Standing amid what can justly be described as a dazzling array of athletic talent at the recent dinner honoring Penns fourth Hall of Fame class, it was impossible not to feel a strong sense of the community that nurtured and developed those talents. As the 16 newest recipients of the Universitys highest athletic honor gathered at the Inn at Penn on May 10 to catch up and swap reminiscences of glorious days past, it was not hard to envision each one as a raw, unformed 18-year-old arriving in University City, brimming with potential waiting to be tapped.
The results of that collaboration produced the Hall of Fame Class of 2003, a group that represents 12 sports, five decades, both sexes, and an array of exploits that could fill several volumes. They ranged chronologically from baseball and football star Paul Scull W29 to track standout Christelle Williams W89 and former wrestling coach Don Frey, who was head athletic trainer through 1991. Nine were All-Americans in their sport, another was an academic All-American (football player Rich Comizio W87), and several represented the United States in international competition, including one who competed in two Olympics (rower John Hartigan C63 WG65). Another held a world record (swimmer Mary Ellen T. Olcese CW73).
The honorees spoke with genuine affection of the coaches who had urged, cajoled, taught, disciplined, and otherwise pushed them to be their best; a university that provided them with the facilities and resources to practice and perfect their craft; and of an athletic department that provided a support system and a stage on which to perform.
Two-time All-American fencer Frank Bartone C53 fondly recalled Lajos Csiszar, a Hungarian who arrived at Penn in 1948 through the efforts of a wealthy alumnus and within five years had coached Penn to its first national team title in any sport (see next story). Football All-American John Schweder W50 played for the legendary George Munger, a man described in a Gazette article in the mid-1960s as invariably pessimistic about winning, but usually full of praise for his players.
Schweder, nicknamed Bull after a freshman teammate said he went through opponents like a bull in a china shop, is one of the Mungermen who reassemble every fall to attend a Penn game. He was a prince, Schweder said of his former coach. A tremendous individual. A gentleman. I never saw him get upset. You really wanted to win for him.
Field hockey All-American B.J. Zellers C84 praised the coaches who fought the little battles that still needed fighting as women sought equal access to athletic resources in the first decade following the passage of Title IX. Youd have small victories, she said, like not having to practice on Franklin Field at odd hours. We were treated well, given all the tools, Zellers said. The athletic department was very supportive.
Olcese was already an accomplished national age-group swimmer when she arrived at Penn in 1969, three years before Title IX was enacted, and she quickly became one of the stars of Penns nascent womens team that practiced in the old Weightman Hall pool. Her successes in becoming the first Penn swimmer to qualify for the national collegiate championships (in the pre-NCAA era of womens sports) helped broaden the scope of the swimming program. After that we started to go to more and more regional meets, she said. They really began to make a commitment.
Bill Straub W73 scored the game-winning goal in the Philadelphia Atoms win over Dallas in the 1973 North American Soccer League title game. But the honorable-mention All-American sounded at least as proud of the Quakers 5-2 win over vaunted Harvard on a Friday night at Franklin Field in front of 12,500 people, at the time the largest crowd to watch a collegiate soccer game in the United States. It was an electric evening, Straub recalled. It was the biggest win in the programs history at the time.
Perry Bromwell C87, whose feats at the Palestra in the mid-1980s still inspire awe, voiced a thought undoubtedly shared by many when he looked around the room at the star-studded group and said, This is really amazing.
Among Penns current sports stars, the hits just kept on coming this spring for two athletes whose achievements continue to extend far beyond the confines of the Ivy League.
Alice Pirsu became just the second female tennis player in Ivy history to reach the round of eight at the NCAA singles championships in May (Harvards Erika de Lone was the other). The junior from Bucharest, Romania, defeated three players to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Amber Liu of Stanford, the No. 4 player in the country. Pirsu already holds the distinction of being the only Penn womens tennis player to earn All-American status, a feat she has now accomplished twice.
Sam Burley continues to run rings around the competition for Penns track team. The senior from Cheyenne, Wyoming, owns school records in the 800 meters indoors and outdoors, and has placed in the top three in that event at the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships the past two years. This season Burley won the event at the indoor and outdoor Heptagonals and took first place in the 800 meters at the NCAA national championships, beating Jonathan Johnson of Texas Tech by one one-hundreth of a second, with a time of 1:46.50.
A charismatic stranger arrives in town and irrevocably changes the lives of those he touches. It is a plot line as old as the Bible and as new as the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and it also provides an apt framework for the story of a little man who arrived at Penn in 1948 and over the next two and a half decades left a huge imprint on Penns athletic program.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first NCAA team championship won by a Penn team in any sport, and it is due in no small part to the lasting influence of Lajos Csiszar that the Penn fencing program still owns the only national team titles in the schools history (the men also won in 1969 and 1981 and the women in 1986). It is a distinction not shared by the basketball teams of the 1970s and today, nor by the storied football teams of Munger and Bagnell and Murray, nor any of dozens of other great teams in Penns rich athletic past. The sport that gave us the phrase first blood indeed carved out new territory that it continues to inhabit alone.
Csiszar, who was called Maestro, an honorific bestowed on elite fencers in Europe, was that rare amalgam, an athlete with brilliant technique who also possessed a coachs patience and willingness to teach. Small in build, he apparently also had the stamina of several men. As a result, his training sessions were legendary. In a sport where 15 or 20 minutes of non-stop action can leave a trained athlete winded, Csiszar would often take on the whole team, one by one.
The man described in a 1955 Sports Illustrated profile as possessing the soft, kind eyes of a basset hound and the alacrity of a cat inspired intense loyalty in his charges, even though he could be irascible and his coaching methods a tad on the politically incorrect side. When you lost, he wouldnt say, Get em next time, said Bob Parmacek W53, one of three All-Americans on the 1953 championship team. Hed say, You stupid cripple. But he cared about us deeply. Frank Bartone C53, a dual All-American and the captain of the 1953 team, remembers losing a bout and having Csiszar say to him in a half-serious tone, Thank you, Frank, thank you. Now they will send me back to Hungary so the Communists can murder my daughters.
Penns 1953 team had all the ingredients for a run at the national title. Theyd finished second and fourth the previous two years, and in seniors Parmacek and Bartone and junior John Tori C54 had three fencers reaching the peak of their skills. Bartone and Tori bore the pedigrees of the fencing program at Philadelphias Central High and had faced some of the toughest scholastic competition around. Parmacek, meanwhile, had attended public high school in Chicago and couldnt catch a ball, couldnt swim, he says. I wasnt what youd call a natural athlete. But I was fiercely competitive. His school had a fencing team taught by a coach who learned the sport by reading books about it, and they won the city championship, which means we defeated the other two teams in the city that had fencing teams.
Fencers compete in three eventssaber, épée, and foil. In foil and épée, the torso is the target, while in saber the head and arms are fair game. Touches are registered by electronic sensors embedded in each fencers protective gear, though in the early 1950s only the épée was scored electronically. The lighter épée, or dueling sword, in particular requires patience, a quality Tori had in abundance, according to Bartone. He had the right personality for it, he said. He could wait all day for the right moment.
Penn hosted the 1953 NCAA championships in March at Hutchinson Gym, which unfortunately fell during Penns spring break, which limited coverage in The Daily Pennsylvanian. But Philadelphias daily newspapers carried accounts of Parmacek scoring a come-from-behind victory over Navys Frank Zimolzak and then winning two more bouts to lock up the individual saber competition. Tori won the épée, and Bartone finished second in the foil, making him the first fencer to earn All-American status in two weapons following his third-place finish in the saber two years earlier. The Quakers edged Navy 94-86 for the team title.
The celebration was restrained, Bartone recalled. Csiszar acted like he expected us to win it, he said. Parmacek added, He did expect us to win it. It was tough; we were expected to win every time out. The championship may have been just a little sweeter for Bartone and Parmacek, both of whom confide that their parents felt fencing was interfering with their education. Parmacek considers winning the title a life-altering event. It was the most important thing in my life at the time, he said. It proved I could accomplish something completely on my own.
Years later, after Csiszar retired and was given a well-deserved place in Penns inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1996, Bartone, who had become a urologist, and Parmacek, who competed internationally while in the Navy and later became a successful executive, visited him at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. It was a moving moment for all three men, made doubly so when the man they called Maestro died of heart failure a few weeks later at 93.
For me, he was like a miracle, Parmacek said. Of all the people I met, he had the most influence on who I was and what I did for the rest of my life.
Sports columnist David Porter C82 writes for the Associated Press and is the author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.
April 7 - May 31
Mens Lacrosse (6-7)
Womens Lacrosse (6-10)
Mens Heavyweight Rowing
Mens Lightweight Rowing
Mens Tennis (11-9)
Womens Tennis (15-6)