By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 1, 2016
ATLANTA—Tom Novack was once so unfamiliar with St. Pius X High School that he called a newspaper editor for directions though he lived only two miles away. But now, after some 24 years of volunteering on campus, he hates leaving the place.
“We’ve been blessed far beyond what we do,” he said. “The greatest thing in the world is family and being part of something. Every day has been a blessing being there. It’s such a great place.”
The school is celebrating this weekend what Novack has meant for decades to the student body of nearly 1,000 high schoolers and their families. Volunteer coordinator and game manager at St. Pius, there is little of the high school athletics program he has not touched and supported, from weekly runs to buy hundreds of hamburgers for the concession stands and organizing dozens of parents to serve the food to establishing a scholarship for worthy athletes.
School athletic director Mark Kelly said Novack taught students and their families every time he stepped on campus.
“The greatest teaching tool you have is your life. In that essence, he is the ultimate teacher,” Kelly said. “It’s a misnomer to say what he meant to the athletic department. He is just a gift to the school.”
The school community is saluting Novack’s contributions as he steps back from his role at the school. A tailgate party on Friday, Sept. 2, with free hotdogs, popcorn and drinks, will kick off a home game, where Novack will serve as an honorary captain of the football team, along with other awards.
The celebration comes as he steps back from volunteering at the school. He will be less hands-on as he dedicates his time to caring for his ailing wife.
Moved to tears on first visit
A Wisconsin native, Novack’s parents ran a tavern. He said the demands of keeping the food hot and the drinks flowing kept his mom and dad from being a big part of his life.
“We never really ate a meal together because someone had to be at the bar,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table.
He found companionship among his teammates playing high school football, where he put his burly frame to use as a fullback and on the offensive line. He and his wife of 50 years, Joanne, did not have children so when he retired from Bell South in the early 1990s, he said St. Pius X High School offered a way for him to rekindle his enjoyment of high school sports and watch young people mature, all knitted together with his lifelong faith. The couple worship at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta.
After more than two decades of volunteering on the campus, the thrill has not faded.
“I feel like now I’m a grandparent,” said Novack, who is 77. “I’m like a kid going to the circus. I know I’m going to see things I haven’t seen before. I’m going to have a good time.”
He remembers his first trip to Pius as if it were yesterday. He was alone, early for the game. Someone handed him a drink and a hot dog, saying welcome. He heard a teenaged cheerleader yell to her father in the stands, “I love you.” An invocation was prayed before kickoff. The atmosphere of the place moved him to tears, or as he said, someone would have thought he had a bad allergy reaction. That was 1991 and by the spring of 1992, he was deep into coordinating volunteers.
Beyond that primary role, he has served in many others, as assistant freshman football coach, coordinator of the annual Athletic Association Golf Tournament, and ad sales coordinator for the athletic program media guide.
“I did everything I thought could help parents,” he said, adding, “I just admired those folks” for being involved in their children’s lives in ways his parents were not.
When his mom died in 2000, he thought about how best to honor her. The Elizabeth Mary Novack Scholarship now helps worthy athletes from single-parent households to attend St. Pius by providing tuition aid.
“She was never involved when I was a kid. Now she’s involved with all the kids,” he said.
“It was a perfect match”
Kelly, the longtime athletic director, recalled that he first met Novack at a playoff baseball game in Stockbridge when Novack drove there to support the team and chat about helping at the school.
“Pius has never been the same,” Kelly said. “He’s just become part of the school.”
Novack’s home is filled with baseball memorabilia, signed photos and baseballs of Hall of Famers. He remains a loyal Chicago Cubs fans. Rooms are also decorated with a varsity letter given to him and his wife by the school. Former Pius players—some old enough now to have children of their own—captured in photos during their time on the gridiron share shelf space with a bobble-head doll of Msgr. Richard Lopez, another mainstay at the archdiocesan Catholic high school.
His familiar presence on campus endeared him to many, both parents and students. Families would invite him to their home for meals long after their children had graduated. A Pius student gave him a gift he treasures.
“Not being a dad, I got my first Father’s Day card. I kept the card. I’ll never forget it,” he said.
People who know Novack say he would put in some 50 hours a week, if necessary, to pull together all the needed parts to make the organization work. It takes a lot of people and planning to run the concession stands during competitions, where a home football game could pull in some $10,000 selling $2 and $3 snacks.
Game days, he’d get going by 7 a.m. to do the shopping and there would be different waves of volunteers and parents to get the place ready for the 7 p.m. kickoff. With his Wisconsin roots, Novack said he kept an eye on the sausage, making sure the meat got its beer bath with onions. “We took special care of the bratwurst.”
Chip Wood volunteered with Novack since his own three sons attended St. Pius in the 1990s. The two shopped at Sam’s Club to buy overflowing amounts of food on game day. Each time, a store clerk would count individual hot dog rolls, each box of hamburgers, each individual item, Wood said.
“Checking out of Sam’s was Tom’s purgatory he endured for St. Pius,” he said.
Novack was always focused on helping the school, said Wood. When someone objected to the food prices, he said, Novack reminded her, “We aren’t selling hot dogs. We are supporting St. Pius.”
“It was a perfect match,” Wood said. “I don’t know who gained more because of the perfect match. His heart grew bigger and bigger for St. Pius.”