Buglewicz pair set to retire: A labor of love for St. Al

Published 5:41 am Sunday, May 23, 2010

In the summer of 1967 a 19-year-old named Joan Wallace took a fateful trip to the seaside resort town of Cape May, N.J. It was there that she spotted a strapping Marine captain named Gene Buglewicz. The two hit it off and started a love affair that has lasted 43 years and counting.

A decade later and 1,500 miles away in Vicksburg, the couple found another love, one that is coming to an end.

For 32 years the Buglewiczes have served in some capacity at Vicksburg Catholic School, often on a volunteer basis. From checking children’s heads for lice at St. Francis Xavier Elementary, to teaching science classes at St. Aloysius High School. From taping ankles to taping games for St. Al’s football team, and even running workout sessions for the baseball team, Joan and Gene Buglewicz have done it all.

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The Buglewiczes are retiring at the end of the school year. They leave a legacy of service that rarely has been matched.

“It’s a ministry. We just love that school and we get more from those kids than they get from us. The things they say make you laugh,” Joan Buglewicz said. “We’ll be married 42 years in August. This has kept us having fun and enjoying this. We have had the best time.”

Gene Buglewicz was stationed in Willow Grove, Pa., when he was sent to Cape May on a recruiting trip in August 1967. Buglewicz and his fellow Marines had set up a machine gun for a demonstration on the boardwalk when Joan happened by. The two talked for a bit and set up a date to the Philadelphia Zoo.

“The first date was always the zoo. If they loved the zoo, it meant they were a good person,” Gene said.

Joan passed the test, as did Gene. The two fell in love and got married a year later.

“I dated a sergeant and he seemed much rougher than this one. I knew I wasn’t going to date the sergeant much longer. I was going to go for this captain,” she said. “He’s quiet. He’s a lot of fun. We’re each other’s best friends. We just have a good time together. On our way home from Europe we said we were together 24-7 for two weeks and we still wanted to be with each other. We’ve had very few arguments in 42 years.”

After Gene Buglewicz finished his active duty in the Marines in 1969, he went back to school at the University of Nebraska. He and Joan served as house parents at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity while Gene finished his graduate degree. Joan Buglewicz, just 22 at the time, was the house mother. She gave the frat brothers etiquette lessons and first aid training among other duties.

“I had 70 young men calling me mom,” she said with a laugh.

Upon graduation Gene got a job as a biologist with the Corps of Engineers in Walla Walla, Wash. The couple had a son, Doug, in 1974, and spent about five years in the Northwest before Gene got a job at the Corps’ Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg in 1977. The same day they left for Vicksburg, Joan also got word that she had passed the medical board exams and became a registered nurse.

When it came time to find a school for Doug in 1979, the couple settled on St. Francis. It wasn’t long before one of the school administrators learned of Joan’s nursing certification and asked if she would help around the school. Joan, then working as a nurse at Mercy Hospital, said yes and set a pattern that would continue for the next three decades.

Vicksburg Catholic School had no nurse at the time, so Joan Buglewicz filled the role on a volunteer basis. As Doug and their second son Andy, born in 1978, got older and more involved in school activities, both Joan and Gene did, too.

Joan served a stint as president of VCS board in 1989. Gene was chairman of the athletic booster club in 1992 and 1993, and under his watch, the club raised about $50,000.

The Buglewiczes’ biggest impact, though, was in the trenches. In 1988, when Doug was a freshman football player, Joan noticed that the team had no athletic trainers. She asked then-coach Bubba Booth if he wanted her help and Booth said yes. For the next 22 years, even as the school acquired the services of certified trainers, Joan Buglewicz was a fixture on the football sideline.

“For years, when someone got hurt, the first person you saw on the field was Miss B,” said Jimmy Salmon, who has taught and coached at St. Al since 1977. “You were comfortable with her there. If she was working with the kids you knew they were going to be taken care of.”

Andy Buglewicz graduated from St. Al as the salutatorian for the Class of 1996, but Joan continued to work with the athletic programs. In addition to her duties during football season, she took on the same role with the basketball team.

In recent years Joan has done most of her work as a nurse and trainer for the baseball team. Although most of her baseball duties revolve around things like taping ankles and tending to bumps and bruises, she played a huge role in shaping the team that won the 2009 Class 1A championship and will play for another title this week.

When Clint Wilkerson took over as St. Al’s baseball coach in 2005, part of his job included serving as an assistant football coach. He turned to Joan to put his baseball players through a demanding offseason workout program.

“When I first got here, I didn’t have anybody to help me. If there was anybody that was like me around there, it was she,” Wilkerson said. “That first year, she was basically my assistant coach. I remember days where she had them throwing up.”

It didn’t take long for St. Al’s players, many of whom were still in junior high, to gain a healthy respect for the 110-pound, 57-year-old woman who ruled practices with an iron fist. Not only did Buglewicz keep the strict workout regimen on a tight schedule, she added tough punishments for one of her major pet peeves — cursing.

“She was pretty tough at first. We did pushups or foul poles for cussing,” said St. Al pitcher Stephen Evans, now a senior. “At first I didn’t know what to expect. Once I saw she wanted the best for us, I liked her. She won everybody over about the middle of our seventh-grade season.”

While Joan was keeping the bodies of St. Al’s athletes healthy and their mouths out of the gutter, Gene Buglewicz was keeping track of their exploits.

After retiring from the Corps of Engineers in 1996 — and achieving the rank of colonel in the Marine reserves — Gene began a second career as a science teacher at St. Al. He also served as an assistant coach in track and the head coach of the junior high basketball and football teams.

Gene also did his share of grunt work for St. Al’s teams. He was a clock operator for football and basketball games and eventually started filming games and scouting for the football team. Joan joked that her husband needed a little practice when it came to running the scoreboard.

“I remember one of our boys looking at the scoreboard and asking me who had first-and-83. They said it must be Coach B,” she said with a laugh.

Gene retired from teaching in 2006, about the same time Joan was beginning her work with the baseball team. Because of the grueling schedule, Gene decided the best way to spend time with his wife was to tag along. He donated his services as a scorekeeper to Wilkerson, and has been the baseball team’s statistician for the past four seasons.

The couple has become a fixture in St. Al’s dugout — Gene, sitting in a folding chair with the scorebook on his lap; and Joan, handing out Bubble Tape to players, sitting atop a cooler at her husband’s side trying to maintain a clear line of sight.

“They’ve played a large part in my success,” said Wilkerson, who led St. Al to the Class 1A baseball championship in 2009 and has it back in the finals this year. “They’ve done a lot for our program that people don’t see. I don’t know what the school is going to do without them.”

The Buglewiczes have a clear plan for what they’ll do without St. Al — and, not surprisingly, it includes a bit more volunteer work. Gene’s 50th high school reunion is next year and he’s part of the planning committee. Joan has told VCS administrators she’d help with organizing this year’s 150th anniversary festivities. They also intend to remain supporters of St. Al athletics, but just as fans.