Dr. Dan Tarara is quirky, as big picture as you can get.
His students will tell you that.
They can rattle off moments in class that always make them laugh – doing squats, interpreting his long pauses, interpreting his white-board scribbles and hearing him say, “You’re not paying tuition for me to read from the textbook!”
He selected six students to meet with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, HPU’s Innovator in Residence. They asked Wozniak many things about wearable fitness technology, including reaching people who can’t afford it.
That is the philosophy of Dr. Tarara, “Dr. Dan” to many, the chair of HPU’s popular exercise science department. He prods his students to think about the importance of movement and motivation.
He also prods them to think about life.
“We as professors don’t want to play pitch and catch with the facts; we want them to become better thinkers,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing here at High Point. We’re all social beings by design, and it’s fun to see what happens with our students.
“They do grow and mature.”
Overcoming Adversity; Discovering a Path
It’s a Tuesday morning, and Tarara is talking about muscle fibers and grandmas.
He’s teaching 16 students in his Exercise and Aging class in David Hayworth Hall. Everyone is circled around a long table, surrounded by glass cabinets full of books.
At the head of the table, near a white board, is Tarara. He’s in a light-blue Oxford shirt, sleeves rolled up, tie tucked inside his shirt, his HPU lanyard slipped into his breast pocket.
Tarara is in his element, steering the back-and-forth discussion of ideas that emphasize the need to read, explore and understand. He’s had to work at that. It’s because of a label that he hates, one first attached to him as a child.
Tarara is dyslexic.
He grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the second oldest of four. His dad was a Boy Scout executive; his mom, a homemaker; Tarara, the oldest son who often heard, “You can’t do that!”
He loathed that comment. But it made him hungry, and he learned how to adapt. He gravitated toward doing things with his hands, like wrapping ankles and wrists. That’s how he found athletic training. He excelled.
He found one 14 hours away.
High Point University.
The Bright Future of Exercise Science
Tarara was 24, new to the South and the rolling hills of North Carolina. In August 1995, he started as an athletic trainer and instructor and turned into an award-winning professor.
Tarara, now 48, has found his academic home. He also has found his life.
He met Rosie Monahan, a fellow alum of Springfield College. In 1999, she came to HPU as an athletic trainer. They got married in June 2005 and had their wedding photos taken in front of Roberts Hall.
Like her husband, Rosie teaches. She’s a health instructor in the School of Education.
Dan received his doctorate in kinesiology nearby at UNC-Greensboro. The Tararas now have two daughters, and Dan tells stories in class of his nine-year-old Abby and has pictures in his office of his four-year-old Emma in her pink cowboy hat.
For two years, both Dan and Rosie have chaired the faculty giving campaign for the United Way of Greater High Point. Ask him why, and he talks about the importance of investing in something bigger than yourself.
His students hear that often, about the need to invest beyond you. And Dan tells that to many.
His department has 363 students – a 514 percent rise in the past decade – and they learn in some of the country’s best facilities for exercise science students.
Dan and Rosie can attest to that. They remember teaching in HPU classrooms with chalkboards and no technology. They now teach at a school with a biomechanics laboratory considered one of the country’s best.
This fall, the academic opportunities will only get better with the opening of the $120 million Congdon School of Health Sciences and Fred Wilson School of Pharmacy.
The 220,000-square-foot complex will offer exercise science students chances to learn, do research and grow.
“What students now get to experience through their education is something you don’t see on hardly any undergraduate level,” Dan says. “They do research – and that’s huge – and they’re able to do stuff that they can’t find anywhere else.
“And that really motivates them. They become a thinker, a doer, an attractive candidate for any job or any grad school.”
The Mentor, The Guide
In May, on a sunny Saturday morning in front of Roberts Hall, Tarara walked onstage during commencement and received the Meredith Clark Slane Teaching-Service Award.
It’s a big deal. The faculty picks the winner, and the award represents HPU highest teaching accolade.
His daughters watched him get it, and hours later at home, they asked, “Did you see us? Did you see us?”
All for a dad who once heard as a kid, “You can’t do that!”
Tarara never believed that. Today, he keeps in his briefcase small notebooks that contain inspirational phrases that keep him going. Right now, he has a small green notebook that can fit into his hip pocket.
In that notebook, you’ll find scribbles of all sorts of phrases. Here’s one: “You are more powerful than you let yourself be. Just freaking own it.”
Tarara understands the need for inspiration and the need for mentors. He knows what they did for him. So, he does the same thing for his students. And they all have stories.
Take Allie Zambito and Jamie Schnuck. They’re both Presidential Scholars, both seniors.
Zambito hails from Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and she has been accepted into the master’s program for physical therapy at the University of Delaware.
Schnuck calls home the “Five-O’s” – Oconomowoc, Wisconsin – and she is heading back home to become an emergency room doctor. She has been accepted to the Medical College of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Dan Tarara helped make that happen.
“He’s so eccentric,” Schnuck says, laughing. “He’ll make you stand up in class and do squats, and at first you think, ‘Who is this guy?’ But none of us think like that anymore. It’s those little things that keep you engaged.
“So, words can’t describe how important that is and how important he is,” she says. “We all have motivation, but if we don’t have direction, it’s useless. But Dr. Dan broke it down for us.
“He told me, ‘This is what you need to do,’ and he made it so much more manageable.”
Then there is William Bishop, a 2015 HPU grad from Ocean City, Maryland.
In June, he’ll begin his third year at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, and during his time in Bradenton, Florida, he has discovered the importance of what Tarara taught him.
Bishop knows how to find answers and think independently. But Bishop says he’s found his classmates to be a bit hamstrung because their professors in their undergrad years handed them the information rather than making them work for it.
Bishop does have an intellectual tenacity. He got that from Dr. Dan. But that’s not all he got.
“I know I can keep going,” Bishop says. “I’m better than I think I am.”