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Upper School science and humanities center takes shape as Middle School campus gears up for master planning

Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner outlines DA's blueprint for the future - strategic enrollment and facilities growth that will take place as part of the 2015 Strategic Plan. The multi-year, long-range plan calls for incremental growth in enrollment to be phased over the next 10-15 years, the construction of a new science and humanities center at the Upper School and a comprehensive renovation of the Middle School campus to support unprecedented demand for the DA experience.

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Retiring as track and cross country coach, Dennis Cullen leaves a rich legacy
Posted 04/23/2015 06:32PM

In Dennis Cullen's 39 years as Durham Academy's varsity track and cross country coach, the programs have notched 39 state team championships, and 196 individual state champions have worn the Cavalier uniform. But while Cullen loves to see his athletes win, that's not what drives him, say those who have competed under his tutelage — rather, he's most interested in the journey that gets students to the finish line, and where they go afterward. When the 2015 track and field season comes to a close in May, Cullen will hang up his timer and whistle, retiring from his coaching duties.

"It's been fun," Cullen said of his 42 years coaching — at DA since 1976 and for three years before that at Blair Academy, in his native New Jersey. "I think some people want to go out and play golf or play tennis or something like that in their free time, and I'd rather spend an hour with some kids doing intervals on a Saturday afternoon. It's just fun."

Cullen's retirement from coaching — he will continue serving as chair of Durham Academy's math department — leaves many in the DA athletics community feeling a sense of loss. That includes Costen Irons '98, who will serve as varsity track and cross country coach next year. Irons, who began his involvement with coaching in the JV programs 12 years ago, when he was a student at UNC Chapel Hill — ran under Cullen for eight seasons.

"His faith in me in high school meant so much. He looked at you as a whole person," said Irons, who now teaches physical education in the Lower and Middle Schools. "And his belief in me throughout my life, it's been something that I fall back on. I have a wonderful dad and a wonderful mom, but he's been my other parent."

Fifth-grade history teacher and JV cross country coach Virginia Hall '91 also ran track and cross country under Cullen as a DA student. His dedication to his dual passions — his subject matter and his sport — inspired her to follow in his footsteps as a teacher-coach: "The reason why I do what I do is him. He is my role model."

Cullen, who is by far the longest tenured coach in DA history, is the embodiment of what is right about DA athletics, said Athletic Director Steve Engebretsen.

"Durham Academy has always tried to value and seek teachers who can coach, and Dennis is a perfect model for that," Engebretsen said. "He's been one of our top teachers for 40 years, he's a department chairman, he's served on every committee there is to serve on, and he coaches excellently two seasons out of every three seasons of the year. He's just extraordinary."

On the windows of Cullen's Upper School math classroom are taped photos and records from nearly four decades of track and cross country seasons —student-athletes' accomplishments plain for all visitors to see. What's harder to see are all of "the little things" that the legendary coach does that have earned him the respect of students, parents, alumni and coaches around the state, Irons said. Cullen makes a point to congratulate junior varsity runners on their accomplishments after meets. He mows the grass by the road, readying the path for runners before cross country meets. He sends parents kudos for marathon finishes. At alumni reunion meets, Cullen rattles off the top times and finishes of each alumnus, whether he or she ran five years or two decades ago.

"He cares about his athletes as people, and he can balance it in a way that most people are not able to genuinely balance it," Irons said. "He values the process more than anything. He loves winning, but he truly is out for people as people before athletes."

DA senior Eliza Dekker will run at Dartmouth College next year — following in the footsteps of Cullen, who also competed at Dartmouth. Showing promise from an early age, Dekker began competing at the varsity level as a seventh-grader, and she was initially apprehensive about running with students five years her elder.

"But Mr. Cullen from the very start was inclusive, and his attitude is kind of infectious. He creates a really positive team spirit, so that helped when I was really young," she said. "You can tell he really loves what he's doing. It makes everyone else love what they're doing, too."

That positivity isn't limited to top competitors like Dekker, Engebretsen said. A runner might finish a cross country race toward the back of the pack, "but Dennis knows that they beat their personal time by 20 seconds, and he's so happy he's almost in tears for them," he said. "He just really, really cares about the kids at a level that's hard to do every day consistently, whether you're teaching or coaching."

Cullen described Irons as having a similar dedication to student-athletes.

"His rapport with the kids is extraordinary, very unusual," he said of Irons. "He cares a great deal about them, he cares a great deal about the sport, and that comes through in his practices every day. I think he will do a much better job getting the kids motivated to train hard, to do well. I think the kids will take a step up with him as coach. I respect and admire him as a coach tremendously."

With the knowledge that the teams are in good hands with Irons at the helm, Cullen said he has no plans to drop by practices next year "and look over Costen's shoulder." But he said he is happy to assist in any clerical ways that might prove helpful.

"As far as afternoons, it might be nice to go home and take a walk with my wife and spend a little bit more time with her," Cullen said with a laugh. "Talk about the hours that I've spent coaching, she's been very, very tolerant, allowing me to take that much time away from the two of us."

For Irons, the opportunity to coach the varsity teams is bittersweet.

"It's something that I will love to do. It will be my vocation and aside from building my life around a family, I'll build my life around it," he said. "But to be honest, I'm kind of sad. I enjoy that process of working with [Cullen] every day. I enjoy that process of talking about the runners."

For Hall, it will be strange to drive by the Upper School track late in the afternoon and not see Cullen chatting with students after practice. And she may have to take in races in a more conventional way going forward.

"Sometimes, I'll just watch him instead of watching the runner at the end of a race, because I can just tell how they did by his reaction," she said. "You can tell when someone is having a good race, because he is just overcome. That shows that care, that love he has for the team."

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