Francis Xavier Rienzo (Photos courtesy of Georgetown University Athletics)
Francis Xavier Rienzo (Photos courtesy of Georgetown University Athletics)
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Francis Xavier Rienzo, who worked at Georgetown University for 30 years, first as a track coach and later as athletic director, died on Nov. 3 of complications from congestive heart failure. 

Rienzo was born and raised in New York City, along with his six siblings. He attended a Jesuit high school, and from 1957 to 1969, he taught and coached track at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, New York. He built up the track program there to be a national success before moving to Washington to coach at Georgetown, where he was later named the university’s athletic director.

During his time in that role, the number of varsity teams at Georgetown grew from 11 to 26, and Rienzo also led efforts to promote women’s sports and intramurals. Soon after he started as athletic director, the university hired John Thompson Jr. to coach the men’s basketball team, and he led them to win the national championship in 1984. In 1979, Rienzo helped form the Big East Conference, which quickly became a premier conference for college basketball.

But at his funeral Mass on Nov. 8 at St. Bartholomew Church in Bethesda, his family remembered him for different accomplishments.

After his wife, Joan, died in 1997, Rienzo moved in with his daughter, Cecilia Castiello, and her family. While he lived with them, he taught his grandchildren different life skills, such as how to play chess, do the dishes, and pack the car for a road trip, recalled Joan and Anthony Castiello. Those two grandchildren said their “Papa” could turn anything into an educational experience.

“Many people know Papa as Mr. Georgetown,” said Anthony. “He is that and much, much more.”

Joan told the overflowing congregation how her grandpa came to all of her track meets, and would sneak down to the track to coach her through the races. He even inspired a new rule on her team: no grandparents allowed on the track.

“He wanted my siblings and I to be the best versions of ourselves,” said Joan. 

Joan and Anthony also read some reflections from their younger cousins about their grandpa: their four-year-old cousin said, “he made trips to the beach together so much more fun;” their eight-year-old cousin said, “you always had a smile on your face; and Francis Xavier, who is 10, said it was “a great honor to be named after him.” 

Eddie Paquette, another one of Rienzo’s grandchildren, said although he did not have the opportunity to live with his grandpa, he would always feel joy when he turned the corner on his way home from school to see their Papa’s car parked in front of his house.

“As I got older, my times with Papa became more valuable,” he said. “He made his grandchildren, siblings, children and friends feel so unbelievably loved.”

Jesuit Father Kevin Wildes, a former assistant dean at Georgetown, was the main celebrant and homilist for the funeral Mass. Reflecting on St. Francis Xavier, who traveled all the way to the shores of China as one of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s first companions, Father Wildes said Frank Rienzo was not that different from his namesake.

“Many years ago, this young man was emboldened to leave New York and come to the distant land of D.C. to build a program in track and athletics,” said Father Wildes. “He brought the Good News…he did it more in how he lived than in what he said.”

Father Wildes told those gathered at the church that they could carry on Rienzo’s legacy by loving others as he had loved and cared for them throughout his life.

“In knowing him…we have seen God’s grace at work – how God particularly listens to us, how God supports us, how God cares for us,” said Father Wildes. “God’s grace is not magic. God’s grace is lived out in the concrete things of our lives.”

At the conclusion of the Mass, Rienzo’s son, Matthew Rienzo, delivered a eulogy where he reflected on everyone’s “collective luck” in having known his father, whom he called a “true legend,” because of the four children, 16 grandkids, 43 nieces and nephews, and thousands of student athletes whom he had an impact on during his lifetime. 

His dad was dedicated to track and field, but “more importantly, dedicated to the young men entrusted to his care,” said Rienzo, noting that one of his favorite memories was seeing his dad with his arm around an athlete who had given his all in a race and lost. 

In Matthew Rienzo’s own athletic career, he recalled how his dad would always call him the morning after a hard loss to ask, “Well, did the sun come up today?”

But in reflecting on his dad’s life, Rienzo ended on a note of victory, rather than defeat. 

“He ran the race,” said Rienzo. “He won. We all won.” 

And just as they would after a race well run, the congregation gave Frank Rienzo one last standing ovation.