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College coach looks to rebound from illness

May 22, 2008, 11:35 a.m. (ET)

College coach looks to rebound from illness


NEW CASTLE, Pa. - For four decades, Ron Galbreath has talked with his basketball teams about dealing with adversity.

Always the coach, now he's actually demonstrating it.

Felled by a near-fatal stroke March 14, the Lawrence County basketball legend is on the road to recovery.

Just six weeks ago, such an outcome was unlikely.

Ron, 67, was unable to speak or move muscles on the right side of his body. He'd become ill and then disoriented while at his Patterson Heights home and remained in that condition for several days after being taken to the Medical Center of Beaver.

The ordeal was the sternest test of an unwavering faith that Ron has displayed throughout his life.

"I never dreamed that I would be vulnerable to something like this," he said last week after returning home. "There wasn't much in life that I didn't think I could handle."


His deepest fear, one that brought tears to his eyes, was that he would become like his father. "That I would not be able to get out of bed."

Chuck Galbreath suffered a stroke 30 years ago and was bed-ridden until his death.

That was something that the veteran coach and premier racquetball player knew he might not be able to handle. He prayed for deliverance.

Within a week, his body began to respond. He felt a tingling in his fingers.

"It was the tiniest feeling you could imagine," he said. "But I knew then that everything would be OK."

Buoyed by faith, surrounded by family and encouraged by multitudes of cards and online messages from those whose lives he's touched throughout the years, Ron did what we all have come to expect from him. He battled back.

Perhaps miracle is too strong a word, but how better to explain Ron's incredible recovery?

"It was a significant stroke," said Kathy, the eldest of three Galbreath daughters.

"For him to be knocked down in a blink of an eye and so close to death was a very difficult thing.

"We have to wait and see what damage has been done," Kathy said. "But it is very encouraging to see where he is now compared to a month ago."

His wife, Patty, said the chances that Ron will suffer a recurrence are slim because the stroke was due to a weakness in a blood vessel and not a clogged or blocked artery.


In addition to Patty, the Galbreath daughters - Kathy, Kimberly and Margaret - were there to support their dad. Ron's brothers, Tom and Ken, came by as did his sister, Betsy.

Ron said every time he opened his eyes, there was a family member standing there.

He spent three weeks at Harmarville Rehabilitation Center, where workers say he was one of the most determined patients they'd ever seen. And then it was home to continue the healing process.

"How quickly things can happen to change your life," said Ron as he sat in a chair on his enclosed porch and gazed through a picture window into his beautiful back yard.

The coach has lost about 10 pounds during his ordeal and needs a cane to steady himself while walking. But he plans to resume coaching and playing racquetball. Nobody's doubting now.

Ron is rehabbing four days a week at the Medical Center, where he undergoes physical therapy on Mondays and Wednesdays and speech therapy on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


He is striving to return as coach of the Geneva College women's basketball program, but he is realistic about the chances.

"I'm pleased with how far we've come, but there's still a long way to go," he said. "I'm expecting to coach again, even if I have to sit out next season.

"My primary concern is my family. We will do what we need to do."

Ron said he is grateful to Geneva College and athletic director Geno DeMarco "for giving us so much leeway in this matter."

DeMarco took over some of Ron's responsibilities, including contacting recruits lined up for next season. Others have pitched in, too.

"None of us has ever been in a situation like this," DeMarco said.

"We hope that Ron will be back (for the season), but we've been exploring different options. If we need to have an interim coach for a year, Ron will have a big say in who that person should be."

"But to watch him progress from stage to stage has been truly amazing."

DeMarco said if Ron is not ready to return, a decision would be made before classes begin in the fall.

"Coach won't be on the sideline until he feels he's ready," DeMarco said. "As a coach, you never want to be there with any type of disadvantage."


Michelle Daniels, who played at Westminster College, recently completed her first year as Ron's assistant coach.

"His recovery has been an inspiration to everybody around the program," Daniels said. "He has a great way of teaching the game. He's very positive in getting people excited to play the game."

A few days after Ron's stroke, Patty asked assistant coach Daniels to gather the players so she could speak to them about their coach.

"They needed to hear it from me," Patty said. "I wanted to make sure they understood the situation."

Daniels said it was very emotional for everybody, but that Pat had a calming effect on the team.

Since coming home, Ron has been in touch with the recruits and has met with many of his current players. They came to his house to talk about basketball and life with the man who has taught them so much about both. He wanted to see them, too, because "it was good therapy for me."

Ron breathed new life into the Geneva College women's basketball program when he took over five years ago. He spent 31 years coaching men, 25 at Westminster College, where he was an All-American himself in the 1960s while playing for Buzz Ridl.

His 2006-07 Geneva squad posted a 24-5 record, setting a school record for victories in a season. The Golden Tornadoes followed that with a 20-6 record last winter, giving the program its first back-to-back 20-win seasons.

With an overall coaching record of 634-292, Ron is one of the winningest coaches in Pennsylvania basketball history.

He is the only coach in Geneva women's basketball history to have a winning record. During his tenure, the Golden Tornadoes are 63 games above .500 (111-48).


Ron and the former Patty Donnelly have been married for 43 years.

Ron was coaching the junior high team at Ellwood City when he first got a glimpse of a young woman who had come to watch her little brother, Billy, play.

When Ron learned that she was the sister of one of his players, he decided to ask members of the team to provide their home phone numbers so as not to be obvious about his quest.

He made the call and convinced Billy's sister to go out with him. Of course, it was to a college basketball game.

"I was dating somebody else," Pat recalled. "I wasn't even a fan of basketball."

But they soon became constant companions and three months later Ron proposed.

Patty cried only once during the ordeal after doctors confirmed that Ron had suffered a stroke.

"You just ache," she said about her feeling of not being able to help the man she loved. "I was afraid, but I had the peace that comes with knowing Jesus.

"We're waiting to see what God has in store for us next."


They are thankful for the many friends and supporters who offered prayers and encouragement with cards, letters and messages posted on a special caringbridge Web site.

Many of the messages brought family members to tears, but Ron has not yet seen all of them. His daughter, Kathy McCommons, is making a special book containing all the messages.

"I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cards dad received and the expressions of kindness," said Kathy, who is expecting her third child in July. It will the sixth grandchild (all girls) for Ron and Patty.

"I always knew that dad was a people person, but I never knew there could be this kind of outpouring."

Although he's mellowed through the years, Ron remains resolute in purpose - to teach the game he loves and to leave a legacy of love to those he teaches.

"People have to know what you stand for," he said.

Those who have been around Ron during his incredible basketball career have seen that firsthand.

"As a coach I've had to make adjustments and now I'll have to make some with my life."

David Burcham writes for the New Castle (Pa.) News.