Letter from campus: Happy to oblige

Author: John Heisler


Linda and Rich O’Leary’s large circle of friends called the couple’s house on Cedar Street in South Bend the “Cedar Club.” The club had a few regular card-carrying members, but Linda and Rich continually offered day passes to anyone who seemed in need of a fun time. My kids learned to swim in their pool. My dogs learned to swim in their pool.

That emphasis on recreation is no surprise. For nearly four decades Rich O’Leary ’77MSA played a major role in defining athletic opportunities for literally thousands of Notre Dame students, faculty and staff members.

Hired by Edward “Moose” Krause and Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano when the department was known as Non-Varsity Athletics, Rich served for nearly four decades as director of intramurals and club sports for the Office of Recreational Sports (commonly known as RecSports).

fter Napolitano died in 1986, O’Leary became the key organizer for the famed Bengal Bouts, the signature event for Notre Dame’s college boxing club. He also had his own seat in the varsity coaches’ locker room in the bowels of the Athletic and Convocation Center. A standout lacrosse player in his college days, he first took over the Notre Dame lacrosse men’s club program in 1971, then continued as head coach for eight more years (with only one losing season) after the team achieved varsity status in 1981.

Sadly, on July 17, at age 62, the beloved O’Leary lost his battle with cancer. He had lived with poor health before, when he lost a kidney, but he turned it into a means of helping others — quietly reaching out to those in the community fighting kidney disease, ¬including former Notre Dame athletic director Mike Wadsworth, to share his experiences.

As one of his former players, Mike Lynch ’82, said, “Rich is what my dad used to call a gentleman’s gentleman. A guy you look up to. A guy you want to have a beer with and tell a joke to. A guy with a huge heart, a pure sense of humor and a ton of class. Quite simply, I love the guy.”

He returned the love. Rich, for instance, always gave great, meaningful gifts, ones that reflected his thoughtful personality. One Valentine’s Day, he borrowed his wife’s car, had it cleaned and installed a CD he had made of her favorite love songs. He made all the other husbands in the Cedar Club look bad, very bad.

He also seemed to own every gadget imaginable and knew how to use them. If anyone needed help with repairs, he was happy to oblige. And he was tech-savvy — once in the early 1980s he hooked up a VHS and small TV in a van so his passengers on a seven-hour trip to Toronto could watch a movie.

Rich was also tremendously supportive of others in the athletic department. Attend a Notre Dame sporting event and you’d probably run into him.

The man’s generosity was matched recently by his former players, who thought so much of their mentor that they contributed to the building fund of the new Arlotta Lacrosse Stadium, which opens this month. The men’s team room now bears O’Leary’s name.

Even more telling of the respect O’Leary earned are the email tributes that came from his former players. As Brian McKeon ’85 wrote: “Rich was a decent and humble soul who rarely raised his voice in anger and quietly nudged his players to meet their full potential. That is the mark of a leader.”

Whether doing cannonballs into his pool, tooling around town in his MG, hosting raucous family gatherings or overseeing myriad recreational programs, the unassuming O’Leary made sure he shared the fun. And when you left the O’Leary home, Rich always walked you to your car, even when disease was getting the best of him, and thanked you for coming, as if it was his privilege to have spent time with you.

Little did we realize we were the lucky ones.

John Heisler is Notre Dame’s senior associate athletics director for media and broadcast relations.