Alumni Spotlight: John Giannini, PhD., Class of 1980

Coach G. taught and motivated players on basketball’s big stage for 22 years, including one special season when his La Salle U. team ‘danced’ to the Sweet 16.

By Mark Vruno

As basketball season draws nearer, Fenwick alumnus John Giannini ’80 gets antsy. He hears the echo of his whistle and the orange, leather balls bouncing in the gym, but those sounds now are memories thumping in his head. It’s only natural because this past year marked the first time in 30 seasons that he was not coaching a college basketball team.

For 14 years (2004-18), Giannini, who was raised in Elmwood Park, IL, was head coach of the La Salle University men’s basketball team, an NCAA Division I program in Philadelphia. Giannini quickly turned the program around when, in his second year, the 2005-06 Explorers set a school record for Atlantic 10 Conference wins and tallied their first winning season in 13 years. Coach G. was named as a candidate for the National Coach of the Year. In 2011-12, La Salle won 21 games and was asked to participate in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).

A year later, the Explorers punched a ticket to the lauded NCAA Tournament, where they were seeded 13th in their region. They defeated Boise State in the opening round, and then beat Kansas State and Ole Miss. The run ended in the Sweet 16, where La Salle fell to Wichita State. The team finished with a No. 24 national ranking in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

Before La Salle, Coach Giannini built up the program at Rowan University in New Jersey. He led the team to a pair of Division III Final Four appearances, in 1993 and 1995, before the “Profs,” as they are known, won the small-college national championship in ’96. Coach G. came to the NJ school in 1989 by way of the University of Illinois, where he served for two seasons as a graduate assistant on Lou Henson’s coaching staff. (The 1988-89 Fighting Illini (31-5) danced their way through the NCAA Tournament, past Syracuse and all the way to the Final 4 in Seattle.)

Following his success at Rowan, Giannini accepted the head coaching position at the University of Maine, where he stayed for eight years. Under him on the hardwood, the Black Bears enjoyed a 20-win season, which never had before happened, and then another. Giannini achieved the best career winning percentage in school history. Over the course of his 29-year collegiate head coaching career, he compiled an overall record of 508 victories and 375 defeats.

Coaching path

Giannini (right) looks to pass to a Friar teammate.

Coach and his wife, Donna, have two daughters, but Giannini grew up with boys. The oldest of four brothers, he is a “Double Friar,” playing football and basketball at St. Vincent Ferrer in River Forest before enrolling at Fenwick in 1976. “I looked up to Fenwick’s coaches and athletes,” Giannini recalls. As a 13-year-old, the late coach “George Badke met with me, and I felt like I was meeting George Halas.” (“Papa Bear” was, of course, coach/owner of the Chicago Bears.)

“People thought Fenwick was the best school academically in the area, but I was not a motivated student at all in grade school,” Giannini admits. Even in high school, he says, he was “clearly in the bottom half of my class. But I was far more prepared for college and life after than I ever realized.” Why? The coach points to two primary factors:

  1. “I had wonderful, passionate teachers at Fenwick.”
  2. “I also had really motivated, smart classmates, so I had to keep up!”

Most importantly, though, he believes, “Fenwick taught me how to live. We were encouraged to leave Fenwick with a philosophy of life at age 18. I knew what was important to me.”

Continue reading “Alumni Spotlight: John Giannini, PhD., Class of 1980”

Alumni Spotlight on Richard Cochrane ’59

Black History Month 2019

Pioneering perspective: Fenwick’s first black graduate reflects on the segregated life of his youth. “Mine is a difficult story to tell,” he says, offering a history lesson in the process.

Interview by Mark Vruno

Introduction

School records dating back 64 years confirm that alumnus Richard Cochrane ’59 blazed a trail as Fenwick’s very first African-American student and graduate. Originally from Maywood, IL, Mr. Cochrane now lives in the sunny Southwest. In high school, he was active in student government (class treasurer and secretary) and played football and basketball (captain).

Last February, one-time Fenwick student turned educator Marlon Hall, PhD. shared his freshman-year experience of the early 1970s, when he endured verbal abuse and physical bullying – all racially inspired.  In one of several replies to Dr. Hall’s guest blog, Cochrane pointed out that his memories of Fenwick were quite different and much more positive 17 years earlier:

“Dr. Hall, I appreciate your sharing your Fenwick experiences and the strength they gave you. In context, in 1950 the world-renowned chemist Percy Julian became the first African-American to take up residence in Oak Park. His home was fire-bombed on Thanksgiving Day of that year and again in 1951. In May of 1954 the Supreme Court rendered the ‘Brown vs. Board of Education’ ruling. In September of 1955 I walked into Fenwick as a freshman, two years before the ‘Little Rock Nine,’ and I am black. There were no other black students and there would only be one more in the next four years.

“Many of my experiences were similar to yours but the negatives were overwhelmed by the support of the majority of the student body, and the faculty support cannot go without mention. There were whispers and some name-calling and even a fight or two, but the Dominican family pushed, nudged and refused to let me think of anything but finishing. I was also aware of the financial burden that I was placing on my family. In return, I received an excellent education both academically and socially….”

Cochrane’s heartfelt response prompted our Alumni Relations Team to reach out. We learned that Rich is “happily retired” and soaking up sunshine in New Mexico. Our questions and his answers:

Richard, where did you attend college? Please tell us about your professional background and STEM-related career.

RC: After graduating Fenwick in 1959, I attended St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, where I majored in chemistry. While there I played freshman basketball and varsity football for two years until my knee gave out. I got a job in the coatings and ink industry and, eventually, spent 35 years with Sun Chemical Corporation. I held positions in lab synthesis, tech service, lab management, operation management and national accounts. I retired from Sun in 2003.

What was it like being the only black student at the Fenwick?

Cochrane (bottom, center) was the only black student on this 1959 Yearbook page — and one of three in the entire school. (Sophomore Wayne Morgan ’61 and freshman Harry Smith ’62 were the others.)

RC: In 1955, I believe my freshman class enrolled about 354 students and the school enrollment was about 1,236. As I’ve said, I found the faculty very supportive and the student body mostly treating me like any other student, with a smaller group either curious or distant. Only one of the other three students from my parish in Maywood [St. James, which closed in 2006] was close to me at Fenwick.

On the first day of school, when I went to the office to pick up my class schedule, the staff called back one of the students I was with to ask if I was really going to attend school there. A notable few of the upper-classmen were kind enough to offer short words of encouragement. If I missed the Madison St. bus, I would walk west until the next bus came and would often find the Oak Park Police close behind to make sure I reached Harlem Ave. The single greatest factor was the Dominican community. I got the feeling that they would not let me fail (or even consider quitting).

Did you have a sense that you were making “history” at Fenwick?

A young Cochrane using a slde rule in 1967.

RC: I had no sense of making history but there was a constant feeling of not being totally “at home.” Remember, at that time Oak Park had a population of 62,000 [there are 10,000 fewer residents today] and had only one black family — and their home had twice been bombed.

Continue reading “Alumni Spotlight on Richard Cochrane ’59”

Faculty Focus: Math Teacher and BFG Alum Roger Finnell ’59

Mathematics Department Chair and True Fenwick Treasure

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Alumnus and Math Teacher Mr. Finnell is wrapping up his 55th year as an instructor at Fenwick. Having produced more than 100 Blackfriars Guild productions (and counting), he’s still going strong!

What is your educational background?

RF: I graduated from Fenwick in 1959. (The White Sox in World series!) B.S. (natural sciences) from Loyola University Chicago in ’63 (the year they won the NCAA basketball!); M.A. from Loyola Chicago.

Finnell as a Fenwick junior in 1958.

What did you do prior to becoming a Fenwick teacher?

RF: I graduated from college and started at Fenwick three months later, in September of 1963. (Obviously, I was five at the time!)

What are you reading for enjoyment?

RF: The New Yorker magazine, for play and movie reviews and in-depth articles.

What interests do you pursue outside the classroom?

RF: Travel and seeing plays (some for possible BFG production) and seeing White Sox games (once saw a no-hitter vs. the Sox).

To what teams/clubs did you belong as a student?

RF: I played alto sax in the Fenwick Band (and still have it!).

Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?

RF: I coach the State Math Team. (I’m the only original head coach in Illinois still coaching since the state contest started in 1981.) I produce and direct BFG productions. “Banua 2018” was show #82 as a director (100 as a producer). I am Vice-President of the Archdiocese Math Teachers’ Association (board member since 1968). I also help when I can with the Kairos retreat program. I am a member of the State Math Contest Committee (head statistician since about 1985). For 33 years I ran a student tour to London. For many years I was student Council Moderator. (No, really, sometimes I do sleep!)

As student and mentor, Roger has spent a total of 59 years (and counting) at Fenwick!

What qualities/characteristics mark a Fenwick student?

RF: Gifted, hard-working and (hopefully) caring and compassionate

When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?

RF: I always enjoyed math and (hopefully) was good at it. I decided in junior year of high school to be a math teacher, inspired by Fr. George Conway, a legendary Fenwick math teacher, who was my teacher here for three years. (And I did get to teach with him for about five years when I returned.)

What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?

RF: I am a good listener and a detail person. I think this helps me anticipate almost any question a student may ask. I guess maybe I can visualize the wheels turning in their minds.

What do you like most about teaching as a career?

RF: Every period of every class day is different and brings new experiences. I enjoy seeing students grow in their math knowledge and, hopefully, in developing constantly more mature attitudes towards study.

What is your philosophy of education?

RF: To treat my students as young adults, because that is what they are (and how they act most of, but not all of, the time). As I do this, hopefully I can help instill Christian values in them both in and out of the classroom. I strive to encourage students to think analytically and to develop sound reasoning techniques, and to help students see the beauty and logic in the mathematics and its place in the structure of God’s universe.

What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?

RF: Seeing that my students are well prepared in math when they leave for college and hearing from them about their success in college math and, for some, hearing how they are using their math in their careers.

What do you think is the greatest challenge facing students today?

RF: In this technical age of society today, I hope that students will not just rely on calculators and computers to do all of their thinking for them. And that they will not let social media dictate how they live their lives morally.

How do you encourage class participation?

RF: I hope my students know that they can stop class at any time with appropriate questions. To be sure the thinking I am looking for is going on, my goal is to hear every student’s voice in class every day. This does not happen all of the time. But I will ask students whose voices I have not heard whether they see what is happening in a problem and hope this will encourage questions from them in the future.

Any memorable moments?

RF: Where to begin?

  • As student Council Moderator, many successful homecoming weeks and proms. (I have lost count!).
  • Spending a large amount on bringing to Fenwick “Otis Day and The Nights,” the “Animal House” movie band, for a concert in the Lawless Gym that wound up drawing a crowd of 1,100.
  • As London tour guide, watching students’ reactions as they were exposed to so many historical and cultural sites in London and surrounding areas and, for a number of years, in Paris.
  • As Math Team Coach, winning the state championship in our division in 2002, with six or seven second-place finishes since, along with a good number of individual and team event state champs.
  • As BFG producer/director, guiding so many very talented student performers to success in so many memorable productions. I follow the professional performing arts careers of some very gifted BFG alumni. (My favorite BFG show is “Les Miserables” from 2011 — it was the perfect show for a perfect cast.)
  • As a math teacher, getting the privilege of helping to develop the math skills of so many extremely talented students. At least two now have Ph.D.’s in math. Mr. Kotty and Mrs. Esposito are two former State Math Team captains!
  • As Kairos assistant, so many emotional moments as I see retreatants growing in knowledge and love.