red and blue thread spools

Catholic: Where Everyone Knows Your Name

By Matthew Palmer and Daniel F. Drummond
CatholicU, Spring 2024

Frank Persico, a 1974 and 1976 graduate, feels The Catholic University of America deeply in the core of his soul. Following his years as a staff member and in leadership roles, Persico knows thousands of people who have walked the hallways, rolling hills, dorms, and cafeterias. He can see their faces and nearly all of them are friends.

“I know five decades of people that I can say, I have friends in each decade,” he said. “And they are friends that I could call today or tomorrow.”

Persico, now retired, served as chief of staff, dean of students, and associate dean in the law school (to name a few). He chaperoned alumni trips and worked with student government leaders.

“I got to know them on a personal basis,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many weddings I’ve gone to, and things like that of people who were just students that I knew. It’s people who I can count on anytime.”

When someone asks Persico about what makes the University’s community so unique for forming life-changing friendships, the tears begin to fall. He thinks about his pals from his student, alumni, and staff days over the decades and the drinks shared at the old Rathskeller inside Father O’Connell Hall.

Persico has seen it all. Some friends are gone, many are still here. Thinking about those people and the moments shared on campus fills him with pride and joy.

The University may be home to D.C.’s largest campus, but in no way does it change the close-knit feel that is truly our “secret sauce,” if you ask Persico.

“A lot of schools can say this, but one of the reasons why Catholic is special in terms of friendships is the fact that it’s a small place,” he said. “It’s just a small-town atmosphere in a large-town environment. … People [come] from all over the country, who count on each other’s experiences to improve their lives and enrich themselves.”

Persico said the intimate teacher-student ratio and engaged staff create a tight-knit community in the heart of the nation’s capital. When longtime faculty member Joan Barth Urban passed away, he called a former classmate. Even after five years apart, they picked up as if no time had passed.

Similarly, Persico remembers working for the Columbus School of Law, when he received word that a student’s mother was deathly ill. Persico interrupted a class the student was in to share the news that he had to return home to Kentucky immediately. The student made it in time to say goodbye to his mother, and every year, he sends a Christmas card to Persico.

“It makes me cry,” Persico said. “Those are the types of things that have meaning for you.”

class of 74 reunion
Class of 1974 at the 2014 Tent Party, Cardinal Weekend.

Persico and his friend, the late Mike Murphy, of the class of 1974, were instrumental in creating Murphy’s Grill at the Edward J. Pryzbyla Center. In his final days, Murphy threw a party and pulled Persico aside with his plan to build a successor to the Rat.

“It was one of the places where we had those bonds that really came together,” Persico said. “It’s one of those things that he felt. And I’ll tell you, this man had more friends than you could ever imagine. He felt that Catholic was losing something by not having that kind of a gathering place. He was a political junkie … and he would tell stories, and everybody would chit-chat and he got to know everybody on campus.”

Left to right: Frank Persico, Patricia Murphy-Lynch, and Stephanice Persico.

 Seventeen years later, Murphy’s is an integral part of the community where new friendships continue to form every day.

The stories that follow are just a few examples of lifelong University bonds and how they helped shape alumni connections that still thrive today.

Sisters at Heart … And for Life

Girls Night Out classes from throughout the 1980s, at Irish Inn, Clen Echo, Maryland.

When the women of “Girls Night Out” walked onto campus to begin their studies in the early 1980s, none of them knew they would leave in four years with life-long friends.  

The self-titled group, affectionately and better known as GNO, bonded during first-year orientation, classes, cross country practices, evenings at nearby Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, and on campus at the Rathskeller. 

“We’d be at a meet, come back, and walk straight to The Rat with our smelly uniforms and often with a trophy,” Terry O’Hara Lavoie, B.S. 1987, said.

The common elements were always laughing, dancing, and supporting one another in faith.

They could have easily gone their separate ways after commencement, but as some became mothers and professionals, they realized they needed each other. Most had remained in the Washington, D.C., area to begin the next chapter of their lives. Over the years, the group has expanded to as many as 23 members, some of whom didn’t even cross paths on campus. 

With that new chapter came new relationships, challenges, and opportunities, and often the GNO group became hard to keep intact. 

As Sue Johnson, a 1987 graduate, puts it: “I think being a good friend is a lot of work, if you really want to get good at it. A lot of people say to me, oh you have this group and that group. And I say, ‘because it’s important to me to maintain these friendships.’”

Invites to the GNO get-togethers have marked the progress of communication in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At first, it started as mailed announcement letters. As the late 1990s arrived, emails were the next natural step. With mobile phones now ubiquitous, texts and calls can rally the GNO in a matter of seconds. The Zoom meeting brought 17 of them together in a day, as they shared memories, laughs, and glasses of wine. For them, it’s like a continuance of their time at The Rat, and the stories start flowing.

Nearly 40 years after their undergraduate years, classmates and friends are still meeting up at least once a month at establishments such as The Irish Inn in Glen Echo, Md. The monthly gatherings are sacrosanct, however. No significant others (no matter how much they plead) are invited, except for an annual Christmas party, where children and grandchildren may also attend.

“The significance of GNO is that we depend on each other,” said O’Hara Lavoie. She had children after many of her “sisters” and when she had her first baby, two GNO friends “just showed up in the hospital… I just had a baby and there they were!”

Better than Google

Many have remained in the Washington area in the decades after graduation. Some might meet up for a quick coffee and offer “auntie” advice to each other’s children.

“It’s great because they feel so comfortable talking with my sisters,” Alexis Bakos, B.S. 1986, said. “These are my sisters. So for my children to go to these friends and share some of their deepest emotions to me is a blessing.”

When a GNO member faces a parenting issue — for instance, a child with a learning disability — they know where to turn.

“I don’t go to Google, I go to GNO,” said Bronwyn Haley, who has decades of government leadership experience. “This is the resource if you need medical advice and if you need good, girlfriend advice.”

It’s well-won expertise, as GNO also includes engineers, service industry, and health care professionals. O’Hara Lavoie, for instance, is the co-founder of Culmore Clinic, which provides compassionate medical care, counseling services, and specialty referrals to uninsured adults. Bakos is a program director in the Division of Geriatrics and Clinical Gerontology at the Institute on Aging, where she oversees extramural research on palliative care and symptom science. She previously was appointed to the U.S. House of Representatives Health and Long-Term Care Subcommittee as a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow and served as Congressman Edward Roybal’s Health Legislative Assistant on the House Select Committee on Aging.

Safe Space

Anita Freres, a 1983 graduate, gets emotional when talking about the faith and life journeys of the individuals in the group. While there are decades shared between them, GNO does not have groupthink.

“Everybody is able to voice how they feel, and this gives us that safe space,” Freres said.

No matter the accomplishments or the would-be loves in her life, Bakos has always prioritized the connection with her GNO sisters.

“There was something about Catholic University, a shared values kind of thing, that is so incredibly special,” Bakos said. 

Over the years, parents have aged and encountered deathly illnesses, and spouses have passed away. GNO has been there, every step of the way. 

Karin Schuette Mulquin (B.E.E., 1987) was devastated as her husband, Tom, battled cancer before ultimately dying in 2023. At the time, he was senior director of capital projects at the University. 

Some GNO members shared their medical advice for chemotherapy, provided comfort in Mulquin’s darkest days, and set up camp at their house to provide any resources following her husband’s passing.

“These women were amazing in supporting me,” said Mulquin. “They were part of our cancer journey, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Matt Kurkjian: The Seam of a Team

kukjian and friends
Left: Joe Janela, Matt Kurkjian, and Mark Travaglini shared a laugh at graduation. Right: Chris DiPasquale, Kurkjian, and Travaglini years later at Travaglini’s daughter’s wedding.

 There are exactly 108 stitches on a baseball – but there is only one seam on the ball, with the thread weaving its way through its curvatures. At Catholic University, the late Matt Kurkjian (B.A., Mathematics, 1978) was the seam among his teammates on the University baseball team, his friends, and everyone he touched, connecting them as only he could.

“My brother was the ringleader of everything he did,” said Tim Kurkjian, Matt’s younger brother. “He just pulled everyone together.”

Indeed, he did. Matt, who passed away in September 2023 from ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), played third base on the University’s baseball team from 1974–78. This was a team that almost made it to the NCAA Division I College World Series in 1977. More importantly, it was a team that — with Matt as a leader — has remained close even after the last at-bats of the players’ college careers.

“He was a part of a group of guys that did a lot of good things for Catholic University and for a lot of people,” said one of his close friends and baseball teammates, Val Van Deventer (B.A., Accounting, 1978 and M.A., Finance, 1985). “His legacy is still with us.”

Baseball Is Life

During Matt’s freshman year, he met friends for a lifetime when Hall of Fame Coach Bob Talbot told him and others on the team to build a batting cage. Sure enough, Matt and teammates Mark Travaglini (B.A., Accounting, 1978) and Van Deventer, got the job done, with the cage lasting for many years until the baseball field was moved to its current location.

Coach Talbot “just handed us a shovel and post-hole-diggers and said go at it … That’s how we met,” said Van Deventer.

Added Travaglini, “We built a bond from the get-go that has lasted forever. When I think of Matty, I don’t think of him as a friend. I think of him as a brother. I would have done anything for him; he would have done anything for me. Those friendships are hard to find in life.”

“The four greatest years of my brother’s life were spent playing baseball at Catholic University,” said Tim Kurkjian, adding that one of the best years was when his other brother, Andrew, who was a senior, and Matt, who was a freshman, played on the same team. 

Teammates like Van Deventer recall Matt as a fierce competitor who “played with spirit and passion on the baseball field and focused on winning.” And win they did, compiling a stellar record in the four years that they played ball together. 

“If you gave me nine of them, we would have won every game,” Van Deventer added. “He never backed down from anything. That’s the spirit he had. It was the spirit he had on the team.”

Catholic University head baseball coach Ross Natoli knew Matt as a competitor, a teammate, and most importantly, a friend for 39 years. He said that Matt was “far and away the heart and soul of each team he played on during his Hall of Fame career” at the University. Whether on or off the diamond, Matt “was the best teammate on the planet, the ultimate teammate!”

“It’s not just about the talent on the team,” Travaglini said. “The better you got along, the more you loved each other, the better you achieved.”

The Ultimate Phone Talker — And Friend

Friends and family alike all agree that Matt liked to talk.

“My dad, his superpower was bringing and keeping people together,” said his daughter, Lane Kurkjian. “He made people feel like they mattered. He called in and checked in on people. No one could talk on the phone like my dad. He was the ultimate phone talker.”

“Matty just made an effort to stay in touch with everybody,” Travaglini said. “It’s a special skill.”

To keep up with his many friends, he kept in his wallet a piece of paper folded up like an accordion. On it were their names, phone numbers, and birthdays. 

His son, Mike Kurkjian, said that with that list, “he might call you for your birthday or to talk about nothing in particular. You would have to get him off the phone because he would talk to you forever.”

Lane Kurkjian recalled the hours that her father would spend on the phone organizing trips to North Carolina’s Outer Banks with friends or organizing his two softball teams, one from his Catholic University days, the other with his friends from elementary and middle school. Seeing him in action and being able to be with her dad brought the two of them closer together. 

family of Matt Kurkjian
Matt Kurkjian and his children, Mike and Lane

 “As a daughter, it was the best thing ever,” Lane said as she spoke about how she and her brother would run the bases before going out for pizza after softball games.

Mike Kurkjian said that the number-one priority for his father was being present for his family and friends. Even when Matt was getting sicker, he was always looking out for other people, asking how they were doing, and seeing how he could help them.

One of Matt’s favorite phrases was “I’m happy every day,” his son said, even if wasn’t feeling well. That kind of optimism and persistence in maintaining friendships and his joy in living endeared him to so many people.

And fellow baseball players weren’t the only people to whom Matt endeared himself during his college days. Mike Graham (B.A., American History, 1978), who played on the University’s football team, was one of Matt’s friends. They connected through the Riff Raff group, which was formed by a group of guys at the University in the late 1970s and named after a character in the cartoon series Underdog.

Graham explained that he was an “honorary” member — which meant he had to wait to be invited to the Riff Raff group’s outings — but he was always happy to get an invitation, nonetheless. It was always a good time, and Matt was, of course, in the middle of the fun.

Remembering the good times they had in college, Graham said of Matt, “He was one of the nicest, kindest, and funniest people I have ever met in my life. Whenever I saw him, he made me feel good — just because of his smile and his greeting.”

Graham said that it was Matt and other friends who made attending Catholic University such a wonderful experience.

“We all picked the right school at Catholic University, and that’s what brought us together,” Graham said, adding that he and his friends “lived life to the fullest.”

kukjian at baseball game
Matt Kurkjian surrounded by friends and family at Catholic University baseball event where everyone wore t-shirts that had Matt’s #2 on the back.

Remembering #2

In April 2022, the Catholic University baseball team honored Matt at a game in which every player wore his No. 2 jersey number and “M. Kurkjian” on the back of their uniforms. Matt threw out the first pitch, with many of his teammates from the 1977 team in attendance.

Throwing that pitch took guts and courage, as ALS had started to ravage Matt’s body.

“One of the first things that he lost were fine motor skills,” said Mike Kurkjian. “He had to relearn how to throw. It was impressive, but not surprising to me, that he relearned and could still throw.”

Even off the baseball field, Matt had an impact on just about every person who came into contact with him. From his elementary school friends to those he worked with, Matt made a difference in people’s lives by being a good friend. That was evident when more than 400 people came to Matt’s celebration of life held at the Pryzbyla Center in November 2023.

As Tim Kurkjian remarked, those at the celebration “all told the same story: he kept us connected.”

And just about everyone in the room, his friends and family said, would refer to Matt as their best friend. Or as Travaglini put it, “a five-finger friend” — someone who is one of those special people you can count on one hand who will always be there for you.

Lane Kurkjian recalled making the floral arrangements for Matt’s memorial with family members who had come in early, some from as far away as England and Canada, to attend the event at the Pryzbyla Center. They had all gathered at her farm and were in her barn house. It was one of her favorite memories of the time surrounding the memorial. 

“It was a representation of what my dad could do … pulling people together,” she said. “Quality time was his focus.”

Mike Kurkjian said that the crowd at the event was a reflection, too, of the connection his father had with baseball, as a player and a coach to area teams. 

“If you played baseball over a 30-year period within a 100-mile radius, he was probably friends with you,” he said. “All of his players loved being with him.”

In remembrance of Matt’s impact on Catholic University and especially its baseball team, the team created an annual award called The Ultimate Teammate Award, and a banner with his uniform’s No. 2 on it hangs on the outfield fence at Talbot Field. 

This year, the University hosted the inaugural Matt Kurkjian ALS Awareness Invitational Tournament. Catholic University won the tournament 2–1, winning two straight games to take home the crown. Doing it as a complete team. Just as Matt would want.