James Donnelly gave a lot to bowling.
And the sport gave him a lot, too.
Including the most important things in his life.
“We met at a bowling banquet,” said Ellen Donnelly, his wife of 44 years. “He was a great bowler. I wasn’t. I asked him if he would help me become a better bowler and he said he would, but that I would hate him. I didn’t.
“I knew the day I met him at that banquet that I was going to spend the rest of my life with him.”
Donnelly, a great husband, father, “Poppy,” coach and member of the AOH Division 39, passed away on Jan. 6 after a brief illness. He was 66.
He is survived by his wife, his daughter Michele and his son Jim. He was the “Poppy” of Marisa, Ashley, Monica, Abigail, James and Keane.
Donnelly had been the coach of the Father Judge High School bowling team for 25 years this year. He started the season with the Crusaders before he got sick.
He was quite successful as the coach, helping Judge win six championships during that time. And he took his role of coach very seriously.
He actually became the coach when his son was on the team and he guided the Crusaders to the championship in 1995, 1996, 2004, 2009, 2013 and 2014.
“He loved being a coach because he loved helping,” said Ellen, who lives in Pennypack. “He was so proud to help those kids. He was a great bowler himself and he would bowl in leagues. But he really enjoyed helping players get better.
“When he would go to the AOH, they would call him. That was the name everyone called him. He was so proud to do what he did at Judge.”
Donnelly was a graduate of Judge. And while he had coaching stints all over the city, including the bowling coach at Cardinal Dougherty and the junior varsity baseball coach at North Catholic, as well as running the bowling program at Summerdale Boys Club where he also helped coach baseball and was the club’s president, he wore the blue and red proudly.
“They have that saying of hashtag #Judgeguy, well he was a Judge guy,” his son said. “He was so proud to be there. He loved helping anyone, but he really loved being the coach at Judge. He would run a clinic on weekends where he would help kids from any school, Judge guys and bowlers on other teams, because he wanted to help. But he took a lot of pride in being a Judge guy.”
Donnelly was a great coach, but he didn’t do it alone.
Pat Hamill was his longtime assistant at Judge. He joined the staff a year after Donnelly took over.
“He would always say he was the coach but Pat did all the work,” Ellen said with a laugh. “They were a great team. They worked so well together. You couldn’t talk about what he did without mentioning Pat.”
Hamill didn’t mind doing hard work with Donnelly because the men had so much in common.
They both loved seeing bowlers improve and, even more, they loved putting their bowlers on the path to success, both on the lanes and in life.
“We coached together all those years, and I think we had one disagreement,” said Hamill, the coach of the St. Hubert team and now coaching the Judge squad. “And we knew each other so well, we could just look over at each other and know what the other one was thinking, we wouldn’t even have to talk.”
Donnelly also got the point across to his bowlers without yelling or screaming. In fact, he was one of the calmest coaches you would ever see. But he definitely expected a lot out of his charges.
“He treated me like every other bowler and when I wasn’t bowling great, he would make changes,” his son said. “He was very fair. He was a great coach. He made us better and he treated everyone great.”
That’s probably why once he coached someone, they became a friend for life. It was evident at his funeral, where he told all mourners to wear casual clothes.
“So many former bowlers were there and every school he would go against sent people,” Ellen said. “All of the Judge bowlers were there, but St. Hubert’s was there, Ryan, other coaches. Everybody who met him loved him. The outpouring of support from Father Judge was great.”
Donnelly passed on his love of bowling to many in his family.
Both of his kids bowled, and his oldest granddaughter Marisa has picked up the sport. But he didn’t pass on his coaching genes to his kids.
“I don’t have the patience my dad had,” Jimmy said. “I could never do it the way he did it. He made sacrifices to help.”
Sleep was one of those things he did without for his bowlers.
After finding himself without a job, Donnelly went back to school to become a respiratory therapist. He got a job working in sleep studies, which meant he worked the overnight shift. After work, he would rush home, get some sleep himself and then wake up to get to the lanes.
“He worked very hard,” Ellen said. “He would wake up, grab something to eat and then go out. He did it because he loved it, but he also did it because they needed him. He was coach.”
That was one of his most important jobs.
But his family was his top priority.
“He was a great man, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been through,” Jimmy said. “He would take care of all the kids. He did it at Summerdale and at Judge. He was such a great man.”