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NDSP director Rakow dies at 55

Kate Antonacci | Thursday, March 8, 2007

Eighteen months and one day after doctors told Rex Rakow he had 12 to 18 months to live, the Notre Dame Security/Police (NDSP) director died at his home in Granger, Ind. He was 55.

“That was the type of fighter he was,” Rakow’s wife Linda wrote in a note that Coordinator of Event Security Cappy Gagnon shared with The Observer.

Rakow, a Mishawaka native and NDSP’s leader for over 30 years, was diagnosed with cancer in September 2005.

“I think of Rex and I think of St. Francis who said something about preaching the Gospel and using words when necessary,” said Associate Director of NDSP Phillip Johnson. “Rex lived his life as a Catholic, as a model for all of us. We’re lucky to have had Rex cross our paths in life.”

Johnson, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, first met Rakow while a student at the University.

“I had parked my car in B2 late one night. I was a photographer so I had gone to the back of the car to grab the camera from the trunk,” Johnson said. “Rex was on patrol and he asked me if I wanted a ride back to my dorm, and we developed a friendship that lasted many, many years.”

Such friendships blossomed between Rakow and countless other people, many cultivated while he served as director of campus safety office at Albion College, as adjunct instructor of criminal justice at Indiana University in South Bend, as a member of the Indiana Law Training Board and as a leader at NDSP for over three decades.

Johnson said he spent Wednesday reviewing e-mails from colleagues from “New England to California, Colorado to Washington” all speaking about the great respect they had for Rakow – a man Johnson said lived for his “faith, family and friends.”

“He truly made not only Notre Dame, but our profession, a better place. I have so many messages that have crossed my desk today,” Johnson said, noting one from a classmate of Johnson’s who spoke about the accomplishments of NDSP under Rakow that he saw firsthand as a NDSP employee in his undergraduate years.

Rakow was known for his “great sense of humor” and his quiet leadership style, Johnson said.

“He was a terrific professional who had that rare ability to make people like him so he could be effective in a job where you have to say no to a lot of people,” Gagnon said. “He was such a good professional with such a good demeanor.”

Gagnon and Rakow were friends before Rakow became Gagnon’s boss, bonded by a similar sense of humor – a bond that lasted them through the years.

Gagnon said he and Rakow would talk throughout the week about two shows they always watched – “NYPD Blue” and “Monk.”

“A fond memory is just sitting in his office and laughing,” Gagnon said.

Many fond memories of Rakow also have to do with his dedication to service, Johnson said.

“He was a true servant leader,” Johnson said. “Rex really was a great teacher, a great mentor to many people.”

After being diagnosed with cancer, Rakow was named co-chairman of Notre Dame’s American Cancer Society Relay for Life, an event he had been active in prior to his illness.

“He was active in many philanthropic activities. Rex was a person who just thought that the way to make the community a better place was by being active,” Johnson said. “Rex thought he was just doing what all of us should be doing in serving not only Notre Dame but our community and serving others.”

Rakow worked until early January, when he took a leave of absence from his position.

“He basically worked every day until it was too debilitating for him to come in,” Gagnon said.

Since 1979, when he first joined NDSP as an assistant director, Rakow worked hard to improve the safety of the University he so deeply loved.

“When he came here, he was a young man in his profession and we were just a security department,” Gagnon said. “Throughout his career here, he oversaw the department as it went from a security department to a police department.”

Harold Burke-Sivers, director of public safety at Portland University and president of the Western Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, remembers Rakow from his time as a full time-officer and student at Notre Dame from 1985-89.

“My decision to pursue a career in public safety and dedicate my life to serving university students is a direct result of Rex’s leadership and mentoring,” Burke-Sivers said in an e-mail to Johnson shared with The Observer. “Rex was a truly consummate professional, a good friend and a loving husband and father. He made a difference in my life and in the lives of so many others.”

Burke-Sivers said he was able to visit Rakow at his home in mid-February, where he thanked him for his “guidance, encouragement and support over the last 22 years.”

“We often don’t have the opportunity to tell people how much they mean to us, so this was a real blessing,” he wrote.

Last year, the Alumni Association also told Rakow how much he meant to the community by awarding him the 2007 James F. Armstrong Award for service by an employee to the University. He also received an award by the student government for his outstanding service to the campus community.

“He is not someone who liked or needed the limelight,” Gagnon said. “He didn’t need awards to make himself feel good. But I’m sure the recognition received helped him recognized how much he was appreciated.”

In 2006, Rakow was also made an honorary member of the Notre Dame Monogram club – a fitting award for a man who intensely followed Notre Dame men’s and women’s basketball and had a passion for golf.

“I used to kid him [that] he owned 50 sets of golf clubs,” Gagnon said.

An alumnus of Clay High School in South Bend, Rakow graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington and received graduate degrees from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and Notre Dame. He also completed the FBI National Academy’s 13-week management training program in 1983.

Rakow is survived by wife Linda, children Derek and Stacy, their spouses, four grandchildren, a brother and sister, and his mother.

Visitation will be held at the Hahn Funeral Home in Mishawaka from noon to 8 p.m. Friday. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Memorial contributions can be made to the Center for Hospice and Palliative Care or The Cross in the Woods in Indian River, Mich.

Ken Fowler contributed to this report.