'Hold me in Your Thoughts'
For 39 years, Joe Piane guided the University of Notre Dame’s track and cross country teams, winning 26 conference championships, tutoring 189 Irish All-Americans and claiming more coach-of-the-year and coaching-staff-of-the-year plaques than he could hang on his office walls.
But when Piane surprised even those closest to him by announcing his retirement in late May 2014, he was more than ready to begin the next chapter in his book of life. After all, he and his wife Mimi had a long bucket list, and the itch to start scratching off those items was getting impossible to ignore.
The couple, who had met at an NCAA track meet in Provo, Utah, in 1982, were building their dream home on Eagle Lake in Edwardsburg, Michigan, tearing down a small cottage they had owned for years and replacing it with a beautiful house full of windows for an unencumbered view of the water. Sticklers for detail, Joe and Mimi left no stone unturned in creating the perfect “retirement” enclave. There were two decks—including one off the master bedroom where they could sit, talk and enjoy their morning coffee before embarking on another day. The house even included a small elevator that Joe loved showing to visitors, saying he and Mimi would use it when they grew old and feeble and could no longer navigate the stairs.
They also were putting their dog-eared passports to even more use. Joe and Mimi loved to travel and along with their son Nick, had been to almost every continent—at least once. Retirement now allowed them to leisurely explore the places they treasured or had yet to visit without having to look at the calendar. There were no more track practices, meets or recruiting calls to make—and no more projects, meetings and deadlines awaiting Mimi, who had spent 24 years as the director of the media center and a student advisory leader at The Stanley Clark School. The time they had was all their own.
That first fall Joe and Mimi spent two weeks in Italy before cruising west across the Atlantic back to the states. That February, they rented an apartment in Florence for a month, just around the corner from the Duomo and a short walk to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David. There were other shorter jaunts to visit friends and family. The next fall brought another sojourn to Italy and in February a month in Spain. That spring they visited Oregon and in the summer it was Mackinaw Island. Scheduled next on the docket, after son Nick would leave for the U.S. Navy in October, was another fall trip to Italy, followed by a highly anticipated winter visit to the South Pacific.
Stay away from the future
Back away from the light
It's all deranged - no control
Sit tight in your corner
Don't tell God your plans
It's all deranged
—“No Control” by David Bowie
On the morning of August 11, 2016, Mimi went for a short bike ride, while Joe was helping as a volunteer coach at cross country practice at nearby Edwardsburg High School.
Joe came home. Mimi didn’t.
She died after being hit by a car on U.S. 12, less than a mile from that idyllic house, where the travel books Mimi was studiously plowing through to plan their upcoming trip lay on the bench across from the front door. The night before, they had celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary.
“Joe and Mimi had a unique relationship,” said longtime friend Robin Douglass, who spent 21 years as the headmaster at The Stanley Clark School. “They accepted each other the way they were.
“They truly were each other’s best friend.”
“This may sound corny, but they completed each other,” observed Kathy Aragon, who along with her husband Chuck, one of Joe’s former runners, thought so much of the Pianes that they asked them to be godparents to two of their three daughters.
Joe’s days became long, but his nights were even longer.
After Nick left for boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago, Joe filled his hours as best he could—eating lunch and dinner with friends, playing a round of golf when weather permitted, attending a Cubs’ playoff game, watching the Irish play football and basketball. During the winter, he took a Spanish class, hoping to reacquaint himself with a language he learned during his long ago days in the Peace Corps.
“When something awful happens, you have a choice in how you deal with it,” Piane said.
“I couldn’t go back. I somehow had to move forward.
“Some days were awful. Other days were okay.”
So he turned to the things that had always brought him joy—track, friends and travel.
After he retired from Notre Dame, Piane decided he wanted to stay involved in the sport that had given him a rewarding career, an overflowing Rolodex containing the phone numbers of friends from all walks of life and a chance meeting with the woman who turned out to be the love of his life.
So he called Kevin Dean, the athletic director at Edwardsburg (Michigan) High School and volunteered his services.
Kevin Bartz, who has taught biology at the school for 29 years and also coaches the Eddies’ football team, had just added track to his inventory of responsibilities and admitted he didn’t know much about coaching the distance events. When his athletic director told him about Piane’s offer, Bartz thought he’d won the lottery.
“I said, ‘Yeah, right, sure.’ I couldn’t believe it. But we had lunch with Joe at the old Lunkers and talked for a long time. He wanted to stay involved and give back. We were a little intimidated by his experience and track knowledge, but Joe makes you feel as if he’s been your friend forever . . . even though you’ve just met him. For him to volunteer to help kids he didn’t know. . . kids who weren’t elite athletes . . . well, that tells you what a phenomenal guy he is.”
Piane originally just helped with the Edwardsburg boys’ and girls’ track teams, but eventually added cross country to his “duties.”
“I really missed practice and the meets,” Piane said. “I didn’t miss recruiting. It’s been fun and interesting to see the sport from a different perspective.”
Unless he’s out of town, Piane is there every practice and every meet, rain or shine, warm or cold. The one thing he won’t do is ride on a yellow school bus to away meets.
“Those were made for 8-year-olds,” he said.
Edwardsburg cross country provided a routine and a refuge in those first few weeks after Mimi died, if only for a couple hours a day.
“Joe and Mimi had really embraced the Edwardsburg community after they retired,” said Bartz. “And the Edwardsburg community embraced them.”
Piane’s foray into high school sports also taught him a thing or two about today’s young people.
Usually quick with a quip, Piane was left speechless when a female member of his track team told him she wouldn’t be at practice the next day. “Why?” asked her coach, who thought he had heard it all in over 40 years of coaching. But he could offer no retort when she explained she was getting a spray tan for the prom and working up a sweat would ruin her newfound glow.
Another student was 45 minutes late for practice. When he finally arrived, Piane asked again, “Why?”
“Coach, it was raining, and I had to take the pigs in,” said the earnest young runner.
“Never heard those at Notre Dame,” said Piane with a chuckle.
Bartz believes Piane’s work with the Eddies has helped the students on the track and cross country teams in immeasurable ways.
“His coaching has certainly helped many kids, including my own daughter, improve their performances, but his presence has taught them more about commitment and loyalty and dealing with adversity,” Bartz said. “Most of the kids are in awe of him.”
Except for the freshman who asked Piane, “So, coach, is it true you coached at Notre Dame? Were you any good?”
After graduating from Loras College where he ran track and cross country, Piane joined the Peace Corps. In 1970 he coached those sports in Morocco, developing a love and appreciation for other cultures and people around the world as well as creating a lifelong wanderlust that Mimi embraced and shared.
In 2013 Joe heard that two students from Morocco had been accepted into the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars program at Notre Dame. He reached out to its staff and offered whatever help and support he and Mimi could provide.
When Khaoula Morchid and Hind Ourahou arrived in the United States, Joe and Mimi, along with Joan Martel Ball, now program director of the Inspired Leadership Initiative at Notre Dame but at the time a member of the Hesburgh-Yusko staff, were there to greet them.
“The minute the young women stepped off the plane, Joe and Mimi embraced them as their daughters,” said Ball. “No one has taken the role of host family and served in the parental role as generously and as seriously as the Pianes did. Their appreciation for another culture and their dedication to supporting students were inspiring.”
Joe and Mimi, who were certified as host families by the African Leadership Foundation, often had Khaoula and Hind, both Muslims, over for dinner and would order halal meats from Chicago so they could enjoy a meal respectful of their religion, tradition and culture.
“The Pianes were my second family away from home and I love them dearly,” said Morchid, who graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in engineering and is now enrolled in graduate school at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
“They made two strangers feel like family from the first day I met them. As an international student, they introduced me to various aspects of American culture and having been to Morocco before, they were aware of some of the cultural differences and guided me to embrace both. They truly cared about me and that meant so much.”
Even after Mimi died, Joe continued to keep a watchful eye over their two “Moroccan daughters.” And he was there for their graduation in May 2017.
“I miss Mimi a lot and it was hard not to have her around last year. But it was a lot harder for Joe and Nick,” said Morchid.
“Having Joe at my graduation along with my parents was such a special moment and at the end, he came to say goodbye and said ‘Mimi will be proud of you,’ and that was the most emotional part of the day for me.
“Mimi and Joe were the first to share Thanksgiving celebrations with me, to introduce me to Christmas cookies and let me decorate them. I will miss that this Thanksgiving and Christmas season.”
But embracing others into their family circle was what Joe and Mimi had practiced for years. Just ask Kathy Aragon.
“By 1992, they’d been hoping to have a child for a while when our first daughter Alexa was born,” said Kathy. “They had so much love to share with a child; we knew they would be loving, caring godparents for our little Alexa and decided to ask Joe and Mimi to fill that role in her life. Two years later Danielle, our middle daughter, and Nick, Joe and Mimi’s son, were born. Once Nick came into their lives, we shared the parenthood experience with them and Nick called our girls cousins.”
Joe’s relationship with the two oldest Aragon daughters took on a new meaning years later when both enrolled at Notre Dame and participated in track and cross country.
“Joe has always been a stickler for rules, living by the book in everything he said and did related to track,” said Kathy. “He was a stickler about following NCAA guidelines; soon he would have to deal with a conflict as his goddaughter, Alexa, would wind up selecting Notre Dame as her college of choice. Of course, Joe immediately reported his ‘pre-existing relationship’ to the NCAA compliance office. Alexa was now running for “Uncle Doe” as she’d called him as a toddler.
“Joe, by the time Alexa arrived (2010), had a more authoritative relationship with his athletes than he did back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when he was one of the guys. It took over a year for the other kids in track to figure out that she was his goddaughter (someone spied a middle school picture of her on his desk and noticed the likeness).
“Alexa, Joe and Mimi continued to grow in their special relationship with one another during her years at Notre Dame. With Mimi nurturing her, we parents had nothing to worry about as we sent her off to college. Her sister Danielle arrived two years later and shared a similar experience of love and connectedness at Notre Dame because of Joe and Mimi.”
Joe Piane has never met a stranger. Just ask Robin Douglass.
Douglass and Piane were on a trip east, moving Douglass’s boat. They stopped for the night, and Piane disappeared for about 45 minutes. When he finally returned, he explained that he had wandered down to the dock looking for a local to provide a good recommendation for a restaurant for dinner. He got one.
“So we start walking toward the restaurant, and a police car pulls up, the window goes down, and the chief of police says, ‘Hey, Joe, hop in, I’ll give you guys a ride.’ That’s how Joe is—he’s so congenial, he fits in anywhere.”
Kathy Aragon can attest to that since the Aragons and the Pianes shared several family adventures and trips to places across the U.S., Canada and Greece.
“Every trip we took with them, Joe made friends along the way learning about where people were from, what brought them to work in one or another of the national parks that we visited or what brought them to work in whatever restaurant we happened to be eating.”
Bruce Konstant, managing director of institutional investments at US Trust/Bank of America in Chicago, has known Piane for years since his days as an undergraduate at Notre Dame.
“Joe has spent a lifetime of creating a network of friends, and he and Mimi made friends their family. Joe has one sibling and Mimi was an only child so I think that’s one reason they just embraced their friends as family. As Nick grew up, he always called Joe and Mimi’s friends aunt and uncle so he always had this great extended family. He still does.”
Everyone who knew the Pianes knew of Mimi’s love of books and that she was a walking encyclopedia. Joe was just as curious about things, but he learned by asking questions.
“Joe always expressed interest in what people were doing and asked a lot of questions,” said Konstant. “And he’d remember what he heard because he listened. Someone once said, ‘One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.’ That’s Joe.”
The pain never really goes away, the loss is always there. Life will never be the same, but it can again be good.
Piane is staying involved with cross country and track in a variety of ways—coaching the Eddies and occasionally serving as a track “judge” and “official” at NCAA conference meets.
He’s also traveling with friends—both old and new—including a three-week stay last August in France where he enrolled in an intensive French class.
He’s doing what he—and Mimi—have always done, making the most of every moment, ensuring that friends and family feel valued and loved, searching for new experiences and adventures and most of all, sharing the laughter and sorrow that life brings.
Hold me in your thoughts
Take me in your dreams
Touch me as I fall into view
When the winter comes
Keep the fires lit
And I will be right next to you
— “Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon