Dale Donner never ran track or cross country when he was going through high school at downstate Carlinville.
That didn’t keep him from being named as the head track and field coach when he arrived at Buda Western in November of 1984. He remembers the exact question he got in his interview with Western superintendent Guy Parr.
“He said, ‘We’ve got a track opening. What do you know about track?’ I said, ‘I go to my brother’s track meets. I like watching it.’ He said, ‘Great, you’ll be our track coach,’” Donner said. “That’s how I got hired in track. Then cross country, just kind of fell in love with it as time went.”
And Bureau Valley High School cross country fell in love with Donner, who has been head coach since 1998.
BV superintendent Eric Lawson surprised Donner, who is retiring as cross country coach and teacher at the end of the school year, by announcing Saturday the school would be renaming the Bureau Valley Invitational in his name.
The witty Donner thought something was up when he started seeing several of his old runners hanging around the meet Saturday.
“It will still always be the BV invite. Kind of what everybody knows it as,” Donner said. “Ten years from now, people won’t know who Dale Donner is.”
Lawson said that will hardly be the case as Donner has left a lasting mark on the school and the Storm’s cross country program.
“It’s fitting. He’s been an icon to our school and the invitational,” Lawson said. “We’re definitely going to miss him. He’s a good man, a good mentor. He does things the right away. He’s been so valuable to our team and our communities.”
The humble Donner is quick to say he’s the one who’s been lucky and Storm cross country is not just about him.
“I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by great people as far as parents and volunteers,” Donner said. “It’s not an honor they gave me. It’s the program. It’s not Dale Donner. It’s people like the Kerrs, the VonHoltens, the Gonigams, the Johnsons, who continue to come back and help.
“The invite runs pretty smooth because of all the help we have there. It’s totally a school and community-wide effort.”
Donner has also had support at home from his wife, Paula, who takes care of all the things he can’t.
“You’re gone a lot as a coach. Our yard would look terrible if it wasn’t for her taking care of the things I should be doing,” he said.
Jason Bill, a BV All-Stater in cross country and track, said Donner is a great role model. Bill. 33, who his finishing his gastroenterology fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, credits Donner for making the Storm’s 2001 state runner-up squad what it was.
“Around 1999-2000, we as an entire group were learning how to be successful together. We owe a lot of our success to coach Donner getting the entire team to buy into what he envisioned for us. He was able to create a comfortable environment and his passion for coaching was obvious which rubbed off on everyone,” said Bill, who was the state runner-up for that 2001 Storm squad and state champion in the 1600-meters in track.
“Personally, he was someone I always felt comfortable with and could count on for advice. He has touched a lot of lives, earned many accolades, and should be extremely proud of what he has accomplished at Bureau Valley.”
Donner figured Buda Western would be a two- or three-year stop and he’d move on to the suburbs. He stayed on at Western until it closed to merge into the Bureau Valley district in 1995-96.
Don Guier headed up the Storm cross country program and turned it over to Donner after three years. Like track, he knew little about the sport and became a quick learner.
“It was either I take it, or who knows,” Donner said. “I didn’t know much about cross country. Don helped me a little bit my first year. Mainly it was going to clinics,a little reading, getting to know some of the big names from cross country and taking a little bit from them.
Donner found a big part of the job was just getting kids out for the program.
“That’s the key. Everybody has a Jason or Randy Bill in your hallways. Not every year, but some point of time you have one. You just get them to go out,” said Donner, noting former BV All-Stater Regan Weidner once told him she wanted to be a softball player before he convinced her she had a special talent in running.
The kids he got out who maybe didn’t have that special talent going in, like Dustin Marquis and Molly VonHolten, who made themselves into all-state caliber runners are most special to him.
“They had the work ethic and the heart do it,” he said.
And don’t tell Donner that cross country is a “minor” sport.
“It’s not an easier sport (than the others),” he said. “We kind of have a standing agreement with the football team, ‘We can’t do what you do, but I guarantee you can’t do what we do.
“It’s not a minor sport and it’s not the same as track. It helps the track program, just like each sport works together. But a great cross country runner doesn’t always translate to being a great track runner.”
He likens cross country to golf, because the more time you work at it, the better you’ll be, he said.
While he will be leaving the classroom and cross country behind, Donner would like to stay on as the BV girls track and field coach, he said, if they’ll let him.
Kevin Hieronymus is the BCR Sports Editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.