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Forever Friars: Tony Lawless

May 11, 2017 08:36 AM
Coach Lawless (center), flanked by fellow football legend Johnny Lattner (left) and All-State lineman John Carroll.

By Mark Vruno

Happy Birthday to Coach Lawless. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of Fenwick legend Tony Lawless. At least we think so. No one still living is certain when Anthony R. Lawless was born. His nephew, Mike, who like his revered uncle has spent a lifetime as an educator and coach in the family’s hometown Peoria (IL) High School, says the elder Lawless often fibbed about his age to prospective employers when he was young. “Uncle Tony wanted jobs but didn’t want them knowing how young he was. So we were never exactly sure how old he was,” Mike Lawless notes with a laugh.

What we do know is this: Tony Lawless graduated from Spalding Institute in Peoria in 1924. He played on the Fighting Irish’s national Catholic high championship basketball team that year, before moving to Chicago to attend college at Loyola University. He later was inducted into Loyola’s Hall of Fame for both basketball and football.

From The Loyolan 1926 yearbook: “Tony simply kept on going where he left off when he led the Spalding team to the first National Catholic Championship. His work at forward was one of the big sensations of the year. Though rather small, he is compactly built and his chief pleasure was to fool the ‘big boys’ by dribbling around them ….” On the gridiron, Lawless played running back when Loyola and DePaul still had football teams. In 1928 more than 12,000 fans turned out to watch the two teams square off at Cubs’ Park (Wrigley Field). DePaul won that one 12-6. The Ramblers also played Dayton that season at Soldier Field, then traveled south to face Ole Miss.

This past November marked 40 years since the passing of Lawless, who for nearly half a century worked for the students of Fenwick and the school since its inception in 1929. Reacting to his death, the following tribute was penned by a popular sportswriter and published in the Chicago Tribune on November 18, 1976:

“In the Wake of the News”
by David Condon

Lawless, Fenwick Synonymous

He was a rare man, so rare he was precious, and he died peacefully on a day precious to him when it rolled around each year.

Thousands loved this noble son of a Peoria policeman. He Inspired affection that prompted Bo Schembe­chler Michigan's football coach, to reflect:

“Tony Lawless gave to the world something very few men are willing to give -- ­time and one’s self. His accomplishments are many. His material rewards are few. But what he meant to so many people, some he never met or even realized he influenced, will not be forgotten. He will be remembered.”

So well-remembered. Tony Lawless, who was buried Wednesday, lives in memories buried in the hearts of thousands. "Next to my father, no other man had such great influence on my life," said Buddy Romano. Amen.

Tony Lawless was a coach. That is like saying that Sinatra is a singer. Tony was an artisan who molded, sculpted, forged, and polished men and gentlemen.

But beyond all else, Tony Lawless­ -- age 72 but ageless­ -- was Fenwick High School. He was at that Oak Park Catholic prep school before it opened in 1929. He was working there Saturday, hours before he took ill.

Somewhere, Tony is chuckling and dismissing all the lofty tributes accruing after his death. The words are not new to him. During his rich life he heard the same praise. It embarrassed him. He humbly shrugged off all. Honors were important to Tony only if he could heap them on someone else through the Catholic League Hall of Fame.

Somewhere, though, Tony is happy that when all else is forgotten, they’ll still be saying that the names of Tony Lawless and Fenwick are synonymous. The su­preme honor.

“Where again are we going to find a man who has the dedication to stay at one school for almost 48 years?” whispered Phil Weisman as we looked at the black and white Fenwick monogram blanket draped over Tony's bier Tuesday.

"This is where he’d have wanted us to see him," said Dan O'Brien, also a dedicated Fenwickite. "Right under the basket."

Yes, Tony Lawless' wake was in Lawless Gymnasi­um at Fenwick, where we had watched him pour brew and build sandwiches in post mortems after each night of Fenwick's celebrated junior basketball tourney.

The lines were long Tuesday night, and there were special traffic directors outside on Washington Boule­vard, for this was a very special man. The gates, as Tony would have said, opened at 2 p.m. and more than 1,000 had passed and prayed by 6. The numbers mount­ed as evening set in.

“I was captain of his first Catholic League cham­pions,” said George Spehn, the retired official, who was remembering 1934.

There were nods from some of Tony's great boys. ... Ned Maloney of Purdue and John Lattner, Notre Dame's Heisman Trophy winner. Tom Powers of Loyola and Tom Carey, who coached against Tony while at Mt. Carmel, knelt at the bier. Ray Meyer and Jack Barry shook their heads.

"Isn't that Dale Samuels and Fred O'Keefe over there?" Ernie Leiberson asked George Kelly, up from Notre Dame. Absolutely, said John Gill. It was Dale Samuels. It was Fred O'Keefe, now long retired. Each an old foe and friend.

Dale Samuels, an All­-Star at Purdue, was quarterback and all­-around hero of the Lindblom Public League team that defeated Fenwick and Lawless 13-­7 in the 1948 Prep Bowl.

O'Keefe coached the Schurz Public League team that beat Fenwick 20-­7 In the 1949 Prep Bowl in Soldier Field. Lattner, an all-­state end and all­-state halfback during his career at Fenwick, played in both those losses.

But Lawless' Fenwick teams had happier moments in the Chicago championship Mayor Kelly­Kennelly­-Da­ley bowl. Some of the 1945 Friars at the wake remembered how Warren Brown's boy, Roger, led them to a 20­-6 conquest of Tilden.

There were some 1936 Friars, too, recalling the 19-19 city championship duel with their neighborhood rival, Austin, and the one and only Bill DeCorrevont.

Since his wife’s death, Tony Lawless had lived with the Dominicans. Now Father Dooley was saying: "It was our feast day, the day he would have chosen to die, St. Albert's day."

Who can write the epitaph of this man who forever belonged to Fenwick after starring in football and basketball at Peoria Spaulding and Loyola University? When you say Tony Lawless was Fenwick, you’ve said it all.

Copyright 1976 Chicago Tribune

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