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Rugby-born Special Olympics North Dakota CEO retires

By Sue Sitter - | Jul 31, 2021

Meagher, Kathy

Rugby-born Kathy Meagher, who served as president and CEO of Special Olympics North Dakota retired from her post in early 2021 with a large collection of awards for a lifetime of service.

Meagher’s list of honors goes back to her high school years in Rugby, where she stepped on to a career path of sports and service with a track scholarship to North Dakota State University, Fargo.

The 1977 Rugby High grad made the list of Outstanding Young Women in America in the early 1990s for her work developing sports programs for individuals with developmental disabilities throughout the world. Other items on her impressive resume include placement as a trustee with the NDSU Foundation, a stint as secretary of the NDSU governing board and a seat on the NDSU Alumni Association Board.

Recently, a North Dakota business magazine named Meagher one of their “Top Business Executives for 2021.”

Meagher called her recent placement among accomplished business professionals “Quite an honor. My sister pointed out I was the only female in a group of corporate males. But I’m the lucky one because I had the pleasure of working for thousands of people on a regular basis for a long, long time.”

“I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences with Special Olympics and hopefully impacted thousands of people. Hopefully, I positively changed their lives,” said Meagher, whose post with the Special Olympics took her to more than seven countries to establish sports programs for people with intellectual disabilities.

“The U.S. Embassy sent me to the country of Bahrain a couple of times to develop sports programs for people with disabilities in the early ’90s and, again, that happened because of my connection to Special Olympics,” Meagher noted.

“I guess, through it all, the program again being a great sport program for people with disabilities really changed my life,” Meagher added. “It was a passion. I didn’t want to retire but it seemed like the stars were aligned for the organization. Things were in place; money was in the bank; I had a good staff; their next strategic plan was coming out and my husband had been after me a lot of years to retire. I retired because it was the right thing to do and not necessarily because it was something I wanted to do.”

Meagher added, “A lot of my work ethics are really direct results of my upbringing and experiences in Rugby. I was born and raised in Rugby. I had a good school career. My dad and mom were educators in the Rugby school system.” Meagher’s father, James Kappel, was principal at Ely Elementary School. Her mother, Jean, taught school.

“I made a lot of close connections,” Meagher said of her years growing up in Rugby. “Denise Myhre was my track coach; my still-close high school friends are Keri Burkhartsmeier and Dan Burkhartsmeier.”

After graduating from Rugby High School with a track scholarship to NDSU, Meagher returned home during the summers to work as an assistant recreation director.

At NDSU, Meagher studied elementary education, physical education and sports medicine.

Recounting the start of her career with Special Olympics, Meagher said, “I had completed my fourth year of college and still had one more year of running. I was ready to go back to grad school. My dad started sending my resume to different places. He said, ‘Get out of the house and get a job, Kath,'” she said with a laugh. “One of the places he had sent it to was Special Olympics. My college adviser was Dr. Roger Kerns, who founded the Special Olympics program in North Dakota. The program focuses on using the vehicle of sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Special Olympics North Dakota and had the position of director of sports available, which was a paid position. I ended up getting it and my boss was a volunteer. So, it started way back in 1981, a long time ago.”

Meagher was director of sports for the organization for six more years.

“One day, my boss said, ‘Kathy, I have to have a Special Olympics state basketball tournament,’ so I went right away to Rugby because I knew so many people in Rugby and it was good for me. So, we had a Special Olympics state basketball tournament in 1982. Rugby’s been a source for me personally and professionally for the organization for a long, long time.”

Growing up, Meagher got used to Rugby residents stepping up to help with new public service projects and ventures in town.

“Through high school, I was one of the officers in my senior year and you learned a lot about leadership when you go to school in Rugby,” Meagher said. “The expectations and performance expectations are high from your teachers and coaches and things like that. You surround yourself as a young person growing up in Rugby with community leaders to begin with so therefore, I already had the connections and relationships established.”

Meagher called Rugby’s Special Olympics basketball tournament a success.

“I know we had nearly 30 teams,” she said. “We used the gymnasium; we used the armory, we used the middle school and in those days, the size of Rugby wasn’t there. The pool wasn’t there and a lot of things weren’t there. It’s really different now. We had the Hub and two hotels in Rugby and we took over the entire community for a period of two days. Leland Ekren and Arlen Geiszler all those years ago were referees. People stepped up and it was absolutely fantastic. All of them are from Rugby.”

“Certainly, coming from the Rugby aspect, there’s a great deal of pride in the community of Rugby stepping up and hosting one of the very first state basketball tournaments for the organization,” Meagher said. “It’s now being hosted in Minot and we typically have 40 basketball teams from across the state.”

In 1987, the position of CEO for Special Olympics North Dakota became available. Meagher got the job. “I was less than 30 years old when I got it,” she said.

“The program in general has done a lot for me personally and professionally,” Meagher said. “I traveled to, I don’t know how many different foreign countries doing volunteer work for Special Olympics. I’ve had so many international experiences organizing host programs in China, Japan, South Korea, Ireland, all those countries and learning about the people and their way of life and how lucky we are in the United States. There are so many stories there, I don’t know where to begin,” Meagher said.

“People all over the world know about Rugby because I would always talk about how Rugby was the Geographical Center of North America,” Meagher added. “They knew me and they knew Rugby was the center of North America.”

Meagher said it was “really hard” to single out one particular person or experience that stood out in her career with Special Olympics North Dakota.

“I think I had the best job in the entire world because in the world of Special Olympics and working with people with intellectual disabilities, they’re wonderful,” Meagher said.

“There are no filters. They tell you what they think, which is happy, sad, angry, whatever. There’s no politics. The appreciation and love for life, you just live in it constantly. Certainly, in all careers and jobs, there are stressful moments. Running a non-profit organization, you’re always worrying if you can make ends meet as it relates to budget and payroll and those types of things. But bottom line, when those days happened the people of North Dakota really stepped up and continued to help us to provide those opportunities,” Meagher said.

Meagher said she plans to enjoy her first summer off “since seventh grade” taking care of her grandchildren, who live with their parents in Louisiana. “We have our seven, five and three-year-old grandchildren until July 31 so they can visit us,” she said.

Meagher said she also stays in touch with old friends in Rugby, visiting whenever she can. “Up until a couple of months ago, when I’d drive to Minot or Williston, I’d stop in Rugby because one of my best high school girlfriends is still in Rugby. And then, with the next school reunion my class is in, I’ll try to get there when I can,” she said.

“I’m still doing some volunteer work for Special Olympics North America,” Meagher said of her post-retirement plans. “Hopefully, in North Dakota, I’ll be volunteering maybe as a soccer coach. I used to coach high school soccer here in Grand Forks. And my next passion still will focus on the area of service to others.”3

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