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Sunday Brunch: Remembering Mimi Piane

Aug. 21, 2016

The University of Notre Dame lost a longtime member of its athletics family August 11 when Mimi Piane, wife of former Irish track and field and cross country head coach Joe Piane was killed in a bicycle/car accident near her Edwardsburg, Michigan, home. A Kalamazoo, Michigan, native, Mimi spent 24 years as head of the media center at The Stanley Clark School in South Bend before retiring in 2014. Joe was Notre Dame’s track and cross country coach for 39 years (1975-2014). Karen Croake Heisler, a longtime friend of the Pianes, offered this memorial tribute to Mimi Thursday as part of remarks at the lunch following the funeral.

Good afternoon. I’m Karen Heisler, and–like all of you–I considered myself one of Mimi’s best friends.

Each and every one of us who knew her well believed we were her best friend because she warmly welcomed us into her life. When we were with Mimi, she looked us in the eye and gave us her full attention. She listened carefully to what we had to say, responded thoughtfully, often asking engaging questions because she was genuinely interested in what we did and how we did it. Her vast circle of friends embraced people from all walks of life, yet Mimi made all us feel as if we were the most important person in the world when we were in her presence. She connected with us on our level. She reveled in our successes and good fortune, and she held us close when we were falling apart. She kept our secrets, never passed judgment or held grudges. She loved us for who we were. After spending time with Mimi, we’d leave feeling inspired, safe and loved.

Duke athletic director Kevin White, who has been “best friends” with Joe and Mimi for decades and knew them long before he came to Notre Dame, perhaps said it perfectly in an email to Joe last week: “I have long maintained that the human being that had captured my imagination (Joe) was entirely inspired by Mimi. She possessed a phenomenal spirit that made everyone around her far better than their own images of themselves would even allow.”

Mimi was often the smartest person in the room because she had an insatiable curiosity, an unquenchable thirst for learning, an immense love of books and the ability to remember what she had read. As our friend Pam Meyer said, she learned something every time she was in Mimi’s company. But Mimi was never an annoying know-it-all who always tried to have the last word nor was she boastful or arrogant. She just had this knack for mentioning stuff in conversation and you’d go, “Wow, that’s amazing,” or “Gee, I didn’t know that.” She taught us little things about everyday life – how to close the apps on our iPhone, make her unbelievably tasty burnt butter pasta or understand the nuances of olive oil. Of course, she also was our “go-to” person when we needed a recommendation for a good book – because she had read them all.

Mimi also researched everything–so she knew the best vacuum to buy, what to do on a three-day visit to Dublin and which dog would be the best to have if you needed to leave it alone for long hours. That dog, by the way, would be a Great Dane–which Mimi and Joe had once–for a weekend. But little Bess didn’t last long in the Piane household–Mimi couldn’t bare to leave that sweet puppy alone despite what the research told her, so she found a new family who could give the Great Dane what she thought would be a better home.

Of course, we all learned a lot about Greek culture and cuisine from Mimi, who was very proud of her heritage. And even though she and Joe loved Italy and all things Italian, she never failed to remind Joe and the other Italians in our group that whatever the Italians did–whether it was pizza, olive oil or cheese–the Greeks did it first and did it better.

Mimi also delighted in sharing her knowledge of her parents’ homeland with others. Our friends’ daughter competed in the International Special Olympics in Athens one summer not too long ago. Before their trip abroad, I suggested they call Mimi, who they had met a few times, but did not know well. Mimi didn’t just throw a few recommendations or travel tips their way. She and Joe took the Williams family to dinner and helped them plan their entire journey. She didn’t have to do that–but Mimi never did anything half-heartedly. She always went above and beyond with her kindness, her generosity and her patience. She set the bar high, and we all became better people by watching her example.

We all know Mimi was a terrific mother whose sun rose and set with her son Nick. She must have read him every children’s book ever written, and she made absolutely sure that the Piane family adventures were eye opening, fun and educational. In two months, Nick will begin his service in the Navy–and Mimi was so proud of him. A few years ago, the Navy’s promotional slogan was “Join the Navy–See the World.” Nick, you’ve done it the opposite way–you’ve seen the world with your parents, now you are joining the Navy. I know your mom will be with you every step of the way, helping you chart your course.

Although all of us feel as if we were Mimi’s best friends, we weren’t. We weren’t even close. That honor belonged to Joe.

When Joe returned from the 1982 NCAA Outdoor Track Championships, he couldn’t stop talking about this “great gal” he’d met who lived in Kalamazoo. He raved about her–she was beautiful and smart and fun . . . and she was a librarian. Now that part threw us for a loop since Joe, quite the eligible bachelor in South Bend in those days, had a tendency to date, well, women we often referred to as “saucy vixens.”

But once we met Mimi, we sensed that Joe had truly met his match. He walked on air when she was in town, and we just had this feeling that they truly were soul mates–total opposites in so many ways, but just so in step with each other. They readily ventured into each other’s worlds as they began to build a universe all their own. I’m not sure Joe started reading a lot of books to impress Mimi, but when she bought a boat with Joe and his sister Pam, even though at that time she was not too enamored with boats, we knew it was serious.

Joe had lots of nicknames for Mimi–among them – “my beloved spouse,” “the Meemster” and “Tom,” because she often doubted what Joe was telling her. She’d shake her head and roll those beautiful brown eyes, peer over her glasses and sigh, “Joe.”

Three years after Joe and Mimi began dating, I remember driving somewhere with Joe along Route 23 by University Park Mall–we must have been going to Jeremiah Sweeney’s, that ’80s South Bend hot spot on Grape Road. He said, “You know, if I was going to get married, Mimi would make the perfect wife.” Then he explained all the reasons why–she was beautiful, smart, fun, kind. I replied, “Yes, Joe, she would.” Shortly after that, Joe and Mimi were married, and they celebrated their 31st anniversary–just the two of them–the night before the accident.

After all these years, Joe and Mimi still thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, and the conversation between them was just as lively, engaging and romantic as it was in 1982. It was like they were still dating, still discovering such joy and wonder in each other.

When Joe and Mimi got married, our Notre Dame circle of friends bought them an anchor as a wedding present–and it’s still in use on their boat today. That anchor didn’t tie them down, and it certainly didn’t represent the weight of responsibility that comes with married life and raising a family. I like to think that anchor symbolized the commitment Joe and Mimi long ago made to each other to weather whatever storms life brought their way. The anchor would give them strength and hold them together.

And, to me, that gift signifies that our enduring friendship has truly stood the test of time and distance. Throughout the last three decades we have faced career challenges, health battles, the ups and downs of raising children, the deaths of parents, spouses and friends. We have all been there for each other-always–and that is truly the most remarkable gift of all. We are blessed to have each other and to have had Mimi in our lives.

Joe and Nick, you were the light of Mimi’s life and the true center of her universe. We all thank you for sharing her with us because she truly made us better people in so many ways. She will always be with us, wherever we go.

As the Little Prince explains:

“In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend… I shall not leave you.”