A 1958-62 alumnus takes a fist-in-cheek look back at Fenwick’s lost ‘art’ of pugilism, which began at the school in 1930 as an intramural activity.
By Jim Fineran ’62 (originally published in Fenwick’s First 75 Years, 2005)
It was called the boxing tournament but it actually was ‘fighting’ with gloves and rules, because [for many students] the boxing instruction lasted about two minutes. Tony Lawless was the instructor for what he called the ‘Art Course.’ It was strictly voluntary in that Mr. Lawless decided who was to volunteer and who was not. It was not a good time of year (early February) to be on his bad side. Doctors all over the West Side were exhausted from writing excuses for boys to not participate in the ‘Art Course.’
The bouts consisted of three one-minute rounds with Referee Lawless intoning ‘That’s a round!’ when the minute was up. Of course, if a couple of guys were really going at it, Mr. Lawless would let the rounds go on longer. The tournament commenced on a Friday night in March with ‘The Silver-Gloves:’ a big night of runner-up and championship fights in eight different weight classes. The gym was always packed. [In 1960, some 1,500 fans jammed into the bleachers and balcony.] Tony would bring in ex-pug ‘Tuffy’ Griffiths to referee. ‘Tuffy’ appeared to have taken a few too many shots during his career because it was not unknown for him to ‘put ’em up’ and start feinting when the bell would sound.
I don’t know when Mr. Lawless started all this [it was in 1930, during Fenwick’s infancy], but I do know it came to an end when Fr. Thomas Cumiskey became principal/president (1962-69). More than once he told me that he thought the whole thing was too brutal. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I never knew anyone who got hurt and I think the boxing did a little character-building.
“I have been thinking about the anecdotes I recall from my years at Fenwick …,” alumnus Judge Donald Bernardi ’69 wrote some 20 years ago from his Bloomington, IL office to then Social Studies Teacher Mr. Louis Spitznagel. More than three decades had passed since Mr. Bernardi’s high-school graduation:
I will go to my grave recalling the image of Tony Lawless standing on the balcony of the pool prior to our exercise and lecturing on the importance of common sense. Mr. Lawless (see above) was fond of reminding all of us that, although we may walk around with a stack of books a foot high under our arm, it doesn’t mean anything if you ‘don’t have common sense.’ These comments were usually preceded by some event that occurred that day which demonstrated a lack of common sense on the part of one of the students.
The second memory that I recall vividly would be that of either an AM or PM assembly resulting from student rule violations. Generally, the assemblies were not pleasant occurences because we were typically advised of what the rules were and who had been breaking them — and then warned not to break them again in the future. Father Pieper would always end these speeches with the following words: ‘Those are the rules, and if you don’t like it, there is the door,’ as he pointed to the back of the auditorium.
most vivid recollection I have of being at Fenwick in the 1965-69 era was the
atmosphere of discipline created by the faculty and staff. The notion of group
discipline was foreign to me when I arrived at Fenwick and it caused me to be
on edge and alert to problems constantly throughout the school day. I recall
numerous ‘Class JUGs’ [detentions] as a result of various persons in my class
having misbehaved ….
“Overall, the high quality of the students and the intense academic competition [at Fenwick] made the transition to college remarkably easy.”
I’ve traveled many ‘roads’ after leaving Fenwick, but I have never forgotten the lessons I learned as a member of the basketball team and particularly the 1966 team that won the Chicago Catholic League title that year – against significant odds.
We won the title in March of ’66; one of many championships won by Fenwick teams throughout its long history. But my own sense as a student of that history is that few of these teams had as amazing and improbable road to a title as we had, and it is that story that I’d like to share and use to reinforce the idea that, although the title was great, it was the ‘lessons learned’ along the way that were more lasting and more important.
As we began the 1965-66-basketball season, we knew we had a well-regarded coach in Bill Shay, but it had been almost 15 years since Fenwick had won a Catholic League Senior (over 5’ 9” players) basketball championship. In fact, the previous season, Fenwick’s Senior team finished at .500 in league play, out of the playoffs, and were maddeningly inconsistent – beating a contender one night and getting blown out another. To be honest, there was cautious optimism at best as we opened the season led by 6’6” senior center Dennis Bresnahan (St. Bernadine – Oak Park), the lone starter from the previous year and who would be joined by three talented underclassmen, including junior forward Joe Grill (Divine Infant – Westchester), junior guard/forward Steve Flanagan (Ascension – Oak Park), and junior guard John Sanderlin (St. Luke – River Forest), who had led their Frosh-Soph team coached by Jerry Hughes to a 20-0 record the year before. Coach Shay knew he might have something special in this young, untested team, but it was mostly a hope.
With Grill and Flanagan, both starting football players, not joining the basketball team until late November, things started out surprisingly rough, losing seven of our first 10 league games, albeit four by three points or less. As ‘ninth man’ on a team that usually played just seven players, my role was to scrimmage against the starters in practice and help prepare them for the games. I knew Grill, Flanagan and Sanderlin from our grammar-school days, and each one was a winner – rarely losing in anything. Both Sanderlin and Flanagan were in the so-called ‘A’ group academically and their basketball ‘IQs’ were just as impressive. Furthermore, even in scrimmages they played to win. I would say the biggest thing that these guys brought to the team was their deep-rooted will to win, a trait perhaps even more important than raw talent. And win we would.
“I always thought that the largest and one of the most impactful classrooms at Fenwick back in the day was the gym – today’s Lawless Gym.”
Mike Shields ’67
The Fenwick auraof excellence
To be a student at Fenwick in the mid-60s was to be surrounded by greatness in one’s teachers and coaches. Tony Lawless, our legendary Athletic Director, had joined Fenwick when it opened in 1929 out of Loyola University and an illustrious basketball career there. He hired swimming coach Dan O’Brien (Class of 1934), whose teams would win 28 straight Catholic League titles; Lawless himself would coach the football teams, which over his 25 years (1932-57) would compile a Rockne-like record of 172-40-6 and a winning percentage of .803. In those years, Fenwick’s football teams would win 14 division titles, five Catholic League titles and three City Championships. In 1950, Lawless selected Bill Shay, another highly successful coach, to lead Fenwick’s basketball teams. I would say Lawless, O’Brien and Shay, all successful intelligent coaches, not only believed in excellence but were very (very) serious guys who helped develop the likes of 1953 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner (Fenwick ’50) at Notre Dame [who also played basketball and ran track in high school], 1964 Olympic Diving Gold Medalist Ken Sitzberger (Fenwick ’63) and legions of other great Fenwick athletes.
As Athletic Director, Lawless had also brilliantly selected 24-year old John Jardine as football coach, and Jardine proceeded to a 45-6-1 record over five years (1959-63) and an epic 40-0 Prep Bowl victory in 1962 over Schurz in front of 91,000 fans at Soldier Field. That type of serious winning ethos was palpable and expected – academically and athletically. Fenwick teams didn’t always win but they all fought very hard to win and, as our 1966 basketball team continued its journey, we all had imbibed the Fenwick ethos of excellence and high expectations. How could we not?
Bill Shay knew we could be great. We weren’t totally sure about that after our string of early season losses but, as the season wore on, our team – led by the steady and outstanding play of our Bresnahan (captain) and the development of the new three underclassmen starters – started to gel. Our practices were grueling, and Coach Shay brought the entire team, starters and non-starters alike, together us as a winning team with his experienced combination of toughness and teaching. As an aside, there were many nights after a long practice when several of us, including Sanderlin, would stand in the winter cold at the corner at East Ave. and Madison St. to catch a late West Town bus home. We were all tired, but were growing as a team and we began to win. Significantly, at a certain point, I think the winning attitudes of Grill, Flanagan and Sanderlin really kicked in and created a powerful dynamic of confidence, mental toughness and winning. They knew they were winners and were not going to settle for anything less. Adding to the new dynamic was the amazing development of two young (and tall) sophomores, 6’ 4” Jim Martinkus and 6’ 8” Bob Fittin, who Coach Shay was beginning to gradually work into the line-up: a smart move as they would both play pivotal roles in key games ahead. Our team finished strong with four victories in our last five league games and tied for 2nd place with archrival Loyola in the North Section. So, to get into the four-team Catholic League playoff, we had to beat Loyola, to whom we had lost twice during the season.
The run begins
On the night of March 6th, Fenwick met Loyola at DePaul University’s Alumni Hall with its sunken court (aka ‘basketball pit’) and seating for about 5,000 on the DePaul campus. With Bresnahan and Grill combining for 32 points, Fenwick rolled to a 59-46 victory. We were not surprised as we expected the victory. Now that we were in the league playoffs, next up for us on Saturday night would be St. Rita led by their 6’8” All-American center George Janky, We were wary but still confident. Frankly, we were the only ones who were confident we could beat St. Rita, particularly as we had also lost to them twice in the regular season.
That Saturday night, the entire Fenwick student body showed up and Alumni Hall was jam-packed. I was on the bench with a front-row seat, and the cheering was so loud at times that we could not hear Coach Shay in the huddle. Our team though was so cohesive by then that instincts took over – our guys were determined to beat St. Rita, who frankly did not show us much respect. That would change as the game wore on, and it was clear that Fenwick was ‘in the game’ – and could even win it! After four intense quarters of play, regulation time ended with the score tied 60-60. It was a bit surreal, to be honest. In overtime, neither team scored until the very end; with St. Rita holding the ball for the final shot, guard Sanderlin stole the ball and passed it to Bresnahan, who was fouled. With just four second left, Bresnahan sunk both free throws and Fenwick had won another improbable victory 62-60. Bedlam reigned! Thirty minutes after the game though, Coach Shay brought us ‘back to earth’ and reminded us that we ‘had not won anything yet’ – the ‘only thing’ we did was earn the right to play powerful defending City Champ Mt. Carmel for the Championship. We were not favored.
So on Wednesday night March 16th, 1966, DePaul’s Alumni Hall was packed again with nearly 5,000 fans, including local celebrities such as DePaul Coach Ray Meyer. The game, with a tipoff at 8:30 p.m., was broadcast in prime time across the Chicago area on the new UHF TV channel WFLD. It was ‘a spectacle’ – even bigger then the St. Rita game. Mt. Carmel brought a record of 27-2 into the game while Fenwick’s was 15-11 and we had already lost two early-season games to the Caravan. As much of an underdog as we were on paper, though, I did not feel like an ‘underdog’ and neither did my teammates. Probably the biggest challenge we had was to stay focused and play our game and not get swept up in the spectacle of it all. We seemed to have reached a level at which we felt we could beat anyone. Coach Shay, as always, calmly went over the game plan before the game: shut down All-State guard Greg Carney (he scored just 2 points in the first half), prevent their big All-Chicago center Dave Lewis from getting the ball, and play disciplined offense ourselves with smart shot selections. In the end, although Mt. Carmel came close a few times in the 2nd half, we won the game 62-52, with 32 of those points coming on free throws, particularly impressive in such a pressure-packed atmosphere. This was Fenwick’s first Catholic League Senior Basketball title since 1950 – a truly amazing and historic feat.
Needless to say, euphoria reigned and the team headed back to Fenwick after the game. We probably arrived at the school near midnight as March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, began. Our bus was greeted in the school parking lot by an epic mob of our fellow students with the festivities continuing in the gym, where so much of our preparation had happened, including lots of ‘blood and sweat’ being spent. Coach Shay introduced each player and student manager on the team, briefly mentioning the person’s contributions, to wild cheering. This was truly a special night to celebrate the coveted Championship and the team effort behind it – players, coaches, students, staff and alumni. One Fenwick!
Back in 1966, the Catholic League Champ played the Pubic League Champ for the City Championship. It was a big deal. As Catholic League champs we would play the Marshall Commandos and their fabulous All-State forward Richard Bradshaw, who had completed an undefeated Public League season before being upset in the State Super-Sectional game by New Trier. Marshall, with its rich basketball history, was pointing to a victory over Fenwick for ‘redemption.’ The game was played on March 27th at the International Amphitheater with TV coverage again by WFLD. Our team came out ready to play, dominating the first half, but leading only 28-27 at halftime. Marshall surged in the second half and won the game 62-56 for the City Championship. One positive that came out of this loss was that two of the Fenwick players that day, sophomores Martinkus and Fittin, would gain invaluable experience from it and just two years later would lead a 25-4 Fenwick team, still coached by Bill Shay, to another Catholic League Championship and then go on to beat the Public League Champ Crane Tech 56-48 for the City Championship!
This season and experience in 1966 taught us much. We certainly learned a great deal academically in the classroom from our Dominican and lay teachers, but to be part of this championship team taught me ‘even more,’ which I carried forward throughout my life and professional career. These early lessons from that season’s experience, which I have in fact used and am sill adding to many years later, might be summarized for me (in no particular order after the first one listed) as follows:
Win or lose, striving for excellence elevates the team and the individuals.
Most success comes from a team effort, being ‘One,’ not just from one ‘star’.
One never knows where the final ‘missing piece’ of a winning team will come from; often the person is ‘on the outside’ and ‘not seen’ at first.
Sometimes it takes time for a great team to gel (we started 3-7 in 1966).
Smart, intelligent coaching, including being creative and trying new approaches when necessary are absolutely essential to winning, when playing ‘dynamic games’.
A team made up of players with a winning attitude, who really want to win, are at a competitive advantage to an ‘all-star’ team (with ‘all star’ resumes) that just show up.
Playing hard and with focus at all times is essential to winning.
The pain of losing is not ‘the end of the world’ – ‘pain’ can motivate and teach a team, which wants to be great, where and how to get better.
The little things, practiced over and over, count (like making 20 pressure-packed free throws in the St. Rita game and 32 free throws in the Mt. Carmel game).
Positive passion and emotion are really helpful to give a person or a team that extra push when their energy level is running low (Bill Shay was a ‘positive’ coach and our Fenwick student body during the 1966 playoffs was very loud and very positive).
High achievements in academics and athletics have been intertwined at Fenwick for 90 years and counting.
By Ray Wicklander, Jr. ’55
Editor’s note: Mr. Wicklander gave this speech at the Fenwick Athletic Awards ceremony 26 years ago, on November 30, 1992. From Oak Park and Ascension, Ray was a National Honor Society student who played football for four years for the Friars. He also spent two years swimming and on the staff of The Wick.
On a night similar to this, over 60 years ago in the old Morrison Hotel in downtown Chicago, a new upstart high school from Oak Park, called Fenwick, held its first athletic awards night. Over 900 people attended – in the height of the Depression – for two basic reasons:
They were there to give recognition to the accomplishments of the first senior class – with a football record of 6-1 – who established themselves already as a force in the Catholic League.
And to make a statement: that the standard of excellence on which Fenwick was established would always reflect itself in its athletic programs.
That was the beginning of a tradition – one of excellence and leadership that has made Fenwick what it is today.
Historic Night for Female Friars
Tonight we have an equally historic moment. For it is obvious that we are now a new Fenwick, where the Black and White of the Friars is worn by both young women as well as young men. A new tradition of excellence and leadership is beginning right now. And just as at the first athletic awards night, we are here for two reasons: to recognize the accomplishments of these athletes and to make a statement that the new Fenwick is committed to excellence and leadership in our sports.
We know that sports are not the only thing that makes a school great. None of you came to Fenwick only because of its sports program. But Fenwick would not be Fenwick without these programs. In Father Botthof’s words, Fenwick is unabashedly a college preparatory program. But it is also a life preparatory program, where we come to learn the lessons of how to succeed as human beings, as Christians, as parents or spouses or colleagues, no matter what path in life we follow.
Many of the most important lessons do not come from books. Tony Lawless often reminded us: “Don’t let the books get in the way of your education.” It is on the field, on the court, in the pool – it is in competition that we learn to get up if we have been knocked down, where we learn to handle a loss without becoming a loser. It is in competition that we come to be truly honest with ourselves. For we can fool others, even parents and bosses and even some teachers, but we can’t fool our teammates. We learn that with determination and commitment, anything is possible – so the word “limits” really has no meaning.
What It Means to Compete
It is also in competition that we learn that we really don’t do that much on our own, that we need a team and that is what counts. So words like “Loyalty” and “Trust” have a special meaning for athletes. It is in this competition that we form bonds and friendships that are unique and hopefully will last all our lives. These are the lessons, the elements that create the elusive, hard-to-describe reality called School Spirit or Tradition. And it is this spirit that affects everything around you here at Fenwick.
Fenwick High School periodically profiles people affiliated with our community who have since passed on …
Dan O’Brien ’34 (1917-2003)
Remembering DOB, “the Dobber:” a coaching/training legend affiliated with Fenwick for seven decades.
By Mark Vruno
In the basement of Fenwick High School sets the Dan O’Brien Natatorium. Our swimming Friars will host the 30th Annual Dan O’Brien Relays this coming January. Younger alumni and present-day students may wonder: Who was this O’Brien guy and why is he a such a legend at Fenwick?
Dan O’Brien was more than a stellar swim/dive guru; he was versatile. DOB was a FHS student (Class of 1934) who then served as a physical education teacher at his alma mater. “Dan’s first Fenwick paycheck predated the Social Security system and had no social security withholding,” deadpans Jerry Lordan, PhD., who teaches social studies at Fenwick and wrote the preface for O’Brien’s oral history, a hardcover book entitled Fenwick Over the Years.
In 1937 Football Coach Tony Lawless hired O’Brien to lead his freshman team. Football was O’Brien’s first love in sports. In the fall of 1930, seven years earlier, Fenwick was only one year old. Dan was a scrawny, 128-pound freshman who showed up for tryouts at the new school, only to be snickered at by burly classmates and upper-classmen. “Sorry, son,” said Lawless, according to a 1972 Oak Leaves article. “I can’t use you. You’ve come out for the wrong team.”
O’Brien, however, was determined and refused to give up easily. Here’s how reporter Ted Londos recounted the story 42 years later:
“The kid faced the wise, young coach and replied firmly, ‘Mr. Lawless, I’ve come out for the team. You’ve asked for candidates. Here I am. You’ve got to give me a chance to show you what I can do.’ And so, to get rid of that reckless kid, Tony put him into a scrimmage – just for laughs. But on the first play, Coach Lawless’s eyes popped when he saw the tiny freshman bring a varsity giant down with a devastating tackle. Again he tried him out, and another regular bit the dust. Young Lawless shrugged his shoulders and decided to let the gutsy little guy hang around. ‘What’s your name?’ asked the coach.”
But the feisty O’Brien’s gridiron career with the Fighting Friars was short-lived. As a sophomore he suffered severe medical complications from the surgical removal of a kidney, which kept 15-year-old Daniel out of school for an extended period of time in 1931-32. “His surgeon warned him that the procedure may either fail and/or kill him,” Lordan later learned. “Dan outlived the surgeon and saw the surgeon’s grandchildren (twin boys) attend Fenwick.”
Dan O’Brien circa 1954.
Fast-forward 45 years, to when two of his former swimmers-turned-doctors came to O’Brien’s aid. “I had come back to Chicago in 1977,” recalls Leonard Vertuno ’57, M.D., a Loyola-educated nephrologist (kidney specialist), “and Pete Geis knocked on my door.” Dr. Peter Geis ’60 was a transplant surgeon and an All-State swimmer three years ahead of Vertuno at Fenwick. “Pete said, ‘Dan needs a doctor, and you’re it.’”
So began a reuniting of player and coach – and an adult friendship that would span more than a quarter-century. It was Dr. Vertuno who would give the eulogy at Dan O’Brien’s funeral in 2003. “He was an amazing man,” the retired doc said in early November from Sarasota, FL. “Dan was renowned nationally and internationally. He chose to stay at Fenwick and work with Tony [Lawless].”
This year would have marked the 110th birthday of the late Coach Lawless, who for nearly half a century worked for the students of Fenwick and the school since its inception in 1929.
By Mark Vruno
Happy Birthday to Coach Lawless. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Fenwick legend Tony Lawless. At least we think so. No one still living is certain when Anthony R. Lawless was born. His nephew, Mike, who like his revered uncle has spent a lifetime as an educator and coach — in the family’s hometown Peoria (IL) High School — says the elder Lawless often fibbed about his age to prospective employers when he was young. “Uncle Tony wanted jobs but didn’t want them knowing how young he was. So we were never exactly sure how old he was,” Mike Lawless notes with a laugh.
What we do know is this: Tony Lawless graduated from Spalding Institute in Peoria in 1924. He played on the Fighting Irish’s national Catholic high school championship basketball team that year, before moving to Chicago to attend college at Loyola University. He later was inducted into Loyola’s Hall of Fame for both basketball and football.