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Dorothy Dawson, tough-as-nails track coach with a soft spot, dies at 91

Dawson was a track coach and assistant principal with a paddle. But more than that, she was a steadfast mentor known for her generosity, giving her students food, clothing and a place to stay.

Dorothy Dawson a track coach and assistant principal at Dunbar High School was remembered as a track and field “legend” who gave selflessly to her students.
Dorothy Dawson a track coach and assistant principal at Dunbar High School was remembered as a youth sports “legend” who gave selflessly to her students and athletes.
Sun-Times file

A typical track coach carried a clipboard and a whistle. Dorothy Dawson had a six-sided die.

Mrs. Dawson, also known as Coach Dawson or Momma D, wore many hats at the South Side’s Dunbar High School, including gym teacher, assistant principal, dean, and coach of boys and girls track and field.

Close friend Lorette Cherry said Mrs. Dawson, who started working at Chicago Public Schools in 1962 and continued for almost four decades, was known in Bronzeville and the track and field community for her tough love. Her six-sided die came in handy on the track.

“She has a paddle, and if you got in trouble, she will let you roll the dice and whatever came up, that’s what you got,” Cherry said.

“She was always in any person’s corner that had a need,” said Cherry, who worked with Mrs. Dawson to organize track and field events. “But you had to know her. First time you meet her you’d think, ‘Oh, she’s rough and tough.’ But she wasn’t.”

“And the kids know, that’s like her trademark. But that same woman would sit there and give those kids money to go home on the bus, to come to school, everything.”

Friends remember Dorothy Dawson as more than just a strict, no-nonsense coach, but as a compassionate mentor
Friends remember Dorothy Dawson as more than just a strict, no-nonsense coach, but as a compassionate mentor
Provided

Mrs. Dawson, who died at 91 on Nov. 17, was known not only by her paddle but her willingness to give. She regularly provided food, money, clothes and rides to her athletes and students over the years. Cherry also remembers Mrs. Dawson personally paying for runners’ tournament fees and former students’ college textbooks.

“There was nothing that was beyond her if there was a need,” Cherry said.

Mrs. Dawson developed her no-nonsense leadership style while dealing with students at Dunbar High, many of whom were involved in gangs, Cherry said.

“She was a disciplinarian. She had to deal with some tough guys,” she said.

Cherry remembers one track meet where there was a man who harassed Cherry and tournament organizers about runners’ times and schedules. Mrs. Dawson, the coach known for her paddle and die, dealt with the situation.

“She told him, ‘If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to go down to my car and get my gun and shoot you.’ And he didn’t come back,” Cherry said. “But that was the way she was. And if he had turned right around again and tripped down the stairs, she probably would’ve been the first one to pick him up.”

Track coaches Dorothy Dawson and Jane Dickens at a Dunbar High School track practice in 1984
Coaches Dorothy Dawson and Jan Dickens during a 1984 Dunbar High School track practice
Sun-Times file

Mrs. Dawson was born in Georgia in 1930 and moved to Louisiana at the age of 13 after her mother died; her uncle and sister helped raise her. She grew up in Baton Rouge and was a star on her high school’s basketball team, earning a full scholarship to play at Grambling State University.

On Grambling’s basketball team, Dawson was mentored by Hall of Fame football coach Eddie Robinson. She later received a master’s degree in physical education and math from Iowa State University.

Cherry said it was people like Robinson and others who imbued Mrs. Dawson with her big-hearted spirit.

“She’s just had a life of folks helping her, so she in turn started helping other people.”

After spending time as a state championship-winning high school coach in Louisiana, Mrs. Dawson moved to Chicago in 1961 with her two children, Leonard and Bonnie.

She retired from CPS in 1993. After her coaching career, Mrs. Dawson served as the president of USA Track & Field Illinois from 2000 to 2013 where she worked on creating regulations on coach and athlete conduct, Cherry said.

After retiring from coaching, Dawson served as president for USA Track & Field Illinois for 13 years. She worked on regulations involving coach and athlete behavior.
After retiring from coaching, Dorothy Dawson served as president for USA Track & Field Illinois for 13 years.
Provided

Once, when Cherry and Mrs. Dawson were working at the USATF Illinois office in Lisle, two men in an office next door started fighting with each other. Mrs. Dawson, who was in her 70s at the time and on crutches, rocketed out of her chair and grabbed one of the fighting men.

The police soon arrived, but it was all for naught. Mrs. Dawson, the injured septuagenarian, had already broken up the fight, Cherry said.

“She was just a force to be reckoned with,” Cherry said.

Mrs. Dawson is survived by her three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband and two children preceded her in death. A funeral service for Mrs. Dawson was held Friday.