When Don Breese arrived at Lewis-Palmer High School in the fall of 1962, there were no administrators, no secretaries, no custodians and no policy book to speak of.
When he left 28 years later, District 38 ranked in the top 10 in the state academically, while 83 percent of the students went on to colleges or universities – a very high statistic for the time.
Breese died of heart failure in the early hours Feb. 17 at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque with his family by his side. He was married to his wife, Patricia, for 56 years.
Services are scheduled for Feb. 21 at 10 a.m. at Daniels Family Funeral Services, 2400 Southern Blvd., Rio Rancho, New Mexico. The phone number of the funeral home is 505-891-9192.
The Breese family is planning to have a memorial service in Monument in the late spring or early summer.
“He had the ‘It’ factor,” said former Lewis-Palmer teacher and coach Richard Stewart, who was hired by Breese to teach math in 1972. “There was nothing you could put to words that you can describe the kind of administrator he was. He just had ‘It.’”
Breese’s legacy goes beyond his ability to lead a staff. In the 1990s, the District’s stadium was named in his honor.
“He was the leader of the school; he was like the voice of the place,” said long-time Lewis-Palmer football coach Tony Ramunno, who was hired by Breese in 1983. “He was the first guy there and the last guy to leave.
“He laid the foundation for our high school to be the quality school it became.”
Ramunno added that Breese, at 6-foot-5, was an imposing figure.
“He had one of those flat-top haircuts from the ’50s era,” recalled Ramunno. “What he said I wouldn’t question. I would just do it.”
Breese and Patricia moved to Rio Rancho about 15 years ago after he “retired for good.” They lived a quiet, yet eventful life, traveling to and from Colorado on occasion.
Breese stayed in regular contact with his old staff; among them Vic Garcia.
“When Don hired me in 1968 the school had already made the turn,” Garcia said. “Working with Don Breese and watching him improved my overall teaching and coaching.”
Garcia noted that Breese was a stern, but fair administrator.
“I can’t tell you how many times Don pulled me into his office and said ‘Garcia, how many more times do I have to tell you you have to stop screwing up.’” Garcia recalled with a smile. “It took me six or eight years of going through that before I finally got it.
“Everything he did was face to face. Nothing was ever underhanded. Don passed on some of those benefits to me in coaching.”
Suzanne Kuehl, a former Lewis-Palmer English teacher and current track coach, remembers Breese playing a pivotal role in getting the bond issue passed in the District in the late 1970’s that led to a new high school being built.
“We all rallied around him,” said Kuehl, who was hired by Breese in 1976. “When it passed it was a big celebration.
“We were all very close. It was like a tight-knit family. Don was just a wonderful guy to work for.”
Breese intended to be a teacher when he arrived at the school in 1962. But one month into his contract he was offered the position of principal for the high school.
He was also the head basketball coach and track coach, as well as an assistant football coach.
“Things were a lot different back then,” Breese told Tribune in an interview. “There were maybe 140 students in the whole school.”
Breese’s resume was long and filled with many honors and accolades. He is a member of four Hall of Fames, and once finished third behind the late Wilt Chamberlain (he was second) in a high jump competition at the famed Kansas Relays.
“People were taking pictures of Wilt all the time,” Breese recalled of the 1957 meet. “He was one tremendous athlete.”
Breese was a star track and field athlete and basketball player for Western New Mexico University. He held dozens of records in both sports at the time he graduated in the late 1950s. He was inducted into its athletic Hall of Fame in 1988.
Breese’s has about 150 medals, 50 trophies and 15 plaques stuffed away or on display at his home. They include basketball, horseshoes, 8-ball pool and motocross.
Breese was inducted into the CHSAA Hall of Fame in 1999. He was the sole Lewis-Palmer representative until Garcia stepped to the podium in 2010. Breese was in attendance cheering on the coach he hired to start up the school’s soccer program in the early 1980s.
Breese’s Lewis-Palmer basketball teams posted a 124-34 record, including seven league championships in eight seasons. He won two state consolation titles in 1968 and 1969, when his teams went 24-1 and 23-2, respectively. But he is in the CHSAA Hall of Fame as an administrator.
He was president of the CHSAA executive council, and also served on volleyball and basketball committees, among others. He helped bring girls sports into the forefront.
Breese is also in the Colorado High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the International Athletic Association for Basketball Officials Hall of Fame. Among his other awards is the District 38 Administrator of the Year in 1975, the 1085 Bronze Brick from CHSAA, and the 1985 Principals Burger King Excellence from the National Association of Secondary Schools.
In his later years, Breese had a defibrillator pace maker put in his chest. He was president of the Sandoval County Senior Olympics, and a long-time competitor. He also won several state senior Olympic championships in basketball, track and field and table tennis.