Monday, April 14, 2014

From The House On Gordon Street

By Saturday evening, the back of Jadwin Gym had been transformed into an elegant ballroom that bore no resemblance to the athletic venue it usually is.

TigerBlog has seen this before, many times actually. This occasion was different.

This time, it was to celebrate Gary Walters and his 20 years as Director of Athletics at Princeton. It was more than a party. It was a celebration in every sense of the word.

And so there was Jadwin, all dressed up. Only this time it wasn't the elegant ballroom. This time, it was a time machine.

It took TigerBlog throughout his own 20 years at Princeton, what with he and Gary having started on the exact same day. And it took him back further, back when he was in the newspaper business covering Princeton, when he first spoke to Gary Walters, back when he wrote a story in 1990 on the 25th anniversary of the 1965 Final Four men's basketball team.

And it went back earlier than that. It took TB back to a place that he can picture even if he's never been there. It took TB back to Reading, a city in Pennsylvania that he's actually never been. It took him all the way back to where this story actually began.

It took him to the house on Gordon Street.

It was here that Gary Walters grew up, in a house that TigerBlog can see, a house that he figures was probably like the house Ralphie grew up in on Cleveland Street, in "A Christmas Story." That's where the time machine finally settled, and then it told the story of Gary Walters moving forward from there.

It's quite a story indeed.

Reading is a blue collar place. Princeton is a place of privilege and in many cases old money. Gary Walters comes from neither.

Back in September, when Gary told the department that he was stepping aside at the end of this academic year, he did so on the Dillon Gym court where he had played all those years ago. The occasion this time was the first departmental meeting of the year, and it was coincidence that it happened to be held in Dillon.

When Gary spoke, he talked about how his father dropped him off, almost 50 years to the day, maybe 50 yards away.

The celebration Saturday night was called a "Roast and Toast," but mostly what it became for TigerBlog was another chance to think about the journey that Gary has made from that courtyard in 1963 to the dais in a dolled-up Jadwin in 2014. And what an extraordinary journey it in fact has been.

Here he was, the same kid from Reading, only now completing his 20-year run in charge of the athletic department. Here he was, a completely self-made man whose career included runs as a coach, television commentator, business executive and finally college administrator - educator, in fact. 

With another basketball great, Frank Sowinski, as the evening's host, Gary's story was told again Saturday night, this time by his closest friends, like the amazing Chris Thomforde, who gets better every time TigerBlog hears him speak and who was already off the charts the first time. Thomforde was a basketball teammate at Princeton who shared, among other things, the cover of Sports Illustrated with Gary back in 1967. He's a religious man and an educator, Thomforde is, and if you didn't know that, you'd think he probably had a long career in show business.

University President Chris Eisgruber spoke, ignoring his prepared words and instead speaking with great passion directly from the heart. Cynthia Cherrey, the University VP for Campus Life, offered her congratulations as well.

And there was Pete Carril, Gary's high school teacher and basketball coach. In one of the better moments of the night, a letter that Carril had written to Gary when he was a freshman at Princeton was read, and it was clear that the letter had definitely helped Gary make the adjustment from wide-eyed Reading boy to Princeton man. 

And there was Peter Roby, the Northeastern AD who played for Gary at Dartmouth. And Larry Lucchino, the president of the Boston Red Sox and a former teammate as well, one whose playing time was derailed by the fact that he could never beat Gary Walters out for the point guard spot.

And by former colleagues, like Erin McDermott, the University of Chicago AD. Erin, who spent 13 years working with Gary at Princeton before leaving a year ago, gave a nearly perfect speech in which she incorporated dozens of Gary's favorite sayings - Garyisms, as it were - to both Roast and Toast her former boss. It was hilarious and heartwarming all at the same time, and that's not something easy to accomplish.

There were more than 50 others who spoke on video, including Bill Ford, who spoke about how the theme of "Education Through Athletics" inspired him to endow Gary's position. Another former teammate, Bill Bradley, one of the greatest college basketball players of all time, spoke of a move of Gary's that he tried in vain to copy - even if the video showed his executing it as Gary had. It didn't matter. Bradley's message was clear - Gary was a great player, a great teammate and even in 1965 as an undergrad, passionate about Princeton.

Each segment of Gary's life was introduced by a short video, and then there was the big video at the end, the one that ran 18 minutes and included comments from so many colleagues, friends, Princeton coaches.

It began with a tongue-in-cheek part in which several Princeton coaches talked about how they weren't even aware after all this time that Gary had even played basketball at Princeton, including the Speedo-clad water polo coach, Luis Nicalao. It ended with several thank-yous from many different people with many different connections to Gary, ending finally when Carril said as only he can "I don't want to thank him for anything."

In addition to the formal program, there was also a 90-minute cocktail hour before and an equally as long party after.

TigerBlog saw so many people he hasn't seen in years. Bill Carmody was there. So was Jamie Zaninovich of the Pac 12, who came all the way from California. And Bradley AD Mike Cross, who came from Peoria. And Hank Towns, the former equipment manger, who came from Trenton.

John Thompson III was there. So was Steve Kanaby from the Colonial Athletic Conference. Kanaby told TB when he left Princeton, oh, three years ago that he would check in every week; this was the first time that TB had heard from him since. But that's okay, because it was like he'd never left.

Janet Dickerson, the former Campus Life VP, was there. And Guy Gadowsky, the former men's hockey coach who is now at Penn State and who had to make the four-hour drive back after the party and yet didn't want to leave quite yet.

There were former basketball players. Friends from Reading. People who had played for him at Union and Dartmouth.

They came back by the hundreds to see Gary, to celebrate with him. It reminded TB of another Christmas movie, not the one with Ralphie but the one with George Bailey.

And that's when TB really put it all together. Gary is Princeton's George Bailey.

Oh, he may have actually left a little more than the real George Bailey, but he's always come back. As a student. A coach. And ultimately as AD.

And this was like the final scene in the movie, when George was in trouble all those Christmases ago in Bedford Falls. They all came back.

It was time to celebrate Gary Walters and what he had meant to all of them, what he had done for all of them, and so back they came, no questions asked. They dropped everything, just like they had for George.

If anyone has ever loved a party, it's Princeton's George Bailey. He worked the room, hugging, shaking hands, laughing, smiling.

This was different though. This time, TB could sense that his boss for the last 20 years was a bit overwhelmed by it all. When it was his turn at the microphone, he said he was "speechless," and he really was. For a few seconds. Then he was able to speak. Hey, it's Gary. He can always speak.

When it was over, Gary had posed for a picture with practically everyone there. TigerBlog got his picture taken with Gary as well, just the two of them.

Gary put his arm around TB, who reciprocated, as both smiled. Then Gary walked away, and TB couldn't help but smile even more as he watched him move on to the next person, the next group, fully aware that they had come back for one reason only - to be with him on his big night.

Gary Walters, like George Bailey, deserved it. He's given so much of himself to the University, to Princeton Athletics, to all of the people in the room, and now they were here for him.

And TB was left to observe the obvious.

Gary Walters has had a great run at Princeton, 50 years-plus, 20 years as the AD. Gary Walters has done amazing things since his beginnings, way, way back at the house on Gordon Street.

Gary Walters has had a wonderful life.

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