Joe Giallombardo: Gymnastics Record-holder, Longtime Coach, Brother

Nov 14, 2011

CHAPTER ETERNAL — As a star gymnast at the University of Illinois in the late 1930s, Joseph James Giallombardo (Illinois ’38) used his acrobatic skills to win bets against his fraternity brothers.

Once, he stood on his hands and scaled the banister at the three-story Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house — from bottom to top and back down again — without falling.

“That’s how he funded his dates with (his wife) Edith,” said daughter-in-law Helen Giallombardo. “Every nickel and every dime was a date at the local eatery back then.”

Mr. Giallombardo, 94, an NCAA record-holder in men’s gymnastics and a longtime coach at New Trier High Township School in Winnetka, died of natural causes Thursday, Oct. 13, in Richardson, Texas, his family said.

The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Giallombardo won seven individual NCAA titles at Illinois, including three consecutive all-around championships, and led the Illini to two team titles.

Mr. Giallombardo, the youngest of seven children, was born in Cleveland to Sicilian immigrants. After his mother died in 1924, Mr. Giallombardo and his three brothers lived in an orphanage for four years. Meanwhile, a sister took care of the other girls, and their father worked nights as a laborer.

At the orphanage, Mr. Giallombardo and his brothers often would be fed a breakfast of oatmeal, which they didn’t like. The penalty for not eating it would be an oatmeal lunch, so the boys stuffed the mush in their pockets.

But Mr. Giallombardo recounted those difficult days with a sense of humor, said his son, Jay. “He always looked for the good in things and made the best out of a dire situation,” he said.

The Giallombardo boys in 1928 returned to the family house, where the children’s father insisted they all speak English.

Mr. Giallombardo began gymnastics while at East Technical High School in Cleveland, where he won multiple state championships. He was then offered a gymnastics scholarship to the U. of I., where he won the NCAA all-around title at the inaugural championship in 1938. Only two other gymnasts have since matched Mr. Giallombardo’s three all-around titles.

Mr. Giallombardo’s title record stood alone for more than 40 years, until Jim Hartung of the University of Nebraska won his sixth and seventh individual titles at the 1982 NCAA championship meet. Mr. Giallombardo was in the stands that day to watch Hartung, who would win gold with the U.S. team at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

“That was a real thrill for me to be here,” Mr. Giallombardo told a Nebraska paper. “I have followed Hartung’s career since he was in high school. He’s been my idol. He’s a great athlete.”

After graduation, Mr. Giallombardo became a physical education teacher at New Trier and helped establish the boys gymnastics team. He and Edith Cramer married in 1941, and Mr. Giallombardo became a training officer in the Navy the following year. He returned to his job at New Trier after an honorable discharge in 1946.

After the birth of three daughters and a son, the family settled in Wilmette in 1953.

Mr. Giallombardo coached and judged gymnastics until his retirement in 1975. Among the many gymnasts he judged was Olympic champion Bart Conner, who competed for Niles West High School, Jay Giallombardo said.

In retirement, Mr. Giallombardo continued judging but turned to another passion: singing. He performed in church choirs and in barbershop choruses, winning several medals in international competitions.

Among his many accolades for gymnastics and coaching, Mr. Giallombardo was inducted into the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1966 and the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame in 1980. He also founded the Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association.

But to his students, Mr. Giallombardo was simply “Coach Joe,” motivated by his rise from humble beginnings to help students succeed.

“Joe would find a way to encourage them one way or another,” his daughter-in-law said. “He showed them what they could do if they dedicated themselves to (a) pursuit, whatever that pursuit was.”

In addition to his wife, son and daughter-in-law, Mr. Giallombardo is survived by his daughters, JoAnne Fraser, Sue Walker and Lynne Giallombardo; 12 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

A public service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Northbrook.

Full article via Chicago Tribune


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