Back to Notre Dame
Author: Jessica McManus Warnell (Associate Teaching Professor of Management & Organization)
Like many young people, the first thing I wanted to do when I was old enough was move out of my hometown — in my case, South Bend, Indiana. After graduate school at the University of Chicago (I clearly didn’t get too far), I started my position at the Mendoza College of Business. I think Notre Dame is simply in my blood.
My South Bend story began with my father’s Irish- and German-American parents and my mother’s Italian-American parents starting their families here. My paternal grandfather, the late Coach Michael DeCicco, ND ’49, was a “masterful” fencer as an undergraduate student and went on to coach the Notre Dame Fencing team for thirty-four seasons. A profile at his passing said it better than can I: “[Coach DeCicco was] bluntly, the most successful coach in any sport in school history. Five national championships in 34 seasons. A career record of 680-45, for a winning percentage of .938 — the iconic Knute Rockne, whose .881 win percentage remains the best ever for a Division I football coach with at least 10 seasons of experience, stares upward at DeCicco.” He spent years teaching courses in mechanical engineering and thermodynamics.
As he put it, other than my grandmother — his beloved Polly — his children, his grandchildren, and his fencers, his most cherished time was spent with the student-athletes across the campus. In 1964, he became the University’s first academic advisor for student athletes, a position that no other national university had at that time. Speaking about his accomplishments as a coach and starting our athletic advising, legendary football coach Ara Parseghian kindly notes, “Few people have made more of an impact on this University.”
A quote I love from one of his profiles notes, “What made it all work,” says Parseghian, “is that Mike was both an academic and a coach. The professors trusted him and the athletes respected him. And sometimes feared him.” I still remember visiting him in his old office in the Main Building with my high school boyfriend — and him telling my boyfriend that he knew exactly how to use the swords he had hanging on the walls, so my boyfriend had better treat me well.
As his oldest granddaughter I felt gratitude and pride returning to South Bend and Notre Dame. Now twenty years ago, in 2000 when I was invited to apply for my original position at Mendoza after inquiring about another, I didn’t tell him about the possibility until quite late in the process. This was a wonderful position that seemed made for me — a position designing and teaching local community-based learning at the College of Business, supported in part by the Center for Social Concerns. I don’t bear my mother’s maiden name, and at the time I was glad — was afraid if I did, it might catch the eye of someone on campus, and in addition to my youthful desire to spread my wings was my strong desire to explore working at ND without “dropping names.” When I told him about the job, I felt his pride and love. Now, if I didn’t already carry two surnames, I’d probably add that DeCicco back — grateful that we all become who we are in part by those who come before us.
After his retirement, one of his most important accomplishments was successfully helping to woo our current Head Fencing Coach, Gia Kvaratskhelia. Gia is an absolute gem on our campus, leading our Irish to multiple national championships, earning several ACC Coach of the Year designations, and winning Olympic Coach of the Year accolades, among other recognitions. Most admirably, Gia treasures his fencers and inspires their success on the fencing strip and in the classroom. He also supports a local fencing club with classes for children and adults at a beautiful facility in Mishawaka, Escrime du Lac (EDL) (I hope that name sounds familiar!). When my oldest son was young, he studied fencing with Gia’s direction at EDL.
Like all of my faculty colleagues, I have many of our marvelous student-athletes in my classes. I am inspired by their hard work — starting their days while many of us are sound asleep, going to workouts, heading to class for hours, and then more practice in the afternoon, followed by studying (and with luck, some sleep). I hope that I honor my grandfather every day that I am blessed with this opportunity to teach these students who give so much of their time and talents to our university community.
My oldest son is now a freshman at Purdue University — he too wanted to spread his wings beyond South Bend as he begins his own professional journey — thankfully for his mom, not too far. But we’ll see. Perhaps one of my two boys will make their way back to Notre Dame someday. With or without their fencing foils.
Jessica McManus Warnell is an Associate Teaching Professor of Management & Organization.