John Schael, then the associate athletics director at the University of Chicago, was sitting in his office on a July afternoon in 1977, when a few students asked him to clear the gym for them. Members of the community were using the basketball court. The students normally didn’t mind, but now they wanted to play and couldn’t.
“That’s the last thing you want to do as an administrator,” Schael says 37 years later with a chuckle. He went to the gym, introduced himself, and politely explained that he would need to see school IDs for anyone who wanted to continue to play. One of the men who was leaving told Schael that after getting dressed, he would like to stop by his office.
Schael was a little worried the man had a complaint, but when he showed up at Schael’s office a half hour later, he extended his hand.
“Young man, I just want to say how pleased I was with the way you handled that situation upstairs,” he said. “My name is Paul Smith. I’m the executive vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis, and we’re looking for an athletics director. Would you be interested?”
A stunned Schael stammered out a yes and as soon as Smith left, Schael called his wife. “You’ll never believe what happened today!”
Schael was hired in 1978. At the time, the athletics department was made up primarily of part-time staff. The facilities were 60 years old.
“There were lots of naysayers,” Schael recalls. “They said things like, ‘You’ll never be able to change this department.’”
But more people at the university and in the St. Louis community backed Schael. “We wanted the program to reflect Washington University, be respected by others within the community and enhance the experiences of students,” Schael says.
Schael had always believed that the strength of a program lies with its people, and from his experience with Smith, he knew that the way one treats others matters. So Schael worked hard to forge great relationships and build a dedicated, full-time staff.
“John clearly has an eye for good talent,” says Justin Carroll, associate vice chancellor for students and dean of students. “He has surrounded himself with people who are very high achievers. John has an incredible work ethic. I know no one who puts in more time for Wash. U. than John.”
Schael oversaw the $15 million renovation of the Athletic Complex from 1983 to 1985. He also was behind the addition of the McWilliams Fitness Center to the Athletic Complex, the creation of the Washington University Hall of Champions in 2002 and the installation of UBU turf on Francis Field.
Over the course of his tenure, Schael brought men’s basketball back to the university; created the W Club, a fundraising organization; and in 1986, played a key role in forming the University Athletic Association, an eight-member Division III athletic conference made up of leading research institutions, including the University of Chicago, University of Rochester and Carnegie Mellon.
Further, the Bears had sweeping success during Schael’s 36 seasons. But Schael’s legacy is not tallied by wins and losses alone.
“John Schael has built one of the very best scholar-athlete programs in the nation,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “Washington University athletics would not be what they are today without his passion, foresight and great care. For 36 years, he has guided a program that is built on athletic excellence while never losing sight of the fact that our athletes are always students first.”
John Schael was 34 when he started at Washington University. Now, at 70, he’s retiring on June 30. In his office on a warm April morning, he laughs about spending his entire career around 18- to 22-year-olds, but then becomes serious.
“This position has brought tremendous happiness to me as a director,” he says. “And it’s been satisfying to watch the students who have come through the programs. That’s the thing I cherish the most: the students that got involved in our programs. I’m so proud of them and the coaches that provided leadership. So proud of them all.”
Rosalind Early, AB ’03, is associate editor of the magazine.