeo ’84, then a junior, playfully told his older brother.

Looking back decades later, it’s a story — like many others — that John Donodeo can’t wait to tell. “So I wasn’t even top Donodeo!” he exclaims. “Let alone feeling comfortable.”

The nervousness didn’t seem to last very long. For 37 years, Mr. Donodeo, with his endless energy and unbridled enthusiasm, helped define the Regis experience for class after class of gifted Catholic young men. The fast-talking teacher and ebullient coach retired this June, leaving behind a legion of grateful and amused former pupils.

A native of Astoria, Queens, Donodeo grew up in a loud, boisterous family. He starred on the cross country and track teams at Mater Christi High School, which he pointedly chooses not to call by its current name, St. John’s Prep. After majoring in physical education at Manhattan College, Donodeo taught and coached for five years at the McBurney School on the West Side before moving across Central Park.

Donodeo arrived at Regis on a mission: He wanted to ensure that the physical education program earned the respect of the school community. “I knew that would be an extra-special challenge in this place,” he says. “It’s a place of intellectual prowess.”

He accomplished that, along with his close friend and longtime fellow physical education teacher Kevin Cullen, by introducing a variety of interesting, often lesser-known sports. Not content simply to roll out a basketball or break the class into two teams for dodgeball, Donodeo had his students playing European Handball and Pickleball, which fittingly was the chosen activity for his final class on May 23. Once a year, he would lug out equipment from the closet outside the lower gym and set up gymnastics stations, insisting that each student attempt to master the parallel bars.

And then there’s tchoukball, a game Donodeo discovered 15 years ago at a national conference for physical education teachers. An unfamiliar observer can watch for 30 minutes and still have virtually no understanding of the rules. But Regians took to it, and it has become a beloved tradition for the school’s recent graduates. “Tchoukball is a game made for the students of Regis because you don’t have to play any defense,” Donodeo quips.

Donodeo took these sports seriously, and he wanted his students to follow suit. But he also knew how to make each session fun, whether through his extremely spirited officiating or his signature quirks. He’d often excitedly begin by introducing his vocabulary word of the day. When students didn’t pay attention or mouthed off during class, he’d loudly and eagerly brand them “jabronis.”

For many Regis graduates, the most lasting image of Donodeo is at the Central Park Reservoir, urging freshmen to pick up the pace or risk having to redo the mile run. Of course, his love for running and his time logged at the reservoir extended well beyond physical education class. Donodeo began coaching cross country and track at Regis in 1982 and continued to do so full-time through the end of the 2016-17 school year. His many successes earned him a spot in the CHSAA Hall of Fame.

When reflecting on his impact, his former runners don’t point to the race victories. Kieran Darcy ’96, now an ESPN sportswriter, penned an article in 2009 on his former cross country coach. “I was the sixth best runner on a seven-man team, but he treated me like an Olympic prospect,” Darcy wrote. “He stalked the course at Van Cortlandt, barking at me just as much as the guys who were way out ahead of me.”

To outsiders, Donodeo’s constant, exuberant urging on of his runners during competitions — he was “like a wild man out there,” as one alumnus put it — might have seemed excessive. His guys knew better. More than anything, their coach wanted them to give it their all, and he gave them his all at all times to set the tone.

As with physical education class, he also knew how to lighten the mood and relished opportunities to poke fun at his brainy athletes. On the first truly cold day in the fall, when one runner inevitably would show up to cross country practice in shorts and a t-shirt, the coach was always ready. His routine, according to the memory of Ron Romano ’16, went something like this: “What are you doing? You look like you’re in the Bahamas! You should be drinking a piña colada!”

Donodeo’s athletes, some of whom ran all three seasons — cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track — for four years grew close to their coach, and many have stayed in regular contact with him. “He was a father figure to a lot of people,” says James Langstine ’97. “He was always there for you.”

That familial bond was on full display on Sunday, May 22, 2016 when a huge crowd turned out for “JD Day.” To honor his 100th season as coach (three seasons per school year since 1982), the team captains and school administrators held a Mass and reception at Regis, and Donodeo led the large group of current and former runners, along with faculty and parents, on a jog through Central Park. Before the run began, the group surprised him by unveiling a paved stone on the bridge that leads to the reservoir with an engraving commemorating his milestone.

It meant a lot, and Donodeo still stops by his stone when out for runs. “I always check to see to make sure there’s no bird remains on it,” he says earnestly.

JD Day is a special memory for the coach on a number of fronts. Most meaningfully, his beloved wife Myrna, who was in between chemotherapy treatments in her long battle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was able to attend. Sadly, she passed away eight months later.

Myrna’s death partially influenced her husband’s decision to retire. Rest assured, though, that Donodeo is planning for an active retirement. He’ll spend more time with his children, John ’02 and Laura, a former Regis guidance counselor. He has a long list of desired travel experiences: hiking in Glacier National Park, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and traveling to Antarctica to “hang out with the penguins,” to name just a few. He’ll volunteer multiple days per week, tutoring at St. Ignatius School in the Bronx and, in honor of Myrna, visiting pediatric cancer patients at Morgan Stanley Pediatric Hospital. “I hope this place has taught me to be more of a man for others,” Donodeo says.

He’ll remain a familiar face around Regis, as well, attending occasional events and visiting friends. Donodeo knows that a large part of him will miss it when the school year begins in September, but he’s excited for the next phase of his life and proud of his accomplishments at the school. “I’ve loved what I’ve done here,” he says. “And I hope that that has shown.”

It has. And generations of Regians — even his brother Fred — can agree on one other fact: Regis High School is John Donodeo’s school, too, and its students, faculty and staff, and alumni have all been better for it.



Posted: 9/26/19