Archdeacon: A love match made in Dayton history

The late Sonia Donoher was Coach Don Donoher’s rock

Before he became a legendary coach, Don Donoher needed some coaching himself.

Especially on that Saturday night in September of 1952.

A junior basketball player for the University of Dayton, Donoher had gone to the Flyers’ football season opener in Cincinnati with some buddies from his St. Joseph Hall dorm. That’s where he bumped into a group of Dayton girls, including Sonia MacDonald, a Stivers High School grad who was working for an insurance company in downtown Dayton.

“All of us ended up staying down there and it turned out we were in the same hotel as the girls,” Donoher said. “That evening I was walking around and saw her sitting by herself in one of the banquet rooms. I knew her a little, so I walked over.”

And that’s when he was coached into a move that would forever change his life:

“I said ‘Hi Sonia’ and she said ‘Hi Mickey,’ she called me Mickey, and then she said ‘Sit down.’”

Thursday evening, as Donoher was recalling that moment, a small laugh managed to bubble up through his tears:

“I did sit down and, I like to say, ‘I never got up!’”

It became a 68-year relationship, including 66 years of marriage that ended Tuesday when Sonia, 10 days shy of her 88th birthday, died after a lengthy downturn of health that was precipitated by a fall.

But as sturdy as the union was it, began with a bit of uncertainty Donoher admitted.

“That next morning in Cincinnati, I met her and we went to Sunday Mass,” he said. “Afterward she said, ‘Why don’t you ride home in our car with the girls?’

“They dropped me off at St Joe’s and the last thing she said was ‘Call me.’

“But then I got to thinking, she doesn’t mean it ‘cause she didn’t give me her telephone number.”

While Donoher was still something of a shy Toledo Central Catholic boy, Chris Harris, his roommate and teammate, had more moxie and said “Don’t worry, I can run her down.”

“He got me the number and midweek I walked over to St. Mary’s Hall with a coin and called and asked if she wanted to go to a movie on Friday night,” Donoher said. “We went to the State Theater on Fourth Street downtown and saw Jack Palance in Sudden Fear.

“And I guess you can say, the rest was history.”

And what a history it was.

The couple wed in Toledo in 1954. Teammate Jim Paxson was Donoher’s best man and Harris and fellow Flyer Tom Frericks were groomsmen.

Donoher was still in the Army then and when he returned, he worked a sales job here until UD coach Tom Blackburn hired him as an assistant in 1963. In March of the following year, Donoher took over the team as Blackburn battled the lung cancer that quickly claimed him.

Over the next 25 years, Donoher became the most legendary coach in Dayton Flyers history and one of the best in the nation. He won 427 games, took 15 teams into postseason play, guided UD into the national championship game in 1967, won the prestigious NIT a year later and his team made the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in 1984.

He ended up in the College Basketball Hall of Fame, the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame and the UD Hall of Fame.

And none of that would have happened were it not for Sonia, he said. She did all the heavy lifting and the most ardent loving when it came to raising their four children: Paul, Gary, Maureen and Brian.

She ran the household, mothered Flyers players off the court, cheered them on it and did her best to refocus her introspective and sometimes self-flagellating husband when he did lose.

“She was his rock,” said Anthony Grant, the Flyers current coach and one of Donoher’s most sturdy players in the mid-1980s.

Sue Hipsher, whose husband, Dan, was Donoher’s right hand man for nine years on the UD bench, sat with Sonia in the stands and remained her friend until the day she died.

“Mick didn’t have to worry about anything except basketball, especially during the season,” she said from her home in South Carolina.

When the team was on the road, Sonia and Sue had a routine. They would order take out from the Pine Club – filet medium, double stewed tomatoes, onion rings, two salads with house dressing – and listen to the game.

They also were in charge of setting up the VCR to record games for Mick and that didn’t always work out.

“She’d have to tape this game and that game and that game,” Sue chuckled. “And back then you had to be there and make sure it started recording. We tried to back each other up, but every now and then there was a problem.”

A tape or two may have been lost along the way, but one image endures:

“She had those wonderful sparkling eyes,” Dan Hipsher said. “She was a saint.”

Grant agreed: “Wherever I was in my career, when I’d call Coach, I’d hear her voice in the background. She was always excited to say hello and hear how you were doing. She always put a smile on my face.”

Sue Hipsher called Sonia her “mentor,” though she did get a kick out of her when games got tense:

“I heard her throw in a few Hail Marys now and then. We used to laugh and say she was ‘going to the beads.’”

And then there was the five-overtime game against visiting Providence in 1982 that the Flyers finally won 79-77.

“It was back and forth until I think finally Mike Kanieski made a couple of baskets (and Kevin Conrad added three free throws,)” Sue said. “It was nerve wracking and I turned and looked at Sonia and she’s smoking a cigarette! Right in UD Arena!

“I said: ‘What are you doing?’ And she said, ‘Ooooh, I just couldn’t help it!’”

A ‘hero’ to many

Were we now going into a Thanksgiving week back when Donoher was coaching, Sonia would be starting to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for the Flyers team she invited to the family table each year.

“And when high school kids came in for a (recruiting) visit, it was just penciled into their itinerary to come over and she’d cook them breakfast,” Donoher said. “She wanted to get to know them and she did.”

Back in 2007, before the VCU team he was coaching beat Duke in the NCCA Tournament, Grant told me:

“I wouldn’t be in the positon I am right now – not only as a coach, but as a man – were it not for Coach Donoher and his wife Sonia and their family. I owe them so much.”

Last year when Liza Phillips, the only child of Tom and Libby Blackburn, came back to Dayton to have a memorial service for her recently departed 99-year-old mother, she talked to me about Sonia Donoher and something she’d done for her in her father’s final, painful season.

They were in Manhattan for a Christmas tournament and Sonia sought out Liza:

“I was maybe 11 and she took me out to lunch in New York City and we had the best time. I never forgot that. She was my absolute hero. I worship the ground she walks on. To this day I want to grow up and be Sonia Donoher.”

Always by her side

“When Sonia fell it was start of the beginning of the end,” Sue said as her own emotions welled up. “I remember talking to her and she said, ‘They all want me to walk, but I don’t want to. I’m worried I’ll fall again.’”

Sonia was also batting the incoming tide of Azheimer’s and finally it was decided she’d move into an assisted living facility on Far Hills Avenue so she could get around-the-clock care.

As he health had begun to slide, Donoher was at her side night and day.

“Dan and I were in awe,” Sue said. “He did everything for her and he did it well. He made her feel comfortable and never like a burden. He took tremendous care of her and enjoyed spending time with her.”

Once Sonia was at the nursing home, Donoher was there all day, every day. And when COVID-19 hit, he stayed just outside, doing whatever he could to be close to her. He’d only leave to go to daily Mass and maybe breakfast.

Thursday, Donoher said he was quarantining at home and that Paul and Brian were in the process of making burial arrangements at Calvary Cemetery. He said they’ll wait until the COVID siege has lessened to have a memorial Mass for Sonia.

“It’s been tough, but God has a plan,” he said. “And we had 68 years together and were married 66. So if you want any more than that, you’re a greedy Son of a B.”

When he first started courting Sonia, she lived on Jones Street in the Oregon District and he said he used to have to “hoof it” to get back to his campus to beat Blackburn’s curfew.

“It was about a mile,” he said quietly. “The highway (35) wasn’t in yet, so I’d turn off Jones onto Brown and then eventually cut over to Alberta.”

As he recalled those nighttime hikes, he had a thought: “I’m gonna walk it again one of these days, just for old time sake.”

Then with a moment’s silence, he added: “But I think most of my walking now is going to be over at Calvary.”

So it looks like Sonia’s still coaching.

Once she got him to sit next to her. Now she’ll get him to walk to her.

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