Maybe it’s just as well the sponsor dropped out, so when Rockland County still names a track and field coach of the year each winter and spring, plaques no longer are awarded.
After all, wall space is limited in Gene and Lonnie Dall’s Tomkins Cove home.
With rival coaches invited for barbecues, disadvantaged kids sometimes taken in and foreign athletes having been lodged (including two Russian future Olympic pole vaulters and their coaches whom the KGB monitored during their stay), the Dall residence is more home than house.
But it has a Hall of Fame air with sports photos and posters; son Ryan’s pole vaulting ribbons and medals; and Gene’s coaching plaques.
Dall, 69, has been Rockland coach of the year 36 times.
He retired as a North Rockland physical education teacher in 2001. He sometimes talks of packing for Texas to be near Ryan, Texas A&M-Kingsville’s track and field coach, and Ryan’s wife and their two daughters.
But not just yet.
“If you retire and do nothing, you’re putting one foot in the grave and I really enjoy it. It’s still fun,” Dall said.
Coach inspired him
Track and field is where he has made his name. He was inducted last year into the Rockland County Track & Field Hall of Fame. But he has also coached football, baseball, softball and wrestling, the latter when student teaching while attending Ithaca College, where he played football and threw the shot and discus.
“My idea when I came out of college is I would be the world’s greatest football coach,” he said.
But this winter will mark the start of his 47th year coaching North Rockland track and field.
If he had a do-over button much would remain the same.
That includes attending high school in New Milford, New Jersey, where track coach Bill Monahan changed lives, including Dall’s. Everyone was treated equally. Everyone was greeted in hallways, including a shy kid from a Catholic elementary school who needed inclusion.
Monahan won 110 straight dual meets without a school track. Dall trained throwing from a school patio.
“He made you know not to let anything stand in the way,” Dall said.
Noting he has emulated Monahan, who died last year, he quipped, “I guess it’s worked.”
Dall’s advantage has been a big school and supportive administration. But he has also succeeded by bucking trends and sticking with quality-over-quantity training.
He has coached state and national champions, including Ryan, now 40. He also coached his daughter, Shelley, 33, who works in New Orleans in television and movie production; and adopted son Dasheen Ellis, one of NY’s best triple jumpers in 2009. A culinary school graduate, he’s employed by a top New Orleans restaurant.
Coaching his kids was great fun. But he’s most proud of his teams “rising to the challenge and winning over the years.”
Many of Dall’s athletes have competed in college. Some have become coaches.
Dall’s own parents didn’t go to high school. His father, a plasterer, did Radio City Music Hall’s decorative ceiling work. But his parents took loans, insisting he go to college.
He’s lucky, he said.
But athletes have died. He remembers their names and their personalities just as much as their performances.
And Gene and Lonnie lost their first child, Michelle, in an April 1980 car accident that severely injured Lonnie and killed her mother and great aunt. Michelle was 6.
“I don’t remember coaching that spring until the state meet,” Dall said.
That was when Todd Sinclair, who lived in a local group home, won the 1,600 at the wire.
“He throws his body across the finish. 4:09,” Dall said, remembering his time and Sinclair, a future University of Florida record-setter, running to him.
“‘This is for you,’ he said, hugging me,” Dall recalled.
It wasn’t easy for Gene, or Lonnie, a former teacher, coach and official. But they moved forward.
Between the track kids, close friends, and Boris, their talented-sprinter rescue dog, they don’t lack local family.
So Dall’s staying put for now with more coaching awards clearly on the horizon.
His to-do list?
“It’s just to keep everything going the way it has,” he said. Then he paused and rethought things. “Well,” he said, “we haven’t had an Olympian yet. That would be nice.”