By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Last Thursday, Mark Fox rattled off the recent accomplishments of Milligan University’s various athletic programs during a phone conversation with the News & Neighbor.
The soccer team was playing for a league title, the indoor track teams once again performed well on the national level while the softball team was in the midst of a hot streak. Fox spoke like a proud parent filling a friend in on how his grown children were faring out in the world, a testament to his dedication to Milligan Athletics since becoming the athletic director back in June of 2014.
“That’s a lot to be proud of here as I get ready to shut it down,” Fox said.
Indeed, Mark Fox is preparing to retire on Aug. 1 of this year, ending a fulfilling career at Milligan that started back in 1998 when he took a job as Vice President of Student Development on the heels of a wildly successful stint as a healthcare administrator. The decision to step aside at Milligan did not come lightly, but in the end, a piece of advice from his late father helped sway his thinking.
“It’s always better to leave a little bit early than stay too late,” Fox said. “That’s where I’m at personally. I’m ready to leave and turn it over to the next person.”
Fox’s father Jim graduated from Milligan in 1958. He played baseball and basketball at the school during the same era as Sonny Smith and Del Harris. Mark eventually followed in his dad’s footsteps by attending Milligan and playing on the baseball team from 1977 to 1980.
Fox credits Milligan for preparing him for the business world, but it was his parents and his upbringing in Johnson City that made him the man he is today.
When Fox was young, he used to cut a wide swath across south Johnson City with a group of friends that included Pete Peterson, Steve Darden, Bill Darden and Jimmy Hughes. The boys spent their childhood careening between Powell Square Park, South Side Park, Pine Oaks Golf Course and the Legion Street pool.
They weren’t technically brothers, but shared experiences and parents with similar values bound them together for life.
“The fact that we’re able to maintain truly lifelong relationships and lifelong friendships through the good, the bad and the ugly is probably more a testament to our parents and the values they placed in us,” Fox said. “They didn’t necessarily try to rescue us from everything, but let us grow and become young men.
“I think all of us have felt like we had something to offer to the community, and we’ve been blessed enough to contribute back to the community and hope to continue to do that, maybe just in a different way.”
As much as Johnson City shaped Fox’s life, a year away proved invaluable. Fox’s father, who worked for the VA, was transferred to Amarillo, Texas prior to Mark’s senior year of high school. Since Mark was a key cog in Science Hill’s football, basketball and baseball teams, a plan was made for Fox to stay in Johnson City for his senior year and live with assistant football coach Keith Lyle.
But shortly before Fox was supposed to leave Amarillo and return to Johnson City, his parents had a change of heart. An extra year with his family before college took precedence over playing sports in Johnson City, and although Fox was irate at the time, he now appreciates his parents for making that decision.
“I have a feeling if my dad hadn’t made me stay in Amarillo that year, it would have kept me from doing some things that have been tremendous blessings in my life,” Fox said. “It was probably the single best thing my parents did for me – making me apply myself, making me work and make my own way instead of taking the easy way.”
Fox was back in Northeast Tennessee a year later to start his freshman year at Milligan, where he met his wife Beth and earned his Bachelor of Science in business administration. Fox was already fond of living in East Tennessee, but once he married one of the Keefauver girls, it was almost a lock that he was destined to put down roots in our region.
That’s not to say he didn’t spread his wings and explore the world, something he doesn’t believe he would have done if he hadn’t spent his senior year of high school in Texas.
“That really catapulted me to do some things in my life that I am convinced I would have never done if I had just stayed in Johnson City,” Fox said. “Not that Johnson City was bad, but it gave me the confidence to go to Saudi Arabia to work. It gave me the confidence to go to India for a month and do a mission trip. It made me realize that there are a lot of nice people in the world, and a big, big world out there to see.”
Fox ultimately became the Executive Vice President and COO at Frontier Health/Woodridge Hospital, but was looking for a change late in 1998. Fox credits his wife for remaining supportive through a handful of what he refers to as “hair-brained” ideas over the years, and she was supportive when he decided to resign from Frontier Health in 1998 without having another job in mind.
Fate intervened when he arrived early for a meeting at Milligan after putting in his notice at Frontier Health and struck up a conversation with Milligan president Dr. Donald Jeanes. Jeanes mentioned to Fox that he was looking for a Vice President for Student Development and asked him if he might know of someone who might be able to fill the role. When Fox asked for a rundown of the responsibilities, Jeanes obliged.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Well, you might be talking to him,’ ” Fox said. “Three months later, I was out here working.”
As Fox reflects on his life, he can see clear evidence of God guiding him along his journey. While retirement might be approaching, he is hopeful his blessed journey through this world will continue for many years to come.
“It gives me confidence to know that God’s hand is in my life when I see how my life has played out,” Fox said. “The challenge continues to be, for me, to continue to listen to the Lord and follow his lead and his call for our lives. I hope for however many years I have left on this earth, I’ll be faithful to him as he has been to me.”