BREWER, Maine — Dennis Kiah’s original plan was to become a dentist.
Instead the Brewer native turned to education, and as he prepares to retire this spring after a 41-year career as a teacher, coach and athletic administrator, he does so having helped guide thousands of youngsters through their teenage years.
“The relationships with the coaches and the kids have been the best thing,” said the 64-year-old Kiah, who has spent half of his life working at Brewer High School, the past 19 years as athletic administrator.
“In my element we’re taking care of kids while they’re doing something they love to do. It’s not like being in the classroom where they might toil or struggle in a subject area, they’re playing sports because they love to do it so it’s not hard to motivate them. For me, I just have to get coaches who are going to do that and then sit back and watch and help the process in any way I can.”
The 1965 graduate of John Bapst High School in Bangor originally enrolled in a pre-dental program at the University of Maine.
“But the coursework didn’t interest me,” he said, “so I switched over to education and was going to become a physical ed teacher.”
Kiah never did teach phys ed, as his exposure to science courses and his enjoyment of mathematics led him to teach both subjects in his first job at Foxcroft Academy.
Kiah also coached football, baseball and basketball during six years in Dover-Foxcroft before he returned home in 1977 to begin a 13-year stint as a teacher and coach at Brewer High School.
He eventually pursued his master’s in education administration at UMaine and accepted a job as assistant principal at Hermon High School in 1990.
“I had gotten to the point with coaching where I had just done it for so long, I thought the natural progression was to become an athletic administrator,” he said, “but I had to get more of an administrative background.”
Kiah stayed at Hermon for three years, then returned to Brewer as athletic administrator in 1993. He later served as both athletic administrator and assistant principal for six years, and has been back in the singular role of athletic administrator since 2001.
“Dennis is a very unselfish, caring athletic administrator,” Bangor athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine said. “He’s always trying to find solutions that are the best for everyone.”
The job of athletic administrator has changed dramatically since Kiah first took the job, as the number of sports and facilities to oversee has grown while budgets have tightened.
“We’re constantly made aware of the need to cut here or cut there so we’re constantly looking for ways to take care of the budget without taking away opportunities from kids,” he said.
“But you look at extracurricular activities today, not just athletics but drama and band and chorus and all the different clubs, and statistics show that kids who are involved in those things do better academically, they do better when they get out of school, their attendance is better and their behavior is better. There are so many good things that happen that result from their accessibility to these activities. It’s the other part of education.”
Kiah has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2011 Bob Lahey Athletic Administrator of the Year Award from the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. That award is named after the late Old Town athletic administrator whom Kiah considers a mentor as well as a prime example of the camaraderie that exists among athletic administrators around the state.
“And I have such wonderful bosses here at Brewer High School who take care of me,” he said. “The network of people we have here in the office is unbelievable, and I couldn’t do this job without them.”
Among the many relationships he has forged with fellow athletic administrators, Kiah has worked closest with Vanidestine, in large part to help mold the modern rivalry between their neighboring schools.
“I remember when it was a pretty nasty relationship between the schools, not between administrators but between the kids in the schools and the communities. There was a lot of rivalry and jealousy,” Kiah said.
Today that rivalry features considerable cooperation evidenced by such joint events as the annual “Fill the Alfond” hockey game between the schools and their season-ending boys and girls varsity basketball doubleheader at the Bangor Auditorium.
“Dennis takes everything personal, and so do I,” Vanidestine said. “He works to promote an atmosphere where there’s good sportsmanship and hard play, and to do it with class. He would not accept it any other way, and I’m the same way.”
Kiah’s legacy will be sustained by two scholarships created by the school’s coaches in recognition of his favorite catchphrase, “fire up.” Those scholarships honor unsung heroes among the student-athletes at the school.
“I say ‘fire up’ to everybody,” he said. “I don’t know where it came from. Instead of saying hello, I guess maybe back when I was coaching I’d say that before a game to get the kids fired up, and it just became a thing with me.
“Now there are kids in school who sneak up on me and say it, and it’s become a contest to see who can say it first. Once in while I’ll go on the intercom and say, ‘This is Mr. Kiah, fire up!’ and they think I’m cheating.”
Kiah and his wife, Betty Ellen, haven’t laid out specific plans for the future, but with their two children, Andy and Jill, and four grandchildren all living in the Southeast there will be more family time.
“We’re not sure yet,” Kiah said. “We have a camp up here. We haven’t talked much about selling the house, but we would like to be able to spend time with the grandchildren.”
No doubt he’ll tell them to fire up.