Philip Donlin Jr., a teacher and coach in Baltimore County for 33 years, dies

Philip E. Donlin set high standards, his former students say.

Philip E. Donlin Jr. wrapped up his second season as the head coach of the varsity football program at Pikesville High School with a 4-3 record, a promising start in 1967 for someone who was relatively new to the Baltimore sports landscape.

But the Panthers went winless in seven games in 1968 and repeated that mark the following year. That might have discouraged other leaders, but not Mr. Donlin.


“He was even-keeled,” said Joel Weber, a former student who started at tight end in 1968 and 1969. “He had a passion, a burning passion inside of him to help us play to our potential and really do our best. Even though we didn’t win, he taught us that it’s OK not to like losing, that you need to have a spirit inside you that wants to drive you to be better. If you think you’re good, you’re not really good because there’s always room to be better.”

Mr. Donlin, who taught physical education at Pikesville and Parkville high schools and coached varsity football and boys lacrosse and junior varsity wrestling at both schools, died July 16 at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium due to pneumonia and heart failure. He was 85.


Another former Pikesville student and football player, Dan Shemer, credited Mr. Donlin with molding generations of young men.

“He taught me and a lot of us what it took to learn who we were and what we were capable of in the context of physicality, but also taught us that in a broader sense of what we were capable of being,” Mr. Shemer said. “I think he was a man who acted with integrity always. I never heard him bad-mouth a player or a student. Those are the kinds of things that at least for me were lessons about the kind of adult that I wanted to be, and I only wish I could have done better at following his example.”

Mr. Donlin was the elder of two children born to Philip Donlin Sr., a lawyer, and Dorothy Donlin, a homemaker. After moving from New York to New Jersey, Mr. Donlin fell in love with sports like football, baseball and basketball.

At Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey, Mr. Donlin met Ed Van Brunt, the head coach of the varsity football team, who had a tremendous impact on his impressionable offensive tackle.

“Van Brunt was his idol,” his daughter, Jean Donlin, said from her home in Baltimore. “He expected a lot out of his players. He said, ‘Now you can’t date during football,’ and stuff like that. My father loved football so much, he did whatever that man said.”

After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, Mr. Donlin joined the U.S. Army, where he was a member of a Special Forces unit for two years before being honorably discharged as a lieutenant.

While teaching history at Loyola Blakefield High School in Baltimore during 1960-1961, Mr. Donlin was studying at a library on the campus of what was then Towson State College where Gloria Baker caught his attention.

“He happened to look up, and he said to himself, ‘If that girl comes over to me, I’m going to marry her,’ ” his daughter said. “And my mother came over because he had the same book that she was using, and she asked him a question. That’s how they met.”


After the couple got married in Florida in 1964, they moved from Connecticut to Baltimore County so that Mr. Donlin could begin teaching physical education at Pikesville, where he worked from 1966 to 1982. He taught the same subject at Parkville from 1982 until his retirement in 1999.

Mr. Weber, a retired teacher and athletic director who also was a defenseman for the Pikesville lacrosse program, said Mr. Donlin required his football players to get crew cuts and wear coats and ties on game days.

“We had a certain standard that we had to abide by,” he said from his home in Pikesville. “We were supposed to be student-athletes. So he held us to a high standard.”

Mr. Shemer, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid who is now an attorney and an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, recalled one prospective player objecting to getting his head shaved. But the rest of the team agreed with Mr. Donlin’s policy.

“We were supporting Coach,” he said from his home in Lutherville. “It wasn’t purely an issue of, ‘Since we had to do it, you have to do it, too.’ It was, ‘This is what Coach wants. We believe in him, and we support him, and therefore, we’ve got his backs just the way he always had ours.’ ”

Mr. Shemer said one of Mr. Donlin’s favorite drills in football practice was having the players run a hill near the school while carrying a teammate on their back.


“He pushed us, and he pushed us a lot, but he was always giving us great support,” he said. “And I think he taught us a lot about our limits, that we could go beyond what we thought was the simple thing to do.”

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Mr. Weber returned to Pikesville as a substitute teacher for the spring of 1974. Mr. Weber said a number of students were rumored to begin plotting to remove the American flag from the flagpole outside the school to protest the Vietnam War and racial inequality.

“Mr. Donlin heard about this, walked out, and would not allow the student body to get even near that flagpole to protect the memory of all those people who gave their lives for our country,” Mr. Weber said. “He stood there for hours. He was a monster of a man. He was a giant. He was 6-3, 6-4 and 250, and not many people were going to challenge him. He just refused to let anyone touch that flag.”

Jean Donlin, whose younger brother, Matt, died in 1999, said her father loved teaching and the students with whom he interacted.


“He thought sports were a really important part of a person,” she said. “It teaches them for the future, it guides them for the future, it gives them a sense of purpose for the future.”

A funeral Mass for Mr. Donlin took place July 20 at Immaculate Conception Church in Towson. He was buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Donlin is survived by one sister, Diana Mell of Saint John’s, South Carolina, and one cousin, Johnny Brandau of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.