December 3, 2018

Thank You to Two Wonderful People: Dr. Catana Starks and Mr. C. Mark Zicari

Thank You to Two Wonderful People: Dr. Catana Starks and Mr. C. Mark Zicari

Over the years, I have often wondered why I undertook and stayed with a process that took almost 10 years to get the film From the Rough produced and released into theaters.  I am not a film-maker and had no desire to shepherd a film from a story to a completed feature film.  I certainly had no intention of financing all production and post-production.  The story and the desire to see it made into a feature film obsessed me, but I could only partially figure out why.

An interesting and unique story

To some degree, I figured out early on that the story was quite unique and had two twists on the traditional inspirational sports story, like Glory Road (about the white coach who recruited and built the first all-black starting five to win the NCAA basketball championship in 1966) and Hoosiers. What became From the Rough, the story of Dr. Catana Starks, was the true story of the first woman to coach a Division I men’s college athletic team.  She coached a men’s golf team at Tennessee State University to a championship in the National Collegiate Minority Golf Championship.

As if that were not enough, she reached that goal by the bold and unprecedented step of recruiting a mostly international team to a historically black college.  In Glory Road, the film, Don Haskins is portrayed as a basketball coach who has to protect himself and his players from racism at the University and while they are playing on the road.  Dr. Starks faces the reverse problem: she is the victim of racism and sexism on the road and with a few of her TSU colleagues, but her decision to field a mostly non-African American team also subjects her to criticism from the PGA of America and the media.

The story was more interesting and more complex than we could ever portray on film, but, even in its stripped-down rendering, it remains a unique sports film.

How she changed my family’s life

As a high school sophomore, a debate coach named Jim Hall, now a retired professor of American Literature at the University of Mississippi, but then a 20-year-old seminarian, gave me encouragement and support in a single conversation that led me to attend a summer debate workshop, increased my self-confidence, and changed my life forever.

One of Dr. Starks’ athletes, Martin Nilsson, as our son James’ chess coach, played the same catalytic role in encouraging and supporting him.  James became a national chess championship and gained a great deal of self-confidence that has stayed with him at age 28.

An interesting and unique story

Dr. Starks is a short, relatively soft-spoken, but tenacious and intelligent woman.  She had to accomplish what she did by force of personality, not intimidation.  In this respect, she reminded me of my mother, Carmela Gigliotti Critelli, a short, tenacious, extremely intelligent woman.

I wanted to celebrate the person who helped Martin become the great coach he became and who, indirectly, helped my family become the joyous family unit it has become.

How her story and my high school experience had many parallels

This past week, C. Marc Zicari, my high school English teacher and debate coach, passed away at age 80.  In many respects, he played a role at Bishop Kearney High School that paralleled what Dr. Catana Starks did at Tennessee State.  Thinking about him and reading the remembrances my high school classmates posted about him made me reflect on the parallels between my high school experience with Mr. Zicari and the experience Dr. Starks’ athletes must have had with her.

Both Mr. Zicari and Dr. Starks were tasked with starting an extra-curricular program.

Dr. Starks was Tennessee State’s swimming coach, but when the school strived to become part of the Ohio Valley Conference, it needed to build a men’s golf program. Swimming was not a sanctioned sport in the Conference.  Dr. Starks was appointed in 1987 to form the golf program.

Mr. Zicari had to form a debate and speech team (he also was expected to form a tennis team a few years later) at a newly-open Catholic High School.  Like TSU in golf, Bishop Kearney had no track record in debate, or, for that matter, in any competitive activity.

Both had to start from scratch and recruit people to a program, and both effectively started with “walk-ons.”

Both Dr. Starks and Mr. Zicari worked with extremely limited resources.

TSU and Bishop Kearney had one thing in common: very little money, although for very different reasons.  TSU was a publicly-funded historically black college and university that was chronically underfunded and could not raise its tuition to bring in more funding, because of the population it was serving.  It had a very limited endowment and a skimpy fund-raising department.

Bishop Kearney was funded by the combined efforts of the Irish Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Rochester Diocese.  It also received tuition, but it had a limited ability to raise tuition because the socio-economic status of its target student population.

When I talked with Dr. Starks’ alumni golfers, I felt like I was re-living many aspects of my debate experience:

  • She drove them to tournaments; Mr. Zicari drove us to tournaments in a beat-up wagon.
  • She and Mr. Zicari often arranged for us to stay in the homes of people they knew, in order to save money. In my first visit to New York, we participated in a tournament at All Hallows High School near Yankee Stadium, and stayed in a home near the school.
  • Her athletes often stayed 3 or 4 to a room to save on hotel fees; we did also.
  • She sought out help from the athletes’ coaches and from volunteers in the community; Mr. Zicari did as well.
  • Both carried full-time teaching loads, but were very underpaid for what they did. Moreover, both fronted money and often waited a long time to get reimbursed.

Both achieved success with their coaching assignments.

Our debate team was a powerhouse in New York State and in the Northeast Region by the time I was a senior and its excellence continued after I graduated, at least for a few years.  Dr. Starks’ team eventually won the PGA of America’s National Collegiate Minority Golf Championship and set an all-time record for lowest stroke count in 2005, shortly before Dr. Starks retired from coaching.

Both were not only teachers and coaches, but were active in helping the community and the school beyond their assigned roles.

Dr. Starks has a Ph.D in Human Performance and Sports Science and today is on the Board of a Regional Sports Authority.  She has been a “go-to” resource for helping the TSU community and the larger Nashville community address young people with substance abuse problems.

Mr. Zicariwas a full-time English teacher and started a book discussion club and helped many students with learning disabilities.  I was most touched by the remembrance of one student whom I knew well in high school and assumed to be very self-confident, but who had a learning disability that Mr. Zicari helped him overcome.

Both had family obligations that they somehow squeezed into an incredibly busy schedule.

Dr. Starks was a mother, and, eventually, a grandmother.  Mr. Zicari had a loving wife, Judy, who has survived him.  They raised 10 children together.

Most importantly, both Dr. Starks and Mr. Zicari were humble, low-key people who never sought celebrity status, but accomplished far more than many far better known people.

Mr. Zicari eventually left Bishop Kearney to become a teacher, and, eventually, a principal at Webster High School outside of Rochester.  He was beloved there, as he was at Bishop Kearney.  I was astounded when I stumbled on to the Dr. Starks story that someone else had never made a film or a TV series about her.

I eventually understood why.  She was one of the most self-effacing people I have ever met.  One visitor to the school told me a story about how Dr. Starks stopped her car, administered life-saving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a stranger who had suffered a heart attack while driving.  I asked Dr. Starks about the incident.  Her response: anyone would have done what I did, and, besides, he did not survive a long time.

One of my challenges in gathering the data for her life story is that I would learn something new that she did that was quite heroic and extraordinary with every single conversation.  Some of the most interesting parts of her story, which are in a Golf Channel mini-documentary, the link to which is provided below, were facts about which I did not learn early enough to incorporate into the film.

Similarly, some of what I learned about Mr. Zicari was part of remembrances about which I learned only after we heard of his death.

My goal in this blog is to celebrate Dr. Starks and Mr.Zicari and to remind us to celebrate and say thank you to those who have inspired us before they die.  These two wonderful people, in very different ways, profoundly changed my life and I want to say “thank you” to each of them.

Fortunately, Dr. Starks is still with us and continues to inspire us.  The Golf Channel screens From the Rough, as do some of the BET Network affiliates.  The film is available on Amazon, I-Tunes, YouTube, Hulu and DirecTV, as well as various other sites.

However, our film portrays a small slice of Dr. Starks’ life and it is fictionalized to a degree because many who played a key part in her story would not allow us to tell their story on film.  The Golf Channel documentary, as well as other documentaries on her, present a more complete picture, but they still only scratch the surface.

The film It’s a Wonderful Life will undoubtedly be presented on some TV network in a few weeks.  It is a dark, but, ultimately, inspiring film about how much of a difference one man made to the lives of so many others.  He is shown his legacy by an angel who returns to earth to “earn his wings.”

To these two very different, but comparably remarkable, people, Dr. Catana Starks and Mr. C. Marc Zicari, I say:  “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”