National Award Winner Dr. Donald Staffo Reflects on His Father's Influence
Dr. Donald Staffo’s father left school after the eighth grade, and spent almost fifty years laboring in a bicycle factory where he had no benefits. There was no air conditioning in the summer and too little heat in the winter, but Nicholas Staffo only missed work twice. Once when he pulled a neck muscle and once when he passed out at the factory.
The family lived on the south side of Little Falls, NY, in a small Italian neighborhood where no one wore a tie to work and schoolteachers were the only individuals in the community who had college degrees. When Dr. Staffo earned his Ph.D. at The Ohio State University, there were tears in his father’s eyes. Since then Dr. Staffo, professor emeritus and department chair of the Department of Health and Physical Education at Stillman College, has had more honors and accolades than he can count. Last year he was awarded the coveted Luther Gulick Medal, the highest award in his profession, at the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) National Convention in Boston. On Friday, April 26, he will be inducted into the National Association for Sport and Physical Education Hall of Fame (NASPE) for his many contributions to coaching, sport and sports journalism. He is one of only two people in the nation to ever receive AAPHERD’s three highest national awards and be inducted into the NASPE Hall of Fame.
“I thank God for everything good that has happened to me in my life, including this latest honor. I am honored and humbled. It’s a tremendous honor because I am being recognized at the highest level by my peers throughout this country,” Dr. Staffo states.
But as he prepares for the NASPE conference in Charlotte, NC, where he will accept this prestigious award, he cannot help but think about the man whose exemplary life motivated him to achieve everything he has ever achieved.
“My father was unbelievable. Everything I’ve accomplished, I accomplished because I wanted to please him. My father was a war hero. While serving in WWII, he received many honors including the Silver Star and the Bronze Star, but he never talked about it. My father never put pressure on me to succeed. Just watching him motivated me to work hard. In addition to his full-time factory job, he always had side jobs so he got very little sleep. He was my hero. All I ever wanted to do was to please him,” Dr. Staffo says. “When my father died, I had already received local awards and awards from Stillman, but he and my mother never lived to see the state and national awards. He would have been ecstatic.”
When asked why he was selected for so many prestigious awards, Dr. Staffo states, “Some people think I’m a ‘Type A’ now. But I used to be a real ‘Type A’. I always had five or six things going on at one time. If you work that hard in a career for over 45 years, you’re going to get things done and people are going to recognize it.”
For Dr. Staffo, getting things done included writing 11 books and more than 2,100 articles, and serving on 35 editorial and advisory boards, including the International Journal of Sport Management, International Council of HPER-Sport and Dance Journal of Research, and The Physical Educator. He has made 73 presentations at AAHPERD national conventions, and district and state conferences. He served as editor of the AAHPERD Journal, two terms as chairman of the NASPE Youth Sports Coalition, on NASPE’s original Task Force that developed the National Coaching Standards, Alabama Governor’s Task Force for Physical Activity, the 1st Alabama Governor’s Planning Committee Conference for Childhood Obesity and the Task Force that developed the Great South Athletic Conference, among numerous others. Staffo is also a sports journalist who has covered University of Alabama football and basketball for 28 years for the Associated Press as well as for numerous other publications. He has also been extensively involved in public service, including serving on the advisory board of the Salvation Army.
“All I wanted to do was get a college degree and be a public school physical education teacher. I thought that if I was asked to speak at a local PTA meeting in my hometown that would have been a big deal. As it turned out, I’ve had the opportunity to speak throughout the country. Whatever I prayed for, God gave me much more,” Dr. Staffo says.
But touching the lives of countless students is perhaps the accomplishment that best honors his father Nicholas Staffo’s memory. Letters to Dr. Staffo from former students indicate that he has succeeded in passing on to others the motivation that his father inspired in him. During his 28 years at Stillman and 5 years as Director of Physical Education and Athletics at Alice Lloyd College deep in the Appalachian Mountains, where he worked before coming to Tuscaloosa, he impacted countless students who, like he, were the first in their families to attend college.
“I was a teacher and coach for 11 years in a suburban Syracuse, NY school district that was listed among the top 100 public schools in the country. As much satisfaction as I received from that experience, the last 34 years of my 45 year career have been the most gratifying because I have worked mostly with disadvantaged first generation college students, which I once was. I think this is where God wanted me to be because this is where I could do the most good and make the biggest difference.”
In a long, heartfelt letter, one former student details how Dr. Staffo’s “honesty and focus on student performance” challenged him and taught him the importance of integrity. The student, who is now a school superintendent in Kentucky, wrote, “You don’t have to respond to this. I just wanted to thank you for making a difference.”
In another touching letter to Dr. Staffo, a Stillman alumna refers to him as “the man that made me who I am.” She tells how, when she was honored by her employer as Teacher of the Year, she named Dr. Staffo as “the person who had the greatest impact upon my life” and adds that he “led by example, set the standards, and made my success as a Physical Educator one in which I am still proud today.”
When speaking of his students, Dr. Staffo says, “I don’t give up on you. I’m relentless. I don’t give up on even the most difficult students because I care. I’m not going to let you sink if I can help it. This is what God put me here to do.”
Dr. Staffo doesn’t give up because he knows first hand that every student has the potential to succeed. “In 1988, when I was invited to be the commencement speaker at my high school in Little Falls, I told the students that I was the bottom of the barrel when I was a student there. I was 78th out of 100 students. I told them, ‘One day, one of you—somebody that everybody least expects, could be invited back to be the commencement speaker,’” he states.
“Throughout my career, through my teaching, coaching, administrative duties and writings, I strived each day to make a positive contribution to and difference in the lives of as many people as I could in as many ways and on as many levels as I could. Beyond an educational impact to my students, through my column and other writings I tried to not only provide information to the general public, but also bring some enjoyment to those who read what I wrote. Professionally, when I retire, which could be very soon, 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 is a graduate of SUNY Brockport, Western Kentucky University and The Ohio State University. He completed post-doctoral work in the Injury Prevention Center in the School of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
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