Frank Amato came to Loyola Academy in 1966 to be the head track and assistant football coach, and during the next 46 years he became one of the state’s most successful track coaches and one of the most beloved and revered members of the faculty.
“He was an institution,” said Genevieve Atwood, Loyola’s vice president for athletics and fitness who spent four years as an assistant track and cross-country coach for the Ramblers starting in spring 2006.
“He did so many things in so many different capacities. He had a way of engaging young people, an innate way of making a personal connection with all those kids and pushing his athletes to do their best. He made them feel valued.”
Amato’s impact went beyond the athletic fields.
“He’s one of those legends who touched thousands of lives in so many meaningful ways,” said Tim Devine, a social studies teacher at Loyola who will become the principal this summer.
“I started school at Loyola in 1984 (as a student), and he was one of the first adults who greeted me. He sat me down and started to take an interest in developing me as a young man. I wasn’t one of his athletes but he still reached outside his sphere of responsibility and took an interest in our lives and talked to us about how to lead a good, ethical and God-loving life.”
Rebecca Grant was one of his athletes — a member of the track team who graduated in 2002 — and based on her experience, Amato was “more than a coach.”
“Once a week during my lunch hour I would spend time in his office, just to converse,” she remembered “We usually spoke about track first but once we got through shot put strategies we would always turn to catching up on how one another’s week was going.
“I always felt he cared about what was going on in my life — both on and off the track.”
When Loyola became a coed school after its merger with Marillac in 1994, Amato dreaded the thought of coaching girls for the first time.
“I didn’t want to coach girls,” he told the Wilmette Beacon when he retired in 2013. “I said: ‘They’re fidgety and crying all the time.’
“I was wrong. I discovered girls are as good athletically and as dedicated and devoted as boys. It was a great honor to be able to coach the girls. Looking back, there would have been a void in my career if I hadn’t coached them.”
Amato died of aspiration pneumonia at age 96 on Jan. 28 at Glenbrook Hospital, leaving a void in the hearts of the men and women he coached and members of the Loyola faculty.
“Debbie Mokeleva was an outstanding sprinter and she was heartbroken when she called me from out of the blue after hearing of Coach Amato’s death,” said ChrisJon Simon, head coach of the girls team. “She is flying in from New York for his funeral.
“Debbie was from the Congo, and her transition to Loyola was very difficult. Coach Amato took her under his wing. It was more than just his coaching that helped her make the transition. She would go to him and talk. One of his greatest skills was the way he could connect with kids.
“He coached boys for many decades but was able to transition very quickly to coaching girls with the same enthusiasm and the same standards.”
Simon was an 800-meter runner and a miler who ran at Loyola from 1982-86 and he joined the coaching staff before the 1994 season.
“When Loyola Academy was preparing to go coed, Coach Amato called and asked if I’d like to go to Marillac and coach because girls from there would be coming to Loyola,” he recalled. “That was my introduction to coaching, and I also wound up substitute teaching at Marillac. My career path and being at Loyola today was all due to him.”
The coach of the Loyola boys team, Dan Seeberg, was a hurdler, sprinter and 400-meter runner on the team from 1971-75 and also a running back and defensive back for the football team when Amato was an assistant coach.
“I spent seven years coaching at St. Viator before coming back to Loyola in (school year) 1987-88 to coach and teach,” Seeberg said. “There are seven of us coaching the boys and girls who were on Coach Amato’s teams — ChrisJon and myself and (assistant coaches) Dave Behof, Josh Ward, Ryan Gibbons, Tony Belmont and Johnny Miller. My daughter, Katie, also has coached the girls.
“It says something about the man when people who ran for him wanted to come back and coach under him. He put the whole package together for ChrisJon and me (as he transitioned from a hands-on coach to an overseer). He was still the father figure at the top. I’ve had three great men in my life — my father, Bill; my father-in-law, Phil Kearney; and Frank Amato. He was the rock-solid, unwavering, anchored to the ground — (and) he treated everyone as unique, special and one-of-a-kind.”
Amato’s coaching record speaks for itself. His teams won 19 Catholic League and Girls Catholic Athletic Conference indoor and 12 outdoor championships. From 1970-74 his teams were undefeated in 65 consecutive outdoor meets.
In 1985 he was inducted into the Illinois Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame and the Chicago Catholic League Hall of Fame, and in 2010 he was honored as National Boys Coach of the Year by the National High School Coaches Association.
The most notable of his innumerable outstanding runners was Terry Brennan, grandson of Terry Brennan, the Notre Dame All-American halfback and later coach of the Fighting Irish. After graduating in 1997, the younger Terry Brennan went on to excel at Duke and was selected one of the 50 most outstanding runners in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Amato was an assistant football coach at Loyola from 1966-79. Highlighting his football coaching career were victories in the Prep Bowl by head coach Bob Naughton’s team in 1966 and coach Bob Spoo’s team in 1969. Catholic schools didn’t enter the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) until the 1974-75 school year and before that the Prep Bowl, pitting the Chicago Catholic League champion against the Chicago Public League champion, was the state’s main event for Catholic school teams.
In Amato’s honor, Loyola instituted the Frank J. Amato Excellence in Coaching Award, presented annually to a coach for his or her performances on and off the field.
As fate would have it, when Amato was a senior at Kingston High School in upstate New York the inscription under his picture in the school yearbook read: “He wants to become a coach.”
After graduating from high school, Amato joined the Marines during the final years of World War II and engaged in combat in north China while awaiting orders to be part of the invasion force in Japan.
But the war ended and instead he went to Notre Dame to play football under Frank Leahy, who was building a dynasty. Amato played on the freshman team, but an injury brought his collegiate career to a premature end.
Nevertheless, he made an impression on Leahy. The esteemed coach recommended him for his first coaching job at Norfolk Catholic in Virginia in 1952-53, working with the football, basketball, baseball and track teams.
From Norfolk, Amato went to Rockford and took another multitasking coaching job at St. Thomas. From there he went to the now-defunct St. George in Evanston and Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst before finding a home at Loyola in 1966.
Amato and his wife, Alice, bought a home on Laramie Avenue across from Loyola where they raised their family.
During Amato’s later years at Loyola, when he delegated more responsibility to Seeberg and Simon, the hierarchy at the academy gave him additional responsibilities as executive director of alumni relations, and he traveled from coast to coast as a fundraiser and goodwill ambassador. His 2013 farewell tour took him to New York, Boston, Connecticut, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Following his retirement, Frank and Alice often walked across the street from their residence to revisit his home away from home.
“He liked to use the swimming pool and watch the track team, and she would attend 7:30 Mass,” said Atwood, the vice president for athletics and fitness. “We considered Alice part of the Loyola family. All of us were saddened when she died last summer, and he took it very, very hard.”
The couple left the neighborhood in 2021 and moved to an assisted-living facility in Glenview.
Amato is survived by his sons, Francis and Anthony, and his daughters Mary (Joseph III) Nimrod and Ann (Christopher) Hutchings. All are Loyola graduates.
Visitation will be from 3-8 p.m. Friday at Donellan Family Funeral Services in Skokie. A funeral Mass will be held at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview at 10 a.m. Feb. 11.