By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
When asked what she likes most about being a part of the McGhee family, Sophia said the best thing is you get to do whatever you want. The 11-year-old quickly clarified her statement — after getting a stern look from mom, Dawn, from across the kitchen table. What she meant was that if you have an interest, such as cheerleading, lacrosse, music, the school play — whatever the case may be — Dawn and Mike McGhee give you the freedom to explore such interests.
“I’ll say, ‘I want to do lacrosse.’ And my dad will say, ‘OK, if that’s your choice,’” Sophia said.
Dawn and Mike both have been lifelong educators in some respect, whether it’s been teaching, coaching or working at the administrative level. Dawn, originally from North Jersey, has been a kindergarten teacher at Dawes Avenue Elementary School in Somers Point for more than two decades, and Mike has been the athletic director at Cedar Creek High School since 2011. They met at Rowan University (which, back in those days was known as Glassboro State College) and married in their early 20s. They now have three children, including the precocious Sophia, Olivia, who is a 15-year-old freshman cheerleader and lacrosse player at Mainland Regional, and 18-year-old Alexa, captain of the cheer squad for the Mustangs’ football team.
“Dawn and I met at Glassboro State. We got engaged at 23, married at 25. We lived in North Jersey for a while before we moved down here when Alexa was 2 years old. I coached at Rowan for a little bit,” said Mike McGhee, a Holy Spirit graduate who has served as Cedar Creek’s athletic director after taking over for Scott Parker in 2011. “I was offered a position years ago when I was at Oakcrest to be either supervisor of special education or athletic director. Alexa was just a baby, so I thought it would be less time away from my family to be a supervisor rather than an athletic director. But then an opportunity came up at Cedar Creek. We talked about it for a while, because Dawn takes on a lot of the extra roles when I’m out at games at night. They were all at the right ages, so I decided to take on that role.”
Through the years, the McGhee family has grown. Alexa and Olivia have become fixtures in the Mainland Regional athletic programs, while Sophia attends the Northfield Community School and is involved in all sorts of things. The past couple of years have been busy, with Mike’s duties as the Pirates’ athletic director, Dawn’s full-time job as a teacher, and three kids and all the sports and activities they are into.
“When he was first transferred over (from Oakcrest to Cedar Creek), his title was supervisor of special education, vice principal and athletic director. He had the longest letterhead on his stationary,” Dawn said. “It’s been busy. We call it ‘carpool chaos.’ But the kids love it because when they go to Cedar Creek they get to ride in the golf cart. And this past year, Cedar Creek played Mainland (in football), so Sophia and I both had Cedar Creek and Mainland gear on.”
The family’s loyalties aren’t evenly divided, as all three girls are staunch Mustang fans, but, hey, Cedar Creek wears green, too, so the Pirates can’t be all that bad. Alexa said she’s always been infatuated with the Mainland cheer team, and this past fall she was named one of the team’s captains.
“Mainland is probably a lot better than any school I can think of. The cheer team is like one big family. It’s really fun to get everyone involved. The football team had a tough year, but we really tried to get everybody enthusiastic about the team. And in basketball we did really well this year, our swim teams are really good. We have a really good all-around athletic program at Mainland,” Alexa said. “I’ve been cheerleading since I was about 7 or 8 years old. I always went to the Mainland games when I was little and watched the cheerleaders. I always wanted to do that. When I looked at the cheerleaders, I wanted to be just like them. And now, Sophia’s friends look at me like that.”
“It’s interesting, because some days I’ll show up to cheer practice or lacrosse practice at Mainland and I’ll be wearing Cedar Creek gear, and people will ask why I’m wearing that,” Olivia added. “But it’s fun, because we also get to go to Cedar Creek and hang out at those games, too.”
Dawn and Mike said they love that their three daughters are so involved at their respective schools, as well as in the community. Both Alexa and Olivia do a lot of community service with the cheerleading team, and Sophia is usually in tow.
“They want to do it all. With their dance, cheer, the play, it all seems to overlap,” Dawn said. “Olivia is doing dance, the play and lacrosse all at the same time. We worry sometimes that it will be too much. But I think it’s good for them to be busy, even though it makes me busier. They stay better organized, I think. When they have too much time on their hands I think they aren’t as motivated.”
The McGhees say their one rule for any of their daughters is, they can get involved in whatever they want as long as they keep their grades up. So far, so good, as both Olivia and Alexa have grade-point averages well north of 4.0.
“As long as their grades stay up. Our goal has never been to force them to do anything. Just because I played a sport doesn’t mean they have to. It’s their life, all I ask is that they keep their grades up and don’t quit. They have to give it a full season if they chose to do a sport,” Mike said. “I always say this — and I mean this, too — the kids at my school, I try to treat them as if they were my own kids. I always tell them, I’ll give you advice like my parents did, and you’re either going to sink or swim with it. Kids have to learn to lose sometimes, and learn how to win. (Alexa) gets it the worst sometimes as the 18-year-old and the first one going through it. Even with the whole college thing, we’re going to support her and give her the tools to get there, but it’s on her. My goal is for them to just be happy.”
“Olivia and I, we take our grades very seriously. I take a lot of AP classes, so when I would get home from cheerleading I would go right to my homework. I knew I couldn’t waste a lot of time, but still I’d be up until 1 o’clock in the morning studying sometimes,” Alexa said. “We can always depend on each other if we need something. I know my mom and dad always support us, 100 percent, in whatever it is we choose to do.”
Despite their hectic schedules, the McGhees try to have family time whenever possible. Sunday afternoons feature a family dinner, complete with Dawn’s “question jar.” It’s sort of a little game, where Dawn will pick out strips of paper from a jar that have questions on them, such as “what was the best part of your week?” The idea is to get the family talking to each other, engaging in conversation and just staying connected in a world that seems to get busier by the day. Dawn said she’s trying to make those Sunday dinners last as long as possible, knowing that next fall the family dynamic will change as Alexa heads off to college.
“Looking at them, it just makes us very proud. I try to savor every moment I can now, hugging her, waking her up every morning,” Dawn said.
“Growing up the way I did, in Ventnor, my vacation was the beach and a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. One thing Dawn and I have always done is one week at the end of the school year we’ll go away and have a family vacation. And a big thing for Dawn is Sunday afternoons to have dinner together, at least the best we can,” Mike added. “It’s been a blessing. Every marriage goes through its ups and downs, but our kids are our No. 1 priority, making sure they are successful. As busy as our schedules are, we try to keep things fun.”
Like any family with three kids, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. There are times when the McGhee daughters fight or have disagreements, but in the end their bond remains strong because Dawn and Mike have fostered an atmosphere of mutual respect among everyone in the family.
“They are all uniquely different. They all have their own quirks and personalities. They’ll bicker back and forth at times, but they do really love each other a lot and have each other’s backs,” Dawn said. “Alexa and Olivia were teammates for the first time this past fall, and I was so mother-proud. Watching them be teammates together, it was so exciting for me.”
Alexa said the fact that her high school career will be over in June is starting to dawn on her, and she admits she’s not sure she’s ready to leave the Linwood school she’s come to love so much.
“I don’t want to leave Mainland. I’m going to miss cheer so much, and all my teachers are so nice,” she said. “I’m actually going to miss going to school every day. Not many people say that, but I’m really going to miss it.”
Sophia, on the other hand, isn’t quite feeling the nostalgia. She’s sees Alexa’s next life adventure as an opportunity for herself.
Said Sophia, “I’m making her room into the animal room.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN