Thornridge AD, coach TJ Shirley dies at 53

Updated: May 7, 2012 9:05PM

Thornridge High School athletic director and track coach T.J. Shirley was found dead on Sunday. He was 53 years old.

Students and teachers at the Dolton school reeled as the news spread Monday.

“Thornridge has been around 51 years, and he’s been the (boys) track coach for more than half of them — 26 years,” assistant principal Brad Beilfuss, a former assistant coach under Shirley, said. “The track program, every year, it’s right up there with football (for participation numbers). The kids, they’ve always known T.J. and known he made kids successful — not just in track, but in everything.”

Shirley wasn’t feeling well Friday and left school. He did not attend Friday’s Lockport Invitational, at which the Falcons competed. One of his two sons, checking on Shirley on Sunday, found his body in bed on Sunday in his Lansing home.

“I was shocked,” said Kay Rampke, who turned the athletic director’s post over to Shirley when she retired in 2007. “Everyone loved him. He had a way with the kids — he was able to get the most out of them. ... He was just a happy guy.”

Mount Carmel basketball coach Mike Flaherty taught and coached with Shirley at Thornridge, serving as an assistant to him in cross country.

“He was probably one of the most popular teachers at the school,” Flaherty said. “Anytime we had an awards night, he was the one (teacher) who by far got the most applause.”

“He was pretty congenial,” former Thornwood track and cross country coach Gary Haupert said of Shirley. “He was dedicated to the sport, there’s no doubt about that.”

Shirley’s ability to keep athletes engaged was also noted by Haupert: “One of the final (track) meets we had at the end of my career, he brought those kids over and they just about took over the whole football field.”

Shirley grew up in Fennimore, Wis., and attended the University of Dubuque in Iowa. He had two sons and a daughter.

In addition to coaching boys track, Shirley coached girls track, boys and girls cross country, and wrestling at Thornridge. He was a P.E. instructor at Lincoln Junior High School in Calumet City before joining the staff at Thornridge full-time in the early 1990s.

Services were pending Monday morning. Thornridge was in the early stages of planning a memorial service.

“There are thousands of student-athletes he touched over the years,” Beilfuss said. “There are going to be a lot of people mourning.”

Contributing: Mike Clark

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