Archive for October, 2014

Student Athletes, Part 2: Don’t Lose Sight of Them, or of the Value of What They Do. Consider Boston College’s Paul Taylor

October 27, 2014

It’s almost November 2014, and the embarrassing stories and commentary about college sports and athletes continue thick and fast. This time it’s the University of North Carolina’s long history of “paper courses” for big-time players. Last month it was a college football player who took money for his autograph. Earlier we heard more than one credible allegation of sexual misconduct by college football stars.

I hate hearing these stories. It’s not that I doubt them. It’s not that I want them squashed so that the games can go on. It’s not that I want the miscreants to escape with a tut-tut followed by a rah-rah. I hate these stories because they cast a dark cloud over all the rest of the college athletes. The noise about the bad actors can obscure the stories of the vast majority whose accomplishments both on and off the fields of play are exemplary and worthy of emulation.

So here’s a blog post in counterpoint to what we’ve been hearing and reading lately. It’s a profile of Paul Taylor, one of ten such pieces that I wrote for the Boston College Hall of Fame induction earlier this month.

Paul Taylor photo for bioPaul Taylor: Boston College’s First Rhodes Scholar and First Hall-of-Fame Fencer

The fastest moving object in sport, save for the bullet in shooting, is the tip of the sword in fencing. Smaller than a dime, it explodes at the target from a meter away. The target is you, the fencer. You must defend yourself with no more than a slender blade and all the guile, cunning, and wit you can muster.

Fencers are either tacticians or warriors. Paul Taylor was a warrior. He wielded the foil and, as Boston College fencing coach Sydney Fadner puts it, “He was aggressive. He was confident in his attacks. He went out after the touch, rather than waiting for the touch to come to him.”

Over four years of hand-to-hand combat up and down the 14-metre strip, Paul Taylor’s approach paid off. In the five-touch foil bouts – three per fencer per meet – Paul amassed the highest winning percentage, .673, in Boston College history. He had 103 career wins and 50 losses. No other BC fencer to date has 100 wins in foil, where one scores a point only through a touch of the tip to the foe’s torso.

Paul twice qualified for the NCAA National Championships, advanced another time to the NCAA Northeast Regionals, and in senior year he finished fourth in the Intercollegiate Fencing Association (IFA) championships.

Foilists must be durable, patient, strong, and smart. Coach Fadner explains that foil encounters can run longer those of the epee and the sabre, and that Taylor displayed both the creativity and the endurance to advance and retreat relentlessly until scoring the touch.

“Paul was the total package. He worked very hard and he made the people around him better. He was naturally talented as an athlete and could have been successful in any sport. He was always confident but never cocky; he was very humble about it all, actually,” she said.

Paul believes that his weakness was that very aggressiveness, stating “If I err on the side of anything, it’s in not being quite patient enough.” He then went on to explain that mental acuity and adaptability are essential to fencing success. Every opponent has strengths and weaknesses that the fencer must ward off and exploit, recognizing both in split seconds through the thrusts and parries as the blade tips seek their target.

Fencing is also an unusually physically demanding “asymmetric” game. One’s front leg is always the front leg, with stress and strain on hamstring and quadriceps throughout the advances and retreats. The back leg remains in back, with the calf and Achilles tendon working overtime. A genteel sport, it’s not.

BC 2001 Fencing Team poses on -- appropriately - the library steps. Freshman Paul Taylor is at left end of second row.

BC 2001 Fencing Team poses on — appropriately – the library steps. Freshman Paul Taylor is at left end of second row.

If you wonder which institutions of higher education do well in fencing, look to the elite academic schools — the Ivies, Duke, Stanford, Penn State, Northwestern, and Notre Dame. Paul was admitted to Duke but took a liking to Boston College during a campus visit to his sister Lisa, a member of the Class of 2001. He stopped by the Physics Department in Higgins Hall, and professors Kevin Bedell and Mike Graf showed him around.

“I had a really nice feeling about Boston College, right from the beginning,” he said. “Not many places would do that for some random person walking in the door. I liked that the department was small, and you could get to know the professors. And it was that way with the Classics Department. I had taken Latin before BC and wanted to continue with it.”

Paul compiled a perfect 4.0 grade point overage over four years in his dual major of physics and classics. He is the first Boston College student to be named a Rhodes Scholar. At graduation he received the Edward H. Finnegan, S.J. Award, the school’s highest academic honor and the only one awarded university-wide.

A native of Elm Grove, Wisconsin, Paul discovered fencing while at a summer camp in Milwaukee. In high school he played basketball and baseball. But he flourished with the swordsmanship learned mostly from a Russian-speaking immigrant named Boris Shepsulevich. It made for “interesting communications,” as Paul describes it.

Boston College teammates elected him captain in both his junior and senior years. But all along the way he had been a leader anyway. As a freshman, recalled that year’s captain Greg Shea, Paul quickly took the top spot among the trio of fencers competing in foil.

“I was shocked at how talented he was. A lot of guys have swagger coming in. But he took advice very well, and you never knew how much better he was than everybody else. He had a quiet confidence,” said Greg.

Haynes Ko earned a spot on the team during his junior year thanks to Taylor’s tutelage. He’d been in a recreation class that met before fencing practice, and he asked Taylor to teach him the sport. Paul stayed after practice regularly and schooled Ko in footwork and blade work. By the middle of junior year, Ko was the number-two fencer on BC’s saber unit.

While teammates looked up to Paul both in competition and in academics, not everyone was aware of his other passion: social services. He tutored BC students in calculus and physics and taught inmates at a youth detention facility. On most Sunday mornings, he volunteered at Haley House, a soup kitchen near Copley Square. He was Haley House Volunteer of the Year in 2003.

Paul became interested in astrophysics during a summer internship at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard. Astrophysics, like his college major physics, deals with calculations and simulations. Astronomy, on the other hand, is observational, a geography of the heavens. At Oxford he earned a doctorate in astrophysics, working on computer simulations of collapsing stars, testing progenitor conditions for gamma-ray bursts, a type of sidereal explosion.

After teaching a year at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) near Capetown, Paul began postdoctoral work on functional magnetic resonance imagery (MRI). He is now concentrating on brain research with MRI, targeting both children exposed to fetal alcohol syndrome and people who have tested positive for HIV. He also teaches at AIMS facilities in South Africa, Ghana, and Senegal.

Eulogy for My Brother, Jackie Burke

October 16, 2014

Delivered by Thomas Burke at funeral mass, Saint John the Evangelist Church, October 16, 2014

John V. Burke

John V. Burke

On behalf of Jackie’s son Patrick and all of Jackie’s brothers and sisters, I thank you all for being with us this morning. Your presence here and your thoughtfulness during recent weeks has meant a great deal to everyone.

Our lives are but a brief moment in time between two vast eternities. Jackie’s moment is ended, and he has entered the eternity that follows. But however brief was his life, however brief is anyone’s life, that doesn’t mean it cannot be filled with wonderful and happy memories. And as Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey reminds us, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

So let’s share some of those memories of my brother. I’m sure you all have many favorite ones, as do I. Jackie is with us now in spirit, his pain is gone, and he wants us to smile when we think of him today.

Childhood. Jackie was born ten years after I was. That decade’s age difference let me be the big brother in ways that Peter and Jimmy weren’t able to. I delivered newspapers all through grammar school, and my bike was equipped with a special, extra-large, industrial strength wire basket on the front. It was ideal for carrying 75 Boston Globes or one two-year old boy.

When I was taking care of Jackie, I used to love riding about the town with him in that basket. We’d go to the parks, the playgrounds, the beaches. Every time down at Winthrop Beach, he would point out “the balls.” Those giant golf-ball domes atop the Fort Heath radar towers.

It’s so much fun showing new and wondrous things to little ones. And for me, on those rides around town, I got to show him off to all the friends I’d meet. Especially to the girls. How I loved to do that.

I was so proud of my baby brother.

Adolescence. That meant hockey memories. They begin with all those years of my mother and Catherine McDonald driving Jackie and the McDonald boys here, there and everywhere. They all became very good hockey players, and when they got to high school they played together on the “Irish Line.” Jackie was the right wing, Bobby the center and Joe the left wing. They were the highest scoring high school Division One line in the state in 75-76. They won the East Coast Aero Tech Trophy for that. They’re in the Winthrop High Hall of Fame.

Jackie did pick up one edgy little habit along the way. When he scored a goal, sometimes he’d rub it in by turning his stick around and pretending he was shooting the goalie with the Ugly Gun. The Danvers athletic director complained to Jim Evans, and he put a stop to it.

I was there for those state tournament games at the Garden. That third overtime against Norwood – after midnight – Jackie stealing the pass in the Winthrop zone and going in alone for the winning goal, 4-3. Then again in the Eastern Mass final against Braintree, he got the game winner.

I made it into the locker room after the Braintree game. Reporters were all over the place, and I happened to catch a glimpse of one guy’s notepad after he interviewed Jackie. By that time, word had gotten out that he was the nephew of the late Walter Brown, and Jackie told the reporter that he used to come in to the Garden and practice with the Bruins. Well, Jackie was five when Walter died in 1964. He never knew his uncle Walter, and he certainly never practiced with the Bruins. I tapped the reporter on the shoulder and asked him not to include that tall tale that Jackie concocted in the flush of victory.

Sorry, Jack. I’ve never told anyone about that. But I think I saved you a little embarrassment. Not that your uncle wasn’t pleased to see what you’d done, watching from the Second Balcony. He coached the first American World championship hockey team, he ran the Garden from 1937 to 1964, he was president of the Bruins, and he never had a hockey thrill like that from any family member.
Those were great times. I knew that I’d never see a performance like that again.

I was so proud of my younger brother.

When the cancer came, it was horrible. It’s an angry, diabolical disease. Neither surgery nor intense radiation could slow it down. But Jackie fought it all the way. He got excellent support from his nurses, especially Colleen Kilbride, and from Patrick, a trooper during that battle just as he had been for his country, when he served in the US Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Jackie’s friends rallied to put on a nice benefit evening for him – Charlotte Macrillo Flynn, Owen Gillis, Sharon McCarthy and their committee. Jackie was fighting a lonely battle but he wasn’t alone.

The last day I saw Jackie was on October 7. I was with him for a couple of hours at his apartment. He was in a lot of pain and had difficulty talking. We knew how hard it was for him to take care of himself. When he and I were alone together I asked him to consider going to hospice care. He wrote me a note on his note pad that said “No. If I go there, that means I’m giving up. I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight this.”

That wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear at the time. And eventually he relented. Patrick brought him to the hospice in Danvers to next day. The following morning, Jackie was asleep when Peter stopped by to visit. I was getting ready to leave and go up there later in the day when Peter called. Jackie had not awakened, but had died that afternoon.

So the last time I saw Jackie, he was still fighting, still battling against odds that had become impossible. But maybe that’s just what we should expect of a hockey player.

I was so proud – I am still so proud – of my brother.

Jackie, now it is time to say goodbye. You’re back with Mom and Dad. You’ve probably already been in on some pickup hockey games. And if they designed it properly, hockey players’ heaven is the old Boston Garden, that House of Magic where you had your greatest triumph. It’s jammed with 13,909 souls. And Mom, Dad, Uncle Walter, and all the rest are cheering you on from Section 34, Rows C and D.

Please give them our love. Your brothers and sisters, and all of us here today, will be along to join you by and by.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And forever, brother, hail and farewell.

Student-Athletes: They’re All Around Us

October 8, 2014

The athletes who grab the headlines, unfortunately, are often the ones whose behavior on and off the field is less than admirable. You know who they are, and you know the college and professional teams that tolerate them.

I’ve long maintained that the bad actors in college sports are a very small minority who get a disproportionate share of the attention. Over the years, I’ve met and written about hundreds of admirable, talented, well-rounded people whose stories should be told again. Their excellence in sport is just the beginning.

Bob Dirks, Boston College ’09, is one such student-athlete. The story below is my profile of Bob for her induction to the BC Hall of Fame on October 17, 2014.

Bob Dirks, BC Field Hockey Star from Malden, the Netherlands

Bob Dirks, BC Field Hockey Star from Malden, the Netherlands

Bob Dirks ‘09
Field Hockey

By Tom Burke

Final examinations had not yet concluded for the graduating students of Stedelijk Gymnasium in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, when the thick binder arrived at the home of Bob Dirks. A field hockey prodigy, perennial East Holland All-Star and member of the national champion squad, she had accepted a scholarship to play at Boston College under new coach Ainslee Lamb.

Bob, the youngest of four children in the athletic Dirks family, opened her mail that day and immediately thought she’d made a huge mistake.

“Here I was, 18 years old, about to move to another country, where I don’t speak the language, and I get this workout package. Ten weeks. Weight lifting, running seven miles, running 45 minutes straight. I threw it into the corner of my room. ‘There’s no way I can do this.’”

The day she finished finals, Bob telephoned the BC coach and told her “I don’t think I can run even one mile. If these are the prerequisites, I’m sure that I can’t go there.”

“Just do what you always do in the summer to get fit,” Lamb assured her frazzled prize recruit. “We’ll see what you can do when you get here.”

Reassured by her long-time youth coach Frank Stofneel, who’d spent a year in America, Bob went off to the store with her mother and bought a pair of running shoes. As it turned out, there would be plenty that Bob could do, and did, during freshman year at Boston College.

It was the Eagles’ first year in the ACC. Bob scored 11 goals and five assists for 27 points and earned Regional All-America honors. Her first goal came in a 3-2 win over Kent State. Bob had been ready to enroll there until the Kent State coach, Kerry DeVries, told her “You are my number one recruit and as I coach I want you here. But as a mother of three children, I know what is best for you, and it is Boston College.”

But the transition was not easy. Phone calls home to parents Mariette and Noud were frequent. Weight lifting and endless rounds of physical conditioning were completely new. So was the sporting culture.

“The sports mentality is something that is unknown in Europe. If you look at the American World Cup team, they may not be the most skilled, but they never give up. They’re always supporting each other. In the Netherlands, I played on skill. In America there is much more emphasis on fitness. By the end of four years, I’d had no idea that I could ever have run so much,” said Bob.

“The first word that comes to mind when I think about Bob is ‘dominant,’” said Lamb. “She came here at a very transitional time. She was an impact player right away and she helped elevate our program to be able to compete with the best in the country.

Bob's speed, skill, and adept use of the backhand kept the defenders off balance

Bob’s speed, skill, and adept use of the backhand kept the defenders off balance

“For Bob, the demands were higher physically. It was an aggressive game with more contact. Her strength on the ball had to improve a little bit. But she never lost the foundation she had with her Dutch hockey and was always willing to learn.”

Bob was an accomplished scorer when she arrived in college. Her possession skills and defensive game quickly blossomed. She was masterful and difficult to defend against with her passing, shooting, and flicking the ball from the reverse side of her stick. Classmate Christine Almendrales said,

“Bob was very good at deception, drawing the defender out and then being able to pass. She hung onto the ball a little longer than most players. She could retain the ball and score. With her dribbling skills she could change direction and not get tackled by the defender’s stick.”

Lamb also said that, as the center forward, Dirks would determine the team’s press, or defensive tactics. Her moves, as she pursued the ball when the opponent was in control, dictated the defensive responses by the rest of the BC team.

Things only got better for Bob after freshman year. For the next three seasons she was named a First Team All-American. Her 62 goals and 150 career points are tops on the Eagles’ all-time list, and she is fourth in career assists with 26. She was a superb student in the Carroll School of Management, posting a 3.385 GPA in her double major of finance and management leadership. She won Eagle of the Year as a senior, and earned an ACC postgraduate scholarship.

There was one other thing that Bob brought to America from home: her devotion to community service. By age 12, she was instructing younger kids in field hockey. At age 17 she began coaching physically disabled children. During recruiting talks with Coach Lamb, she learned that a small group of athletes were involved in community outreach through the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC).

Bob, Almendrales, and Lauren Gilooly of the sailing team all pitched into expand SAAC, initiating or building up programs that included visits to Franciscan Children’s Hospital, the Pen Pal Picnic, and service trips to New Orleans and Vietnam. Bob was SAAC vice president as a senior.

Bob’s preferred volunteer activity was Moe Maloney’s HEAR program, in which student-athletes visit local elementary schools and tell life lessons. As a foreigner, and bearing an American boy’s name, Bob was a star of those visits. She liked to tell kids what it was to be different. Her favorite stop was the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Allston.

Bob returned to the Netherlands after graduation and earned a master’s degree in business, then took a year off for foreign travel. After two years of management consulting, she came to work full time at Akzo Nobel, a global paint and chemical company with some 50,000 employees in more than 80 countries. Bob is Akzo Nobel’s Project and Change Manager. Her current assignment is the reorganization of the information technology department, making it work more efficiently and effectively throughout the world. She still plays field hockey, three times a week.