To spend over 40 years in public education is a feat to marvel at. To do so with the same school district is often unheard of.
But that’s the reality for Elizabethtown Area School District athletic director Linda Ahern. And after 44 years of service, she’s set to head off into retirement on Friday, March 8.
“I didn’t think it’d last this long,” Ahern mused as she sat in her office.
Ahern began her long career with EASD in 1975 after being hired as a truant attendance officer. She completed her master’s degree in education at Millersville University in 1977 and soon moved into a counselor position with the district, working at both the middle school and high school until 2013.
That year, EASD was feverishly looking for an athletic director to replace Lauren Cavallaro, who had left for a job at Rice University after less than a year in the role. The position had become something of a revolving door for the district at the time; several people had left following short-term tenures. While several viable outside applicants had inquired about the job, Superintendent Michele Balliet decided to think outside of the box and ask Ahern to apply.
“We had been going through some turnover and some turmoil within the athletic department,” Balliet said. “I knew I needed someone solid who had a grasp of the community and understood that athletics could be a source of pride in the district. To me, that’s where kids really show what they’re passionate about. Linda wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion. She never told me what I wanted to hear; she told me what she thought I needed to hear, and there’s a significant difference there. So I asked her to consider it, which kind of shocked her.”
It made perfect sense. Ahern had a long history of roles with Elizabethtown athletics. She served as the head coach of the field hockey from 2005 to 2007 and had separate stints as an assistant coach from 1979 to 1989 and again from 2007 to 2009. She was also the head coach for the girls basketball team from 1980 to 1982 after previously coaching for junior high.
The list didn’t stop there. She started as an assistant coach for track and field from 1976 to 1984. She was a co-assistant AD. She was a game manager, a scorekeeper and a member of the security team. If there was anyone who knew Elizabethtown sports, it was Ahern. At the encouragement of Balliet, as well as her friends and family, she “threw my hat into the ring.” She noted that the job wasn’t hers just because of Balliet “knocking on my door” and that she was lucky to get the position going up against the other qualified candidates.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” she said. “I saw the instability as a game manager already. I knew the community, and I felt that I knew the expectations. The community wants to win, but I think they also value what sports can teach kids. I love the district and I love athletics. So I was like, ‘You know what? Maybe it is time for me to make a change.’”
Being the athletic director brings certain difficulties, which Ahern was well aware of before accepting the job. She specifically highlighted both the scheduling and interviewing processes as being particularly challenging, as well as having to let coaches go. But Ahern’s background in counseling served her well in the role; having dealt with hardening situations with the welfare of kids at stake, she was well prepared for the various roadblocks in her way.
“You’re a very lucky person if you have win-win situations all the time,” Ahern said. “In counseling, you always ask yourself, ‘What’s best for the student in the long run?’ Even in athletics, it’s what’s best for the player and program vs. what’s best for the parent or the coaches. I think if you stay true to that value and be honest and transparent, it’ll work out in the long run. I’ve learned that the kids deserve as much honesty and transparency as an adult, as long as you’re fair and consistent.”
Ahern feels she’s made positive impacts in streamlining event scheduling and promoting synergy between the booster club and the athletic department. She’s also proud of the quality of the current coaches, especially the fact she and her staff have developed a pipeline of assistant moving into head coaching roles; five of Elizabethtown’s coaches (Andy Breault for football, Jenna Griest for girls volleyball, Chad Houck for swimming, Herb Miller for baseball and Rocky Parise for boys basketball) hold that distinction, and three more (Lamar Fahnestock for boys volleyball, Mike Sernoffsky for wrestling and Cindy Telenko for field hockey) had previous stints as head coaches before returning to those roles in the past two seasons.
But above all else, she loves working with the kids.
“When you’re a teacher, it’s fun to get out of the classroom and see the kids and work with them on a different level,” Ahern said. “You see a different side of them when they’re involved in sports and clubs. That kept me young, and then I had three kids that went through the system, so watching them grow up with their friends was great. It wasn’t about me doing anything spectacular; it was just about the kids, working with them and seeing their development and the smiles on their faces.”
Across four decades of work, Ahern had given so much of her time and effort to the school district. So it seemed fitting, even in the face of a tough situation, that the Elizabethtown community was able to get an opportunity to give back to her.
In 2016, around Christmas time, Ahern was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. With almost 283 sick days built up, she decided to go for the most intensive treatment. Every other Thursday, she’d have a friend drive her down to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where she’d usually receive seven hours of chemotherapy. She’d then return home hooked up to a bag which would be taken off later; that amounted to almost 51 hours every other week.
Ahern was still able to perform some of her duties as athletic director, but she couldn’t attend as many events as she usually would. She credited assistant principal Bobby Crick and administrative assistant Mackenzie Deardorff for stepping in to make sure things were taken care of, as well as the school district for supporting her recovery efforts.
“I had to make some tough decisions,” Ahern said. “The people here didn’t hesitate to say, ‘Do what you need to do and we’ll work with you every step of the way.’ When I was sick, I had past graduates get in touch with me. To be remembered was a nice thing.”
After six-and-a-half months, Ahern switched to radiation treatment at the Ann B. Barshinger Institute in Lancaster every day for five-and-a-half weeks. She had surgery in October of 2017, taking a month off from work afterward. By the time she returned, she was cancer free. She still gets scanned every three months.
“I would’ve never been able to do it without the faith and prayers people had,” Ahern said. “So many people reached out to me. Even now, I can’t talk about it without getting upset. The district was great in supporting me through it all. I didn’t get any special favors; I just used my sick days and everything worked out.”
The support wasn’t just from EASD. During the middle of her treatment, Ahern’s daughter Jenna set up a GoFundMe to help in paying expenses. While Ahern was uncomfortable with the idea at first, she was floored by the time she saw how much money was raised: 185 people combined to contribute $12,500, far exceeding Jenna’s goal of $5,000.
“I cried,” Ahern said. “That helped a lot. Sometimes it wasn’t even about the money; it was just the faith that people had. I wouldn’t be alive without all the love and support that I got. I think about it every day every time I see someone who gave anything to me. It does mean a lot.”
“She’s family,” Balliet said. “Linda’s a very private person, and sometimes she doesn’t like to ask for help, so it meant the world to be able to help her. There are several people in the district who call her ‘Mom.’ Linda has given her heart and soul to this district and has always been kind and supportive. It’s always been about the kids for her, which completely aligns with what I believe in. It felt tremendous to support her and watch a woman who just battled through and beat all odds. She kicked cancer’s butt. To watch her stand up and say, ‘I’m retiring because I’m ready for the next chapter and the next adventure’ was pretty amazing.”
Ahern has seen hundreds of different teams during her time in Elizabethtown. She counts the runs of the 1974 state champion field hockey team (which her sisters were a part of) and the 1993 state champion baseball team (of which she didn’t get to see the final game due to filling in for another teacher) as some of her favorite on-field memories. The state semifinal trip for the boys soccer team in 2016 ranks highly as well.
But she enjoys the smaller things as well. Every Hall of Fame ceremony is a treat, as is a basketball player passing 1,000 career points. For non-sports, she appreciates the hard work of that the casts of the fall plays and spring musicals show.
And she’s left plenty of success for her successor, former baseball coach Bill Templin, to build upon. The achievements of several teams this season, including football, cross country, boys soccer, girls volleyball, bowling, rifle, swimming and both basketball teams, are evidence of that.
“I feel like I’ve gotten us turned around and back on track to where we need to be,” Ahern said. “I think Bill will do a great job building upon that. He’s good with people. He knows how to listen and he puts a lot of thought into answers. He’s gone out to visit several other ADs to bring great ideas back to the table. I just think he’ll move us forward.”
“She did a really nice job,” Balliet said. “I’m proud that she took athletics to the next level in this district, and she has now given Bill Templin this opportunity to continue to move it forward. When you think about the successes that have happened, that is the result of great community support, great student buy-in, strong coaches and people wanting to be apart of our programs. That’s been under her leadership, which has been really exciting to see happen. Linda has been completely vested in our community, and I don’t see that going away in retirement.”
Physically, however, Ahern isn’t going away any time soon. She’s already volunteered to return to game support when the spring sports season officially starts, first with the track and field team (fitting considering that was where her first Elizabethtown role was). While she won’t be around day-to-day anymore, you will most certainly see her face at sporting events for years to come.
“I’m gonna miss her spirit and her absolute love for the kids,” Balliet said. “She raised her three children in this district, she has taught in this district and she has a historical knowledge and perspective. You don’t work in a place for 44 years and not be missed. She’s not really gonna be gone, but I’ll miss the daily interaction with Linda.”
“I’m not leaving E-Town,” Ahern said. “I love it here, and I’ll enjoy coming to games. I’ll miss the kids and the staff. I’ve worked with great administrators. I was here when Phil Daubert was superintendent. I feel very strongly about our district now, and I see some good change coming in the future. We’re really reaching out and trying to make our curriculum career-ready. That’s exciting to me.”