As the cross country and track coach at UW-Parkside for 29 years, Mike DeWitt has a litany of accomplishments: an inductee into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame for Women’s Cross Country, coaching more than 125 All-American runners and racewalkers and 25 collegiate national champions, and personal athletic victories.
Yet, it is his walk with God that means the most to this coach, athlete, husband, father and grandfather. The latest step in that walk was his appointment as the first head cross country and track coach at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.
“This is a chance for me to deepen my Catholic faith and to continue to grow professionally in beginning this new program,” said DeWitt. “So many things have fallen into place in the process, including my wife, Pam, fitting into the Donahue Academy in a middle school teaching position.”
Competition is character building tool
While he considers his new position a ministry, don’t mistake that with a less-than-ardent love of competition. DeWitt treats competition as a tool to build character. It has also built winning teams.
His UWP women’s cross country team won the NAIA national championship in 1986, placed in the top five as a team eight times and finished outside of the top 10 twice in 14 years. When the program switched to NCAA II, the team finished in the top 10 of the NCAA II championships five times and was ranked in the top 20 in all but three seasons since 1995.
Since 1984, six of his All-American runners and racewalkers competed for the United States in the Olympic games. Additionally, his teams have earned numerous academic and sportsmanship awards as part of the NAIA, NCAA II Great Lakes Region, and NCAA II Great Lakes Valley Conference. More than 15 of the athletes he recruited graduated as the top students in their academic fields.
After graduating in 1972 from UWP, where he was the school’s first track All-American, he competed in four Olympic Trials and represented the United States in international competition on six occasions, including the 1989 World Cup. He also served as the head coach for the USA team in the 2001 Pan Am Cup.
Faith keeps him grounded
While his devotion as a competitor and coach is noted in record books, it is the faith from his early youth that rooted his devotion to God. Raised in a Catholic home in Kenosha, DeWitt received the sacraments at St. George Catholic Church (now St. Elizabeth) attended the parish grade school and met his wife and married her at the same parish nearly 38 years ago.
He and Pam are the parents of two boys and two girls, Ali 37, Matt 30, TC 28, and Lindsay 27, and grandparents of six. Until the move to Florida, they were members of St. Lucy Parish, Racine, and alternated between the Racine parish and St. Peter, Kenosha. Pam is a former teacher at St. Catherine High School and John Paul II Academy in Racine.
Born on All Saints Day, DeWitt, who will celebrate his 60th birthday, joked that he is blessed to have all the patron saints with him at all times.
“Because of that, I feel drawn to keep up with reading the Saint of the Day,” he said. “And I like to encourage my students with my love of the saints. I have a statue of St. Joseph on my desk and my favorite saint is St. Miguel (Febres Cordero) from Ecuador; he was a teacher and worked with all kids. They loved him and he traveled around and went to Spain, but he was frail and sickly, not like me. Interestingly, I have raced over 1,000 times and Barcelona, Spain is where I had my best race. I am not afraid to say that I am using my talents the way the Lord gave me and I try to learn from my non-Catholic students and they seem to enjoy learning from me.”
Always finds time for Mass
A daily Mass attendee, DeWitt makes time to attend Mass while on the road and encourages his students to attend as well.
“I have missed Mass only a couple of times,” he said. “Once was coming back from St. Louis and my car broke down and I couldn’t get to Mass, and there was a time in Atlanta and we weren’t able to find a Catholic Church. But ever since then I have managed to make it, even in Russia, where we walked to an old dilapidated church with no statues and the plaster falling down. Sometimes it has been very difficult and I thought I wouldn’t, but something always happened to give me that five minutes or extra time, and since 1989, I have never missed an opening prayer. All kinds of funny things have happened that should have prevented me from going, but I still go, so I guess I am supposed to be there.”
Places trust in God’s providence
While one of the most difficult situations happened last year when his son TC, who lives in California, was shot after his van was stolen, it was also another opportunity to trust in God’s providence.
“We got the message and the incident happened at 4 a.m. Wisconsin time and it took a few hours for his friend who he owned the house with to call, and he didn’t get back to us until 9 or so the next morning,” said DeWitt. “I saw the number come up and didn’t answer it. Twelve hours later, I checked my messages and there was one from a police sergeant. I asked what happened and she told me that TC was going to live, but they weren’t sure a few hours before – so if I had gotten the message earlier, it would have been much more difficult.”
DeWitt and his family drew strength and peace from prayer warriors from all faiths.
“We came through this with a kind of calm quiet and not a panic,” he said. “My whole life has been that way and we just try to quietly follow God’s lead. There were so many times in our life when we needed money to stay up on bills and then it would come, or when the draft came through and I was one of the last guys and didn’t have worry after I finished basic training. I know the world doesn’t revolve around Mike DeWitt, but I do know that nothing is coincidence and it is all a matter of God’s will.”
Hopes to freely practice faith
DeWitt employed the same calm approach when contemplating another coaching position. While he enjoyed his tenure at UWP, he was open for something new and hoped it could be a place that he could freely practice his faith. Several positions sounded hopeful, but didn’t work out for one reason or another. Then, Ave Maria approached him.
“Everything seemed to fall into place. I was offered what I needed to make it work and Pam got the job at Donahue, which allowed us to buy a second home in Florida,” he said. “Every little thing that we wanted, happened. They have a 24-hour adoration chapel at the school and I sat there for a while one of the days I was at Ave Maria. I was praying and asking God about leaving Kenosha because we have family here, a job here and all of a sudden I just started thinking that I would not be in front of the Blessed Sacrament at this university if it was the devil that led me here. So, it all worked out how it should be. It wasn’t a leap of faith, but we just prayed for an answer for our prayers and wanted to do what God wanted.”
DeWitt hopes to bring physical and spiritual exercise to Ave Maria, and he looks forward to beginning and ending the school day with prayer and sitting alongside students at daily Mass.
“My philosophy is ‘Don’t miss workouts and don’t miss Mass,’” he said, “Sometimes I get distracted but I try to get there. There is time for everything and we can do it if we have faith and trust in God.”