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Eulogy for my ND classmate, Steve Palluca

Gary Caruso | Thursday, September 4, 2008

Thirty-nine years ago this evening, we Notre Dame freshmen from Lyons Hall eagerly trekked across campus to witness our first football pep rally in the old Field House. Ara Parseghian and his players appeared on a balcony as though standing on a cloud above the crowd. The reverberating sounds of the band mixed with the student cheers drowned out any conversation among us. We could merely gesture in jubilation during our exciting experience.

At the rally’s conclusion, we experienced our first “cattle call.” Students pushed so hard and close together during their exit from the building that I and my classmate, Stephen Raymond Pallucca, both jumped up about a foot so that the crowd carried us above the dirt floor without ever touching the ground. Despite my fear of falling under the stampede, Steve marveled at how his 280-pound frame never wavered during the exit. While dropping back to his feet outside he said, “I love the first game of a season.”

We never thought that following our freshman year Steve would only enjoy 38 more opening season game days. Looking back, his life could not have been a more heroic and humorous time mixed with tragedy. He was our campus John Belushi, endearing himself to everyone he met with a reservoir of jokes and entertaining routines. Looking through old photographs, it is remarkable how much he actually did look like Belushi.

The Pallucca family owned a grocery store, and fed Steve’s discriminating pallet with exotic foods. Opening his care packages became a dorm event, anticipating what delicacies awaited discovery … even at the end of his supply. With the premier foods gone, I noticed that the more hungry we were after midnight, the more willing we became to try some of his personal favorites – Kipper Snacks, smoked oysters, sardines and anchovies.

Life with Steve at times was not easy. He smoked Winstons and stayed awake at least until 4 a.m., well past other late-night owls. Steve was a prankster and instigator. Senior year, one early morning after the bars had closed, I opened the door of my single to find the soda machine brightly shinning in my face. Without a beat, I plopped on what was available of my unusable day bed and fell immediately to sleep. My camera’s film revealed the culprits – Steve was among those posing around the machine.

College life for Steve was not all fun and games. Some courses posed problems either in content or as a result of his attitude. A nun at St. Mary’s College chastised him once by saying that he would never get along in life with his attitude. As he further explained, “Failing geometry twice merely proves that I am a student of literature.”

On a whim, Steve assembled a slate and ran for sophomore class president. The campaign turned serious when I lent my efforts to his election. Students today can thank him for breaking the sophomore car restriction by arranging to pave a new lot near Grace Hall. He also led an experimental sophomore parents weekend during football season, complete with hundreds of game tickets for parents. His success got him reelected president junior year.

Steve’s humanity was at times larger than life. He taught me generosity through his charity and apathy of financial gain. Steve’s dad, “Big Ray,” taught Steve a love of mankind and the duty of charity. Raymond would always sign his notes, “Be good, be careful, I love you. Your Old Man.” Together they shared a devotion to Our Lady and her university. Attending Notre Dame was the purpose of Steve’s life. Graduation was the fulfillment of his life’s goal.

Following graduation, Steve attended Washburn law school for a year and a half. He fondly said that he learned to handle mayhem, but not murder. His Catholicism, Italian heritage and rotund physical stature did not fit that campus. I once sent him $5 to “buy a beer” which he showed to a classmate when he had no cash. He said, “Now that is a true friend.”

When asked if he ever had any regrets, Steve replied, “I never filled out a job application.” But I recently found a note describing his application to teach in a high school after our graduation. Eventually Steve settled into a routine which he described, “As a graduate of literature, I have become a maker of books.”

An avid football fan, Steve taught himself how to handicap games. He could bet on an opening point spread, bet against himself as points adjusted, and eventually be guaranteed wins by combining overs and unders – numerical science only a literature student can understand.

The test in Steve’s life came when his father developed Alzheimer’s disease. For nearly a decade, Steve cared for Raymond at the nursing home. He discovered 1940’s sayings like, “hubba hubba,” made Ray laugh. Eventually, Ray did not know Steve but said, “Here comes that man again.”

During this time Steve found refuge in substances. He nearly died 15 years ago with Cardiomyopathy, having been induced into a coma. Steve said that he never remembered anything while in the coma. But he confessed that he prayed to the Lady on the Golden Dome – he would clean himself up if she gave him another chance.

Their agreement ended in early July. Yet he was able to speak with classmates at reunion this spring. Faces beamed as they once did nearly 40 years ago while speaking with him on the phone. Steve was a Kansas classic who became a Notre Dame Class icon.

It is typical of Steve’s life that the last person to see him was in a grocery store. Steve bought the groceries for a town drunk who could barely care for his family through odd jobs. Steve’s love of mankind was no less than angelic for the company he kept was a modern-day version of Gentiles, tax collectors and stray animals.

No doubt, Steve was my best friend from college. I sent him an iPod which he used while riding his bicycle 20 miles a day. My telephone recorded his voice, “It arrived. You are the king, and I salute you!”

No, my friend and classmate – especially during this, your favorite first football weekend – for all of the life lessons you taught me, I salute you.

Gary Caruso is a ’73 alumnus. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.