As a wrestler, you have to be pretty flexible.
And, among other things, Don Markel was a wrestler. A pretty good one, in fact.
So when he saw an opening at Cass City Schools for a high school business math/social studies teacher, he went for it. It didn’t matter that Markel had majored in history and minored in physical education at Central Michigan University.
“I found out very early on in my career,” Markel said, “that you have to be pretty flexible. And if you were not very flexible you were going to severely limit your horizons.”
Markel never cast a limit on his own horizons. He got that job and held down a number of different positions in a 42-year career in education and high school athletics. Now he and his wife, Stacee, are facing a new test of that kind of flexibility.
He’ll discover this fall what full-time life is like outside of school.
For nine months out of every year since the fall of 1960, he’s been in school. This fall, the former assistant principal/athletic director and Stacee, who taught special education at Cass City, begin retirement. Like many retired couples, they plan to do some traveling. As former educators, they also plan to stay connected to young people through various volunteer activities.
“Education is a connection with kids,” Markel said. “Regardless of what subject area – you have to be versed in the subject area you are teaching – but you have to make that connection. Because if you don’t make that connection, I could be the best teacher in the world and if I don’t make a connection with the kids, the kids are not going to get it.”
Education made a connection with Markel at an early age.
“In high school I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” he said. “I enjoyed being at school and I knew I wanted to continue that.”
Growing up in Marine City, Markel played football, ran cross-country and track and wrestled in high school. Participating in two sports – football and cross-country – each fall was a challenge.
“I would play a football game on Friday night,” he said, “and then go run a cross-country meet on Saturday. It was tough.”
He displayed some of that toughness by running the mile and two-mile on the track team. As a senior, he was selected Outstanding Male Athlete at Marine City. “That,” he said, “was quite an honor.”
But wrestling was his best sport so when he went to CMU, he walked on to the wrestling team.
“I found out early on that I wasn’t quite as good as I thought I was,” Markel said. “When I walked on to the campus at Central, I thought, ‘I am all of that.’ I found out very early on that at the collegiate level, there are a whole lot of pretty good wrestlers. So I paid my dues before I made it into the starting lineup.”
When he graduated in 1977, he couldn’t find a teaching job, so he returned home. “There were a lot of history majors at that point in time,” he said.
He spent a year as a permanent substitute teacher back at Marine City High School. The following year he was a permanent sub at Port Huron Northern High School. During both of those years, he also was head wrestling coach at Marine City – while still in his early 20s.
“And as athletic director,” Markel said, “I think to myself that being a head coach at 21, that is pretty young.”
He also served as assistant junior varsity football coach at Marine City and, during his second year, was head track coach at St. Clair, a bigger neighboring school.
Then he got a full-time teaching job at Free Soil, a very small school district in Mason County. During his year at Free Soil, he was head track coach and, surprisingly, was grade 7-8 boys’ basketball coach.
“My basketball background was minimal,” he said. “I played in junior high at Marine City, but I found out early on that my skillset didn’t lend itself to basketball.”
Then, a year later, there was that opening in Cass City.
“This position, when it first opened in Cass City, was listed as a business math teacher, with one social studies class,” Markel said. “So I took a shot in the dark, said let’s go for that social studies position. The vast majority of my first year was in business math before I moved into a social studies position.”
In his nearly 30 years in the classroom, he also taught physical education, health, civics, history, geography and math. He learned how to remain flexible.
“When you teach something outside of your comfort zone,” he said, “you have to do a lot of prep work. You have to stay ahead of the kids. So that is what I did.”
As a coach in Cass City, he stayed in familiar territory – football, wrestling and boys’ track. He has coached 57 varsity teams – nine football, 12 track and 36 wrestling – in the years since his hiring and has coached varsity sports longer than any other coach in school history.
“They are different,” said Markel, inducted in 2017 in the Michigan High School Coaches Hall of Fame. “Obviously, my first passion is wrestling. So I would have to say probably that was my favorite. But football was pretty close behind that. And track and field after that.
“When you are coaching football you are right there, observing everything. When you are coaching wrestling, it is the same thing. You are right there, observing everything. In track and field, you say sprinters, here’s your workout; middle distance, here’s your workout; distance runners, here’s your workout; and, by the way, when you are done here’s your field event workout. So everyone disperses and I can go rotate around.”
He stayed in the classroom for nearly 30 years even though a variety of people urged him to consider administration.
“I wasn’t quite sure I would like it,” he said. “So I decided I’d give it a try toward the back half of my career.” Then if he didn’t like it, he said, he always could just retire.
So he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Saginaw Valley State University in 2005 and a year later was hired as assistant high school/junior high principal and athletic director. Then for two years he was middle school principal/athletic director before the district closed that school. He then resumed being assistant principal/athletic director.
When he came back, however, he was athletic director and assistant principal for both the junior high/high school and the elementary school.
“I had to learn the elementary stuff,” Markel said. “I was familiar, having been on the high school staff for 30 years, with what worked with high school kids. What works with high school kids does not work with elementary school kids. A 5-year-old doesn’t have the reasoning capacity a senior has.”
The big insight he picked up in his 12 years as athletic director was that not everyone coached the same.
“I used to always assume everybody did things the same way I did,” Markel said. “I found out very early on that everybody has their own unique way of handling things. So where I, as a coach, did things one way, someone else did it some other way.
“The other challenge was that sometimes it is a balance between the coach, the athlete and the parents. You have to support your coaches even though sometimes you think to yourself, in the back of your mind, that it could have been handled differently.”
The prevalence of social media, he said, also has changed things.
“Now you get a lot more feedback,” he said. “I am one that often times I would get emails, or text messages, and sometimes when you respond in the written word, some of the meaning is lost. So what I always tried to do, if I got an email, rather than responding to it and possibly being misinterpreted, I would pick up the phone and call the parent. Or I’d bring the athlete into my office, or the coach into my office.”
That way, he said, he could see if his words were having the desired effect, if he was making that connection.
While Markel no longer is teaching, he isn’t completely retired. He’s coaching one more year of wrestling in part because his son, Drew, will be a senior on the team. He and Stacee asked their son how the team was feeling about this. And his son said the seniors would like him to coach them through their final year. But once Drew’s class graduates, Markel will step aside and Adam Dorland, one of Markel’s former athletes, is ready to take over. “He could take over right now and do an excellent job with it,” Markel said.
Markel said he may get into officiating now that his time in school is over. After all, he’s been involved with athletics in one form or another just about all of his life. He’s not about to give it all up now.
“It is an extension of the classroom,” he said. “You make that connection with the kids.”
And that connection won’t be broken anytime soon.