A lifetime spent in sport: John Haeni
John Haeni’s career can be summed up by a long ago conversation he overheard.
“A primary kid was talking about teachers and one kid said, ‘Mr. Haeni is a teacher.’ Another kid said, ‘He is not a teacher. He is just a man who plays with us in the gym.’ And I went ‘That’s me.’ I enjoyed teaching phys-ed and being in the gym with the kids.”
The 76-year-old Montreal native, who grew up in Pembroke, retired this spring from the position of elementary school athletics convenor with the District School Board of Niagara. He held that position since 2001 after starting his teaching career in Niagara in 1967 at Briardale Public School.
As a phys-ed teacher and a convenor, Haeni played a key role in elementary school athletics in Niagara for more than half a century.
“I think we develop for the high schools so when they get to Grade 9, they don’t just to discover basketball or volleyball or track. It introduces them to the sport whether they follow through or just end up playing house league or beach or whatever they want.”
Haeni wasn’t a star athlete but he grew up playing the usual high school sports in Pembroke. He attended teachers college in Ottawa.
“My father ran a lumber mill and he told me ‘Get out of the (Ottawa) valley for a little bit and if you want to come back home, you can.’ ”
He applied for teaching job in Niagara and Al Peever, the then-principal Scottlea Public School, came to interview him. Peever was a former teacher of Haeni’s and that probably helped him get the job.
“I had never heard of St. Catharines and I didn’t even know where it was.”
After working at Briardale, he was one of the teachers that helped open up E.I. McCulley Public School.
“I can’t even remember what the pay was when you first got hired but you got paid once a month 10 months of the year. Every teacher found a job during the summer,” he said.
While he was teaching, he went part-time to Brock. He took four courses a year and obtained an undergraduate degree at Brock in politics and then a master’s degree in education. In the summer, the Ministry of Education offered courses in athletics and Haeni was a willing pupil along with David Morris, the phys-ed teacher at Dalewood.
“We drove up for five weeks in the summer. They were great courses and they were demanding. They were as good as university courses.”
From McCulley, he had teaching stops at Lakebreeze, Dalewood, Applewood, Ferndale, Victoria Public and Sheridan Park.
“If you hired me, I taught phys-ed full-time, K to 8 or K to 6, whatever the school was and I coached 98 per cent of sports. I did the house leagues and that turned into my speciality. If you hired me, that’s what I did.”
He took his job seriously.
“I was not just doing dodgeball in the gym. I looked upon it just like I was teaching math skills. I did very few games, I did skills and tried to make it enjoyable.”
His classes and his methods evolved over time.
“Over the years, I diversified what I did as a teacher and the best athlete didn’t always get the best mark or always get the award because you try hard and some of us are good in track and some of us can do this and that. You adjust to body size and all those things. When I became the coordinator, we tried to diversify. It was big school versus big school and small school versus small school and we tried to bring in more sports.”
The athletics convenor’s job was posted one year after the amalgamation of the Niagara South and Lincoln County school boards. Five people interviewed for the position. Haeni wasn’t expecting to get the job because the interview panel was made up of three Niagara South principals and he had worked his whole career at Lincoln County.
“I said to myself ‘I am not getting this one and I am going back in the classroom’ but they hired me and from then I have been doing it ever since.”
In his role as convenor, he oversaw soccer, cross country, volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, track and field, three pitch, flag rugby and badminton.
“Elementary is so much different compared to secondary. At secondary, you have sports specialists like Bent Mergl at Churchill where I am dealing with a Grade 1 teacher who is doing three pitch, has never seen a ball and she has volunteered,” he said. “You are thankful for that but I had to do a lot more coaching.”
He was responsible for the bookings of parks and schools, the ordering and picking up of awards and arranging the officials for volleyball, soccer and basketball.
At the elementary school level, every school had to convene at least one sport. Smaller schools would be given an easier sport or paired up for a bigger sport with a larger school. When cross country, volleyball, basketball, track and field and badminton got to the board-wide level, Haeni would take over as convenor. He started using high school leadership classes to help out at track and cross country events and four teachers would be seconded to help out at the district meets with timing.
“It was a lot of work but it was fun work. It was rewarding and you just hoped that you had good games and close games. We would always have a good turnout of parents.”
Elementary school sports had a partial return from the COVID-19 pandemic this past year and Haeni is hopeful things will return to normal this school year. He has offered to assist new convenor Sean Medeiros.
“I will gladly come out, stand in the background and help out where needed. It is now his show.”
Haeni has also had a long career as a volleyball coach at the travel, elementary and secondary school level. He coached for 15 years with the Niagara Rapids, coached at the high school level at Governor Simcoe, A.N. Myer and Centennial and ran a powerhouse girls program at Power Glen.
“I’ve got to say that we had a very successful program. They won the DSBN five years in a row.”
Two volleyball tournaments have been named in Haeni’s honour. There is the John Haeni Classic for girls and the John Haeni Niagara Cup for volleyball.
He also refereed volleyball.
Haeni and his wife, Teri, are looking forward to their retirement.
“It depends if we kill each other,” Teri said, with a laugh.
The couple has four grandchildren and they are looking forward to spending more time with them.
Haeni, a Fonthill resident, plans to get involved with the Friends of the Steve Bauer trail, volunteer at library and help coach high school volleyball.
This summer, there will be plenty of time spent at the family cottage at Barry’s Bay.