Francis Michael “Mike” Byrnes, the former Wantagh High School track coach and a pioneer in high school track and field, died on Dec. 26 at his home in Culpepper, Virginia, from complications from esophageal cancer. He was 83.
Byrnes was born on March 27, 1932, in Philadelphia, to Francis T. Byrnes and Marion Brown. He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, graduating from John Marshall High School. He was captain of the cross-country team at the University of Virginia for three years, graduating in 1953. He then served in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and coached his battalion’s football, basketball and track teams.
He started as a social studies teacher at Wantagh Junior High School in 1957. In 1958, he formed the high school cross-country team, followed by the junior high team in 1962. The high school teams he coached consistently went undefeated and the school gained a reputation as a cross-country powerhouse, winning county and state championships. In 1985, he started Wantagh’s girls’ cross-country program.
Byrnes coached several successful Wantagh athletes including Daniel O’Connor, who graduated in 1970 and was a member of the U.S. Olympic track and field teams in 1980 and 1984, and Therese Devlin Brown, who competed for the girls’ team in 1985 and 1986, and participated in the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials.
He also was on the coaching staff for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team that competed in the summer Olympics in 1968 in Mexico City, the only high school track coach chosen.
In 1964, he formed the Long Island Striders, which later became the Long Island Athletic Club, which provides high school and college track and field athletes a chance to compete during their offseason. He is a co-founder of the National Scholastics Athletics Foundation, an organization that supports youth athletics. It was created in 1989, along with Jim Spier, to help athletes pay for travel expenses to major national and international competitions. He also became the primary editor of publication “Track Digest.” The NSAF presents the “Mike Byrnes Coach of the Year” award annually to a deserving high school track and field coach.
After retiring from Wantagh, he moved back to Virginia and coached track at Fauquier High School.
Wantagh Schools Superintendent Maureen Goldberg met Byrnes when she started teaching there in 1977 as they taught in the same hallway for several years at the junior high.
“Although Mike was known nationally for his success as a track coach, I knew Mike the teacher,” she said. “He truly was a Pied Piper, a ‘kid magnet,’ as we often call teachers who are so beloved by their students. Mike was a devoted educator who cared not only for his students’ academic success but also for their emotional well-being. He reached out to so many students in need and they responded to him in kind. We lost a great teacher when he retired, and we lost a great man when he passed away.”
Survivors include his wife of 35 years, Joan; sons Richard Michael of Warrenton, Virginia, D. David Pate of Tokyo, and W. Scott Pate and his wife Sharon of Oakland, Calif., four grandchildren, Michael Aaron Byrnes, Christina Diane Byrnes, Conner McLean Pate and Jackson Ryder Pate; and sisters Catherine Nelson and Mary Scrudato, both of Richmond. He was predeceased by a son, Stephen Christopher.