Inside Marquette University’s Zilber Hall late on a Thursday afternoon in April 2015, our phones lit up without warning just as we were preparing to leave for Easter break. Media were growing inpatient as a news story had just broke — one that broke your heart — about one of our well-known Catholic, Jesuit priests nearing the end of his fight against cancer.
Father John Schlegel, S.J., had just shared that he would preside over his final Mass on Easter Sunday, and news reporters were impatiently requesting interviews. Our media relations team left him numerous messages and sent him countless emails. We heard nothing in return.
Just as we had given up and were about to head home, my new colleague, Joe DiGiovanni, popped his head into my office. “I’ll try him once more,” he said. “I’ll walk over to the church and see if he Fr. Schlegel is there. This is a really important story.”
A few days later, Joe sacrificed his own Easter and welcomed media to Mass to hear a message that would soon profoundly shape his own life — how to live a life of courage in the face of death. I often marvel at the connection Joe made that day. It was one of the first news stories he worked on at Marquette. Looking back, having watched Joe carry his own heavy cross, I now know that the connection was divine.
Nearly four years later, our friend Joe is leaving us all far too soon. So many of us feel heartbroken and yet, we are so proud to have been a part of his life.
Joe and I worked together, but we spent much of our time talking sports. Just as the late great North Carolina State Coach Jimmy Valvano said at the end of his fight, “Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.” The same was true of Joe. Through his very own story, Joe has taught us all remarkable life lessons. Here are just a few.
I first met Joe on a cold winter day as we hunkered into a booth at Cafe Hollander in Wauwatosa. He was my last interview on what was a long list for an important media relations role at Marquette. The truth is, I already had chosen my candidate. It wasn’t him. Early on, I asked, “What is your approach to sharing news stories?” Joe took me back 25 years to August 27, 1990. He had my immediate attention.
As a young reporter covering an Alpine Valley concert featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe found himself in the middle of a major national news story. It was his perfect gig, he told me, as he loved few things more than a summer night’s concert.
Soon after the concert, Vaughan’s helicopter tragically crashed into a hill. Reporters scurried to the scene and were clamoring to share the news. This was long before cell phones existed, and the only way to report the news was to call in a story from the scene. Realizing the immense competition of reporters surrounding him, Joe spotted just one pay phone and ran over and taped an out of order sign onto it.
He then walked back to the scene, gathered the facts, wrote the story and walked back to the phone booth. He calmly took off the out of order sign, picked up the phone (that was in perfectly fine working order) and called the Associated Press headquarters. Minutes later, the entire world learned of the story.
Joe knew a good story and had a “nose for news” as they say in the old school journalism newsrooms where he grew up professionally. Recognizing his gift, one of our colleagues nicknamed him the media whisperer. And for the hundreds of Marquette media stories we watched him work, it was always his personal stories that we enjoyed the most.
Thank you, Joe, for teaching us the art of storytelling.
I am often amazed that I only knew Joe for four years. I never lived through the times he opened up his dad’s bar as a teenager at 5:30 a.m. — the Kishwaukee Tap in Rockford, Illinois — but I felt like I did. I never sat in the dugout with him as he meticulously mapped his daughter’s pitches, but I felt his intensity, and thanks to Joe, I know how hard Genevieve throws.
And, I wasn’t with Joe during most of the Catholic school basketball games as he roamed the sidelines at St. Jude, but I loved reliving the play-by-play analysis every Monday morning.
I’ll forever treasure the games Joe coached my nephew and the one game I was lucky enough to coach against him (he crushed our team, of course).
Thank you, Joe, for your passion for teaching kids how sports intersect with life.
Flashback to the end of Joe’s interview on that frigid winter day, and I vividly recall his answer to my hardest question.
“What intangibles do you bring that aren’t on your resume?” I asked.
He hesitated. He was reluctant to talk about himself.
“ I ran my book company for more than 10 years,” he said. He went on to tell me about his many challenging days and how often he’d load thousands of books himself, no matter the weather. For years, he worked 12 hour days. “The intangible I bring is that I never missed a single day of work,” Joe said.
I was sold. Like so many others attracted to Joe’s magnetism and selflessness, I quickly grew to love him. Joe’s intangible provides a window into his remarkable courage. He taught us to always show up for work when you can.
I still often think about his final day of chemo after a brutal months-long stretch. His doctor was clear — he told Joe to take two days off to rest after his final appointment. Joe showed up to work two hours after the final drip entered his body.
As he walked down the hallway, I stood beside him stunned.
“Hey, Joe. How are you doing? You should go home,” I said.
It was one of the few times I saw him get emotional in his battle. Water pooled at the bottom of his eyelids. Staring right at me, he said, “I need to be here.”
Thank you, Joe, for fighting the good fight with a spirit that I will forever carry with me.
Three years into his stage four cancer diagnosis, the days for Joe were getting so much harder. But, each time I asked him how he was doing, he’d respond with the most authentic enthusiasm. “I’m doing great,” he’d always say with a big grin.
It was now October 2018 and the moment for Joe was too big to miss. Despite moving much slower and the pain now overtaking his body, Joe requested to cover the Brewers playoff game for the Associated Press — his favorite moonlighting job. After working a full day at Marquette, nobody would have blamed him if he would have just called in. But, this was his team and he had to be there for the fall classic.
For years, he secretly rooted for the Brew Crew so that he wouldn’t upset his father who was a die-hard Cubs fan. And for nearly two years, he and his wife looked for the perfect home in the shadows of Miller Park. That way, he could sneak down to the games with his family or convince an usher to let him in after the kids were in bed.
On this day, Joe struggled mightily to make it from the press box to the locker room. But, nothing would stop him.
He covered the story of his beloved Brewers winning in the playoffs and walked all the way down to the field to get a picture of it all. It was a walk that had to feel like miles.
Thank you, Joe, for teaching us all to cherish and savor every moment.
I overheard the soft conversation on May 25, 2018 as I rested against the wall in the hospital hallway just outside his door. I was visiting Joe at night when his family rushed into the room and I quickly snuck out to allow them time.
“You look so beautiful, Genevieve,” I heard Joe say to his 14-year-old daughter who was on her way to her grade school graduation at St. Jude. Earlier that week, Joe had told me how much he was looking forward to celebrating her milestone, and I was crushed for him to have to miss it.
“I am so proud of you. You have accomplished so much these past eight years,” he said.
“Thank you, dad,” she whispered back.
Fifteen minutes later, on my car ride home with tears clouding my vision, I replayed the conversation in my head. I recalled all of the times Joe told me how proud he was of his son’s acceptance to Marquette and his wife’s success in her new job.
That is when it struck me.
In that brief encounter in the hospital with his daughter just before her graduation, Joe never said one word about himself or his condition. He never said he was sorry that he couldn’t be there or that he wished he felt better. Joe knew that this beautiful moment was about his daughter.
Thank you, Joe, for teaching us that it is not about you.
Joe taught us so many more life lessons. He showed us that attitude wins each day — with his “happy to do it” hard hat approach. And, most importantly, he taught us how to live for each moment.
My last connection with Joe was on Christmas night. He had been on my mind all day and so I sent him a quick text. “Merry Christmas to you, too…” he replied. “I’ve had a great day with my family!”
The guy always had a way of making my heart smile.
On the heavy afternoon on January 8, when we learned that Joe was in a better place, his closest colleagues and friends gathered in a tiny chapel in Zilber Hall on the Marquette University campus roughly 30 steps from Joe’s office. We were all heartbroken, and yet so grateful to have known this remarkable man. Marquette President Michael Lovell rearranged his schedule to be a part of the group and spoke.
“People remember you for how you lived when you are at the end of your life,” President Lovell said. “Character is revealed in your darkest hour. And, I was always amazed with Joe’s positive approach to life every day.”
Joe, my dear friend…. I will miss you so very much. Thank you for teaching us all how to live well, and for showing the world what courage looks like.