The ousted athletic director at scandal-scarred Duxbury High School was less than 24 hours from his last minute on the job in June when the school district asked him to continue working temporarily after his contract expired.
Put simply, the school district dumped Thom Holdgate — unduly, some say — but didn’t know what to do without him.
Duxbury’s request and Holdgate’s response illustrate his value to a system he served for 19 years, until he was swept out in a reckoning after controversies engulfed the high school football and hockey coaches.
In the darkest days of Duxbury athletics, it turned out, the district and its exiled athletic director still needed each other. Holdgate, despite his career derailment, said yes to sticking around. The search for his successor continues. The district says an interim AD will be hired shortly.
“Some of my friends look at me like I’m crazy,” Holdgate said in his first in-depth interview since the football scandal broke in March, commanding national headlines. “But at the end of the day, I know what needs to be done, and I want to make sure the kids and the people I’ve worked with all these years don’t suffer.”
‘At the end of the day, I know what needs to be done, and I want to make sure the kids and the people I’ve worked with all these years don’t suffer.’
Thom Holdgate on returning to Duxbury
Duxbury’s interim superintendent, Danielle Klingaman, said she believed in Holdgate’s ability to run the athletic program, even after he was shown the door. The district needed someone to oversee the extended spring season, which ran into July, and to prepare for the fall season.
“It’s not just a matter of trust,” Klingaman said. “It is a matter of leadership.”
Long one of the state’s most respected athletic directors, Holdgate saw his professional life come undone when he was informed in June that his contract would not be renewed, the day after the district received an investigative report concerning the football team’s use of Holocaust-related language and its religious practices.
Holdgate, 50, paid a steep price for not knowing what others believed he should have known about the worst of former football coach Dave Maimaron’s 15-year tenure. Holdgate also may have paid for the administration retaining Maimaron despite what Holdgate described as his repeated warnings to supervisors over the years about Maimaron’s allegedly profane and abusive language.
Klingaman declined to address Holdgate’s allegation.
Maimaron’s spokesman, Joe Baerlein, said Maimaron heeded Holdgate’s message to clean up his language in recent years. He said Maimaron, like Holdgate and other school officials, was unaware that the players used the term “Auschwitz” as a play call until after their March 12 game against Plymouth North.
“Dave thinks Thom Holdgate was a very good administrator and athletic director and didn’t deserve what he got,” Baerlein said.
Coaches in Duxbury are hired and fired by the school principal, and Maimaron was a popular figure in Duxbury, the upscale South Shore town where he lives and where he guided the football team to five Super Bowl titles. He also was appreciated for engaging his team in community service projects.
“I don’t think there ever was much of an appetite for change [before the scandal],” Holdgate said.
Holdgate declined to say whether he previously recommended Maimaron’s firing. But he said he suspected any such effort would have proved futile, based on an episode in 2009 when school officials chose not to renew the contract of boys’ lacrosse coach Chris Sweet after his teams won six state titles. The community pushed back, and Sweet’s contract soon was renewed.
The decisions on Sweet were made by school officials who have since moved on.
“When something like that happens, it certainly makes you a little gun-shy,” Holdgate said.
Officials for the district declined to comment.
‘I didn’t know. None of us knew.’
Maimaron’s vaunted image in Duxbury fractured when the “Auschwitz” allegation surfaced. Nearly 1 million Jews and 150,000 others were murdered by Nazis at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust.
Holdgate, a graduate of Brandeis University, was the first Duxbury school official to learn about the “Auschwitz” allegation, from his Plymouth North counterpart. He said he immediately alerted top administrators and called Maimaron to tell “him how offended I was by the use of the wording.”
Maimaron issued a swift public apology, describing the language as “insensitive, crass, and inappropriate” as well as “careless, unnecessary, and most importantly hurtful on its face — inexcusable.”
The district fired him two days later.
According to a Duxbury Police report, Maimaron confirmed to school officials that his players previously had used the words “rabbi,” “dreidel,” “yarmulke,” “Hanukkah,” and “Torah” to call plays since about the 2010-12 seasons. The district also found that players used sexually charged terms, including “cougar,” with some calling the names of their own mothers.
Baerlein said Maimaron was never interviewed by the police and never heard his players say “cougar,” though some may have used their mothers’ names while improvising on play calls. He said the Jewish terms such as “rabbi” were introduced by a Jewish line coach and Jewish player in the 2010-12 period.
Troubling, too, were the results of an external investigation by attorney Edward Mitnick. He found “considerable credible evidence” that Maimaron’s players also used the term “gas chamber” and the names of serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer to call plays during practices, according to a redacted copy of Mitnick’s report.
Baerlein said Maimaron never heard his players say “gas chamber” or the names of serial killers. He said it’s possible some players used the names of serial killers to improvise on a play called “Wacko,” for “wide outside linebacker blitz.”
The redacted investigative report provides no evidence that Holdgate or any administrator heard the inappropriate play calls, which were uttered by offensive linemen to each other at the line of scrimmage. Nor was there evidence that any game official heard the offensive language or that any other Duxbury football opponent reported hearing it.
“I’m sorry, but the truth is, I didn’t know. None of us knew,” Holdgate said. “You’ve got to realize that if we had heard even a peep about something like this, we would have dealt with it right away.”
‘You’ve got to realize that if we had heard even a peep about something like this, we would have dealt with it right away.’
Thom Holdgate on Duxbury football players' alleged use of offensive terms
The investigation also laid bare the football team’s religious traditions under Maimaron. They included reciting the Lord’s Prayer before games and holding an annual Thanksgiving eve dinner and “Team Mass” at the town’s Holy Family Catholic Church.
Duxbury’s then-superintendent, John Antonucci, decried the practices as “blatant violations of school district policy.”
Holdgate said he warned Maimaron about public schools involving student-athletes in religious rituals.
“I’ve taken classes about the separation of church and state,” Holdgate said. “I told Dave he had to be very, very careful about things like that. I said it could come back to bite him.”
Complications with hockey case
Antonucci issued his summary of the investigative report on June 11. The next morning, Holdgate met with Antonucci, Klingaman, and high school principal Jim Donovan, who told him they had decided not to renew his contract, he said. The previous week, Antonucci had announced he was leaving Duxbury to become the superintendent in North Attleborough.
Holdgate said no one at the meeting mentioned Duxbury’s former boys’ hockey coach, John Blake, who was fired in April after Joseph and Melissa Foley sued Blake and the district, asserting that Blake as a physical education teacher repeatedly raped their late son while he attended Duxbury Middle School from 2005-07. The Foleys allege the rapes contributed to a drug addiction that caused Parker Foley to die of an overdose in 2020 at the age of 27.
Blake has denied the allegations. Joseph Foley declined to comment for this story.
Holdgate said he did not supervise Blake as a teacher during the period of the alleged rapes. He said he conducted annual reviews of Blake as a coach but never received a substantiated allegation that Blake posed a danger to students.
What’s more, Holdgate said, it was the superintendent and principal who made personnel decisions on Blake.
Yet many in Duxbury believe Holdgate was justifiably broomed as part of a necessary housecleaning.
“I felt he had to go because it was not only the football problem but the issue with the hockey coach,” said the Rev. Dr. Catherine Cullen, minister of Duxbury’s First Parish Church and president of the town’s Interfaith Council. “They were on his watch.”
Others depicted Holdgate as a scapegoat. They questioned the fairness of the district ousting him while others remain, including Donovan and Matt Landolfi, Donovan’s choice to succeed Maimaron as head football coach. Landolfi was intimately involved in the football program as Maimaron’s defensive coordinator.
“I think Holdgate and Maimaron were both scapegoats,” said Sean Reagan, whose two sons played football under Maimaron: Ryan, who now plays at Harvard, and Cameron, who plays at Assumption. “I believe Antonucci inflamed the situation to deflect from all the pressure he was under with the Blake case and to bolster his own profile on his way out of town.
“It’s a damn shame, because Holdgate was a really good AD.”
Antonucci said of Reagan’s allegation, “That can’t be further from the truth. If after this year there are parents who still have the opinion that the athletic culture in Duxbury doesn’t need to change, I don’t know what it would take to convince them.”
Klingaman said of removing Holdgate and Maimaron, “These were not easy decisions and we understand why members of the community might have a variety of opinions about who was accountable (or how it was handled). But we are confident we took the necessary and proper steps to protect the best interests of our students, athletes, and community.”
Klingaman also defended retaining Donovan and hiring Landolfi. She said the high school made immediate changes to the football coaching staff after the scandal broke. And when the school began working to improve the culture, she said, “Landolfi stepped up as a leader. He participated in the programs and set a positive example for the student-athletes. His commitment to improving the culture of the football program showed us that he deserved the opportunity to serve as our head coach.”
Cullen and others agreed. They credited Landolfi with organizing football players to help stage the Interfaith Council’s “Vigil for Hope and Healing,” among other projects, after the scandals broke.
Healing and testimonials
Duxbury, which ranks in the top 10 percent among Massachusetts municipalities in per capita income, is 96.3 percent white, with only 0.4 percent of residents identifying as Jewish, according to 2019 census data.
Longtime resident Laura Neprud, who serves on the steering committee of Duxbury For All and the board of the Interfaith Council, is the immediate past president of Marshfield’s Congregation Shirat Hayam. She was heartened that Duxbury football players participated this summer in a symposium on the Holocaust.
“There is still much healing and work that needs to be done in our community,” Neprud said. “I am hopeful that Coach Landolfi will be able to bridge the gap between what has gone before and what will come in the future.”
Holdgate himself led much of the school’s healing effort. He reached out to the Anti-Defamation League and Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport and Society for educational resources. He helped to bring State Senator Barry Finegold, who is Jewish and played college football, to speak with the team, as well as the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor.
“We wanted to work on the general ignorance of our kids,” he said.
Holdgate still says “our,” “we,” and “my” when discussing Duxbury’s student-athletes.
“As much as my seniors might be ready to dive into college,” he said, “they live in a small community, and sometimes people can’t see beyond their borders.”
Those who know Holdgate best professionally described his removal as a loss not only for Duxbury, but for the Patriot League and communities statewide. He was in line to serve next year as vice president of the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and to become the president two years later.
Holdgate also was a candidate to become the MIAA’s executive director this fall until the scandals caused him to withdraw his name.
“If you were to draw up a description of what a high school athletic director should be, it would be a picture of Thom Holdgate,” said Bob Rodgers, the athletic director at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, which competes against Duxbury.
“I know he gets blamed because there are some culture issues there, but I believe that’s attributable to factors that were outside of his control. I know for sure that Thom repeatedly reported to his supervisors about some of the concerns he had about the football program and they were dismissed by superintendents and principals.”
‘If you were to draw up a description of what a high school athletic director should be, it would be a picture of Thom Holdgate.’
Bob Rodgers, Whitman-Hanson Regional High School athletic director
Klingaman said, “The athletic director is ultimately responsible for the culture, behavior, and actions of those under his or her supervision. After reviewing the investigator’s report and reflecting upon some of the concerns that came to light, it became evident we needed new leadership to chart a new direction for our athletic program.”
Rodgers was not alone in praising Holdgate, who was the state’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2010. Duxbury teams won 33 state titles in 13 different sports during his tenure.
“Thom Holdgate is the best, most comprehensive athletic administrator I’ve worked with or have ever seen,” said Hingham athletic director Jim Quatromoni, who has worked for 20 years in Massachusetts high school athletics.
He cited Holdgate’s leadership on the MIAA’s COVID-19 task force as vital to schools across the state safely providing interscholastic sports during the pandemic.
“Some school and league are going to be extremely fortunate when they have the opportunity to hire Thom as their athletic director,” Quatromoni said.
Holdgate, who previously served as the athletic director on Nantucket, said he feels “hollow” after losing his job.
“Over the last 22 years, I had plenty of opportunities to become a principal or move on in that way,” Holdgate said. “I chose to stay in this role because frankly I enjoyed it.”
Then came the scandals. Amid the reckoning, Holdgate said he often felt as if his hands were tied. He said he was never asked for input on Maimaron’s firing or his replacement’s hiring. He played a limited role in the school’s internal investigation. He was not permitted to see the external investigator’s report. And he was informed his contract would not be renewed so late that any job openings for the next academic year that might fit his skills were filled.
Holdgate’s handshake agreement to temporarily handle the athletic director’s tasks will end when his replacement arrives, if not sooner. Meanwhile, he said he remains on an emotional roller coaster over his ouster and his future prospects. He has a wife and two children.
“People keep telling me things happen for a reason,” he said. “We’ll see what that reason is, I guess. I’m sort of crossing my fingers.”
Elizabeth Koh of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.