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Family, friends pay tribute to Jack Grinold, ‘the heart and soul of Northeastern’

A few words came up again and again among the people who paid tribute to Northeastern’s longtime sports information director Jack Grinold on Wednesday evening at Matthews Arena: passion, family, mentor, grit. Grinold died earlier this year at the age of 81, leaving behind a legacy of dedication not just to Northeastern and the university community, but to New England sports more broadly.

Friends, family, and former colleagues gathered to celebrate Grinold’s life, share stories of his great achievements, and pay tribute to a man known for championing athletics at Northeastern and beyond. The university also unveiled a plaque honoring Grinold that will be installed at the university’s Henderson Boathouse. All those who spoke thanked his wife, Cathy Grinold, and expressed their admiration for her own strength and generosity and dedication to Northeastern.

Cathy Grinold and President Aoun talk after the ceremony Wednesday. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Among those who offered remarks—President Joseph E. Aoun; Grinold’s brother, Richard; ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullan; former Northeastern and Connecticut men’s basketball head coach Jim Calhoun; and others—one thing was clear: Grinold left an impression on everyone he met. And with more than 50 years at Northeastern, as well as roles in civic clubs, historical societies, and athletic organizations across the Northeast, that’s no small crowd.

“Eleven years ago, when I came to Northeastern, people told me, ‘If you want to understand Northeastern, and if you want to understand athletics, you ought to sit down and talk to two giants: Grinold and Makris,’” Aoun said in one of many videos played at the event, referring to alumnus and longtime athletic administrator George Makris.

“Jack immediately opened up his heart, opened up his mind, opened up his experience, and shared with me the whole journey, but never did he say anything about the role he played in building athletics at Northeastern,” Aoun said, remarking upon Grinold’s humility. “He was, and will remain, the heart and soul of Northeastern.”

Grinold’s knowledge wasn’t limited just to athletics. He was intensely passionate about everything from architecture to art, history to the symphony.

“Instantly unforgettable. That was Jack Grinold.”

Rob Rudnick master of ceremonies and longtime play-by-play voice of Northeastern hockey

As men’s hockey coach Jim Madigan said in another video, “He was as adept going into Matthews Arena, Boston Garden, or Fenway Park as he was he was going into the Museum of Fine Arts or Symphony Hall.”

Or, as it may be, to a remote town 30 miles outside of Anchorage, Alaska, where Russian Orthodox missionaries had set up tiny huts.

MacMullan, who started her career covering Northeastern Athletics for The Boston Globe, described such a trip she took with Grinold when they traveled to the state for the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament.

She also detailed their regular lunches at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, over which Grinold would wax poetic on everything from politics to art history, and another outing, when the two traveled to Henley-on-Thames, England, for the Henley Royal Regatta.

“The salutations Jack got, you would have thought he was the king,” she said.

She added, “I learned so many things from Jack. I was 21 when I started at the Globe, and one of the only females around at the time. To have someone like Jack Grinold look out for me meant a lot.”

Clockwise from left, ESPN columnist Jackie MacMullan, and Richard Grinold speak during a celebration of life ceremony in memory of Jack Grinold. His wife, Cathy, and family were honored as well. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

It wasn’t just the breadth of Grinold’s interests that impressed so many who spoke Wednesday—it was his depth of knowledge along such a broad spectrum of topics. As Richard Grinold, Jack’s younger brother, explained, Jack had approached interests and challenges alike with a burning intensity.

Richard Grinold told of Jack’s younger years, specifically a few years in Jack’s early teens, when he lost the use of his right arm following a polio outbreak. Jack worked at his recovery slowly, steadfastly. After months of therapy—months that brought other hardships for him—Jack “took charge of his future,” Richard Grinold said, and dedicated himself to playing baseball again.

With use of only his left arm, playing shortstop and pitcher like he had before were out of the question. First base, then, he thought—a position that requires more catching than throwing.

He had a plan should he need to throw, though. “Jack’s plan was to catch the ball with his left hand, flip the glove and the ball into the air so the ball went straight up, catch it left-handed, and throw it left-handed,” Richard Grinold said. “He practiced incessantly.”

After a lot of trial and error, Jack got the hang of the move and played first base during summer camp that year.

“He didn’t let his affliction define him,” Richard Grinold said. “It was his success in dealing with it that defined him.”

“He was, and will remain, the heart and soul of Northeastern.”

Joseph E. Aoun President, Northeastern University

Others, including Calhoun, defined Jack Grinold as a mentor. Calhoun, one of the winningest men’s basketball coaches of all time, began his college coaching career at Northeastern in 1972.

“I met so many people here at NU, but Jack was the guy, that in his own sort of way, tested me out for about two years to see if I was going to fit and see if I was going to be all right,” Calhoun said. “I could tell that I had to prove to him that my love of NU—while maybe not quite equal to his—was passionate and true.”

That passion, and a sense of family Grinold forged within Northeastern, are values Calhoun carried with him through his career, he said. “I left here to go to UConn,” Calhoun said. “They don’t know how much they got from Jack Grinold. I took him with me the whole way.”

Barry Gallup, former football coach and athletic director at Northeastern, also fondly recalled some of his formative years during which Grinold was a major influence.

“I’m so proud to be here with my Husky family today,” Gallup said Wednesday. He told those gathered about his decision to move from a job at Boston College to a coaching position at Northeastern. Who better to call for advice than Grinold, whom Gallup knew already through Grinold’s leadership in the Eastern Massachusetts chapter of the National Football Foundation. (Grinold’s impact on the chapter was so great, in fact, that it’s formally named the Jack Grinold/Eastern Massachusetts chapter.)

Officials unveil a plaque in Grinold’s name during a tribute service at Matthews Arena. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I have so much respect for Northeastern, and so much respect for Jack, and when I called, he told me two things: That it’s a great place with a family atmosphere, and, ‘You’ll love coaching the student-athletes,’” Gallup said.

Gallup, who took the job, recalled several team trips to the Baseball Hall of Fame, or the National Football Hall of Fame, or Alcatraz. In each case, “Jack knew more than the tour guides,” Gallup said with a laugh.

Walter Congram, better known as “Buzz” Congram, a long-time rowing coach at the university, highlighted Grinold’s love of rowing and his unparalleled efforts to bring the sport—and a boathouse—to the university.

Visibly emotional, Congram credited Grinold’s grit, determination, and clear-eyed focus with getting the Henderson Boathouse built. “In truth, without Jack and the work that he did, the Henderson Boathouse, the permanent home of Northeastern crew, would not be where it is today,” Congram said. “Thank you, Jack.”

Members of the men’s basketball team look on during the ceremony. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Current crew coaches Joe Wilhelm and John Pojednic, of the women’s and men’s teams respectively, each championed Grinold’s commitment, generosity, and passion for the sport.

“His memory reminds us that we need to love what we do together each and every day on the water if we’re going to find success through it,” Pojednic said.

Current athletic director Peter Roby, calling Grinold “our friend, our brother, our husband, our mentor, our teacher,” shared stories from a handful of people who worked with Grinold throughout the years. “A class man who kept his word and had an undying love for NU,” Roby said, reading from one of the remembrances. “No one could say it better,” Roby remarked. “Not even Jack.”

Grinold’s passion didn’t stop at basketball, or football, or rowing. He was essential to the Beanpot hockey tournament—something with which Steve Nazro, former vice president of event scheduling for TD Garden, was very familiar.

“A lot of my life and my loves have to do with the Beanpot,” Nazro said. “It’s a strange, quirky event that fits into the Boston sports scene in a particular way, and Jack knew how it fit.”

Nazro noted that Grinold was also essential to keeping track of the tournament’s history, helping to compile a book on it for the Beanpot’s 50th anniversary.

“Jack Grinold greatly guided the progress of the tournament from early life to maturity to the present,” Nazro said. “He’s the soul of the Beanpot. I say goodbye to Jack, King Husky.”

Rob Rudnick, master of ceremonies and longtime play-by-play voice of Northeastern hockey, shared his own reflections, before closing the program by repeating one of the day’s earlier reflections: “Instantly unforgettable. That was Jack Grinold.”