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Former Austintown Fitch AD remembered

‘He really set a standard for other athletic directors’

The high school athletic director position is not an easy one.

Critics see only the things that go wrong and aren’t aware of much of the behind-the-scenes work that is necessary in the position.

Obviously, scheduling, equipment procurement, ticket sales, scheduling gym/practice times, dealing with personnel from other schools, all are part of the job description. And that doesn’t include all the small fires that need to be put out.

The Mahoning Valley has plenty of good ADs out there, but lost one of its best last week.

Longtime Austintown Fitch athletic director Gene Chepke died May 1 at the age of 86 and following a long battle with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Besides running the Fitch athletic department for 17 years (1972-89), he also directed numerous postseason tournaments at Fitch, including postseason track and field meets.

Longtime Boardman athletic director Jim Fox worked with Chepke both in their athletic administration roles and as track and field officials.

“Gene was just one of those guys who was a tireless worker. Every time you thought that something needed to be done, he was already doing it,” Fox said. “He really set a standard for other athletic directors, how to be an elite tournament manager.”

Chepke had a large role in securing the regional track and field meet for Austintown.

“He was very instrumental, a big help to track and field in this area, helping to bring the northeast regional meet to Austintown,” Fox said. “At one time, all three of the district meets — Divisions I, II and III — were held at Fitch. We would go Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday for the prelims and then come back all day Saturday and run the finals. Just think about a lot of effort that would have to be put into that to run three individual tournaments like that and then, a week later, host the regional.

“A phenomenal amount of energy and Gene was just one of those guys who set a standard for everybody else.”

Chepke was a graduate of Jackson-Milton where he played basketball and football and ran track. He played college football at Heidelberg, then returned to the Mahoning Valley to teach and coach.

His coaching career started in 1960 at Jackson-Milton, then he moved to Fitch in 1962 as physical education teacher and football assistant coach. He became the Falcons’ AD in 1972.

An athletic director’s primary responsibility is working with his or her coaches.

“Whether it was basketball or track or baseball, Gene was just an organized guy. He had the equipment that you needed and if he didn’t have something, he’d tell you,” said Rich Denamen, Fitch varsity boys basketball coach from 1978 through 1985. “If he didn’t think you needed something he would tell you that in a nice way. You won’t find a finer gentleman than Gene Chepke.”

If hall of fame membership demonstrates a person’s accomplishments, Chepke is at the top of the list. He has been inducted into the halls of fame of Jackson-Milton, Heidelberg College, Austintown Fitch and the Ohio Track and Field Coaches Association. He also has been selected Mahoning County Sportsman of the Year and Ohio Athletic Director of the Year.

“He was like a working AD. You would go over to the track and he’d be out there mowing the field, riding on a tractor, getting the field ready,” Fox said. “When there were hurdles out on the track, he was helping with the hurdles. He always made sure everyone had what they needed. He had a good working relationship with his maintenance department and the custodial crew as well as the faculty. Truly an amazing guy who set a real big standard.

“When I was looking at a difficult situation I’d look back and say, ‘What would Gene do?’ He was that kind of a person who would make an influence on you, and he was never looking for the self-gratification.”

Chepke was one of a kind with those who dealt with him over the years.

“He was just a special guy, always happy-go-lucky, he’d do anything for you,” Denamen said. “You won’t find a coach around here over the last 25 years, a coach or an AD, who wouldn’t have something good to say about Gene Chepke.”

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