Alumni Feature – Dr. Don Staffo, Class of 1964
Dr. Donald Staffo, Class of 1964, graciously agreed to be the first LFHS alumni to participate in the newly established Where Are We Now column for the Little Falls High School Alumni Website. Dr. Staffo is one of hundreds of successful LFHS alumni who have done their part to make a difference in the lives of others. Here is his story.
Don grew up on what is commonly referred to as the South Side – south of the railroad tracks and the river. He fondly recalls growing up in this unique part of the city. “The South Side was like a little community within the city itself,” he said. “Families were predominately Italian and were very close knit with everyone knowing each other. To those of us who grew up there it was special. There were about 10 or 15 guys around my age and throughout the year we played sports – baseball, football, basketball, stoop ball, wiffle ball and numerous other activities, and in the summer seemingly all day long. If our parents wanted us, they knew to check out either Columbus Park or the Jefferson St. Elementary School playground. It was a great childhood and to this day my friends and I fondly reminisce about those great times.”
When the North did meet up with the South, it was either at school or the most popular gathering place in town, Candyland. What 1960’s graduate does not remember Candyland?
“Growing up in Little Falls was great because everyone knew almost everyone else and we all got along, including with our friends at (then) St. Mary’s Academy,” stated Staffo. “We all congregated at Candyland and had a good time. Great memories.”
When asked about a favorite teacher, Don was reluctant to mention just one. He reminisced, “At the time I was not academically inclined. Fortunately, I had a lot of great teachers. Coach Charles Young, my wrestling coach, was always an inspiration and a role model to me and the reason I wanted to become a physical education teacher and coach. Up until his passing I used to go visit with him whenever I got back to town. Mr. Roy Otis, a guidance counselor, was one of the reasons I went to college. He believed in me and was the one who continuously urged me to fill out applications. When I expressed disinterest I think he even filled an application out for me. Mr. Joseph Martuscello was a special kind of teacher who took great interest in the lives of his students. I learned a lot from him and enjoyed his class as well as Mr. Bruce Crawford’s English class. To me discussions in those classes seemed meaningful and made me think about things differently.”
As with everyone, the time comes when we all leave the comfort of our childhood and adolescent years to move on to discover that there is a world outside of Little Falls. Don started his journey, a bit reluctantly, at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. “I enrolled in the first class of the brand new Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, because truthfully, F-MCC was the only college that accepted me,” he admitted. “If it wasn’t for F-MCC, I would have been working in H.P. Snyder’s or joined the Army. Attending F-MCC completely changed the course of my life. On my first test in college I got an F- in English Composition, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It scared me and woke me up. Neither of my parents graduated from high school and I did not want to be the first person on either side of my family to go to college just to be sent home for good by Thanksgiving. I prayed to God to please help me get through Fulmont. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I started to seriously study. I became a solid B student and got accepted at SUNY Brockport, an outstanding school for the preparation of physical education teachers. I was extremely well prepared and confident when I graduated.”
Striving to improve his knowledge base and gain expertise in his field, Don was rewarded with a teaching graduate assistantship from Western Kentucky University where he earned his masters degree and gained college teaching experience. He then went on to be a physical education teacher and coach in Liverpool, N.Y. for 10 years. Don went on to earn a Ph.D. in physical education and athletic administration from the Ohio State University in 1978 where he also taught and completed an internship in the OSU athletic department. He tells us, “There is no question that being an Ohio State grad has helped me and I’m sure opened doors for me throughout my career. After serving a year as Director of Physical Education and Athletics at Weedsport, I was appointed Director of Physical Education and Athletics at Alice Lloyd College. Five years later I left to take a position as Professor and Chairman of the Health and Physical Education Department at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I am currently in my 30th year of a 47-year career in education.”
When talking about his current and past professional experiences, Dr. Staffo expressed great appreciation. While he told us he enjoyed teaching and coaching in Liverpool, an excellent suburban school district that he said had everything he needed in terms of equipment and supplies, he explained however that the last 35 years have been the most personally satisfying, “because I’ve had the opportunity and the privilege to help first generation college students, which I once was. More specifically the poor, impoverished and underserviced people deep in the heart of Appalachia, Kentucky while I was at Alice Lloyd College, where among other things I implemented the health and physical education major. At Stillman College, a Historically Black school, I’ve worked with disadvantaged and underprivileged students. As Athletic Director I had the opportunity to start the varsity football program. I’ve had opportunities for ‘more prestigious’ positions, but I sincerely believe that God placed me where I could do the most good.”
In 1980, Don simultaneously developed a second career as a sports journalist. Since then he has written for several national, regional and local publications, and for the last 30 years, he has covered University of Alabama football and basketball for the Associated Press among other media outlets. He has also authored 10 books and more than 2,100 articles.
Dr. Staffo obviously takes great satisfaction from his work throughout his career. He shared with us his professional philosophy which is: “Through my teaching, administrative duties and writing, I strive each day to make a positive contribution to and a difference in the lives of as many people as I can in as many ways as I can and on as many levels as I can. Beyond an educational impact to my students, through my health and physical fitness newspaper column and other writings, I have tried to not only provide information to the general public, but also bring some enjoyment to those who read what I write. Professionally, when I retire, I don’t want to look back and have any regrets or feel that there was more that I could have done or should have done, but didn’t.”
Dr. Staffo has received many honors for his accomplishments. Don is the second person in the country and the only living person to win the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance’s 3 highest national awards and be inducted into the National Association for Sport and Physical Education Hall of Fame. The recipient of 7 national, 8 state, 6 distinguished alumni, 2 regional and 11 institutional/local awards, he has received the highest awards from 4 of his 5 alma maters and has been inducted into 5 Halls of Fame including NASPE, the Ohio State University School of Education & Human Ecology Hall of Fame, the SUNY Brockport Hall of Heritage and the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame. He is the only person to be honored with the title Professor and Department Chairman Emeritus in the 138-year history of Stillman College.
“I have had an extremely satisfying career and life. I am extremely grateful and I thank God every day for everything good – significant and insignificant – that has happened to me and my family. I and my family have been blessed with good health. I can honestly say that if I had the chance to live my life over again, I would choose not to because I don’t think it would play out nearly as well as it has. I truly have no regrets. “
How does a man, with such a rewarding career and a life lived with no regrets, feel growing up in Little Falls helped to shape his success? Don answered this question with candor and deep respect for his many mentors. “During summers I worked at Snyder’s, Allegro, on construction carrying cement and on the railroad sledge hammering ties. From that experience, and from my father, who worked his entire life at Snyder’s, and my mother, who worked at Fibers and Salada, I learned and developed a good work ethic.”
“My first ‘professional’ job was as summer Director of the Neighborhood Youth Corp in Little Falls. I took that job very seriously. Mayor Ted Wind, City Engineer Tony Carlisto and school officials publicly recognized me for the success of the program. That initial success boosted my confidence and jump-started my career. During the first five years I taught at Liverpool, I returned to Little Falls in the summers to direct the City Recreation Program. Again I took that job very seriously and, beyond the normal playground activities, I restarted inter-playground sports competition, began the arts and crafts program for senior citizens at Rockton Plaza, started tennis lessons for kids and tried to do extra things like taking the kids to New York to see the Yankees play and putting on an annual Children’s Playground Carnival for charity where, with the children assisting and through donated goods, we raised a significant amount of money each summer that we donated to various charities. City and school officials publicly appreciated my efforts. I mention this because, whereas some people might just consider these soft summer jobs, I took them to heart and the experience and satisfaction I received from doing the best that I could to make these programs successful really gave me confidence. These early successes in my career paid dividends later in my career. So I want to take this opportunity to again publicly thank Little Falls for providing these opportunities to me.”
Dr. Staffo was asked to share a favorite memory from his time at Little Falls High School. His favorite memory actually led to the response to the last interview question which was to offer advice to current LFHS students. He responded, “I enjoyed my elementary and high school experience, especially playing sports, since as I said previous, I was not the strongest student at that time. However, my absolute favorite memory was from 1988 when I was invited back to be the Commencement Speaker. This was especially important to me because my parents and most of my extended family were still alive.”
Included in his commencement discourse, Dr. Staffo encouraged the graduates to “take school and your education seriously because it will have a direct effect on your life. Find something you truly enjoy and have a passion for and then work very hard at it. If you have tenacity and perseverance there is a good chance that good things will happen for you. Do your very best at whatever you do so you won’t have any regrets. Your life and your career will be what you make of them. And remember, if you don’t work hard every day, somewhere someone else is, and when you two compete, whether it’s in sports, for a job, for a promotion or whatever, he or she will win.” Pointing out that he graduated 78th out of his LFHS graduating class of 100, Don closed his commencement speech by telling the graduates, ‘Who knows, maybe someone in this class – someone who everyone least expects – will one day be invited back to be the commencement speaker.’”
In conclusion, Dr. Staffo added, “I am truly honored and humbled by the opportunity to be the inaugural LFHS alumni to be featured in this new website incentive. I greatly appreciate this opportunity to share the fact that I am a proud native of Little Falls, N.Y. and a 1964 alumnus of Little Falls High School.”
Dr. Staffo currently resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with his wife, Dr. Marilyn Staffo. It is there they raised two daughters, Andrea and Deanna who are now on their own life adventures.
(Editor’s Note): Don is the second person in the country and only living person to win the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance’s 3 highest national awards and be inducted into the National Association for Sport and Physical Activity Hall of Fame. The recipient of 7 national, 8 state, 6 distinguished alumni, 2 regional and 11 institutional/local awards, he has received the highest awards from 4 of his 5 alma maters and has been inducted into 5 Halls of Fame including NASPE, the Ohio State University School of Education & Human Ecology Hall of Fame, the SUNY Brockport Hall of Heritage and the Greater Utica Sports Hall of Fame. He is the only person to be honored with the title Professor and Department Chairman Emeritus in the 138-year history of Stillman College.
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