By Curator, Richard Johnson
The news of Jack Grinold’s death on April 21st hit hard. He was not only my friend but my role model as well.
Years ago I knew I’d been accepted in the tight knit world of Boston sports courtesy of gestures bestowed with grace and good humor within days by two local treasures.
The first occurred when then Harvard Athletic Director Billy Cleary, always Coach to me befitting his former post as the Crimson’s NCAA title winning mens hockey coach, punk’d me with a phone call in which he pretended to be one of the patriarchs of the Khan squash dynasty furious at the fact The Sports Museum had neglected his sport.(** ) It took a full three minutes before his voice changed from pure Punjab to classic Cambridge before blurting out “Gotcha Dickie.”
The second gesture was also delivered via phone when Northeastern Associate AD and Sports Information Legend-in-Residence Jack Grinold returned a call with the distinctive high pitched rejoinder I’d hear from that day forward “Heyyyyy Bates” referring to my alma mater, the rival to his alma mater of Bowdoin.
Jack was Sports Information Director at Northeastern in the same manner Connie Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics or Johan Sebastian Bach toiled as Cantor of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche.
For he may have been the most well known and most beloved figure in Northeastern’s 119 year history while dispensing information for a rapidly growing Husky intercollegiate program for over 50 years in a manner that can best be described as Damon Runyon meets Thornton Wilder.
During this time he served as mentor and father-confessor to several generations of interns and student athletes. He made the school his extended family through countless kind words and thoughtful gestures culminating in the remarkable $1.25 million bequest he and Cathy made to the university in 2008 for the support of student-athletes. To many, including a legion of admirers that included literally hundreds of journalists & coaches and colleagues such as UMass-Boston chancellor Keith Motley and former NU men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun, he was simply the best and most passionate advocate of all things Northeastern.
When the Huskies finally won their first ever Beanpot Hockey Tournament in 1980 after 28 years of futility Jack wiped away tears tears while hugging former Husky coach Herb Gallagher. For not only had Jack lost his nickname of “5:15” in reference to the starting time of the Beanpot consolation game but he also got to bathe in the deafening jubilation that many claim to be the loudest college hockey celebration in ‘Pot and Garden history. I remember listening to the radio broadcast from my Beacon Hill apartment on Pinckney Street where I was startled to hear the crowd filing into the streets from a full half mile’s distance.
And, for every year thereafter, almost all unaffiliated Beanpot aficionados such as myself hoped for a win for Jack’s team.
In reading his many posthumous tributes I wasn’t surprised to learn he never missed an NU football game for 54 years, always had his striped blazer and straw boater at the ready for a Husky trip to The Henley Royal Regatta, accompanied Reggie Lewis to the Boston Garden press conference announcing his first round selection in 1987 and later helped make arrangements for Reggie’s memorial service before a packed house on an unspeakably sorrowful day at Matthews Arena in 1993.
He was the living embodiment of Coach Al Maguire’s description of his great Marquette basketball teams, “We go uptown together and we go downtown together.”
All of which he tackled with the joy of a neighborhood kid from Brighton whose first taste of the sporting life was the delight he took in accompanying his physician father on trips to Braves Field where the elder Grinold served as team doctor.
Not long after former Braves PR director Billy Sullivan made Jack one of the first hires for the PR department of his fledgling Boston Patriots in 1960.
Northeastern beckoned in 1962 and he never left the confines of his department offices in the old arena on St Botolph.
I’m so glad I spent an afternoon with him last summer at his home in Brighton where we spent hours talking about hockey, rowing, Henley, Dan Ross, Greg Montalbano, Ferny Flamen, the Boston Braves, Billy Sullivan, Tony Perkins (his high school tennis doubles partner at Browne and Nichols), Sid Watson, Ron Burton, Sr, Cooney Weiland, Ernie Arlett, Boston Arena, Irwin Cohen, Reggie Lewis, books, The Sports Museum,and Dutch landscape painting.
I’m especially glad I asked to shake his hand before departing and risked making us both a bit sentimental while informing him that I considered him an essential role model.
I know he resisted the temptation to say “Dammit Bates” before thanking me in that gentle quintessential “Pepperridge Farm” New England voice of his.
I’m very sad as I type these words but have the consolation of having known one of the best men in both my and the experience of a multitude of friends and admirers. He loved his beloved Cathy, his work, his legion of NU kids, his colleagues and, like his friend, the late great Bud Collins, never had a B list as everyone was treated as an A lister by this truly unforgettable character and gentleman.
** Cleary’s skill as a mimic is legendary. And Jack took special delight in recounting this story of his lifelong friend to me in our afternoon together last July.
As was often his habit Friday afternoons were an ideal time for Cleary to call colleagues at Harvard and pretend to be this or that foreign dignitary. In one of his more notorious moments he’d called Dean Fred Jewett several times which then led the Dean to later inform a caller, who’d identified herself in breathy tones as Mrs Onassis, thinking it was Cleary, to knock it off and quit bothering him. Soon,a call came from Harvard President Derek Bok asking if someone in the Dean’s office had hung up on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who was calling with a question regarding her daughter, a member of the class of 1980. Jewett said he’d look into it but not before roasting Cleary.
As a dear friend once advised me, If it was funny when we were 12 years old, it remains funny.