The only thing Ron Hemelgarn would turn down from Ponitz High School head football coach Jim Place is a request to join the coaching staff. That’s because the commute route would include his Michigan residence.
What Hemelgarn has agreed to was joining Place in fulfilling a Dayton Public Schools dream for aspiring Ponitz athletes, funding the new Ron Hemelgarn Training Center at the DPS’s newest career tech center on West Washington Street next to the Great Miami River.
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“(Place) told me he was at Ponitz and he wanted to build a championship and he needed my help,” recalled Hemelgarn during the dedication of the facility before appreciative students, parents and coaches. “I said, how much equipment do you need? We loaded up two semi loads full of equipment and brought it down here. Jim is committed.”
That’s the result of a friendship that has endured for 50 years. Place was a budding defensive captain on the University of Dayton football team and Hemelgarn was an East Dayton tough guy who “did everything that nobody else wanted to do” after graduating from Chaminade.
Hemelgarn left Dayton long ago and made his fortune as an entrepreneur in various business endeavors, but his heart remains tugged by disadvantaged inner-city youth, especially in Dayton. He wouldn’t reveal how much the gift amounted to, but the result was as many bar bells, weights, benches, lockers and pride that the Golden Panthers can handle.
“You can almost feel the spirit in here,” Place said as players worked out in the facility. “And the spirit is I’m a self-made man and you can make yourself, too. For that message, I hope it permeates that whole weight room and that’s the main thing.”
Hemelgarn has done this before, generously donating materials and money to help fund the indoor Student Conditioning Center athletic training facility at nearby Chaminade Julienne.
“Everything I do I play to win” said Hemelgarn, who guided Hemelgarn Racing to victory in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 with driver Buddy Lazier. “And when I win, I like to share. That’s what we’re doing. We shared our success. A lot of money went into (Ponitz), but it’s fantastic.”
One of the most traveled head coaches in area football, Place landed at Ponitz in the spring of 2015 after strengthening the program at another urban school, Cincinnati Withrow. A relative newcomer to City League football, Ponitz has never had a winning season and surprised many by winning four games last season.
The Panthers still have a ways to go to match Dunbar, Thurgood Marshall and now Belmont in City League football supremacy and a new weight room will help.
“It’s an honor because a lot of the high schools don’t have this,” said former offensive lineman Kaleb Kinkead, a 2016 Ponitz grad. “We have somebody who actually believes in us.”
Preseason practice begins Aug. 1. Ponitz opens the season by hosting Clark Montessori on Thursday, Aug. 25 at Welcome Stadium.
“It’s coming and all the pieces are falling together,” Place said. “We needed a weight room to get it going and now we’ve got the best weight room, certainly in the City (League) and one of the best in the area. That was the missing piece. It’s an opportunity; now, (players) have to take advantage of it.”