Educator, coach, elite runner dead at 89

Editor’s note: Wakefield educator and longtime track and cross country coach John A. DiComandrea died Friday at the age of 89. Tributes to “Coach Deke,” a Hall of Famer, began to appear on social media almost immediately because in this town he was nothing short of a legend. Supt. of Schools Dr. Kim Smith said last week, “Deke touched many lives in our community for the 47 years he served in the Wakefield Public Schools. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to pay him tribute in August 2016 with a dedication at Shaun Beasley Track & Field. Deke was present for the unveiling of an installed granite marker in his name, surrounded by the love and gratitude of family, friends, and former students.” Item sportswriter Dan Byrne was at the ceremony and filed this 2016 report on a most fitting tribute.


John DiComandrea

WAKEFIELD — Legendary track and cross country coach, John A. DiComandrea — best known as “Coach Deke” — was honored in a ceremony on Monday, Aug. 15 at noon, celebrating his 47 years of dedication to student athletes at Wakefield Memorial High School.

The tribute took place at a recently installed granite marker in his name, located at the Shaun Beasley Track & Field.

The sun was shining and encouraged a grand turnout that featured a number of Coach Deke’s former students, student-
athletes and colleagues, as well as local news cameras and

Longtime friend and former track coach Bill Lee hosted the ceremony as a crowd gathered in the shade on the hillside.

DiComandrea, who has been in the hospital recently battling illness, was well enough to grace the crowd with his presence. Placed at the center of the gathering crowd, the head coach of 47 years was honored to have such a turnout on his behalf.

Superintendent Kim Smith, Principal Rich Metropolis and Athletics Director Brendan Kent all spoke representing the current administration at WMHS.

Dr. Smith had the distinct pleasure of teaching/working with Coach Deke, while Mr. Kent and Mr. Metropolis have only had the pleasure of learning the legend of Coach Deke through the lore of the parents and former students who constantly sing his praises.

Dr. Smith spoke to the inspiration that Coach Deke provided as a teacher and coach and continues to provide to this very day, “I went to his rehab a few months ago because I wanted to personally tell him that the school committee had approved his beautiful marker,” she told the crowd, “Deke had just recently lost his leg and was struggling with the other leg and he had weights and he said, ‘my core is very strong’ and he began lifting the weights and I walked away truly inspired by the coach,” Smith said.

JOHN DiCOMANDREA left a lasting legacy at Wakefield Memorial High School. “Coach Deke was a coach, teacher, friend, and mentor to so many throughout his life,” said WMHS Athletic Director Brendan Kent. “Thanks for all you have done for the children of Wakefield and the Wakefield XC/Track community.”(Brendan Kent Twitter Photo, @WMHS_Warriors)

Director of Athletics Brendan Kent listed some of the accomplishments Coach Deke had achieved in his 47 years of coaching: head coach since 1965, over 400 career wins, 1972 All-State Champions, perennial league championships including 10 straight from 1964-73, 1983-84 State Champs, a winning streak that lasted an entire decade including 64 wins in a row, National Coach of the Year honors, just to name a few. Kent then spoke of how, coming from Melrose, he became educated in the legend of Coach Deke.

Kent learned of the success of the Wakefield Cross Country program through longtime Melose coach Kevin Alison, and how strong a program Wakefield had year in and year out.

“I learned a lot about coach Deke without ever meeting him,” said Kent, “With every story I heard though, there was always one common theme from everyone I spoke to, and that had to do with how much Coach Deke cared about all his kids.”

“He spent endless amounts of time helping every kid achieve all they could do in track and life,” Kent added, “I hope that Coach Deke’s commemorative stone serves as a reminder to all of our coaches of what coaching is all about.”

Kent concluded with a vow to Coach Deke, “Thank you Coach Deke and I promise to keep the rich tradition of Wakefield High School Cross Country that you started many years ago.”

Following Kent, Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association was set to speak, but prior to his introduction, Mr. Lee took it upon himself to recognize Mr. Grilk’s wife and former coach and History teacher at Wakefield High and member of the Wakefield Memorial High Alumni Hall of Fame, Ms. Nancy Frederick. Mr. Lee shared a touching comment made to him about Ms. Fredrick as a teacher by a former student who said, “She is among the very best of teachers, inspiring, instilling a sense of critical thinking and rational thought, the gateway to much academic success.”

Mr. Grilk (a Lynnfield resident) spoke not about Coach Deke as a track coach, but instead of his inspirational teaching methods as Industrial Arts teacher at the Wakefield Middle School.

“He was as colorful a rascal as I ever came across in a classroom,” Mr. Grilk stated, “I had no idea teachers could use those words,” he said with a chuckle.

Mr. Grilk spoke about Mr. DiComandrea’s lessons that instilled a respect for hard work, respect for being careful in what you did and respect for what someone else feels is important, because that is what he stressed for everybody.

The lessons Mr. Grilk learned in Industrial Arts stayed with him and he showed his gratitude by sharing one of the wares he crafted under the guidance of Mr. DiComandrea.

Mr. Grilk talk about Coach Deke’s importance to the Boston Athletic Association, as one of the most storied runners in the long and rich tradition of the Boston Marathon. Mr. Grilk said, “There is no more important part of our heritage at the BAA than this gentleman who sits in front of us.”

He told of a time during and after the Depression when there wasn’t much for the BAA besides putting on the Marathon and the former indoor track meet, the KofC Games.

“It was pretty much a bankrupt organization but there were still some people who came in and ran anyway,” Mr. Grilk told. “And one of them who helped keep things going was John DiComandrea who started running the Boston Marathon in about 1949.”

He told the tale of what Coach Deke called “my great race” when in 1955 Coach Deke finished 12th in the Boston Marathon in 2:37.08, and how it was always a thrill growing up in Wakefield to check the newspaper the day after the Marathon and check where Mr. DiComandrea and others finished.

What Mr. Grilk did with his speech was summarize Coach Deke as a runner, coach, teacher and mentor. With the pageantry most of us have no doubt witnessed this past week and a half, with all the glamor surrounding the world class athletes at the Olympics in Rio, Mr. Grilk pointed out that had Mr. DiComandrea been doing what he’d done in his day, today, he’d be considered an elite athlete worthy of all the benefits, recognition, praise and endorsements afforded to such people today.

“The elite athlete of the day when this sport was dying is sitting before all of you,” Grilk said, “He is the epitome of the citizen athlete who kept the sport going for so long.

“He was a runner but also a normal person doing a regular job,” Mr. Grilk said, “But he kept running competitively and doing so at a high level at no matter what age.”

He recalled Deke’s recent efforts a recently as 2009 when he ran the Boston Marathon, as well as a race in Portsmouth in 2010 which Deke won his age bracket.

To conclude his speech, Mr. Grilk recognized the privilege he felt to represent the BAA and he presented Coach Deke with a blue and gold, BAA Elite High Performance Team runner’s jacket, just like those worn by the runners in Rio.

“For us at the BAA, you’re it, you’re the heritage for us and when we look back we see you, when we look forward we hope that we will be able to emulate what you did for everybody else.”

The final speaker was former Senator and Wakefield alumnus Scott Brown (now the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand). What Mr. Brown had to share were some personal anecdotes involving Coach Deke. Earlier it had been suggested that Coach Deke wasn’t about the wins, but Mr. Brown had a different recollection.

“With all due respect, it was always about the wins, right coach?” Brown said to a chorus of laughter, “But in addition to the wins it was always about having each individual achieve his full potential.”

He said, “Yeah, I had him for shop and I stunk too, but growing up as a young person I needed that guidance, I needed someone to slap me upside my head sometimes and that colorful language Mr. Grilk referenced was directed at me and my teammates like every minute!

“Yes, he was a coach, but that wasn’t the thing that was important to me, and us,” Brown said. He mentioned all the times Deke would come pick him and his teammates up in his old blue Pontiac Bonneville convertible “The Blue Goose,” and drive all over the region to track meets and competitions.

“We used to start here,” Brown recalled, “And run around Lake Quannapowitt twice every day. And he’d be driving behind us in that thing and if we started talking he’d start yelling at us to do some speed work and stop talking, throwing stuff out the window at us and we used to kind of hate it. But when we won those league titles and reaching our personal bests and beating kids who were real runners because we weren’t real runners, we knew that it all came in the end.

“He’d just do that extra thing that people just don’t do now or maybe you can’t do, I don’t know,” Senator Brown recalled.

“What separates him from others in my life is that he went the extra mile at a time in my life when I certainly needed that guidance,” Brown said.

He concluded saying, “Deke, listen, we all love you, we’re very proud of you, God bless you, keep up the fight.”

With that Mr. Lee wrapped up the ceremony by thanking some of the important people and organizations that made the memorial and ceremony possible, then two 1975 Wakefield Cross Country jackets were removed from the stone to reveal the inscription.

It was a fantastic conclusion to a beautiful ceremony. Now everyone can remember the impact Coach Deke had on Wakefield Track and Cross Country each and every time they look up the hill at the Shaun Beasley Oval.