There’s a stretch of pavement in northern Clark County barely a mile long named Weber Road.
A frequent training location for the Kenton Ridge High School cross country and track teams, it could easily be renamed the Don Monroe Highway.
With two leg-fatiguing hills, the road course deserves respect. It challenges the Cougars to find the best of their abilities. And, as the Cougars’ runners will attest, Weber Road is as tough as they come. The same has been said about Monroe.
For 35 seasons Monroe has guided the Cougars’ cross country and track teams. After Friday, his run as a social studies teacher and coach came to an end when Monroe retired from both professions. Overall, Monroe taught for 41 years and served as a head coach for 40.
“He’s an incredible person. … It was his discipline, his willingness to push us to be better as an athlete, a student and a citizen,” said 1985 KR graduate Mike McDermond, the president of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. “Don is about the whole person, not just on the track or the cross country course.”
Off and running
Monroe’s own running career started in the fifth grade. He finished fourth in the 50-yard dash in the Springfield city championship meet and won a yellow ribbon. Monroe, a Springfield South graduate, still has that yellow ribbon. And his passion for the sport.
It saved his life in 2000.
At the age of 50, doctors discovered one of his arteries was 95 percent blocked — called the widow-maker — and underwent double-bypass surgery.
“If I had a heart attack, I wouldn’t have made it,” Monroe said. “I have an athletic heart (an enlarged heart due to daily exercise) and your heart basically explodes. … Not drinking, not smoking and running all my life really saved my life.”
Monroe had the bypass in November. He was running alongside his cross country team by March. When Monroe sends his teams on the grueling six-mile trek starting at Kenton Ridge and going to the end of Weber Road and back to KR, he goes with them.
“He wasn’t one of those coaches that barked out the workout and there you go. No, he was out there with us,” said 1995 KR grad Heather (Nienaber) Kasner, who also taught with Monroe for seven years.
Monroe averages 3 to 5 miles a day. Kasner’s mom still calls her to let her know coach ran past the house yet again.
“I always tried to set a good example,” Monroe said. “I never asked them to do something I hadn’t done myself or couldn’t handle. They bought into that example of ‘practice what you preach.’”
Fan in the stands
Fittingly, Monroe’s final season of coaching will conclude at the D-II state championships in Columbus in the coming week. Un-fittingly, it’ll come as a fan. Monroe will watch from the stands — just like he did Saturday at the D-II regional finals at Dayton’s Welcome Stadium. Since he’s officially retired, he’ll lose a month of retirement benefits if he coaches from the infield.
Freshman Jamari McDavid and sophomore Iman Salhieh are determined to send Monroe out with a state championship. McDavid won D-II regional titles in the 100-meter dash and long jump. Salhieh finished second in the 100 and third in the 200. Both are also on the fourth-place 400-relay team going to state along with seniors Karrah Batten and Sara Thornton.
“I wouldn’t want any other coach,” Salhieh said. “I love him to death.”
During his tenure, his Kenton Ridge cross country and track teams have combined to win four Central Buckeye Conference titles, four district titles and two regional titles. He guided a cross country team to state meet in three consecutive seasons from 1983-85. Candace Leep won the 1,600-meter state championship under his tutelage in 2000. Burt Anderson won the shot in 1987.
Those moments are undeniably special. But it’s athletes like junior Derek Desentz that can trump them. Three weeks ago Desentz was throwing the shot and discus. Two weeks ago Monroe put Desentz in the 200-meter dash and he won a Division II district championship.
“(The best part) for me was seeing athletes go beyond what they think they can do,” Monroe said. “When you take a diamond in the rough and you polish it.”
The art room at Kenton Ridge High School is filled with 125 trophies, all meets and invitationals won by Monroe’s track and cross country teams. Space in the trophy case is at a premium, so Monroe is taking the plaques off the trophies and placing them on a display board to take up less space.
He’s donating the trophies to the Special Olympics.
Northwestern assistant principal Brad Beals knows all about Monroe’s golden heart. When Beals’ father passed away during his senior season in 1984, Monroe honored Beals’ father with an award. The Keith Beals Award, given to someone who goes above and beyond to help the program, is still awarded today.
“It was something else coach did that was just first-class in my mind,” said Beals, who was Monroe’s first athlete to qualify for state in cross country and track. “I think as a coach myself, what he was able to instill in me and what he meant to me personally is what I try to emulate as a coach. I want my kids to feel about me the way I do about coach Monroe.”
Once a Cougar, always a Cougar
When you ran for Monroe you were family. From pre-race meals at Giovanni’s to never letting a runner have to work out alone, the Cougars embraced the pack mentality.
In Beals’ senior season, he qualified for the state cross country meet as an individual. As the lone runner left, Monroe ran alongside Beals for encouragement and companionship.
“I think my best memories are going on long runs with Coach … when you’re out there doing it on your own because you’re the only one left, and coach jumping in there and running with me,” Beals said. “Coach was always as excited as I was when I did well.”
These days much of Nienaber’s running has to do with family errands. But in a testament to her devotion to Monroe, she’d run the proverbial extra mile for Monroe.
“If he would say, ‘hey let’s get some people together and run a full marathon,’ I would do it,” Nienaber said. “I don’t care how bad it would hurt.”
Heck, she’d even run Weber Road again.
Don Monroe file
Family: Wife Jean; son P.J; daughter Heidi
Head coaching career: Cross country, girls basketball, track at Catholic Central, 1975-79; cross country and track at Kenton Ridge, 1980-2014
Titles: Four CBC titles, four district titles, two regional titles in track; two individual state champions in track (Candace Leep 1,600 run in 2000; Burt Anderson shot in 1987); cross country team qualified for state from 1983-85
Fun fact: Has an identical twin brother named Ron. The best way to tell them apart? Tom is left-handed and Don is right-handed. “We played jokes on girls (as well as teachers). We dated twin girls. We switched girls and see how long we could go without them realizing.”