You can find Donald Megerle, director of the Tufts University President’s Marathon Challenge, at Mile 9 of the Boston Marathon every year, banana in hand and arms outstretched, ready for a hug from Tufts runners donning golden singlets.
“I like thinking, as far as I’m concerned, that they’re running to me,” Megerle said. “It’s not an ego thing, it’s not a self-centered thing … You nurture them, you’re with them through [physical] therapy, for the good days [and] the bad days, all that stuff, so when they finish, all that stuff kind of just surfaces.”
So whose arms are these Tufts marathoners running into? After 47 years at Tufts, Megerle has created his own institution of trust. This legacy is revealed in the hundreds of photos around his desk in the University Advancement office, which is also laden with glass trinkets. The trust factor that Megerle has built with many members of the Tufts community is the product of years of matching the mileage and dedication of his runners. For Megerle, it was not always miles; it used to be yards.
A graduate of Bethany College, Megerle tabbed himself a half-decent collegiate swimmer. Megerle took a job on the coaching staff for the school’s men’s cross country team when he was still a senior after illnesses and absences led to an opening, and he did not flinch. After assisting with the cross country, track and field and swimming teams at Bethany, he made his way to Tufts by way of Springfield University, which he joined after graduating from Bethany.
A long, illustrious career as coach of Tufts’ men’s swimming and diving team began in 1971. According to Megerle, the landscape of New England sports looked very different at the beginning of his tenure, when Tufts competed in a division with 55 other schools from the region, excluding the Ivy League. The program quickly grew in stature, featuring five All-Americans between 1971 and 1977. Under Megerle’s leadership, Tufts swimmers finished second in New England eight times and in the national top 10 six times, featuring 92 All-Americans. Megerle’s dedication was also recognized by the International Swimming Hall of Fame, as he won a Paragon Award in 1999 for outstanding contributions to the sport.
These badges of honor were not simply a product of his athletes’ raw talent, but of his remarkable ability to cultivate each of them during their time at Tufts. Scattered amongst the glass menageries in Megerle’s office are countless books on sports psychology and how to succeed at the highest levels of athletic competition.
In other words, the factors that motivate athletes. His answer? Trust.
If a young swimmer’s performance seemed off, Megerle would contact high school coaches for input. If that didn’t work, he would dial their parents. He sought to build his circle of trust beyond his athletes and to their families as well. With a sort of gleeful pride, Megerle explained how he has “ushered” about 10 of his former athletes’ weddings.
These efforts were not just to aid the performance of his teams, but done for the goodwill of the individuals, and he chartered his contagious brand of mentorship throughout the entire Athletics department. Megerle recalled that after seeing a Tufts quarterback hang his head after wide throws and misreads, he would meet the student in Tisch Library every week to discuss his mental makeup on the field. Slowly, however, the conversations divulged away from the field.
“‘Coach, are these conversations still about football, or are they about life?’” he recalls the quarterback asking.
And thus, Megerle unlocks the man behind the man.
He has always given the same spirit of generosity and selflessness to Tufts’ coaching community as well. After deciding to step down at the conclusion of the 2004 season, Megerle played an active role in the hiring of Adam Hoyt, then an assistant swimming coach at Trinity. Hoyt has held the position of Tufts’ men’s swimming and diving head coach ever since.
“His knowledge and his willingness to share [his knowledge] has made me a better coach and better at spreading the mission of Tufts,” Hoyt said. “He opens a ton of doors to all the other resources because he knows all the other people on campus. He is a great advocate for how to manage relationships, improve relationships and be successful within relationships.”
Megerle also has a long-standing love affair with the track community, dating back to his Bethany College days. He was hard to miss at the NESCAC Cross Country Championship at Franklin Park on Oct. 27 with his thick jacket and passionate calls from the edge of the course.
Joel Williams, who joined Tufts in 2015 as head coach of the cross country and track and field teams, explained that Megerle played a key role in integrating him into the community.
“He is one of the most positive people on campus,” Williams said. “Every week, he will send us a good luck message before every race … [Megerle] just has a sunny disposition — he’s always excited to see you. I think the advice he gives without trying to is to look for the silver lining and keep a positive attitude, and things will go in the right direction.”
Megerle’s passion for running is about more than just mileage; it’s about compassion. Despite transitioning from the pool to the course, Megerle has retained his wondrous spirit and passion for human connection.
“The first singlet crossed the finish line and fell into my arms, and I was just mesmerized, enraptured,” he said. “I was just sold on this whole thing. And each runner after that, all 176 of them … each one of them was a national champion [to me].”
Of course, as is the nature of marathons, it has not always been rosy. Megerle recalled one incident when an asthmatic athlete, of whose condition he was not aware, passed out about 20 meters from the finish line and had to be stretchered to a medical tent for treatment. He vowed never to let it happen again.
Megerle, who rises at 3 a.m. every day, now spends his day checking in on his athletes, attending their medical appointments, feeling out their psychological habits, organizing photographs and setting up food stations for when they finish training.
But what does the future hold? What is driving him to stay? According to Megerle, there is a tradition in which Tufts alumni walk at Commencement 50 years after their graduation. Megerle wants to stay for the return of his first swimming team.
“I’ve got to do three more years,” Megerle said. “Then we’ll re-evaluate.”
When Megerle ushers his first Tufts swim team down the aisle at graduation, it will complete the circle of family that he has cultivated over five decades on the Hill. And on Marathon Monday, he will still be there, as always, at Mile 9.