Saint Ignatius High School mourns the loss of one of its own. Mr. Jim Michals, a veteran member of the Health & Physical Education department and longtime intramurals director, passed away on February 7, 2019, at the age of 66 after a battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife, Donna, and his three children: Maggie, Jack ’15, and Danny ’17.
“He was a good man—dedicated to teaching,” said Larry Arthur, one of Michals’ dearest friends and a coworker for 39 years. “He loved teaching. He loved working with the kids. He loved coaching. He gave his whole life to teaching.”
Hired at Saint Ignatius in 1980, Michals earned a reputation for his insistence that students do their best and also be their best.
“When he signed his contract he said, ‘This is what my expectations are, and I’m going to live up to those expectations,’” Arthur said. “And since we’re a college-preparatory school and we have a lot of demands on our kids, we want to keep the same thing in our department. We want the kids to understand, they’re able to do things and we’re going to hold them accountable, and it’s going to help them down the line. And there are many kids that will come back after graduation and say ‘Hey Mr. Michals, it’s good to see you.’”
Jim enforced the rules of sport and of the school. “Sir, those are not the correct socks.” “Book bags are supposed to be put in a locker—with a lock.” “That's probably not a good idea...” What these refrains contained was an important lesson: Sometimes in life there are rules that need to be followed. As alumni shared their own remembrances of their former teacher and coach this week, it was clear the lesson was one they grew to appreciate.
Frequently, Michals was behind the scenes at school events like the Mass of the Holy Spirit or graduation, assisting students who felt tired or ill or were unsure of what to do. His keen eye always spotted students who needed help, and he always offered assistance. Jim also made a point to come back for Reunion Weekend—even throughout his own illness.
“He just loved talking to the kids,” Arthur said. “He loved it.”
For many years Michals devoted himself to overseeing open gym time during ninth period and building up the after-school intramurals program. He and Arthur often served as the “watchmen” of Murphy Field House while they rode the stationery bikes on the indoor track. The motto of “Everybody Plays” that benefactor Jerry Murphy ’36 instilled when the field house was built was a priority for Jim, who wanted students not playing a varsity sport to have opportunities to compete.
“Boy, he fought for [Murphy Gym] to be open every day,” Arthur said. “He wanted it for the kids after school until 5 o’clock, and then teams could come in after.”
Running intramurals meant that, for many years, Michals stayed after school until at least 5 p.m. to run the games—including high-profile intramural tournaments—and to protect students’ valuable open gym time. For his outstanding work with extracurricular activities, Michals received the Fr. O’Reilly Award in 2003.
Veteran history teacher Mike Howard knew Jim as a friend, neighbor and colleague. In addition to serving on the faculty together, they have lived on the same street in Euclid for almost 25 years.
“I knew him long before he moved onto the street,” Howard said. “When we moved over from Lakewood I had asked four people to help move furniture...and I pulled into our driveway at our new house and there’s Jim Michals waiting to help. He wasn’t asked; he was just waiting there to help.”
During the first semester this school year, Howard drove Michals in to school each day.
“He shouldn’t have been [coming in to teach], but this is Jim Michals,” Howard said. “He’s a guy who thinks that people need to do what they’re supposed to do. And he was bound and determined that he was going to get to work every day.”
Those rides in to school together were often on the quiet side. Howard surmises that it’s because Michals was thinking about what he had to do to get through each day. After school, however, was different.
“By the time we’d go home he was much more talkative because he’d won another victory. And he even did that on the seventh of January, that [last] day in the first semester, and he came in... He finished the job.”
In 2018, Michals’ name and likeness were added to a wall of Saint Ignatius legends that overlooks the lunch tables in Rade Dining Hall as he received the Fr. Rossing Award for teaching excellence.
Principal Dan Bradesca ’88, when presenting the award, said, “He's old fashioned, which means that he believes in teaching his students that there are rules to follow and strong reasons for following them. On a related note, there was a time in the past when the freshmen were convinced that he had won the ‘Strongest Man in the World’ contest.”
How did students come to believe such a rumor? For starters, Michals was a highly decorated student-athlete. After graduating from Holy Family grade school, his lifetime of achievement in athletics took off when he enrolled at Cathedral Latin for high school in 1966.
There, Michals emerged as a three-sport athlete. He played fullback for the Lions’ varsity football team for three years and was co-captain during his senior year. He was a member of the varsity basketball team as a junior and earned two varsity letters in baseball. A graduate of the class of 1970, Michals was inducted into the Cathedral Latin Alumni Association’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2004.
After high school, Michals attended Ohio Wesleyan University where he majored in economics and physical education/health. He also earned All-OAC honoree status in football in 1973, was once again a co-captain, and led the team in total rushing yards. As a sophomore for OWU, he played for the then-NCAA Division III national championship. However, Jim largely kept these accolades to himself, preferring instead to focus his attention on those around him.
In total, Michals spent almost 45 years working as a physical education teacher and coach throughout northeast Ohio. In 1983, he earned a master’s degree in education from Cleveland State University. He taught at Lake Catholic and St. Peter Chanel, where he served for three years as head football coach. Throughout his career, Michals was also an assistant football coach at Independence High School, Euclid High School, John Carroll University and Case Western Reserve University.
But his passion was for his work at Saint Ignatius. When Michals would show up at Howard’s home, unannounced, for a visit, the school would always be the topic of conversation.
“Even in the dead of summer he had to talk about Ignatius,” Howard said. “‘Could we do this? Why do we do that? How can we make this better?’ That shows how much he absolutely loved this place. It was on his mind all the time.”
Of course, Michals deeply loved his family. He and wife Donna put their children through Catholic schools and into college. Daughter Maggie attended Beaumont School, and Jim was present for his sons, Jack and Danny, during their four years as students at Saint Ignatius. The family kept to a tradition of Thursday burger nights at Muldoon’s Saloon on East 185th Street, even as recently as Christmas break.
After his children were born, Jim also took up baking. Yet, as Howard tells it, the perpetually prepared Michals always seemed to be missing one of the ingredients he needed and would take one of the kids down the street to borrow flour, butter or sugar.
Howard said, “It’d be this powerful guy leaving with a stick of butter or whatever it was and having this tiny child in tow going down the sidewalk toward his house. And you’d think, ‘Well that little child couldn’t be any better protected by anyone else in the world’—because who’s gonna mess with him? ... That’s just a side of him nobody saw. He was a wonderful family man.”
Arthur smiled when recalling the conversations he and Jim would have while biking on the track after school, when Jack and Danny would come by and shoot the breeze or ask for a few bucks to run over to Wendy’s. Jim would press his sons to bring back change; Larry would tell the boys to bring back a couple Frostys.
“It was nice to see that,” Arthur said. “We enjoyed those conversations up on the bike.”
Nine years ago, Latin teacher Jim Murphy ’99 authored a moving tribute to Mr. Dale Polick, another longtime Health & P.E. teacher, who passed away in January 2010. At that time, he wrote: “I think when we lose someone close to us, it is natural to keep a ‘lasting impression’ of that person that we can quickly recall when we are thinking about him.”
For me, as a former student and impressionable colleague of his, my lasting memory of Jim Michals is his coaching the students one last time, at graduation. One row at a time, the seniors would file off to the side, behind the curtain, to await the reading of their names and the reception of their diplomas. I watched as Jim went down the line fixing ties, instructing students to spit out their gum and reminding them that they needed to look good—their mothers would be watching, after all.
He spoke firmly, but politely. He patted a few guys on the shoulder. He made sure he saw every last graduate.
When the students walked out across that stage, they would be at their best. Jim made sure of that.
- Connor Walters ’09
Wake and Funeral Arrangements
The family will receive friends at the Schulte & Mahon-Murphy Funeral Home, 5252 Mayfield Rd., Lyndhurst (Between Richmond and Brainard) Sunday 2-6 p.m.
Funeral Mass: Monday February 11, 2019, at 10 a.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Church (please meet at church). Interment All Souls Cemetery.
May Jim's soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.