ELYRIA — Lou Rotunda graduated from Elyria High School, worked 44 years at The Chronicle-Telegram, was a lifelong member of St. Mary Church, was heavily involved in CYO, belonged to the Knights of Columbus, the Elyria United Polish Club and the Elyria Senior Fellowship and was both a Moose and an Elk.
While he was certainly proud of each and every organization on that list, his one true love was obvious to anyone who knew him or even just met him: Elyria Catholic High School.
“His whole life was Elyria Catholic,” former EC basketball coach Bob Guinta said.
Rotunda, who served as freshman basketball coach, assistant athletic director, equipment manager, substitute teacher and supporter without peer at Elyria Catholic, died Sunday morning at The Abbewood. He was 85.
In a life of service and dedication to others, one thing is clear: They didn’t call Rotunda “Mr. Elyria Catholic” for nothing.
“His life was sewn into the very fabric that is the school’s mission,” said Elyria Catholic president and longtime friend Andrew Krakowiak. “I never knew anyone who loved Elyria Catholic as much as he did.”
Krakowiak first met Rotunda when Krakowiak was coaching basketball with his brother at Holy Name High School nearly 30 years ago.
“He came down and sat on the bench with me and introduced himself,” Krakowiak said. “He said, ‘I love the way you guys coach your teams.’ ... He loved his basketball. He loved to talk basketball until the very end. ... He was very sharp, very sharp until the end.”
Despite not being a basketball player himself, Rotunda became EC’s first freshman coach in 1954 and kept the job until 1993, compiling an impressive 419-223 record. He had just four losing seasons in all those years.
He grew in the job, too. Suzanne Camp, a teacher and former coach and assistant AD at EC, remembers when she was hired to coach girls basketball 37 years ago.
“I had no experience whatsoever,” Camp said. “Lou would diagram plays for me. Even though he was coaching the boys, he took time to come to our practices and work with the girls. He was just an outstanding help to me and always was a true friend to everyone. He genuinely cared for the students, and not just the athletes.
“His memory is going to live in the halls of EC forever. The loyalty he had for the school is amazing. He will truly be missed.”
It was also basketball that led former Chronicle sports editor Jerry Rombach to Rotunda when Rombach arrived in town in 1965.
“He was Mr. Basketball,” Rombach said. “One of our editors told me to call Lou Rotunda to get all the background on Elyria Catholic and the area sports.”
Rotunda filled Rombach in over lunch and the two became good friends as well as co-workers. Rotunda was city assistant circulation manager for 20 years at The Chronicle before moving to the composing room.
Rotunda accompanied Rombach and former Chronicle sportswriter Roger Negin to many EC games over the years.
“We had a lot of long talks,” Rombach said. “He’s an institution at Elyria Catholic. He really is. He’s almost a legend. He told me players he coached 30 years ago would send him cards and letters.”
Rotunda didn’t come from a big family and he never married. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Sam Rotunda, a niece and a nephew, and several great-nieces.
“He’d send cards to kids when they graduated,” said Guinta, who, like Rotunda, was inducted into the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame. “It was his life.”
“I know the kids liked him,” Guinta added. “He took an interest in the kids. That was his whole life. You didn’t say anything about Elyria Catholic.”
When Rombach began the Pick-It-Line, a longtime Chronicle tradition in which members of the sports department pick the winners of the area high school football games, he included Rotunda. It became a good-natured running joke that Rotunda would never pick against the Panthers.
“EC could be playing Notre Dame or Ohio State and he’d still pick EC,” Guinta said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to bend and give up that loyalty to his school.”
Of course, that loyalty is what set Rotunda apart. Krakowiak said there’s a line in the EC alma mater that makes him think of Rotunda every time he hears it.
Loyalty that never dies.
“I really think he is the epitome of that line,” Krakowiak said. “He was a man of great integrity and loyalty. He was truly a man of God. He will be missed but his presence will always be there.”
Besides the Elyria Sports Hall of Fame (he is a member of the class of 1978), Rotunda was also inducted into the Lorain County Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Elyria High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1956 he received the Eagle of the Cross for Youth Work from the Cleveland Diocese and was awarded the Ohio High School Athletic Association State Award in 1999-2000 for exemplary contribution and services.
His contributions to EC are almost impossible to list, but include raising money for the school’s trophy cases and helping design them, helping to design the 3,000-seat Coliseum, making the victory bell and starting the Panther Club. He also attended almost every boys basketball and football game as well as numerous other sports and activities at the school over the years.
Perhaps the contribution he was most proud of was the Lou Rotunda Award he started, which has been given to the best all-around senior male athlete at EC since 1960. The award is based on athletics, academics and extra-curricular activities and is voted on by faculty, staff and students.
“He really did represent all the school stands for,” Krakowiak said.
And even when the first impression Rotunda made wasn’t a great one, it was difficult to stay angry at him. Just ask Mark Reichlin.
Reichlin, one of the owners of Reichlin Roberts Funeral Home and an EC graduate, has a distinct memory of Rotunda.
“He cut me as a freshman basketball player,” Reichlin said.
But that didn’t stop Reichlin and Rotunda from becoming friends. In the past few years, when Rotunda had trouble getting around, it was Reichlin who made sure he got to the events he wanted to attend.
“He’d always laugh, ‘Why are you so nice to me? I cut you.’ ”
Maybe it has something to do with loyalty.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Sunday and were to be announced today by Reichlin Roberts Funeral Home.
Contact Kevin Aprile at 329-7135 or email@example.com.