Posted on Jan 31, 2013

Sometimes, timing is everything.

Wednesday’s CENTAUR SEASON post, a “memory blog” diary entry from “the Allentown College’s 1972-1973 B-ball season …” talked of Coach John Compardo, the first athletic director at our Cornfield College in Center Valley, Pennsylvania.

Coach is still with us, now in his nineties. But on Tuesday, just the day before, word came on the Centaur grapevine that Mary Jane, his wife of nearly 70 years, had passed away on Sunday.

I hope all of you who are reading this have had the good fortune to have a Coach Compardo in your life, whether you went to “Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales University” or not.

Because if you have been so lucky, you know the type: That larger-than-life figure who stays with you for the rest of YOUR life. And you know how lucky you are that he, or she, remains always there.

Coach Compardo was our John Wooden. No, wait. John Wooden was Lew Alcindor’s & Bill Walton’s Coach Compardo. Yes, THAT’S the way to say it.

When I heard the news of Mrs. Compardo, I emailed the Centaurs I had played ball with, plus a fair number of other usual classmate-suspects. Provide memories, I asked them, of Coach and Mrs. Compardo. The response was hearty and heartfelt. Most are of Coach, but that’s fine. Especially now he needs to know how much he meant — and means — to all of us.

(I apologize in advance that I was not able to reach more people. And I don’t pretend that this is in any way a definitive account of any sort. These are a few memories that could be mustered in a short time, arranged in a way that I hope tells something of a story.)

First, a memory of mine.

A few years ago we were at the college to celebrate Coach and Mrs. Compardo’s sixty-fifth wedding anniversary. Where else could this party have been but at the college? Coach loved Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales and the DeSales University it grew into. He had been there from the beginning, in 1965, building an athletic department out of the dirt with his bare hands.

At one point Coach was coaxed to the microphone. As was his long-winded wont on occasion, he veered quickly enough into talking about the college itself – look what it has become! – and how much he loved it all and everyone there.

At which point one of the grandchildren approached him and said, This is great, Grandpop, but could you, maybe, you know, say something about Grandmom?

So with that Coach turned his attention to his wife. Immediately, his eyes welled with tears and his throat choked off that raspy-gravelly voice of his. He went silent. He could not speak. So Coach just stood there for a moment, looking at Mrs. Compardo, until we all clapped and he sat down.

My goodness. Coach loved Mrs. Compardo more than he loved Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. That’s saying something. It’s saying everything.

So herewith now some remembrances of Coach and Mrs. Compardo, from a handful of those who knew them in the school’s earliest years, ’69 through ’77.  Back when there were just a couple of buildings, maybe 400 students, “The Atrium” ruled, and the campus and its kids were just getting started. …

JAY FARMERIE, ’75: The athletic director seemed quite old to me when I first arrived at the college. He was about 55. I am that old now!!!

DENNIS RAMELLA, ’73: My fondest remembrance of Mrs. Compardo is when she’d stop by Coach’s office and we’d sit and talk about different Italian dishes. She was always so friendly, and she knew that a lot of college students were homesick (even though no one would admit it), so she tried to be a comforting presence whenever she could. She was a beautiful person both inside and out. I know Coach was dedicated to her, especially in her final years. What a couple! I can only wish my wife, Cathy, and I handle our life together in the same way they did. Mrs. Compardo will be missed by everyone she touched.

WAYNE RIZZO, ’73: I remember Mrs. Compardo being a very stunning and classy-looking woman, who you could tell by looking at her loved the Coach.

MARK TRINKLE, ’77: Coach Compardo was the long time coach at Allentown Central Catholic High School umpteen years before he went to Allentown College. My pop was a long-time respected athlete at Central Catholic and then very active in the CYO basketball program, which was the feeder program to Central – and to Coach Compardo’s teams. Coach left Central Catholic for A.C. before I got to high school, but he was always around the games. His connection to Central Catholic and my dad is what brought me to A.C. My dad trusted him.

JIM GREENE, ’74: We called him “COACH” because that’s what he was to all of us.

JAY FARMERIE: I remember clearly the first day I met Coach John Compardo – he was dragging the soccer field by hand to remove some of the rocks in preparation for our soccer game. I was only a freshman and had come down early – maybe I was a little nervous and I probably wasn’t going to play, but I was ready. I asked Coach why he was dragging the field by hand and he told me (in his raspy voice) the tractor had broken down and it was his way of making sure we had a field that we could be proud of. He was always doing things like that and making sure the athletes and students always had the best he could give on a really shoestring budget.

E.J. BROOKES, ’73: My first memory of Coach Compardo still affects my life today. It was our first gym class of our freshman year and we were all sitting in a classroom in Billera Hall. In walks this man and he begins to speak. Well, it turns out he’s a cross between Vince Lombardi and Lou Holtz.

WALT PFEIL, ’73: In his first lesson, during my first gym class, he taught me about how to love life. I’ll never forget, this fiftyish-year-old man in a sweat suit standing on the gym floor talking about this great new sport he discovered the previous summer. I’m thinking he was going to say he took up golf or tennis.

E.J. BROOKES: He gets into a story about how he learned to surf that past summer.

WALT PFEIL: And then he went on to talk about surfing and what an exhilarating feeling he got from being on the board.

E.J. BROOKES: He gets into the detail of the exhilaration, the feeling of being alive, the physicality of it, and he is delivering his speech in that special way of his that you can see it and smell it. We all sat there in wonder. I mean, this was not a young man, and he was going on and on about this experience in such a way that you understood Hemingway in Pamplona.

WALT PFEIL: I’m sitting there picturing other 50ish-year-old people that I knew, not being quite able to picture ANY of them on surfboards, and thinking, “Wow, this guy really knows how to enjoy his life!”

E.J. BROOKES: Fast forward to today. There is a surf board in my garage and a few serious surfers in town helping me on my quest. Every time I paddle out I think of John Compardo. I am far from accomplished at this, but I keep telling myself: If he could do it I can do it. The point he was making to us that day was a philosophy of living your life and not sitting on the sidelines. You go all in. You could see this in his relationship with his wife. There was always a vitality to her and a sense that they were an extension of each other. I think she could have given that first speech. I would not be surprised to find two surfboards in their garage.

JAY FARMERIE: Mrs. C was just like Coach. Every time I saw her she was concerned with others, she would always ask how things were going and how we were. She was a real classy lady. Coach loved her more than A.C.!!! Which is hard to believe.

BOB ZECCARDI, ’74: My wife, Gina, and I had many memorable conversations with Mary Jane. She was an accomplished individual, yet in every conversation we enjoyed with her, it was never about her. She made you feel that it was always about you. Her enthusiasm was contagious. There was never a doubt about her sense of commitment to the people around her. Her kindness to Gina and me is something we will always remember.

JERRY WEISS, ’75: Dinners at Brisson Seminary. Like most people who came to dinner up at the “Sem,” Coach and Mrs. Compardo always enjoyed themselves. They were so supportive of the Oblate Sems. Many of the Sems helped Coach while he was doing his doctorate work by participating in experiments so Coach could collect data. And Mrs C. was so supportive of her husband — who was going for his doctorate as he was approaching 60! (For a number of years at the college Jerry was an Oblate Seminarian.)

JERRY WILKINSON, ’72: My macro remembrance of Coach was that he was the “presence” in the gym. It was his world, to us, and when we stepped in there he was always there, figuratively. It was also his world because he did EVERYTHING in there. My freshman year the team manager washed the uniforms. After that Coach couldn’t get anyone as dedicated, so he washed them himself.

TOM SHIRLEY, ’76: I had the opportunity to be a student-athlete for Coach as well as a co-employee when I was athletic director [in the 1980s] and he was teaching PE. Coach told me on my first day as director of athletics: “Put in the time. Kids do not know when you are there, but they DO know when you are not there.” I always remembered that, and I still practice it.

JERRY WILKINSON: Coach always watched the games from under the clock outside his office.

BOB KOCH, ’69: The impact of Coach Compardo: Committ. Practice as hard as you can. No excuses.

JOHN WEILAND, ’77: Commitment and dedication were two attributes that he gave us, not only by his words but also in his actions.

BOB KOCH: You understood with Coach the doing of things as correctly as possible. You worked as hard as you could, practiced as hard as you could. If you did it like that and you weren’t successful, there was no issue. But if you’re not working as hard as you can, THAT was not acceptable.

GENE ORESZAK, ’69: Coach had, and has, the heart of lion! Effort was everything to him. The will to win! He loved to see people do better than they thought they could.

JIM GREENE: Whether you were the best athlete on campus playing an important varsity role, a substitute player who was struggling to contribute, or someone trying not to embarrass himself in gym class, Coach made you feel that you could be better than you were.

GENE ORESZAK: He was from a generation that believed you could accomplish anything by working! at! it! Nothing was impossible if you worked and believed! He made all of us better by touching our lives, even it was for that one moment in time that we excelled!

JOHN WEILAND: Coach in our early years taught us many lessons about success in life. He taught us about winning but he taught us about winning the right way. He taught us about winning in all aspects of life.

BOB KOCH: In everything I did, I never wanted to disappoint that man. Never. If he had ever come up to me and said, “You didn’t put out your best effort,” or, “That was a terrible commitment,” that would have crushed me.

NICK NARDO, ’71: We all have our “way back” stories, but I’ll just go back to September 2011 at our Class of ’71 reunion. Coach explained to me that Mary Jane was not doing well, and that he had made some life changing decisions — like selling their house in Florida and stating how rich his life had been. I got the feeling that he was giving me his swan song. That didn’t set well with me … [but] the only response that I could muster was to tell him what an impact he had had on my life: “Coach, you have to understand, through my coaching experiences for over 25 years there is a whole new generation who know you today because I knew you and they know me.”

JIM GREENE: He preached hard work and dedication as a way of life. And he practiced what he preached. Thanks, Coach, for all that you’ve done for so many of us.

WAYNE RIZZO: I remember in flag football when Dave Glielmi decided to tackle my knee instead of going for the flag. Anyway, I needed surgery to remove my cartilage. One of the first faces I remember seeing coming out of anesthesia was Coach. When I got out of the hospital Coach provided whirlpools and exercised my knee back to shape. I was no varsity athlete, just a guy who got hurt playing intramural sports, but he gave me the same attention he would have given the star player. I’ll never forget it.

JERRY WILKINSON: Sophomore year the team was playing a game, when one of their players went down hard and stayed down. Coach, in his unhurried manner, after a few beats, calmly walked out on the floor at the far end.  So dramatic. He examined the kid, and then Coach laid on his hands and relocated his dislocated shoulder. The player got up as if nothing had happened.

BOB KOCH: Coach is so much the motto of the university. Gentle but firm. [St. Francis de Sales is known as “The Gentleman Saint.”] Gentle but firm.

TOM SHIRLEY (A.D. at the college in the eighties):  A Compardoism: As the school was growing, I asked Coach where the money came from. He said, “Prayers, faith and a lot of second collections!”

BOB DEVINE: In my mind John symbolized the spirit of A.C. He was a kind and generous man who wanted A.C. to be a new force in the Lehigh Valley. Winning was important to him, but it was not as important as his players becoming good people who represented the spirit of St. Francis DeSales … true Christian gentlemen.

JAY FARMERIE: He loved the school and he loved all of us! I talked to coach often during my four years and he always promoted us to do acts of working with the younger athletes or those less fortunate than us. He always told me it was my responsibility to give back to others because God gave us talents and abilities and He expected us to give back.

NICK NARDO: I tried to emulate his passion for bringing out the best in people, tempered with the love he exuded for his fellowman. In this era of ripping people maliciously, Coach stands as a beacon for steely sensitivity. No coddling, but forever prodding to make the other guy better. He never ceases to amaze, and I will always be proud to call him my mentor and friend.

BOB KOCH: People had such reverence for him. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that kind of connection with a mentor as I had with him.

TONY MAZZEO, ’72: My sophomore year I got removed from the team. I opened my mouth one too many times. I remember having session after session with Coach Compardo that year. I never had more talent than anybody. He helped nurture my talent in a positive way. By senior year I had it under control. I remember when I got the Varsity Athlete of the Year Award, at the banquet, and I got tongue-tied in my speech. I was quiet and I was hesitant and I was stuttering, but the whole thing was thanking Coach for putting up with me, for staying with me, for standing by my side.

JIM NACCARATO, ’72: I had a talk with Coach once, re: having two job offers, post graduation. 1. A local government job (security). 2. United Airlines (adventure). Coach said, “What the hell do you need with security at your age?”The rest is history and what a history it has been! Thank you, Coach. (Jim recently retired after a few globetrotting decades with United.)

JERRY WEISS: The opening of the Coach John Compardo Fitness Center. It was most fitting that after Billera Hall was refurbished and expanded that the Fitness Center in the new addition be named in honor of Coach John Compardo the founder of the PE Program at AC and the Athletic Director.

JERRY WILKINSON: Coach Jogged. When running was for track and cross-country guys only, he ran every day. No one did that back then. There were hardly anything known as running shoes. We would see Coach running around the soccer field in the afternoon. It was amazing because he did it and we thought he was ancient.

JERRY WEISS: Many of us remember Coach’s creative ways. Remember the barbells he made with a steel rod and concrete in cans?

NICK NARDO: Two Coachisms: Ham’n’Eggers – as he always referred to us. And: Physical harm for the purpose of correction – doesn’t that sound better than “No Pain, No Gain”?

JERRY WEISS: Well, when the new Fitness Center was dedicated with all the latest state-of-the-art equipment, what do Coach and Mrs. Compardo show up with? Those barbells — which they donated to the Fitness Center. Mrs C. was just beaming that day, when her husband was honored for what he did for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

TOM SHIRLEY (A.D. at the college in the eighties): When I would ask Coach about his family, he’d say, “Never put the job in front of family. Work hard and do your best. But remember: You lay your head down with the people who love you most.”

GENE ORESZAK: I do know this: Their love story was an old fashion American love story.

JOHN WEILAND: Dedication….. Together for seventy years and even after all those years, they never thought about anything else except each other. Mary Jane was a wonderful, graceful, spirited and dedicated wife to Coach. Coach in return held her high on a place only her own. In Mary Jane’s last few years, when she struggled with the results of a severe stroke, you saw what a man’s dedication to his wife should look like. And it was indeed inspiring.

BOB ZECCARDI: Our friend, Coach, inspired us. And I think we all know that it was Mary Jane who inspired him, and supported him throughout their 70-year love story. We all owe her a great deal of thanks. We will all miss her.

[All remembrances are from emails this week, except for Bob Koch’s and Tony Mazzeo’s, which were gleaned from previous interviews for Centaur Seasons. Jay Farmerie’s emailed comments are from a speech five years ago.]

On January 31st, 2013 at 8:19 am, bob zeccardi said:

Well done roommate.

On February 1st, 2013 at 4:43 am, Gregg Amore said:

Thank you all for remembering and caring so deeply for two very special people. Your comments are a testament to the quality of people in the DeSales family. We are blessed.

On February 1st, 2013 at 10:44 am, Lois Gadek said:

Mary Jane was a caring person who supported Coach by sharing him with all the rest of us. I knew her as a gentle and truly sincere person–a characteristic that is reflected in the many comments made by previous students about her and Coach. She saw the “big picture” and knew that if Coach were to be truly fulfilled, she needed to share him with the rest of us. And she did so–with grace and generosity of spirit. I fully understand why Coach struggled to put into words what he felt about his beloved wife: the things that truly matter are sometimes best felt–and expressed–in more subtle ways than mere words can convey. Thanks, Steve, for creating this living tribute to Coard and Mrs. Coach! In a world of so much negativity, it is nice to have a chance to celebrate truly good people!


Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.

Once, I was a Centaur.

I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.

My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee.  One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)

But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.

So starting November 30  “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS

A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.

Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.

Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.

We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?

Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields.  Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.

What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.

All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.