Story and photograph by Alice Gerard
Athletic Director Jon Roth, who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year banquet earlier this week, was honored by the Grand Island Central School District Board of Education at its meeting on Tuesday in Sidway Elementary School.
“Jon, we are so proud of you,” said Brian Graham, superintendent of the school system. “Your career is legendary. You have done such tremendous work as a teacher and a coach and director of athletics, but also as a mentor to our young people. Your children, Jeff and Julie, both benefited from you. They both had the opportunity to play Division I tennis at Xavier University (in Cincinnati, Ohio). I never met anyone who had two Division I athletes in the same family and attending the same school. I know how proud everyone is of you and your years of marriage, multiple awards throughout your career. And now, the Chamber of Commerce is saying that you are Citizen of the Year in lifetime achievement.”
Roth, a 1967 graduate of Tonawanda High School and a decorated athlete there, began his career as a physical education teacher at Sidway Elementary School in August 1973. During the years, he has worked as a teacher, a coach and an athletic director. He has received many awards for his athletic abilities, including being “enshrined in the Tonawanda Hall of Fame in 2002,” as well as in the Hall of Fame at Niagara County Community College, Graham said. In high school, Roth played baseball, soccer and basketball. As a college student in both NCCC and at the University at Buffalo, Roth played basketball and baseball.
Roth declined several offers to play for professional baseball teams, choosing, instead, to pursue a teaching career in physical education.
“It’s been a long journey, but really something I loved to do,” Roth said. “I loved teaching physical education. I certainly loved coaching. And, when I was done with that, the last 29 years as athletic director. It wasn’t one person. I had teamwork for sure. But we did improve our athletic program. No question about it. The facilities are just a knockout, thanks to the community and to the people sitting up here at the table.”
“Your legacy speaks volumes,” Graham told Roth. “The community, our athletes, everyone who comes down to the new facility is so grateful to your leadership. I know that we now have baseball and other programs” and that the students “are so excited for the opportunity to play. This is something the Western New York community is benefiting from, and maybe your grandchildren, too.”
“It’s a wonderful facility,” Roth said. “And I have heard people say it’s just the best in Western New York right now. Maybe not the most fields – like Niagara Falls has nine turf fields – but to have that kind of facility, all lighted, and to be able to play softball and baseball at the same time … and then to use the multipurpose field for varsity soccer. It’s a little bigger of a field, as you would know. I know our coaches like playing on it.”
Roth said he came a long way from the new college graduate who was determined to teach at his alma mater.
“I had an interview for a phys. ed. job on the morning of August whatever (in the Tonawanda school system),” Roth recalled. “Then, I had to take a ride over the bridge, and I came over here (to Sidway Elementary School) and, just down the hall and had an interview as a phys. ed. teacher here. I got home, waited, didn’t hear anything. A day later, I heard from Grand Island. I said, ‘Oh, no! No way do I want to go to Grand Island!’ And my mother said, ‘You are taking the job in Grand Island, because they were the first ones who contacted you.’ You think that you’re a big shot in Tonawanda, and I never heard from them. So, a day later, I took the job here, and boy, I’ll tell you, that’s a blessing in disguise. It’s been great.”
The most recent honor from the Chamber of Commerce was the one that Roth did not expect.
“I appreciate it (the honor), and I appreciate all the nice words,” he said. “Your help and your recommendation and your support … it’s something that I never dreamed about. You look at different halls of fame and you say, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe someday, I’ve got a shot at getting into this hall of fame or that one.’ But this is a total surprise. I really appreciate everybody’s support. Thank you.”
Board President Ashli Dreher said of the award, “It is well deserved. I remember when my daughter was a senior here. I remember asking Jon if my daughter could sign a letter of intent to row at the University of Pennsylvania. I was so nervous, and I really didn’t know how the process worked. But I did know that my daughter wasn’t a Grand Island athlete. She was rowing for a club sport. I thought that the answer would probably be no, but Jon said, ‘Your daughter is one of our own. She’s a Grand Island student and, of course, we would love to recognize her at a signing for a letter.’ I’ll never forget that. It meant so much to me as a parent, and it meant a lot to my daughter for her to be able to sign her letter of intent to row at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It just speaks to how you support every student all the time. That’s something we’re proud of. We’re so proud that you are a part of this group and have been with Grand Island for as long as you have. We’re very fortunate to have you here. Thank you for everything.”