Aug. 31, 2016
By John Heisler
The four gentlemen meet at noon every Wednesday for lunch.
They gather at the same local establishment, sit in the same booth and sit in the exact same seats every week.
They casually refer to themselves as the ROMEO group. That stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out.
In the corner on one side of the table is former University of Notre Dame head football coach Ara Parseghian, who has continued to call South Bend home since he retired after the 1974 Irish season. Next to him is Art Decio, a longtime ultra-successful Elkhart, Indiana, businessman and an emeritus member of the University’s Board of Trustees.
On the other side is Roger Valdiserri, the former Notre Dame associate athletics director and sports information director who worked side by side with Parseghian during his tenure (1964-74) with the Irish. Next to him is Jim Gibbons, a former Irish baseball and basketball player and coach who served nearly four decades as Notre Dame’s director of special events and also spent many years doing television analysis of Irish and other college basketball games.
All four are long since retired. All four are in the neighborhood of 90 years old. None are likely to run a marathon any time soon. As the saying in the current commercial goes, they know a thing or two because they’ve seen a thing or two.
The ROMEO group began its noontime conclaves about eight years ago (in Parseghian’s estimation). Given the men’s connections, all four still pay rapt attention to the Irish sports scene-and the Notre Dame landscape in general. A good portion of their lunchtime conversation revolves around the fortunes of Irish athletic teams and the personalities that go with them.
They aren’t shy about expressing their opinions-and they don’t mind sticking the needle in each other on occasion.
Gibbons is the most recent addition to the ROMEO table. He filled the seat of Mike DeCicco after the former Irish hall of fame fencing coach died in 2013. DeCicco, in turn, had taken over the chair of former Notre Dame football offensive coordinator Tom Pagna, who passed away in 2010.
Those circumstances naturally prompted Gibbons (with tongue halfway in cheek) to suggest to his lunch mates that maybe they were trying to tell him something by assigning him to the seat formerly occupied by Pagna and DeCicco.
That brought a brief tear to the eye of Valdiserri, who listed DeCicco as his closest friend-yet it also elicited a hearty laugh from the entire group.
These weekly gatherings give the quartet a chance to catch up on the events of the world and those on campus. This is a chance for the four to let their hair down a bit and say what they think.
All four were once on the firing line at Notre Dame-yet they’re no longer worried about being quoted anywhere. The four readily acknowledge that, at their ages, one of their greater interests in reading the local newspaper is to check the obituaries. Reality suggests they are not immune to health woes, nor are many of their colleagues and contemporaries.
One one recent summer Wednesday, the talk turns to college football. There’s almost always some discussion of Notre Dame fortunes, with the 2016 season on the horizon. The ROMEO group is happy to offer solutions to the world’s problems-or provide views on any other current subject.
They’re still sharp and they aren’t beyond a bit of sarcasm, even if it’s all in fun.
On this day Decio is in a suit with a sky-blue tie, having come from a morning function in Elkhart. The other three are dressed casually, Parseghian in a lime-green golf shirt. Decio brings along a handful of matted black-and-white photos of Parseghian from his coaching days.
“I was a young guy back then,” says Parseghian with a wink.
The back-and-forth banter runs the gamut of subjects:
–A hint of national politics, with the conventions then in full swing.
–Irish football recruiting. The 2016 Notre Dame quarterback battle. Predictions on a record for Brian Kelly’s team in the coming season. And just about anything else pertinent relative to Irish football.
–The Henrik Stenson-Phil Mickelson duel on the final day of the British Open. And whether or not Tiger Woods can fight through his health woes to become a major factor again.
–The Cubs and their pitching prospects.
–Notre Dame men’s basketball.
–Irish future football schedules. (Parseghian makes sure his colleagues know his alma mater, Miami of Ohio, comes to Notre Dame Stadium soon.)
In between all this are soup, salad and a little pasta.
Considering the careers these four man have had, it’s not surprising to hear the laundry list of names that are mentioned in the course of lunch.
Terry Brennan. Hank Stram. Jim Finks. Ralph Guglielmi. Pat Haden. Paul Dietzel. George Ratterman.
With every name comes a story (or two).
Not long ago Parseghian had been asked to pick his quarterback-between Terry Hanratty, Joe Theismann and Tom Clements-if he had one game to play for the national championship.
The ever-savvy Parseghian’s response? “What team am I playing?”
A couple of people recognize the former Irish football coach and stop to greet him. But mostly the wide-ranging conversation prevails.
What’s noteworthy about these weekly sessions isn’t the soup or even the conversation.
More remarkable is that the relationships and friendships between these four individuals have lasted, literally, decades and absolutely stood the test of time. They’ve been friends, they’ve celebrated each other’s professional accomplishments-and they’ve supported each other in some tough times (two of the ROMEO group lost their spouses).
All four have played integral roles at Notre Dame-and it’s impossible to miss their passion for the University when they get together.
After 90 minutes most of the world’s problems have been appropriately analyzed and solved.
The retired old men eating out will be back next Wednesday to do it all over again.