A last visit with Coach Jim Connelly

Last fall former Saint Ignatius track and cross country coach Jim Connelly and his son Pete took a photo with the team at the Ignatius-Fenwick Cross Country Invitational, which in the future will be named for coaches Connelly and John Polka of Fenwick.  This year’s race takes place on Saturday, September 15 at Turtlehead Lake in Tinley Park.  Coach Polka will attend–and we hope to make it a special day in memory of Coach Jim Connelly.  All friends of Saint Ignatius Cross Country and Track–and of Coach Connelly–are invited!

It is Tuesday night, August 28, and I just returned from a visit with Jim Connelly, the Illinois Hall of Fame track and cross country coach who preceded me at Saint Ignatius.

[Edit:  On Wednesday evening, August 29, news came from the Connelly family that Jim had died in the afternoon.  Details about the service arrangements are added at the bottom of this post.]

Almost two months ago Jim Connelly suffered a serious stroke.  He recovered to enter rehabilitation, but complications including pneumonia returned him to hospital care a couple weeks ago.

About a week ago, his family brought him home to Villa Park under hospice care.  The family living room where he and his wife Sue nurtured their fifteen biological and adoptive children–and thirty-two foster children–has become a room for Jim’s hospital bed, and his family is gathered around him.  When I visited for an hour or so this evening, that family included his sons Kevin, Tim, Tom, Pat, Terry, Pete, and Bobby, as well as daughters Honey and Mary—plus spouses and grandchildren.  Jim is not completely responsive, but there is a sense among his family that he knows who is around him.  They talk to him, and they invite guests to talk to him.  They asked me to tell Jim about the prospects for our team this season:  “That’s what he really wants to hear about.  And how is grandson Joey running?” said Tim Connelly.   But he seemed most excited at the loud sounds of his grandchildren, it seemed to me.  His family is working hard to make him as comfortable as they can make him.

But it is also clear that this is now a family vigil for the man that many of us will always know as Coach Connelly.  On the dining room table photos, letters, clippings, and other memorabilia have been arranged for viewing.  The items include Connelly’s Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame plaque and many photos of his teams.  Sue Connelly, Jim’s wife, was particularly excited about a framed photo that had just arrived from Jim’s sister Irene; Irene and Jim are formally dressed as very young children, standing with the Balto statue in New York City’s Central Park.

I spent much of my hour talking with Sue Connelly.  She spoke thankfully about the communications and visits from his Ignatius students and track athletes.  Trevor and Drew Orsinger, brother members of an outstanding group of pole vaulters Connelly developed in the 1990s, were among the first visitors when he came home.  They reported that he was wearing an Ignatius track jacket for their visit.  John Lillig, who coached with Jim in two separate tours as an Ignatius teacher, has been a regular visitor.  Mark Floreani, Flotrack.com founder and one of Coach Connelly’s prize runners, made a special visit from Austin, Texas, to see him in the hospital last week.

Sue Connelly passéd around a card she had received that day from Chris Serb, a runner for Ignatius from the class of 1988.  Serb thanked Jim for teaching him to run and work hard.  But he also noted that in 2007, when his track athletes threw a summer party for Coach Connelly downtown at Lizzie McNeil’s on the Chicago River, Serb actually met his future wife there—Emily Cosgrove, who had taught English and coached the girls’ track and cross country teams at Ignatius.  So he gave his coach credit for that happiness, too.

Connelly was a year or so out of coaching when I started at Ignatius in 2003.  Lillig had replaced him as both track and cross country head coach, but he gave up the track job right when I arrived—and then gave up the cross country job a few years later.  It meant something to me to take the job from them, because I knew they wouldn’t give it up to just anybody.  While I didn’t directly replace Connelly as Ignatius coach, he was still teaching at Ignatius and was available for me to talk to when I took over the job.  He never offered advice or comments that were unsolicited.  He always tried to give helpful answers when I asked him questions or posed problems to him.

Connelly came to coaching rather late in his life.  As I calculate it, he was almost my age–about fifty years of age–when he started coaching track at Ignatius, almost, it seems, as a final career move.  So Connelly’s tenure was really a rather short one for a Hall of Fame head coach—around thirteen years, perhaps, from 1987 to 2000.  His athletes and teams had great success under his coaching, but it seems likely to me that the respect other coaches held for him came more from their high regard for him as a person—and especially as a father.  Sue and Jim Connelly’s generous work as foster and adoptive parents are well known.  In 2002 they were awarded the Family Exemplar Award by Notre Dame University, where Jim went to college.  Jim was also honored in 1994 with the top honor Ignatius offers to anyone affiliated with the school, the Dei Gloriam Award.

I felt a closer bond with Jim Connelly, perhaps, when my wife and I adopted our two children from Vietnam in 2007.

Connelly was forthright and a man of principle.  As I heard it, students would receive a jug detention for being tardy for class if they were not already in their seats ready for class when the bell rang; passing through the doorway did not count.  He was notoriously old school–and even new school students didn’t mind, perhaps, because they learned so much in his classes.

Sue Connelly reviewed Jim’s professional career with me:   He spent a few unsatisfied years as an engineer at U.S. Steel, and then a few more at Western Electric, when he had also begun taking classes that he hoped would earn him a job teaching high school history.   He was correct that teaching would be his calling.  As it happened, the first job that was offered him, at DeLaSalle, asked him to teach mathematics, as well as history.  Four years later in 1967, Connelly, who was a graduate of New York City’s Jesuit high school Regis, took a job at Saint Ignatius, where he continued to teach both math and history until his retirement in 2008.

Above all, as his athletes attest, Jim Connelly was a man of strong Catholic faith and belief.  His commitment as an adoptive father was simple and practical and faith driven.  Children without parents to care for them still need the support and love of a family.  Sue and Jim Connelly were always willing to do what they could for children facing such a need.  Jim also recognized that as the family adopted more children, the children already in the family had to make sacrifices—and in doing so they shared the commitment of their parents, too.

In conversation with Pete Connelly, who has followed his father’s footsteps to coach girls cross country and boys and girls track at Montini,  he remembered that his father had often said his time on earth might be best judged by the good work his children would do in the world.  It was both a challenge and a blessing, it would seem, for Connelly’s children to have a father who was such a man of faith.

After he retired as a coach at Ignatius, Jim Connelly would still regularly show up at our track meets.  He always had a stop watch and a pad of paper.  When we missed a split that I needed, from a relay, for example, I would often go to Connelly, who was likely to have it scrawled on his pad.  He was attending meets before his grandson Jimmy joined our team as a freshman in 2006.  A varsity cross country and track runner as a freshman, Jimmy went on to captain our teams and run 4:19 for 1600 meters, winning a sectional championship in 2010.  Coach Connelly’s attendance at our meets was probably best when Jimmy was running.

He probably was not as regular at attending meets in recent years when he had retired from teaching at Ignatius and had volunteered to help Pete Connelly coach at Montini.  Jimmy had graduated.  But at that point he also had to attend the Montini meets—although he still made it to a few of ours, as well.

With another grandson, Jimmy’s sophomore brother Joey, on the team now, we were hoping to see more of Coach Connelly the next few years.

Jim Connelly’s years of enjoying retirement, it seems, will be too short.  When I heard someone ask him whether he liked being retired  a couple years ago, he answered in his gruff and direct way, “Should have done it a long time ago!”

Whatever the magic is that makes athletes devoted to their coaches, Jim Connelly had it.  As a new coach at Saint Ignatius, I took my first group of ten or so boys to the state track meet in 2004.  Connelly and Lillig had been their coaches the previous three years.  After rousting them early for Saturday morning breakfast, I listened as a fly on the wall while the boys sat around the table for an hour telling Coach Connelly stories.

I remember thinking that I hoped someday boys would have stories like that to tell about me.


Service arrangements for Coach Connelly:

Friday, August 31, 2012
2:00 to 8:00 PM
St. Alexander Church
300 South Cornell Avenue
Villa Park, IL 60181
Phone: 630-833-7730

Funeral Mass:
Saturday, September 1, 2012
10:00 AM
St. Alexander Church
300 South Cornell Avenue
Villa Park, IL 60181


A more formal obituary, from Jim Connelly’s family:

James Connelly, Devoted Teacher, Father of 16 and Hall of Fame Coach, Dies at 78

                James Vincent Connelly entered eternal life August 29, 2012 following complications from a stroke.  He passed to eternal life surrounded by family at home in Villa Park, where he was a resident for 37 years.

Born in New York City on June 13, 1934, Jim Connelly attended Regis High School and graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Civil Engineering and the designation of Outstanding Bengal Bouts Boxer in 1956.

After his devotion to God and his family, Mr. Connelly’s greatest vocation was teaching.  His engineering career was short and he began teaching at De La Salle Institute in 1963.  In 1967, he joined the faculty at St. Ignatius College Prep where he taught Mathematics, History and Political Science for the next 41 years and coached track and cross country for 23 years.  He taught and coached nearly 10,000 scholars and athletes, including 59 state championship qualifiers.  Jim was inducted into the Chicago Catholic League Hall of Fame and the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Among his awards were the Joseph B. Whitehead Educator of Distinction Award, the Dei Gloriam Award from St. Ignatius, the Family Exemplar Award from the University of Notre Dame and several Educator of the Year Awards from St. Ignatius.  He also served as the school board president at Our Lady Help of Christians School on the west side of Chicago and at St. Alexander School in Villa Park.

In letters, emails and spoken testimony, scores of his students identified Jim Connelly as the best teacher they had ever had, and cited him as an inspiration in their lives.

A devout Catholic, Jim and his wife Susan raised eight biological children, adopted seven more and were foster parents to several dozen other children. He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sue (nee Shapley) of Gary, Indiana and by 16 children, along with numerous others who stayed in the Connelly home and called him “Dad.”  His children include Patrick, Susan Linville, Peter (Monica), Frank, Timothy (Kari), Kevin (Sarita), Thomas (Katie), Mary O’Malley (Timothy), Nora O’Hara (Michael), Terence (Reshelle), Jason, Christine Fallenstein (Thomas), Timothy Montgomery, Robert, James and Melissa.  He is also survived by sister Irene Sullivan (Robert), brothers John (Susan) and Edward (Peggy) and 22 grandchildren.  He was preceded in death by his daughter Tynia.

A funeral mass of Christian burial will be held on Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 10:00am at St. Alexander Catholic Church, 300 S. Cornell Avenue, Villa Park, Illinois.  A wake will be held at St. Alexander Catholic Church on Friday, August 31, 2012 from 2:00pm to 9:00pm.  In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to St. Alexander School Tuition Assistance Fund, 136 S. Cornell, Villa Park, IL, to Easter Seals, 830 S. Addison Avenue, Villa Park, IL or to the Pro-Life Action League, 6160 N. Cicero Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646.



Filed under coaching, high school track and field, parenting

11 responses to “A last visit with Coach Jim Connelly

  1. Eric Soriano '97

    Thanks for the story about a great teacher, coach, and person.

  2. Chris Pennant '06

    Great post, Coach Ernst.

  3. tc1124

    Thanks Coach. I think you captured the man very well, something others often miss. – Tim Connelly ’84

  4. Kenneth Scott

    Ken Scott ’98

    Thanks. Mr. Connelly had an incredible impact on my life. I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to be coached and taught by him.

  5. David Driscoll '00

    While I never had Mr. Connelly as a coach, a couple of my friends were runners and I had him as a teacher for geometry. He was tough, funny, demanding and loving. Thanks for this report… Condolences to his family and all the Ignatians who studied, competed, or simply tried to avoid getting JUG under him… 🙂 He will be missed.

  6. Brendan Fitzpatrick

    This is a great post. That last sentence probably resonates with a lot of us who also aspire to have the kind of impact that Mr. Connelly has had on his students, athletes, family, and community. He has set the bar high and will be pushing for us all to surpass it. Thank you Connelly family for sharing so much of his time with us.

  7. Sara Gries

    What a lovely recount of Jim. You captured his spirit, Ed.

  8. I was a member of the SICP track team from 1990-1993. I feel lucky to have had Mr. Connelly as a coach and a teacher. He continues to be a role model for me and I find myself emulating him when I try to teach my own students and residents.

  9. Ed, we just connected this morning and I’m so glad we did! Great article about a great man. Mr. Connelly was constructed of resolute principles and was an admirable role model for all who knew him. In my sophomore year when I had him for geometry he was like castor oil…good for me but I was too dumb to know it! He will be dearly missed.

    Mike Patton SICP Track 1978 – 1981

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