Despite Multilayered Success, Fisher Retiring a Humble Man

Despite Multilayered Success, Fisher Retiring a Humble Man

Associate Head Cross Country and Women's Track and Field Coach Joe Fisher '75, who announced his retirement earlier this spring, will coach in his final team event of a 41-year career this weekend as the Cardinals head to Goucher for the 2019 Landmark Conference Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

By Chris McManes

People who run after a bus are usually trying to get on the vehicle. Not Joe Fisher. When he was a teenager, he would race the bus home after track practice. On Sundays, he tried to beat his parents on their drive home from church.

They lived eight miles away.

Fisher didn't usually win either race, but the attempt symbolized his desire to chase a better life. That hunger helped him get a scholarship to Catholic University, where he became an All-American track athlete and a college graduate. It also inspired him to start a nonprofit that helps high school students attend college.

And for the past 41 years, Fisher has coached women's cross country and track at his alma mater. He is retiring from coaching, but will continue to guide young people on the same path to success that others paved for him.

"I'm transitioning to coaching in the community," Fisher said. "The university will always have a special place in my heart. I was blessed to attend school and coach here."

Despite coaching a variety of conference champion, being named Coach of the Year eight times and developing the only national champion in Catholic women's track history, Fisher maintains a sense of humility. He attributes it to his parents and his Cardinal track and cross country coach, Gerry McGee.

"The same core values that I was raised with were reinforced at Catholic University," Fisher said. "The foundation that I got at home, that spiritual base, that character building, and being at Catholic with so many supportive individuals, endowed me educationally to do what I've been able to do."

Two-time Catholic U. national champion and former Cardinal men's cross country coach Mark Robinson, who ran on relay teams with Fisher, said his good friend is an outstanding coach and mentor.

"Sometimes, coaches who are exceptional athletes have trouble showing patience with those who don't have that same level of talent and single-mindedness," said Robinson, boys track and field coach at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. "What Joe does is meet the athletes where they are [athletically] first and then celebrate their progress. Whether they're a star or the last person on the team.

"It takes a special kind of person to instill that sort of culture into your team."

Crediting Mom & Dad

Fisher grew up in all-black community in Southeast Washington, D.C. He was the sixth of eight children to John and Martha Fisher. He was raised Methodist and now attends Olive Branch Community Church in Olney, Md., with his wife of 43 years, Pat. They raised two children, Joseph and Mya, and have two grandchildren.

Fisher's dad grew up in Washington without his father in the home, had a 10th-grade education and was self-employed. Prior to his death in 1978, he made it a point to play a key role in his children's lives.

"My mother was a nurturer, and my father provided the structure," Fisher said. "I think he built the foundation for me to have the humility to be coached. I really give him a lot of credit. I had several different coaches in my life, and regardless of how tough they were, it was because of my dad that I had the resilience and the humility to put things in perspective and keep moving forward."  

Fisher's mom was raised on a tobacco farm in Charles County, Md., and only made it through sixth grade, but later got her GED at the age of 52. He describes his mom, who died in 2006, as a humble, reflective and prayerful woman with an innate ability to solve problems.

"She had that discernment to get us to the right people to help us," Fisher said. "We were blessed to recognize good people. Even here at Catholic University, she had the ability to recognize the people to push us towards to get help."

Running Away from the Competition

After placing fifth in the D.C. Interhigh League cross country championship as a junior at Spingarn High School, Fisher won the crown the following year. Both times he led Hubert Gates' squad to a pair of conference championships. As a senior in 1970-71, he was undefeated and captured the 1.8-mile league title at Langston Golf Course in 9 minutes, 42.8 seconds. In outdoor track, he won the mile and the two-mile.

Robinson said Fisher began having a major influence on his life from the time the two were in high school. Fisher was a year ahead of Robinson, who decided to give up baseball for track during his senior year at McKinley Tech.

Robinson was spurred to make the move after reading a Nov. 17, 1970 article in The (Washington) Evening Star. The story, by Dick Heller, mentioned that Fisher awoke at 5 a.m. each morning to get in a six-mile run. He would repeat it following school by running after D.C. Transit buses. Sundays were reserved for racing the car his father drove home after church.

"I can't run to church, of course, but I like running home," Fisher said in the piece. "My father drives home, and I try to beat him. The other day I finally did."

"Joe was the first D.C. public school, African-American cross country runner that I ever read about," Robinson said. "I might not have become a cross country and middle-distance runner if I had not read that article because Joe was legendary to us. He was the guy who raced the bus home from school every day.

"He was kind of bigger than life at that point."

The Greatest Era in Catholic Track History

Fisher continued his winning ways at Catholic. He was a member of two Mason-Dixon Conference championship teams in cross country (1973 and 1974) and was a member of the league's two-mile relay champion in 1973 with Robinson, Kevin Keating and Jim Blackburn. The quartet twice earned All-American status.

First, they traveled to New York's Madison Square Garden and finished third in a time of 7:44 at the AAU indoor national championships. In Detroit, they posted a 7:36.7 to place fifth at the NCAA Division Indoor Track and Field Championships.

"McGee's Mighty Minions," as The Washington Post described them in a February 1973 article, were competing against the top teams in the nation. In the two-mile relay, Fordham, Tennessee, Nebraska and Pittsburgh were the top finishers. St. John's (N.Y.) and Temple trailed the Cardinals.

"I've got the best two-mile relay team I've ever had here," McGee told Leonard Shapiro of the Post, "and this is the kind of competition I want them to face. It doesn't do them any good to beat all the patsies."

Fisher usually ran one of the middle legs of the relay. In Detroit, however, McGee inserted him into the leadoff spot in place of Keating, leading to a somewhat comical, puzzled buzz throughout Cobo Hall. Ten years prior, Martin Luther King had delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech there. It was six weeks before he gave it in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  

Keating had graduated from Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1969. He lived in Birmingham, Mich., which he described at the time as being "an upper middle class, all-white enclave."

So, when the announcer introduced Keating as the leadoff man but Fisher took the spot, a lot of people wondered what the heck was going on.

"When Gerry changed the order at the last second, they couldn't get the change to the announcer in time," Keating said. "So, he described the leadoff runner as 'Kevin Keating, a local boy from Brother Rice,' and then Joe stepped into the spot. And anyone who was from Detroit would go, 'what? That can't be right.'"

In addition, the 1973 team won the Millrose Games in New York (7:42) and, competing in the Mason-Dixon Games in Louisville, Ky., set a then-school record of 7:35.5.

The year before Robinson arrived on campus, he read about Fisher's performance in the 1972 Mason-Dixon indoor championships in Lexington, Va. He helped lead the Cardinals to their sixth-straight league title by placing third in the 440-yard dash and second in the 880.

"Joe was a really good runner and teammate," said Robinson, who ran the anchor leg on Catholic's mile and two-mile relay teams. "He was very versatile up and down the running spectrum."

Fisher closed his Cardinal athletic career in 1975 with another All-American performance. Running with Robinson, Phil Homan and Clarence Musgrove at the NCAA Division II Outdoor National Championships in Sacramento, Calif., the group placed third in the mile relay.

Robinson also captured his second straight 800-meter national title. In 1976, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

"We wouldn't have been All-American were it not for Mark and Joe," said Keating, a senior that year. "They were that good."

Musgrove and Robinson are members of the Catholic Athletics Hall of Fame. Fisher is sure to join them.

Adapting to a New World

Because of his athletic ability and Catholic's "Partnership" program, which provided special tutoring and partial scholarships to students who would not normally be admitted to the university.

Fisher, like many other African Americans, took advantage of the program to attend the largely white, private university. He said the people he encountered on campus made him feel at home.

"There's no question that we're all different," he said. "You can't get away from recognizing your color or your race or anything like that. But what I find is that it's amazing how much we have in common socio-economically regardless of race."

Coach McGee also helped him make the transition.

"The man had such integrity and passion for his athletes," Fisher said. "He really cared about us. He was one of the few coaches who was able to go into the [African-American] community of Washington, D.C., and recruit athletes like myself."

A Passion for Education

McGee made sure his athletes went to class and took advantage of the education offered to them at Catholic. Fisher graduated with a bachelor's in elementary education in 1975.

"As passionate as he was about winning, he was just as passionate about us getting our education," Fisher said. "He definitely made that clear. He was ahead of his time, especially in developing raw talent. Even today, I use some of his training to help my athletes."

Fisher went on to earn a master's degree in urban education from Baltimore's Morgan State University in 1977. He then embarked on a 35-year middle school teaching career in Howard County, Md. He said McGee was happy for him.

"He said, 'Wow, Joe, that's a good choice because you'll have a stable career with benefits,'" said Fisher, who retired from teaching in 2012.

Perhaps the biggest life lesson Fisher learned from McGee was to always remain humble.

"The reason why we got better under Coach McGee, and this wasn't easy, was getting us to maintain our humility," he said. "He never, ever let us feel that we had reached our potential. He was always finding a way to keep us humble and working hard."

Those lessons were further strengthened in Fisher's resolve by laboring on his grandparents farm every summer in Southern Maryland. It also taught him that that he didn't want it to be his life's work.  

"Our parents sent us down to the tobacco fields to work. That was our vacation," he said with a laugh. "The motivating factor for going was being able to drive the tractor. That, and grandma's food."

Being humble is a hallmark of Fisher's life. He likes to quote the late German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper: "'Humility is not a weakness. It is a strength that allows you to reflect on what to do to move forward.'"

Returning to Coach

McGee recruited Fisher to coach the women's track and cross country program at Catholic in 1978. In just a year, he guided the Cardinals to the Mason-Dixon cross country championship. In 1982 and '84, the Cards were NCAA Division III South/Southeast Regional champions. The 1982 squad placed 11th in the nation.

Fisher's guidance helped Carolyn Hughes Brady become the school's only female national champion. The All-American captured the 1982 NCAA 800-meter outdoor title. She still holds four school records.  

Another of his star runners, Janet Muckenthaler Vignaly, was honored in 1998 as NCAA Woman of the Year for the District of Columbia.

Vignaly had come to Catholic primarily as a hurdler and high jumper and planned to only run track.

"Coach Fisher was always very positive, which I appreciated," Vignaly said. "I'm not a long-distance runner, but I was able to run [longer distances] a lot better than I ever imagined, especially cross country. Next thing I knew, I was on the cross country team."

Vignaly, who still holds school records in the heptathlon and pentathlon, remembers running with Fisher around the nearby Soldiers' Home.

"We would get into these really deep conversations," she said. "I always loved to talk to him about education and his background growing up in D.C. I remember one time looking at myself and saying, 'Oh, my gosh. Here I am running miles faster than I ever would have imagined.'

"It was because he was distracting me with conversation. I was really engaged in what we were talking about. That was actually a really cool memory."

In 2012, Fisher led the Cardinals to their first Landmark Conference women's cross country title. In total, 166 of his athletes were named All-Conference and 55 captured league titles. Four were named Rookie of the Year. Nine garnered Athlete of the Year recognition.

Vignaly also recalled the van rides she, Fisher and her teammates would take to meets. She usually sat up front while Fisher was driving. Return trips always included a stop at one of Fisher's favorite restaurants.

"I'm sure he would probably change his route just so we could find a Cracker Barrel or Golden Corral," she joked. "He had two favorites that we would always go to. He was funny that way."  

Helping Others Go to College

Fisher now plans to devote more of his time to his role as CEO of First Generation College Bound (FGCB). He founded the organization in 1990 to help students become the first in their family to earn a college degree.

"I have to give a lot of credit to my wife, Pat," Fisher said. "We share the same vision."

While he originally ran FGCB out of his house, Fisher now employs a full-time staff of 10. They have assisted over 2,200 students, more than 730 of which have graduated.

"We find high school seniors who have beat the odds and have the potential to go to college and don't know it," Fisher said. "We make sure they know [money is available]. We coach them and manage their attitudes to take advantage of it."

Fisher and his staff work primarily with five high schools in Prince Georges County, Md. They have formed partnerships with several organizations and have a homework club for first- through 12th-graders. They keep assisting their students once they're in college.

"We provide care packages, and they call us to problem-solve for financial aid and other issues," he said. "We advise them how to take advantage of resources on campus. And we've formed an alumni association.

"So, the coaching the continues."

Fisher has won numerous awards for his FGCB leadership, including being named Washingtonian of the Year in 1993. He has been featured in several news stories.

"What's important to him are his roots. He comes from a very close-knit, faith-filled family," Keating said. "Joe finds the money. He finds the schools. He says [to the students], 'You do the work. Leave the rest up to me.'

"That's his passion, and it goes back to his roots because he never forgot."

Fisher plans to continue coaching Catholic athletes as a volunteer under Catholic Cross Country and Track and Field Director Steve Rahn and assist the university in recruiting "as needed." He said his commitment to community service was forged during his time as a student.

"The education I received here really built the foundation for a lot that's going on in my life," Fisher said. "Bridging the home, church and community for success has been a constant theme throughout my life. That will not change."

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) is a former Catholic University's sports information director. He has known and admired Joe Fisher for more than 30 years.