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Principal John Felix on community, longevity and the lifelong value of sports

 It's the end of a full day at the end of a busy school year that is wrapping up the action-packed 40-year career for John Felix, and he makes time to take my call. After a minute commenting on the weather (beautiful), road construction (brutal) and whether or not he's counting down the days until retirement (“I don't have time for that kind of thing right now,” he says.), he starts to talk about one of his very favorite things: Donegal School District. Before long it's crystal clear that Mr. Felix has spent forty years doing what he loves in a place that's very, very special to him. But I'll let him tell you in his own words what makes DSD so great.

Can you give us a little about yourself and your family?

JF: I didn't grow up around here. I was the oldest of seven kids, and grew up outside of Philadelphia, in Montgomery County. I went to a big, suburban high school, and graduated with kids I'd never met before. After graduating from Millersville, I came to Donegal, and stayed here ever since.

I'm married to Meg, who was a reading teacher at Donegal Middle School and Intermediate School for many years, and we have four kids, and seven grandchildren. Alexandra lives in Ephrata, Jonny is in Port Matilda, Madeline is in Brooklyn, New York, and Emma is in Pittsburgh. All of them graduated from Donegal High School.

You have been involved with Donegal School District for a number of years, in many different roles. What makes Donegal special?

JF: I think that our size is part of what makes it special. It's possible to get to know everybody. I graduated with kids I never knew, and that's not the case in a place like Donegal. Here, you have a lot of generational relationships, because people tend to stay in the area. I've been here long enough that when I meet the kids that are high school, I know the chances are pretty good that I taught their parents.

What makes Donegal special is that we are large enough that we can present a quality program, but small enough to have familiarity with everyone – students, parents and teachers. Donegal has a community feeling that you may not have with a large high school.

I've spent forty years at Donegal. There are other people who have spent an entire career in one place, but it's not the norm. It's like Cal Ripkin only ever wearing one uniform – it's memorable in that it's the exception to the rule. In my years here, I've been a classroom teacher for 22 years, the athletic director for four years, and the principal for 18 years. In addition to my teaching and administration roles, I've always been a part of the athletic program. I was the high school wrestling head coach for 13 years, the junior high coach for 12 years, and in charge of the elementary program for eight years. I was the assistant football coach for 18 years, as well as the assistant football coach at Lebanon Valley College for six years. [In 2018, John was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame for his impact on Pennsylvania sports.]

You've been involved as both an athletics director and coach – what's your philosophy on coaching?

JF: My philosophy is to encourage kids to participate. I don't want athletes to be so specialized and exclusive that they only focus on one sport or one season. I was a three-sport athlete in high school, and I think there is a lot of value in learning multiple sports. Our society is pushing specialization. The time will come to hone it down to one sport, but my philosophy is participation. At Donegal, we don't have many sports that entail tryouts and cuts. We take everybody and we keep everybody, as long as they behave themselves. That is another piece of what makes us special. Bigger schools are restricted in how many students they can take into a sport, but we don't do that. When I was a wrestling coach, I always said that wrestling might do more for a student than that student would do for wrestling. What they learned during the season was the critical piece. I know we all want to be successful and win, but we can't lose track of the other benefits that participating in sports gives us.

That's one of the reasons that the Donegal Athletics Club is so important. I marvel at what we've done with this organization. We couldn't have built the stadium without DAC, and it's just that simple. I got to open a brand new building as principal, and not everyone gets to do that. That was pretty cool. I'll never forget opening the doors and watching kids walk in the door for the very first time. It's a moment I'll never forget.

What was one of your favorite moments as a coach (or athletic director)?

JF: This one wasn't as a coach, but as their principal, and it will always be one of my favorite memories. In 2010, the girls soccer team was in the state finals, playing for championship. The game was scheduled for the day of graduation. When that happens, PIAA won't change date, but will change time to accommodate seniors. They scheduled it for 11:00. So, we held classes, had an early dismissal, held rehearsal, all went to Hershey to watch the girls play in Hershey stadium, won the game (which was good), then headed back for graduation. On the way back, our Athletic Director Ron Kennedy and I called and organized an impromptu parade through the police department. Firetrucks from three towns were waiting to escort those girls through town. The whole entourage got back to school where we had graduation and graduated half of the team that evening. I went home that night thinking, “I can't believe that was all in one day.” It illustrates really well who we are as a school and a community.

Now that you are retiring, what's next?

JF: I have a few irons in the fire. I will still be involved with the Lancaster Lebanon League board of control. And, I'll finally get another dog. I've had Brittany Spaniels most of my life, and three years ago, I had to put my last one down. Life has been too hectic to train a puppy the last few years, but now it's time to get another one. I have my eye on a litter that's due to be born at the end of May.

What is one piece of advice you have for graduating seniors, as they head out into the world?

JF: There is something I always say at commencement – leaving Donegal is a two way street. Students leave a part of them with us, and we hope and pray that they take a piece of Donegal with them everywhere they go.