Deaths in the family

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

In Tales from the Notre Dame Hardwood, Digger Phelps called Mike DeCicco “the Godfather” of the Notre Dame athletic department and talked about DeCicco personally pulling players out of basketball practice to settle academic issues. When Austin Carr ’71 was feted at Notre Dame’s Basketball Ring of Honor ceremony, he invited three people — his mother, his aunt and Mike DeCicco. And when Joe Montana ’79 spoke at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he cited DeCicco’s influence on his life and thanked DeCicco and his wife, Polly, for taking him into their lives and making sure he got to class. He told the Canton audience that you never wanted to get the card that Fighting Irish players in every sport had memorized. It read: “Please report to Mr. DeCicco’s office immediately. No excuses will be tolerated.”

This past March, when DeCicco ’49, ’50M.S., died at age 85 and a basilica full of mourners emerged from the funeral Mass at Sacred Heart — led by Polly and the DeCicco family — they encountered more than 50 fencers with their weapons held in salute, forming a canopy for the final passage of their former coach. Twenty-six people spoke at the reception that followed, and the tributes lasted 90 minutes.

Words like “pillar” and “icon” and “Notre Dame man” were used to describe the legendary coach who served the University in some capacity for 41 years.

DeCicco came to Notre Dame from Newark in 1945 and fenced his way to the NCAA championships his junior season. His 45-4 career foil record ranks fourth on Notre Dame’s all-time list.

DeCicco became head fencing coach in 1962. His 34-year coaching record was 680-45. His teams won five national championships. He had 12 undefeated teams and a 122-match winning streak that spanned six seasons. He coached eight individual national champions and almost 100 All-Americans. He was national coach of the year four times and coached national teams in international competitions.

But his influence on those fencers and on Notre Dame athletics and college sports was far greater than winning and losing matches. In 1964 Notre Dame’s president and executive vice president asked DeCicco, who was also on the engineering faculty, to start a program to provide academic advising to varsity athletes. The program DeCicco started from scratch made Notre Dame a national model, demonstrating that athletic success and academic excellence need not be mutually exclusive.

Generations of Notre Dame athletes benefited from his demanding expectations and tough policies, his fiery temperament and his abundant love.

His 1969 production of We Bombed in New Haven garnered praise from its famous author, Joseph Heller. His former colleagues still regard his 1972 staging of The House of Blue Leaves as legendary. But it was March 1988’s Amadeus that sold out all five performances and achieved a rare mark of distinction for campus events — rumors of an activity otherwise known only to football: ticket scalping.

Though he always thought of himself as an actor first, in his 37-year teaching career Frederic Syburg ’62M.A. directed 40 shows at Notre Dame. He oversaw 39 while teaching and one more, Moliere’s Tartuffe, 12 years after his retirement in 1991. His work at Washington Hall began with lighting and set design for Father Art Harvey’s Detective Story in 1954 and ended with his own unassuming performances on stage, including a turn as God in Professor Mark Pilkinton’s version of Christ’s Passion. “You do theatre, that’s the main thing,” he once told Scholastic magazine.

A native of Milwaukee, where he died February 15 at age 88, Syburg was thoughtful and soft-spoken — “Sobriety itself” in the words of one appreciative student — and “so well-versed in history and literature that he supported brilliantly every artistic decision he ever made,” Pilkinton wrote.

Siiri Scott, a Saint Mary’s College alumna on the Notre Dame faculty who starred in The Good Woman of Setzuan, Syburg’s last pre-retirement play, told the South Bend Tribune how she aced her master degree’s comprehensive exams in dramatic literature by studying her notebook from Syburg’s class. Students long valued Syburg for qualities that transcended both classroom and stage. “Silence, somehow, is never embarrassing in his presence,” that anonymous admirer wrote in 1969. “He’s a lot like my father in that respect.”

In the days when business ethics had yet to coalesce as an academic discipline, long before “Ask More of Business” became the slogan at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College, there was Salvatore Bella.

For his 32 years on the faculty of what was then the College of Business Administration, the short-statured Bella filled its management classrooms with his booming voice, ebullience and brilliant storytelling, asking his students about the corporate world’s social responsibility and making his case for thinking of business as a necessary good rather than a necessary evil.

A Cornell-trained expert in labor and industrial relations, the Lawrence, Massachusetts-born Bella, who died April 9 at age 93, spent his whole teaching career at Notre Dame, nearly half of it chairing the management department. As that department’s capstone thesis adviser, he taught a generation of future corporate leaders not only how to research, conduct interviews, organize notes and write a coherent narrative and argument, but also how to take a conscientious, common-sense view of corporate leadership. Treat people with respect, give them the right opportunities to succeed and advocate on behalf of those who need it most, and you will solve most of your labor problems, he coached his students.

As alumni gathered for Reunion 2013, management Professor James O’Rourke ’68 said Bella was the professor he and his classmates remembered most. “He cared individually for each of the young men who crossed his path,” O’Rourke said. “He was a legend.”