By BILL QUINNAN     11/23/2021

When Father Desmond Quinn hired John Russell as St. Hedwig Catholic School’s part-time athletic director, he admonished the young, inexperienced Russell that he had “better stick around a while.” Nearly 60 years later, it’s fair to say that Russell has held up his end of the deal.

“I can really say this – I’ve enjoyed coming to work every day. I don’t think a lot of people can say that,” said Russell, who continues as athletic director at the Los Alamitos K-8 school. Russell previously served as vice principal at the school for 45 years, in addition to teaching physical education, history and family life, as well as coaching.

“I retired 12 or 13 years ago, sort of,” he said. “I retired for one day, and the principal called and said, ‘Now, we do want you to stay,’ so I stayed.”

According to Kevin Larson, Director of Administrative Services at the Diocese of Orange, Russell is the longest-serving lay employee of the Diocese of Orange, which was founded in 1976. However,
Russell’s tenure at St. Hedwig predates the Diocese’s founding by about 14 years, while the school was still part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

St. Hedwig was only about two years old when Russell was hired, but it was growing rapidly, adding a second unit of classrooms that year. From its inception in 1960 until 1996, the school was run by the Religious Sisters of Charity under the supervision of the pastor of St. Hedwig Catholic Church.

Russell never considered himself a particularly gifted athlete but working for the recreation department in his hometown of Long Beach had sparked an interest in a career in physical education. The mother of two former high-school classmates had learned about an opening for an athletic director at St. Hedwig through the parish and recommended that Russell apply. Still a college student when he was hired, Russell was tasked with building the school’s athletics program from scratch.

“Whatever is here is mine, good or bad,” Russell said. “We’ve been very fortunate here for all these years. It’s really been a wonderful program.”

St. Hedwig alumni athletes include former Major League Baseball pitcher Dennis Lamp and, more recently, professional golfer Patrick Cantlay.

Russell has shared his own passion for golf with the students and their families, and the John R. Russell Golf Classic has been a St. Hedwig tradition since 2006.

St. Hedwig principal Erin Rucker observed that Russell can frequently be found chatting with students or cheering up those who might be struggling “One thing that stands out is how much (Russell) cares about the kids,” she said.

Business manager Carole Wilson recalled, “I used to do yard duty with him, and he always knew where to look. He always had this keen sense – he knew the lay of the land like nobody else.”

Wilson added, “he is amazing as a coach and a leader and people just love him. We have our field named after him for that reason.”

So many trophies have been added to St. Hedwig’s collection over the years under Russell’s leadership that the school ran out of space to store them and gave many away to alumni, keeping only the more recent ones. However, winning trophies has never been the athletic program’s sole focus.

“Russell ran a tight sports program and taught the kids fairness and that it’s okay if you don’t make that basket,” said St. Hedwig secretary Bonnie Finn, who has worked with Russell for decades. “He made sure everyone had a good time and had fun.”

While St. Hedwig’s football, volleyball and basketball teams have long been solid competitors in the Parochial Athletic League of the Diocese of Orange, the school also offers a strong recreational intramural sports program.

“We’ve had an afterschool kickball program here for more than 50 years with six to 10 teams in grades 3 to 5 only,” Russell said. The program runs about two months, offering the younger students a balance of competition and fun. “It’s my favorite thing,” he added.

As a practicing Catholic, Russell recognizes the importance of instilling Christian principles such as charity and integrity in the students amid the heat of competition.

“It really is hard to be a good Christian, Catholic person when a lot of people you work with are not that way in sports. They want to win; they’re aggressive; they’re not kind,” he said.

The diocesan league has a tradition of having opposing teams come together for prayer prior to every game.

“That’s only come along in the last few years,” he reflected. “The impression it makes upon a parent sitting there when it’s early in the year and they haven’t seen it yet – it’s amazing what that might be bringing to them to see their kids praying with a group of kids they don’t even know.”