“The good Lord has a plan. He just guides us,” says Mike Tatoian.
That may best explain how the twists and turns of his life have led this former Bettendorf (Iowa) man to not only become the president of Dover International Speedway in Delaware but also to volunteer his time as part of the solemn Dignified Transfer Program.
A dignified transfer is the process by which the remains of fallen military members are transferred from an aircraft to a waiting vehicle and then to a port mortuary.
“The dignified transfer is not a ceremony; rather, it is a solemn movement of the transfer case by a carry team of military personnel from the fallen member’s respective service.” according to mortuaryaf.mil. “A dignified transfer is conducted for every U.S. military member who dies in the theater of operation while in the service of their country.”
“Dover is the only port mortuary for the Department of Defense,” Tatoian says. “So our fallen heroes come here first before they are sent to their final resting place.”
Tatoian says he first witnessed a transfer as a volunteer, and that experience was moving. As he drove home afterwards, he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Though he had not served in the military, he asked himself what he could do to help others who serve.
“My passion for men and women in uniform comes through my volunteer work with the USO, which is located on Dover Air Force Base, which has a role in the dignified transfer of our fallen heroes,” he says.
If you follow sports, the name Mike Tatoian may sound familiar to you.
“Sports was a big part of my life, both in high school and in college,” says Tatoian, who graduated from Bettendorf High School in 1979 and the University of Northern Iowa in 1983 with a degree in public relations and marketing. “In high school, I played football and wrestled. I played baseball and threw the shot and discus. At the University of Northern Iowa, I played football, and I wrestled for a couple years.
After college, Tatoian worked for the Quad-City Angels, the Class A affiliate of the California Angels. His proud father, Art, who served in the Marines during the Korean Conflict, says his son started as a groundskeeper and worked his way up to general manager. That’s the job Tatoian held in the 1990 season when the team won the Midwest League championship.
Later Tatoian’s employer owned and operated the Quad-City Mallards when the team came to town. “I was involved with them for about 10 years and won some championships with them,” he says. “It was great for me personally and professionally to be a part of sports and win some championships in my own hometown.”
Sports-related work later led Tatoian to Fort Wayne, Ind., then to St. Louis.
“When I was in St. Louis, while we were operating a hockey team (in St. Charles, a suburb) and some other teams around the country, I had heard there was an opportunity to run what then was called Gateway International Raceway. I’d never been in NASCAR before but was always intrigued with it.”
The speedway, located in Madison Ill., was owned and operated by the company for whom Tatoian now works.
“I came out to Dover to interview for the Gateway president’s position, and the CEO who hired me, and is still here, said he had an opportunity for me to oversee all the tracks that the company owned at the time, including the track near St. Louis,” Tatoian says.
Tatoian became the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Dover Motorsports Inc. In early 2015 he also assumed the duties of president of Dover International Speedway, which hosts two NASCAR racing weekends each year plus also some large music festivals.
Says Tatoian: “That’s how I got here 10 years ago. It’s been terrific.”
Neither Tatoian’s success in business nor his Dignified Transfer Program volunteer work surprise his friend, Bruce Fosdyck of Bettendorf, who has known him since middle school.
“We played Little League together,” Fosdyck says. “Then I went to high school with him. He was on my football team and my wrestling team all through high school.”
He says Tatoian is very modest, but “he’s always been one to bend over backwards for everybody. He always had a lot of potential growing up. In hindsight, I see that. He’s come a long way. He’s worked hard for it, though.”
It was shortly after moving to Dover that Tatoian says he met the executive director for USO Delaware.
Tatoian says he decided to become a volunteer for USO Delaware, and he also joined its Advisory Council, which he now chairs. USOs around the world are “all about being at the side of our military men and women and their families, providing the comforts of home,” says Tatoian. “Ours is special because we have the additional responsibility of the dignified transfer.
“We don’t do the entire dignified transfer process, but our USO volunteers are a major part of what takes place when we’re bringing the fallen hero home.”
A USO Delaware staff of four works with the air base and other agencies to make sure all of the elements regarding the fallen heroes and their families who are coming to Dover are taken care of.
“It’s tough to think that this particular young man or woman was somewhere in the world protecting all of us,” says Tatoian, who with his wife Tammy has twin sons and a daughter. “It’s just gut-wrenching. This a pretty compelling reason why all of us need to support all the men and women in uniform and their families.”
Tatoian also serves on the Chief of Staff United States Air Force Civic Leader Program. The unpaid advisors provide unfiltered feedback from their communities and invaluable insight on local public opinion on Air Force issues.
“There are 25 of us around the country who have been nominated by their local bases to serve,” he says.
Fosdyck, who spent nearly eight years in the Marines, is proud of his friend, Mike Tatoian. “With me being a service member and him not being a service member, I think that’s neat that he donates his time off to the military. I think that’s pretty awesome.”
Copyright 2016 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece appeared as a column in the North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.