No Jiving About The Best Principal Ever

Let me warn you that if you don’t want to read about how great DeMatha is in another long essay then avert your eyes. Go back under the security blanket of delusion and unfounded denial that DeMatha is just an ordinary school.

Ordinary schools have ordinary people in them. Exceptional schools not only have exceptional people in them, they are usually led by an exceptional person, or persons. DeMatha, being subject to this rule, has been even more blessed in the department of exceptional people. When one looks at the successes of the school, be them in the arts, academia, or athletics it is easy to point at the religious order, particular teacher, moderator, or coach as the reason for that success.

Boots on the ground and hands on leadership are sure fire ways to gain success in the short term but the business world shows us that the roots of long term achievement can often be found in an orchestrator. Fortune 500 companies have CEO’s. Dynamic sports franchises have owners. Most times they aren’t involved in the small decisions that will ultimately control their triumph or failure, but the very best of them seem to guarantee victory with their presence. A careful examination of such leadership in high schools in the Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia areas yields one man that is heads and shoulders above anyone else: John Moylan, principal at DeMatha from 1968-2000.

John Moylan (pictured) is the greatest principal that the Washington Catholic area schools have ever seen. From the moment that John Moylan started as a teacher in 1956 at the small, unknown, ten year old school the Stags started winning: the baseball team won the first title of any kind in 1957. While affiliated with DeMatha, John Moylan would see league championship banners raised 115 more times, in every single sport, over a 44 year career. Quite simply, Moylan presided over greatness and he built a legacy that would stretch into the next tenure as well as give a small school of barely 1000 boys a national name. It is not a surprise that DeMatha Catholic High School became household knowledge under his careful watch.

What is surprising is that John Moylan was the first lay principal operating in a Catholic school in the Washington DC metropolitan area when he took the reigns in 1968. The Washington Archdiocese needed the new infusion, even if they were reluctant at first. Somehow, by the grace of God, the Trinitarians saw the light first and gave the unassuming, hands-on guy a chance during rapidly changing times. As far as principal or headmaster picks are concerned, this was the equivalent of the First Congress selecting George Washington to lead the Continental Army. Most likely no other man could have done such a magnificent job at the time but it was probably difficult to see that a magnificent job could, in fact, be done at the time as well.

Nobody had high hopes for DeMatha in 1956 when Moylan started, except for the Trinitarians and a few Stags. By the time that he became principal the perennial underdogs of the newly forming WMCA, or “Metro” league were trying to carve out a niche amongst Washington DC mainstays Gonzaga and St. Johns College. What Moylan did was to effectively poise the Stags to invade claimed territory as well as provide areas of excellence that hadn’t been previously established in Washington Catholic schools. John Moylan was the first principal in the Washington metropolitan area to win the Blue Ribbon for Academic Excellence in secondary education twice. There was no area too small for him to pay attention to as a principal or as the kicker and special teams coach on the football team, and his diligence paid off in the arts and extracurricular activities as well. (In one of the many hats that John Moylan wore, he even coached an All American kicker or two.) He would be offended if you didn’t mention the fact that academics always came first for him and DeMatha, but that also didn’t stop him from wanting to shine in all areas in order to better educate the whole student.

A high school principal at DeMatha is an educator, philosopher king, fund raiser, art patron and multiple sport franchise owner in large part because Moylan stretched the limits of the job description. In fact if you didn’t know better, when you saw him in all of his glory he was wandering around the campus seemingly milling about and picking up bits of trash. (I personally thought he was on the janitorial staff during my first few weeks at the school because my interview was with the former Rector, William Sullivan.) I couldn’t fathom then that Moylan, the shiny-headed guy in the nondescript DeMatha windbreaker, could be a mastermind the likes of Yoda. And yes, I’m implying that John Moylan might have been utilizing The Force to guide and shape young men to do feats of Jedi proportions.

Perhaps the most supernatural talent that Moylan had going for him was his ability to set people up for success. Moylan recognized that a school is a fragile ecosystem, and he was DeMatha’s greatest environmental activist.
Aside from giving legends like Dr. Charles “Buck” Offutt (pictured) and Ray Smith room to work their own magic, Moylan tended a meticulous garden. When the basketball team was about to face Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor, it was Moylan as the assistant coach who gave the idea to Hall of Fame basketball coach Morgan Wootten to practice with tennis rackets to mimic the excessive reach of a prolific shot blocker.
When the music program began winning awards and recognition in the 70’s, it was Moylan that scrambled to find the dollars to build the facilities befitting the best high school concert bands in the country. John Moylan knew he wasn’t going to be able to carry on forever and it seems that in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s he embarked on a campaign to stock up the coffers.

John Moylan hired DeMatha wrestling Coach Dick Messier who has won titles in every year since 1986. The current athletic director Ed King was also a hire of John Moylan. The current basketball coach (Mike Jones) and principal (Dan McMahon, Ph.D) at DeMatha can claim to not only be his protégés but also former students of John Moylan. And his reach doesn’t just stop at the end of DeMatha halls. John Moylan has had a significant influence at other schools in the area because excellence has a way of being emulated. McNamara principal Marco Clark got his start as a guidance counselor under Moylan at the same time that the Mustangs’ head football coach was a student. Indeed, his awards from the Department of Education speak volumes about his ability to gain the attention of broader audiences that would not do so if he were like everybody else.

There is often a debate as to who is the best sports franchise owner of all time on the DC Sports Fan website. Another question is who is the best manager or coach of all time? We dedicate a significant amount of thought as to who is the best at everything in the high school sports arena, from athletes to venues, but not enough attention is paid to the master planners that make the whole thing “do what it do.” To me there is no question that the best happened to be a high school principal that took something with a lot of potential and made it exponentially better than he found it. DeMatha is almost finished with the third largest construction project in school history, which is the akin to the Yankees building a new stadium. Legendary DeMatha Basketball Coach Morgan Wootten (pictured) was just named the most influential sports figure from the area according to DC Sports Fan and ESPN still consults him for their articles.  The grindstone that John Moylan turned for forty-four years milled out thousands of productive young men and even set up the method by which even more would be created. And if there is one thing you need to know about John Moylan, he took the time with every one of them.

John Moylan wasn’t really a fan of his office. I got into enough trouble when I was at DeMatha from 1989-1992 to know that you couldn’t find him sitting at any desk. Instead, if you were a discipline problem or having a difficulty the bald guy with glasses would somehow find you at your weakest moment. As for me, I was a jiver. I didn’t know what a jiver was at the time, or even that I knew how to jive, but John Moylan had a category for me after careful observation. He would catch me in the staircases or in the Antler Room and say, “I’ve seen you Cooper: high fiving and low fiving… jiving around.” It wasn’t so much of an admonishment as it was his way of recognition. To Moylan, one of the worst things you could be was someone that didn’t live up to his full potential. It didn’t seem like a kind way to do it at the time, but I for one, am thankful that he took the time to aid in my self discovery.

It would dawn on me after some time in Moylan’s care that no one was obligated to give me anything unless I had the ability to work for it. Moylan gave me an important lesson that I never forgot, even though I would spend hours pretending that I was hardly working in school. (You know there is something to be said for a new brand of Black Conservatism, Bill Cosby’s impression of the youth of today, and their lack of respect for those young black men that have the audacity to want to do well in school.) The other great lesson that I got from Moylan was that perception is often reality. You can’t exactly serve two masters, and the decision has to be made by responsible folks to take their destiny into their own hands. Looking and acting cool is often at odds with the decision making process of a 14-year-old, and Moylan recognized this with amazing clarity. When it came to academics, sports or otherwise, John Moylan had the uncanny ability to get pubescent, teenage, boys to focus on achieving goals often in the face of unfavorable odds.

Saint Johns College was the football powerhouse that would not be moved or usurped. John Moylan’s hire, football coach Bill McGregor, is making a serious crack at that title for the Washington metropolitan area. Today the Principal Emeritus can still often be seen watching from the sidelines or bleachers at some of his finest work. It must be really satisfying to see the people that you put in place reap the benefits and rewards of your leadership. We should all be so lucky in life. While DeMatha is poised to take a perch as the preeminent secondary school after the completion of major construction, I know that there must be a smile on John Moylan’s face. To take pride in something so small, tend to all of the little things, and see it blossom into something bigger before your eyes than most people ever imagined is a tremendous blessing.

Oh, and so is personally supervising 19 baseball titles, 15 wrestling, 12 golf, 12 football, 8 lacrosse, 6 hockey, 5 tennis, 3 track, 3 soccer, 1 swimming and 25 basketball titles. I suppose that is a blessing too. It is no accident that the DeMatha tree continues to bare good fruit, too. DeMatha was recently featured by Sports Illustrated as having one of the best high school athletic programs in the country and Austin Freeman could be seen palming a basketball in a DeMatha uniform on the cover.  Only adding to the onslaught of college recruiters was recent DeMatha football standout Kenny Tate who probably had the most articles written about him out of all of the famous Stags that came before him.  After years of tedious pruning John Moylan is content, and probably taking it all in with his characteristic humility. (Just because he wanted to see his students do the best, doesn’t mean that he thought of himself as the best.)  No other principal in the Washington metropolitan area has had such a beautiful run and I would be impressed if one were to ever come close. John Moylan wasn’t perfect but eight years after he retired, he’s still the best that the Washington area has ever seen.

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One Response to “No Jiving About The Best Principal Ever”

  1. 2017 DeMatha Football Preview | The Chronicles of Six Says:

    […] special shout out goes to DeMatha football kicking coach, Principal Emeritus John Moylan who is celebrating his 85th birthday today.  Anyway, check out what  Ty Lenhart and Austin […]

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