Longtime Schenectady City School District coach and physical education teacher Karen Daffner was ecstatic when her girls’ bowling team won the Section II Class A championship last season at Boulevard Bowl. It was the first Section II title for any girls’ program at that high school in 16 years.
But that milestone win — and none of the victories or losses in any of the four sports she coached at various levels for 31 seasons — didn’t define her legacy. Instead, what everyone who had their lives touched by Daffner will remember are her toughness contrasted with her many acts of kindness and generosity.
Daffner, 65, died of cancer last Friday. She only found out she had the disease about a month ago after originally being diagnosed with pneumonia. She continued to coach the girls’ bowling team from home, keeping stats, writing up reports and sending in scores, while using an oxygen tank and undergoing radiation treatments each day.
The Niskayuna High School graduate studied physical education at Norwich University and received her master’s degree in sports medicine and coaching at Indiana University before embarking on a long teaching and coaching career, mostly in the Schenectady City School District’s middle schools. She coached volleyball, softball and basketball besides girls’ bowling.
Her colleagues were quick to offer their thoughts on their good friend, and many emailed their thoughts.
“I cannot say enough about her devotion and dedication to her students,” Schenectady girls’ basketball head coach Carol Lupo said.
Matt Marotta, a physical education teacher at Mont Pleasant Middle School and also the head boys’ varsity lacrosse coach for Schenectady/Mohonasen, worked with Daffner at Mont Pleasant.
“Karen was just an amazing person. When I say amazing, I mean it,” Marotta said. “There will never be another Karen Daffner. She had that old-school, tough-love approach that everyone appreciated. She had an immeasurable impact on the students, athletes and staff that she worked with throughout her career, and even after her retirement. She will be missed.”
Danielle Madia worked closely with Daffner for 15 years.
“Daff was tough, but fair, with a quick tongue and a heart of gold,” Madia said. “She was hilarious, had no filter and was known for her witty comments. Daff would help anyone out, no questions asked. She was first to dip into her pocket for a student who couldn’t afford a school trip or to sponsor a family at Christmas. She had the best memory, never forgot a student, even ones she had 20 years ago.
“She would always send a card remembering every birthday and anniversary. She had a deep love and loyalty to her people — and she had many of them. Even in Daff’s last hours, she displayed her spunk and wit in conversation at the hospital. She even made sure to text her bowling scores her last night with us. The impact that she has had on so many is remarkable. There will never be another like Karen Daffner, and she will be greatly missed.”
Veteran Schenectady softball coach Tommy Isabella got to know Daffner extremely well after she took him under her wing.
“Karen hired me in 1998 as her JV softball coach at SHS. We enjoyed 10 years coaching together until her retirement in 2008, whereupon I became varsity coach,” Isabella said. “Karen gave me a chance to join her program, providing me with the freedom and flexibility to help her develop a very strong and successful girls’ softball program.
“She was old-school, tough as nails, demanding excellence from each of her players. Yet she cared so much about [all] of them, always lending a hand, delving into their lives, providing help when needed, caring about their grades and overall health and welfare. She was a breath of fresh air, committed, dedicated, but also realizing that she was preparing the kids for life as much as a game. She will be forever remembered as a difference maker, proud, honorable and impacting so many. I am forever grateful she gave me a chance and allowed me to be part of her life and coaching career.
“May she rest in peace, for she was a winner in all facets of life.”
Bud Watson was one of Daffner’s assistants for many years, and he appreciated her sarcasm.
“When I first got hired to be Karen’s assistant, I came up to her and introduced myself, saying, ‘How are you doing?” Watson said. “She responded: ‘I don’t really care who you are. I didn’t hire you.’ ”
He added that even on her last night, she was texting in her bowling scores to boys’ bowling coach Ryan Crane.
“When they brought her to the hospital, she could hardly breathe, and she couldn’t talk, but she was still interested in how her bowling team was doing,” Watson said. “She was quite a character.”
Daffner’s often behind-the-scenes generosity set her apart. SCSD employee Aimee Demarest wrote about Daffner’s many charitable efforts in another email.
“When I was introduced to her years ago, she walked into my office and asked, what kids aren’t getting presents for the holidays?” Demarest wrote. “I told her, and she ran out and bought an entire family gifts. I was in charge of holiday families, and she was my biggest contributor. I also know she helped families that might lose their homes, and me — yes me — she helped me when I thought I was going to lose mine. She is the most heartfelt, loving person I know and I can never thank her enough.”
Many former student-athletes took to Facebook to express their love and appreciation for their teacher and coach.
Netta Briscoe-Fray recalled the time she was a member of the softball team that qualified for regionals. Briscoe-Fray wanted to go to the prom instead, but Daffner convinced her to play in the game instead of “quitting.” Briscoe-Fray ended up both playing and going to the prom.
“Little did I know those words would carry so much weight,” she wrote. “Now, my kids are in sports, and when their time comes, if they are faced with the same situation, I will be sure to tell the they can do both and it’s OK. Never give up on your dreams.”
Former Schenectady volleyball player Latoya Tucker recalled the time Daffner tried to get Tucker to try out for the team in the late 1980s. Tucker had little interest in “diving for balls” or playing in a “white-girl sport.” But Daffner convinced her otherwise.
“Long story short, I love that sport. She brought light to the young Black girl that it doesn’t matter your color, sports are for anyone and everyone,” Tucker wrote. “I will miss seeing her when I go to games. Blessing to Coach Karen Daffner. She will be greatly missed.”
When current and former students, colleagues and friends found out about Daffner’s illness, they organized a huge car parade outside her house and solid T-shirts with the phrase “Daffner Strong,” on them. Proceeds will go to the American Protective Foundation for rescue dogs.
Reach Bob Weiner at [email protected].