Setting the Standard for Excellence

High achievements in academics and athletics have been intertwined at Fenwick for 90 years and counting.

By Ray Wicklander, Jr. ’55

Ray Wicklander, Jr., Fenwick Class of 1955

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

The ’92 Fenwick Football Team

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.

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Forever Friars: The Dobber

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?

DanOBrien_plaque

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.”

DanOBrien_1954_cropped

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].”

From field to pool

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Forever Friars: Fenwick Legend and Coach Tony Lawless Was Born 110 Years Ago

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.

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