Don Boyer, a titan of track and field and cross-country in Frederick County who touched the lives of thousands of athletes through a coaching career that spanned 50 years, died Saturday following a years-long battle with Lewy body dementia. He was 75.
Boyer, a fixture in the Middletown community who perfectly blended his fierce competitiveness with vast compassion and benevolence for just about anyone he crossed paths with, spent the final moments of his life with the people that meant the most to him.
In a journal entry posted on the Caring Bridge website, Boyer’s son, Monte, said, “Appropriately, this was the most beautiful day possible. At just before 4 [p.m.] Middletown time, Dad completed his race surrounded by Mom [his wife, Sharon], Donna [his daughter], Dennis [his son-in-law] and Monte.
“In typical fashion, he pushed hard all the way to the finish. He was not in any pain and was filled with love and peace from all of his family and friends.”
On July 3, Boyer was admitted to Kline Hospice House in Mount Airy. Just as doctors had warned, the dementia he had been battling for more than five years had accelerated rapidly.
Up until the time of his death, Boyer received a steady flow of friends at Kline Hospice for short visits. He was able to smile and respond to things with a few words. He seemed to recognize people, and his famous ability to recall things was present, though in a reduced state.
Many of the visitors were his former athletes and colleagues from a half-century on the county’s track-and-field scene. One of them was Hal Grau, a former coaching rival and a dear friend. Their families would annually ring in a new year together.
“He [still] knew what was going on,” said Grau, who spent some time with Boyer on Saturday. “We had this little thing that we did together where we would shake hands and see who would give up first on the hand grip. We’d see who would be the first to cry uncle.
“The other day, I went to see him and I extended my hand. I said, ‘Come on, shake hands.’ He grabbed my hand and still gave a good, strong handshake. I told him, ‘You’ve still got it.’”
Asked who won the handshake duel, Grau said with a laugh, “He did. I had to let go and let him win.”
In September 1962, Boyer attended a dance put on by the South End Civic Association in Frederick. He was a sophomore runner on the University of Maryland’s track team, having graduated from Frederick High School in ‘61.
At the dance, Boyer approached a petite brunette named Sharon Todd and asked for her hand.
“She said yes,” Boyer said in a 2014 News-Post story of his request for a dance. “I was surprised.”
The two danced, laughed and chatted the night away, marking the humble and traditional beginnings of a romance that spanned almost 60 years, as well as one of the greatest pairings in the history of high school track and field in Maryland.
“He couldn’t have done it without Sharon,” Grau said. “She was always there, right by his side. She did the organizing, and he did the coaching.”
At the University of Maryland, Don Boyer ran the 400-meter dash in 48.8 seconds and the 800 in 1 minute, 53.1 seconds.
The late Jim Kehoe, a legendary coach and administrator for the Terrapins, allowed the girlfriends of the athletes to attend meets but not practices. So Sharon would come and watch Don run. On Sunday afternoons, she was tasked with the chore of timing him as he ran.
“I always had the splits wrong, according to him,” Sharon said in the 2014 story. “He has an incredible internal clock. He can tell what his pace is.”
Boyer graduated from Maryland in 1966, and before the year was over, he received his first head coaching job when Thomas Johnson High School hired him to be the boys cross-country coach.
The following year, the Middletown cross-country and track programs fell into a bind when the late Jim Fraser had to abruptly stop coaching to finish a military obligation.
Ron Engle, who had just been hired away from TJ to be Middletown’s boys basketball coach, recommended Boyer to principal Paul Stroup.
Coaches were not paid at the time, and due to the extenuating circumstances, Boyer was allowed to take over the cross-country program at Middletown while finishing out the season as TJ’s coach.
That fall, he led both teams to the state cross-country meet.
“That was kind of a unique situation,” Boyer said. “We both rode the same bus to the meet.”
That winter, Boyer detached himself from his responsibilities at TJ and committed himself entirely to Middletown. The start of track and field season in the spring of 1968 marked the beginning of his first full year as a coach for the Knights.
“He experienced success right from the beginning,” said Bob Sheffler, a longtime boys soccer coach at Middletown. “But in the early 70s, around ‘73 and ‘74, with [talented distance runners] Dave Shafer and Tommy Stevens, things really fell into place for him.”
During his time as Middletown’s coach, Boyer coached more than 5,000 athletes. He helped produce 76 individual state champions, 18 relay state champions, 10 team state titles, six cross-country team titles and one indoor track state title.
Sharon, meanwhile, won six team state titles as Middletown’s girls cross-country coach. Her 1999 team was nationally ranked.
Both Boyer children, Monte and Donna, were state champions for Middletown.
In 2005, Boyer had the annual in-season track meet at Middletown named in his honor. In April of 2014, the school dedicated its track to Don and Sharon.
“Next to Jack Griffin, Don Boyer was probably the most influential track coach in Frederick County history. And that’s saying a lot since Griffin was a three-time Olympic track and field coach,” said Stan Goldberg, a longtime sports editor at the News-Post.
“Don’s success at Middletown, especially his early success, did a lot to promote track in this county. I believe that other athletes saw the success that Middletown had and were motivated to participate in track.”
One of Boyer’s greatest gifts was his mind.
Even after he retired in October 2015, he could recall random split times for most of his former runners.
He would call other coaches in the county, even for rival schools, and spend hours discussing meet lineups and race strategies on the phone. He liked to pick their brains just as much as they liked to pick his.
Boyer’s fierce competitiveness was matched by his compassion for others. Few blended the two quite so well.
“Don was always for the underdog,” Sheffler said. “Every athlete on the team was important to him.”
When former Middletown pole vaulter Dale Drum was hospitalized after injuring himself during the event, Boyer was a regular visitor at his home.
The same was true when two-time state indoor pole vaulting champion Matt Kepler was involved in a skateboarding accident in June of 2009 that left him confined to a wheelchair and suffering from brain damage.
“He just had a connection with student-athletes that transcended running and being their track and field and cross-country coach,” Middletown athletic director Mike DeSimone said.
Boyer coached in five Deaflympics for the United States. He was instrumental in the girls pole vault becoming an event at the state meet and helped bring it back after it was dropped as an official event.
“Whatever you needed, he was a very, very kind individual that way. He looked at it as, ‘I’m trying to better the sport,’” longtime Frederick High coach Frank Strakonsky said.
“As long as his kids did better, I think that was good [enough] for him. They didn’t have to win. If they set a [personal record] or they ran really well, he was happy with that.”
In the years leading up to his death, Boyer remained an active runner. He would often participate in meets as a Masters runner.
At age 45, Boyer posted a time of 2:05 in the 800-meter run. At 69, he won the 100 dash at an All Comer’s Meet as part of the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“Cross-country, track and field, it’s my life. It’s been our life,” Boyer said after shedding a few tears at his retirement ceremony in the fall of 2015, referring to Sharon’s contributions as well.
Right up until his last breath, all of the qualities that made Don Boyer who he was — his passion, his competitiveness, his benevolence for others — were still very much a part of him.
“I always call him Mr. Middletown,” Grau said. “He remained so active in the community, between he and Sharon. They seemed to know everyone in Middletown, and everyone in Middletown seemed to know them.”