Regina High School community remembers beloved ‘Coach D’ who died from coronavirus

John DeMarco, 73, died of the novel coronavirus April 4, leaving a legacy that lived over generations of Regina High School students, parents, and teachers.

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Rachel Schilke, News Reporter


Known for his smiling face, friendly demeanor, and love for Frank Sinatra, coach and teacher John DeMarco left behind a legacy that generations of Regina High School will cherish. DeMarco touched the lives of more than just the athletes he coached, earning the respect of most parents, coworkers, and students who passed him in the high-school hallway.

DeMarco, 73, died April 4 — the first Johnson County resident to die from the novel coronavirus. The Iowa Department of Public Health announced April 5 that an older adult male between ages 61 and 80 had died, and Regina High School confirmed to The Daily Iowan that was DeMarco.

Regina High School senior Nic Hein said DeMarco was his physical-education teacher for many years and the friendly face that people sought out to make their days better. Hein said one of his favorite memories of DeMarco is the coach struggling to operate his iPad in between class periods.

“Coach D was not very technologically savvy,” Hein said with a laugh. “He used the iPad to take attendance for gym, and one day I stopped to talk to him and he had over 250,000 unread emails. I asked him, ‘Coach D, why do you have all those emails?’ And he looked at me, shrugged, and said, ‘Ah, what can I say? I’m a popular guy.’ And he was.”

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Hein said DeMarco had an aura around him that put people at ease and made them listen to him. DeMarco was a stern but genuine man, he said, and every student and staff member could tell how much he cared about them and treated everyone the same, regardless if they were athletic.

“I heard him talking to his wife on the phone during the passing periods,” Hein said. “ … And he said how much he loved her and that he would be home soon. Most older couples I’ve seen do not do that, but he cared about his wife a lot, and that was the love that he spread around the school.”

Regina High School English Department Chair Clark McFarren, DeMarco’s coworker, said he would describe the coach as an “acquired taste, but someone you acquire to quickly.”

“I met John at my oldest boy’s parent-teacher conference,” McFarren said. “Immediately, I understood why everyone liked him. He had this big Brooklyn accent — an aggressive tone — but after 10 minutes in front of him, you realized he was a big teddy bear.”

While students are continuing their education online amid social-distancing recommendations and lack time to grieve the death of their coach, McFarren said he can tell this is a period when DeMarco would have been needed most.

“He was the glue,” McFarren said. “He was a consistent piece of what we are at Regina. He represented the best of us. He always said to every student before breaks in school to ‘have a good break and come back with a good tan.’ ”

McFarren said DeMarco had nicknames for everyone. DeMarco would address McFarren as “Professor,” and McFarren called him “Coach,” he said.

“The last time we talked,” McFarren said, “he said, ‘Hey Professor, you have a good break and see you in nine days.’ I said, ‘You betcha, God willing.’ And I guess it was God willing. It was a shock to know that he said goodbye for the last time.”

McFarren said his favorite memory with DeMarco was of the pair attending a Hawkeye football game in 2016, when the University of Iowa played against the University of Michigan.

“John was a diehard Iowa Hawkeye fan, and every year he said, ‘This is it, this is our year,’ ” McFarren said. “He was the optimist and he loved telling me, ‘I told you so.’ When it came down to the last play, I did not want to watch, but [DeMarco] made me open my eyes and watch. And we won. It was amazing, we were grown men acting like we were 10 years old again. To go to an Iowa game with him was the full experience.”

DeMarco exhibited that same energy with students across the many generations he taught at Regina High. Parent and Regina High School alum Laura Noble said even those who were not athletes coached by DeMarco remember him for how he would talk to the students.

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To honor DeMarco, more than 2,500 people have signed a petition to change the name of the high school’s main gym after the coach.

“My friends and I were texting after we heard he had died,” Noble said. “My friend remembered him sitting on a bench during study hour and talking to the students who had no one to sit by or nothing to work on. It’s the norm now for teachers to connect with their students and form relationships, but Coach DeMarco was doing all of that before it was the popular thing to do.”

Noble said she remembered her experience with DeMarco differently than her friends. In seventh grade, Noble said she had to run around the football field for the Presidential Fitness Test and had asthma — unbeknownst to DeMarco.

“I had never told [DeMarco] about my inhaler, and I never used it,” Noble said. “Sure enough, I passed out. After a few days, I asked him when I would be making up the test, because I was ready. He told me I didn’t need to, and he had given me full points. I said, ‘Coach, I can do this,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I know you can. But that scared me, and you don’t need to.’”

Many years later, after she graduated high school, Noble said she had completed a marathon and that DeMarco was one of the first people she wanted to tell.

“I went to find him, and I said, ‘Coach, I ran a marathon, I did it. I bet you never thought I could,’ ” Noble said. “And he just looked at me and smiled at me like he had all those years ago and said, ‘I always knew you could do it.’ ”

DeMarco was the positive energy that flowed through the school, Noble said, and he led every pep assembly alongside Regina High cheerleaders — “For the blue, fight, fight! For the gold, fight, fight!”

“He was deeply rooted in tradition,” Noble said. “He helped people see what was important. My friend sent me this post she had found that said, ‘DeMarco was a gentleman, one of those good guys that gave [us] a safe place to grow up. He ruled with the heart,’ and I have never read anything truer than that.”

McFarren said that if DeMarco were here right now, standing with all of those grieving for him, he would have been energetic and pushing everyone forward.

“‘You gotta stay in it to the end, baby. Keep the faith, baby,’ that’s what he’d be saying to us right now,” McFarren said. “He’d want us to keep going and doing what we are paid to do. He was in it to the end, I’m sure of it.”

McFarren said in an email to the DI that he found a Shakespearean quote to sum up the essence of Coach DeMarco.

“There are two beautifully underrated sentences of praise that apply to John DeMarco — ‘He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again,’ ” McFarren said. “I loved him then, and I loved him still.”

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