'You are who you are': How UNC's Dave Lohse came out, thrived in Chapel Hill
Lohse, who is openly gay, has served as a trailblazer and advocate in the field of sports information, where he's worked for almost 50 years.
In June of 2016, Dave Lohse stood on a stage in the grand ballroom of the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas.
He’d just been announced as the winner of the Achievement Award — an honor that the College Sports Information Directors of America gives out annually.
Lohse had spent almost 50 years publicizing and promoting the accomplishments of others. But on this day, UNC’s longtime associate director of athletics communications had a new task: to talk, for once, about himself.
Ahead of the summer convention, Lohse had been asked to submit some questions for an ESPN Radio host to feed him. Ask about my love for show tunes, he told the event organizers. Ask about my time at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and my work with 21 different national championship-winning teams at North Carolina.
“Well,” an organizer said, “don’t we really need to ask you about what it’s like to be openly gay for 24 years?”
Lohse was hesitant. How would he tackle such a nuanced and definitive aspect of his life in just one answer? Was this really the right time? The organizers ensured him it was. So, when asked, he told a story.
From 2001 to 2012, four brothers passed through the UNC men’s lacrosse program: Ronnie, Billy, Ben and Mark Staines. All four were starters, and all four became friends with Lohse, who oversaw the team’s communications.
Lohse also grew close with Ron and Lauren Staines, the boys’ parents. They saw Lohse 15 to 20 times a year and often ate with him at Top of the Hill or Pantana Bob’s after home games.
About a year after Mark, the youngest brother, left UNC, Lohse got a call. Maryland had legalized gay marriage in 2012, and one of Ronnie’s longtime friends wanted the Staines brothers to participate in his wedding. The boys were ecstatic to help.
Ron and Lauren realized, right then and there, how much Lohse had changed the lives of their children for the better.
“We know we sent them there likely very homophobic,” Lohse remembered the parents telling him. “And then they meet you, and you become a family friend.”
Lohse’s sheer presence, the Staines parents told him, prompted their sons to learn about, understand and support the LGBTQ community. The brothers didn’t interact with many openly gay people growing up in Maryland, but their friendship with Lohse shaped the progressive values they hold today.
“You gave them the gift of compassion and understanding,” Lohse remembered Ron and Lauren saying. “They are better for having been in your life. We owe their open minds to you.”
With tears in his eyes, Lohse finished his story in Dallas and turned to hand off the microphone. When he turned back around to leave the stage, he saw a crowd of 1,000 on its feet. Many of them were in tears. All of them were cheering.
“I barely made it off stage,” he said.
He barely made it through the story last month, three years later at age 63, sitting on a black leather couch outside his Smith Center office. Lohse, who has worked at UNC for 42 years, is in the final stretch of his career. This summer, he’ll be inducted into College Sports Information Directors of America’s Hall of Fame.
Intertwined with his work, though, is something larger than the sports world he operates in: his role as a trailblazer. Lohse, to his knowledge, was the first openly gay man to work in athletics communications. And he’s thrived.
“I just was my authentic self, and I think people got used to it,” he said. “You know, you are who you are.”
‘It was clearly there’
Griffith, Indiana, is wedged up in the top left corner of the state, so closely connected to the metropolis above it that most Indiana residents consider it more a part of Chicago.
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Lohse’s hometown was quintessential working-class America. His dad, Clark, was a bricklayer. His mom, Lorraine, worked at Kmart and a Glidden paint store. Lohse, who has two sisters, grew up as a self-described nerd who never got a B.
His proximity to the third largest city in America also piqued a number of interests he holds to this day. As a kid, Lohse went to his first Chicago Cubs game in 1963, the first national tour of the Broadway musical “Oliver!” in 1964 and his first Chicago Blackhawks game in 1965. In high school, he freelanced for two local papers, the Hammond Times and the Gary Post-Tribune.
He graduated in 1973 as class valedictorian and earned a full academic scholarship to Purdue, where he studied political science. Lohse worked in the dorm kitchen as a first-year student before stumbling across a minuscule ad in the back pages of the student paper, the Purdue Exponent. The athletics communications department was looking for a student assistant.
“I applied for that and I got it,” Lohse said, “and, ironically, that started my career in this.”
At a large college with a diverse student body, he also learned more about himself. It’s not like Griffith was overly homophobic or suppressive. Lohse at that time just didn’t fully understand his sexuality — even though there were “so many frigging clues.”
Many of them, Lohse said, were stereotypical. Musicals enthralled him. At 9 years old, he fell in love with the Olympics because of the figure skating at the 1964 Winter Games. That summer, as he sat at his TV and watched swimmer Don Schollander compete in Tokyo, he remembered thinking: “Oh my god! He’s so hot!”
“Ding ding ding,” Lohse said. “All those tips to what my sexuality may have been. I wasn’t putting two and two together then. It clearly was there.”
In his massive dorm at Purdue, though, he found friends and allies. A core group developed: five or six men, Lohse included, who didn’t verbalize their struggles but were inherently aware that everyone in the group was gay and trying to find their place in mid-1970s America.
When Lohse started looking for graduate school options, something about the East Coast lured the lifelong Midwesterner out in the summer of 1975, for a tour of colleges along the Atlantic. He borrowed his mom’s car and drove solo. His last stop was in Chapel Hill.
He met a friend of a friend for a tour, fell in love with the campus and finished his trip with lunch at the iconic, now-defunct Ramshead Rathskeller in Amber Alley. Lohse had a rare roast beef sandwich, sweet tea and apple pie with ice cream. After the meal, he found a payphone on Franklin Street and made a call back home to Griffith.
“Mom,” he said, “I have found the place I want to live the rest of my life, even if I have to wait tables.”
‘The right place at the right time’
If you need a tangible example of what Lohse means to the coaches and athletes he works with, go back to that day in 1992 — when Bob Knight, the explosive Indiana men’s basketball coach, walked into Lohse’s office and started chewing him out for being a Purdue grad and a Cubs fan.
“Where's Dave Lohse?” Knight said. “The Cubs? Fuck the Cubs!”
The rest of the sports information staff was shocked and confused. Down the hallway in their own Smith Center offices, two North Carolina men’s basketball coaches rolled in laughter.
Dean Smith, one of Knight’s good friends, and Bill Guthridge, a fan of the Cubs’ rival team, the St. Louis Cardinals, had set the whole thing up as a good-natured prank.
Lohse never finished graduate school, burning himself out after a two years of nonstop academia and working as a teacher assistant. Luckily, he’d hung onto a part-time position in the sports information department ever since he arrived on campus, too.
With little interest in more schooling, and a little bit of luck when an assistant job opened up in 1979, Lohse officially went to work. He hasn’t stopped since.
In his time at UNC, he has worked with almost all of the school’s 28 varsity sports — most notably women’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and swimming and diving. He covered Anson Dorrance’s first win as a soccer coach in 1977 and his 1,000thwin last fall. He has become an encyclopedia of North Carolina sports knowledge.
“The reason I'm probably still doing this job 30 years later is Dave, just because of how much guidance he gave me that first year,” said Steve Kirschner, UNC’s senior associate athletics director for communications, who interned at the school in 1988.
But as he was forging relationships with coaches and athletes of UNC lore, Lohse’s personal life was weighing on him more and more. He had remained in the closet during the early 1980s, as news of the first documented cases of AIDS — or Gay-Related Immunodeficiency, another name for the disease at the time — spread across the country.
“It was a difficult time,” said Mark Donahue, a longtime friend of Lohse who lives in Greensboro. “I felt like there were lots of people who were struggling to understand, and definitely others who were struggling against it. It was with that backdrop that I really admired what Dave Lohse did when he basically outed himself. That was brave.”
Lohse said he felt "forever away from coming out" at the time. In 1987, he seriously considered taking a job at Yale, tempted by a community and a state he’d read were more progressive. But he had a deeply rooted love for UNC sports, and his parents had just retired and moved to Chapel Hill. Through their urging, and a lot of thought, Lohse made the decision to stay in North Carolina.
"I've always second-guessed turning it down," he said, "but I think it all happened for a reason. I was supposed to stay here."
Over the next few years, he started small, phoning out-of-town friends and coming out as gay to them. And in the summer of 1992 — fully aware that something could go awry and he could be fired if someone didn’t like what he was about to do — Lohse began coming out to friends in Chapel Hill.
One of the first coworkers he told was Kirschner. The two had become close friends over countless dinners, men’s basketball road trips and late nights in the office. It was around 9 p.m. when Kirschner heard a knock on the side of his cubicle.
“Kirsch, got a minute?” Lohse said.
“I've got to tell you something,” Lohse said. “Steve … I'm gay.”
“I know, Dave,” Kirschner said. He went right back to typing.
“No, really!” Lohse said. “I am!”
“Really, I know,” Kirschner said, laughing. “Good lord, Dave, give me some credit for not being an idiot.”
That was the general reaction Lohse got. His coworkers, as he expected, were not surprised at his coming out — but they were receptive and encouraging. Support came from Dorrance and the other coaches, from the student-athletes, from UNC’s athletics director at time, John Swofford.
“I’m an amazingly lucky man,” he said, “in that I was in the right place at the right time.”
‘Be your authentic self’
On a Saturday morning in early March, Lohse sat in the press box of the UNC Soccer & Lacrosse Stadium and, as he likes to put it, tried to keep track of everything at once.
He used binoculars to watch the men’s lacrosse game going on beneath him, calling out players by their numbers: “to 12 … to 77 … to 3” He made sure the PA announcer near him pronounced names correctly. He proofread stats, coordinated postgame interviews and later wrote a game recap. All in a day’s work.
“I think he’s kind of a perfectionist,” said Ann King, a friend who works as the director of athletics communications at the Sage Colleges in New York. “There’s nothing wrong with that in our business.”
Lohse has also developed a niche skill of singing the national anthems of international student-athletes on their senior days. In years past, he’s sung the anthems of Canada, Germany, France, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.
Health issues have forced Lohse to take a reduced role in recent seasons. He’s decided to retire in two years after the 2021 lacrosse season ends — but not for long. He’ll take a state-mandated six months off, mostly to catch up on sleep, and return to UNC to work part-time as a utility man, doing writing, editing, research and whatever else Kirschner, Dorrance or others need of him.
Before that break, though, he’ll walk the stage at this summer’s College Sports Information Directors of America convention in Orlando, Florida, and officially be inducted into the organization’s hall of fame.
Lohse, the man who wowed the audience in 2016 with his story of the Staines brothers, is already planning his next speech. On his iPhone, he pulls up the quote he’s going to end on. It’s from Ben Platt after he won a Tony Award for his leading role in the Broadway smash hit musical “Dear Evan Hansen” in 2017.
“Don’t waste your time trying to be anybody but yourself,” Platt said, “because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”
As Lohse read the words out loud, he couldn’t help but smile. He loved that message.
“It’s just so true,” he said. “I mean, in all honesty, it’s true … Just be your authentic self, and know that the things that make you strange will make you powerful and a good person and good at your job and — God! — just so much happier.”