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Fall 2004


The Tufts Jumbo Club Celebrates 35 Years

Team uniforms, a new field house, a scoreboard in Cousens Gym, new exercise equipment—over the past 35 years, these and other improvements have steadily strengthened Tufts athletics programs thanks to the hard work of the Tufts Jumbo Club.

“The Jumbo Club has meant more to the athletics department than I can express,” said Athletics Director Bill Gehling, A74, G79. “The generosity displayed by the time, effort, and money that they have given is a vital force behind the department.”

On April 3, the Tufts Jumbo Club celebrated its 35th anniversary, with loyal Tuftonians turning out to mark the historic milestone. Among them were Aryn Landau Barer, J91, Todd Romboli, A93, and David Weiss, A82, as well as athletics staff members Don Megerle and Janet Silva, honored with the annual Jumbo Club Awards for their contributions to Tufts athletics. Additionally, the 1986 women’s swimming and diving team, the 1994 baseball team, the 2000 softball team, and the 2000 women’s soccer team were saluted for achieving championship success.

The evening symbolized what 30 founding members had in mind when the club was formed in 1969. With financial support, recognition of teams and individuals, and annual social events, the Jumbo Club has evolved into an institution essential to the athletics experience at Tufts.

It all started when, as an undergraduate, John Baronian, A50, H97, a two-way lineman for the Tufts football team who played for legendary coach Fred “Fish” Ellis, reestablished a varsity club for athletes. Baronian continued to organize events after graduation, especially at Homecoming, but without formal organization or income, interest faded.

Nearly 20 years later, Fred Nickless, A44, G49, the university’s alumni secretary at the time, encouraged Baronian to form an athletics booster club. On March 7, 1969, the Athletics Committee voted to establish the Tufts Jumbo Club and elected William G. “Johnny” Grinnell—who would later be enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame—as its first president. With Baronian gathering members and Nickless writing the bylaws, 133 individuals each paid $10 in dues. Tim Horgan, A49, a popular Boston sports columnist, helped promote the club.

The athletics budget was tight in the 1970s. The Jumbo Club pitched in by donating essential items such as uniforms, scoreboards, and ice machines for the training room. One of the club’s first activities was a banquet honoring Clarence “Ding” Dussault, the longtime coach of the nationally prominent Tufts track team. Seven individuals were presented the first Jumbo Club Awards on April 25, 1970.

“We wanted Tufts to be very respectable in athletics,” Baronian said recently. “We were all very proud of our alma mater and wanted to make sure that our sports teams were competitive, properly equipped, and duly recognized.”

The club realized its true potential as a benefactor in 1986 when it funded a field house to be built at the Ellis Oval and named in honor of Baronian, the “unquestioned stalwart leader and supporter of Tufts athletics,” according to Nickless. Members such as Bill Burns, A52, Ed Sullivan, A52, and Dick Littlefield, A51, raised money with a phone campaign, allowing the university to replace the dilapidated barracks it was using for locker rooms with the new facility that included a meeting room.

The Baronian Field House was the first of many facility enhancements that the Jumbo Club has helped bring to life. Their contributions to the Lunder Fitness Center have provided students with state-of-the-art exercise equipment. The willingness of so many club members to make significant donations for the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center earned praise from Tufts’ development office. This decade the club has averaged $15,000 to $25,000 in special project gifts, such as the new Cousens scoreboard.

The group’s generosity has also been forthcoming at critical times. That was especially the case in the early 1990s when athletics faced a budget cut and had to consider cutting the hockey program. The Jumbo Club, under President John Timmeny, A72, made a substantial donation to set up an endowment fund to help keep the team running.

“Without it, the hockey team never would have made it,” said Ben Sands, the former hockey coach and Jumbo Club president from 2000 to 2002. “We didn’t ask for it. They gave it to us. That saved hockey at Tufts.”

In addition to its many financial contributions, the Jumbo Club is about people. Recognizing Jumbo achievements and gathering Jumbos from all eras are equally important parts of its mission. Nearly 250 individuals have been presented Jumbo Club Awards. Among the social events put on each year are a golf tournament, the Distinguished Achievement Awards reception and ceremony at Homecoming, seasonal receptions for athletes and their families, and a year-end reception for senior athletes.

“It’s really valuable to stay connected to Tufts after graduation,” said Diane Wilcox, J82, an integral member of the club for over 20 years. “I’m good friends with people who graduated 20 years before me and 20 years after me whom I would never have known if not for the Jumbo Club.”

Women were invited to join from the start (Dorie Ellis, J31, and Faith Heneghan, J54, were founding members) and took on leadership responsibilities. Heneghan, Ellis’s daughter and a versatile Jackson College athlete in her own right, was the first female president, 1983–84. Norma Massarotti, E82, led the club 1987–88. Joyce Furman, J87 (1993–94), and Julie Monahan Brady, J89 (1996–98), would follow. The Jumbo Club proved to be more inclusive than many organizations from this era.

“They treated us like their daughters,” Wilcox said. “They saw we had energy and wanted to contribute. We were new blood for the club.”

New blood is exactly what the organization needs. With nearly 1,000 members, the Jumbo Club is the largest alumni group on campus. More than 50 percent of the memberships, however, are graduates from the 1950s or earlier. With the core membership advancing in age, the club is facing a stark reality. It needs to attract more recent graduates to continue making substantial contributions to the Tufts athletics experience. They are hoping that a recently launched new website (www.jumboclub.org), designed by former football player Chris Christoudias, A99, will help in the membership drive. The website allows members to renew memberships, make special project donations, check upcoming events, order Jumbo Club merchandise, and stay in contact with alumni and friends.

“We’re at a point in time where the club is changing cultures, so to speak,” said Matt Penney, A91, the club president from 2002 to 2004. “It’s going from the group of the ’50s who so nicely started it, ran it, and did everything for it to a changing of the guard. We’re hoping that with the website and getting some younger participation, the next 35 years will be just as successful, if not more so.”

Gerry Topping, E00, the club’s new vice president and membership chairman, said several factors make it difficult to increase membership. Today’s generation isn’t as fraternal, evident by the difficulty groups such as the Elks and Knights of Columbus have with recruiting younger members. Donors are also more wary of exactly where their money is going, and graduates with young families are less likely to spend money on club memberships.

With a trend developing in which high schools are cutting entire sports programs to save money, a relatively small university like Tufts that also feels a financial strain may eventually have to look at athletics for cost-cutting measures. The Jumbo Club is needed now more than ever.

“I’ve always felt that athletics in general is a very important part of someone’s development of life skills,” said Todd Driscoll, A96, the incoming club president. “It’s something that I felt helped me tremendously at Tufts. So as a graduate, giving back is just as important as what you got.”

That is the message the club wants to spread to recent Jumbo graduates. Their involvement can make a difference. “I’d be very happy if the Jumbo Club could make a gift that perpetuates itself,” Driscoll said.

Over the past 35 years, the Jumbo Club has helped the athletics department grow, while also preserving Jumbo spirit. The time has come for the club to grow as well, with a new generation of Jumbos picking up the ball and running with it.

“We want people who just love Tufts, who love the Jumbo spirit,” Baronian said. “The warmth and friendship in the club goes beyond sports. It’s an unusual bond that for many of us founders has lasted to this day.”

For more information about the Jumbo Club, visit www.jumboclub.org.