Archdeacon: Remembering a sweet man who was tough as nails

UD Hall of Famer George Janky was a ‘gentle giant’

Since George Janky – his former Dayton Flyers teammate, roommate and lifelong friend – passed away late last Friday night, Kenny May said he’s been reaching out to other players and people who knew the big-bodied, big-hearted UD Hall of Famer:

“I’ve been gathering adjectives from the people I know that describe George. The words that keep coming up are ‘kind, caring, thoughtful, funny, understanding.’ And there’s one special word.

“You’d be surprised how many people didn’t just say ‘friendly,’ but they said he was ‘sweet…just such a sweet man.’”

That’s all true, but it should also be noted, May didn’t reach out to that center from DePaul who decided to play the 6-foot-8 Janky – whose teammates had affectionately nicknamed The Whale when he first arrived on campus – especially physical in a sold-out game at the UD Fieldhouse in January of 1968.

“As gentle of a giant as George was away from the game, he had no reservation on the court,” May said.

“That game, when George was a sophomore, the guy from DePaul was putting his arm around him and over-guarding him at the high post.

“Finally The Whale just got sick of it and cold-cocked him with an elbow. The DePaul guy staggered back, but pretty soon he was at it again.

“Back then there were only two referees at a game and they didn’t see all this. So when the guy kept it up, George cold-cocked him again and this time the guy went down.

“And then George just trotted on.”

Dan Sadlier was a year older than Janky and roomed with him two years at Founders Hall before May moved in.

“George wasn’t gonna let much happen inside when he as on the court,” Sadlier remembered. “He held his own. But he was a lot more than just a physical presence. He had a real good touch for a big man. He knew how to put the ball in the hole. "

Coach Don Donoher agreed: “He was a well-rounded player and he had that bulk to him. And his last year (1969-70), when we added George Jackson inside, too, they became a real force on the boards.”

Janky averaged 11.4 rebounds game that season and the 6-foot-7 Jackson averaged 14.5. Both were double-digit scorers, too: Janky at 16.2 points per game and Jackson at 12.1.

Over 82 games in three varsity seasons, Janky scored 910 points for the Flyers and pulled down 684 rebounds.

Dayton won the NIT championship his sophomore season and went to the NCAA Tournament the following two years. His senior season, he was team captain, the Flyers’ leading scorer and was chosen the most valuable player. He was inducted into the UD Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993.

“But for as good of a player George was, he made a lot bigger contributions off the court,” Sadlier said. “He was a good, solid friend to everybody.”

And here was no one he held in higher regard than Donoher.

Over the years Janky was the prime force in organizing several reunions of formers players to honor their old coach.

But the one area that eclipses even that was his relationship with his wife Kim and three daughters, Katie and Kerry, who are both married and have children of their own, and youngest daughter Madison, who is senior at Miami University.

John Engelhardt, the veteran turf writer and publicist and a photographer of note, said he was a friend of Janky’s going back to the days when they still would tip a few at Flanagan’s Pub.

Over the years Engelhardt took photos of the Janky family and he said the dynamic he witnessed was something that always warmed him:

“What George was all about really came across when you saw this big, warm bear of a man with his kids. It was a beautiful thing to see in this day and age.”

Sadlier saw it, too. Janky had been the best man at his wedding and he had been the same for Janky.

“Since Madison was born, they’d come over to our house for Christmas Eve each year,” Sadlier said. “I got to watch her grow up. I’d kind of lost touch with his two older girls once they started their own families, but the past few days as I’ve been back around them again, I see what quality people they are, too.”

Sadlier and his wife had been down at their place in Fort Myers when they got word the 74-year-old Janky had fallen ill at the Flyers home opener nine days ago and was taken to Kettering Medical Center, where he soon was unresponsive.

Donoher paid him a final visit, as did Sadlier and some of other teammates.

Sadly, his death made him the third big man from those late 1960s teams to pass away. Obrovac (2010) and Jackson (2016) both died after bouts with cancer.

Along with his wife and three daughters, Janky is survived by five grandchildren, two sisters and a brother.

His visitation will be Thursday, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Centerville Community Church,10688 Dayton Lebanon Pike.

The memorial service will be Friday at 10:30 a.m. at the church.

In lieu of flowers Janky’s family suggested donations be made to the Dayton 6th fund that was begun to assist UD athletes to get NIL opportunities similar to those offered at bigger school from Power 5 conferences.

At a press conference three weeks ago with current UD players, Janky was announced as one of the Dayton 6th board members, as were former Flyers Brian Roberts and Keith Waleskowski.

While he played at UD some three decades after Janky, Waleskowski said Janky had some great ideas. The only thing better were his stories.

Best of all though was the man himself said former UD football player Jim Siewe:

“George was a tough as nails on the court, but off of it, there was not a nicer human being,”

Chose UD over Kentucky-led Adolph Rupp

Playing at St Rita’s High School in Chicago in the mid-1960s, Janky was one of the nation’s top-five recruits. When Janky narrowed his choices to DePaul, Kentucky and Dayton, legendary UK coach Adolph Rupp did all he could to break the logjam.

Janky once admitted he didn’t know who Rupp was at first. He didn’t follow college basketball.

When word got out that Rupp was coming to visit St. Rita’s, everyone was excited and his Spanish teacher gushed about “The Baron” coming to the school.

Janky was puzzle and then finally said, ‘Oh you mean Mr. Rump?’

The teacher was incredulous: “It’s Rupp!”

Engelhardt shared stories he’d heard from Janky. I heard some of them, too:

How Rupp sent a private plane to pick up Janky and bring him to Kentucky. How at the Lexington airport there was a red carpet and cheerleaders and the mayor gave him the key to the city.

“Rupp had him sit on the bench and at halftime, unbeknownst to George they shined a spotlight on him and he announcer told everyone, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, meet next year’s starting center for the University of Kentucky, George Janky,’” said Engelhardt.

“That’s the last thing George wanted. He never liked the spotlight on him, then or now.”

The newspaper ran a story and listed his home address.

“Soon he’s getting like 100 letters a day from UK fans urging him to come,” Engelhardt said.

“Rupp took him to the Red Mile trotting track in Lexington and the high rollers were introducing him and people are telling him how lucky he was and handing him $20 win tickets.

“Later he sees one of the scouts who had a winning ticket on each horse to make sure he always won.”

He told me he saw through that and with Donoher he saw a guy who he felt was more honest with him.

Still Donoher had to go one-on-one with the Cats, so he stayed in a nearby seminary for a week so he could have access to Janky while on a limited budget.

In one of his greatest recruiting coups, Donoher signed Janky.

If it was good for UD, it was better for him, Janky said.

I remember sitting with him the day he was put into the UD Hall of Fame. He told me how Donoher had made him a better person. How Donoher was far more than a coach to him.

That’s not to say their bond didn’t come with some bumps.

When Janky showed up for college – after a summer of eating – he weighed 274 pounds and promptly picked up The Whale nickname.

Sophomore year he was eligible to play varsity and Donoher was on him to trim down, which he did. Eventually, he weighed 239.

“The Whale became known as Frail,” Donoher laughed the other day,

While that makes for a nice rhyme, Janky was still delivering more pain than poetry on the court.

Obrovac found out first hand.

“George was a very ferocious competitor and he and Obrovac, who was a year older, would go at it tooth and nail in practice,” said teammate Ned Sharpenter. “I remember one particular incident where George got a little too frisky with his elbows and pretty much knocked Obrovac, not out, but close to it. That cost him 100 laps after practice.”

Janky is best known though for the way he helped other guys, including Obrovac when he got sick.

Dr. Tim Quinn, the former UD football player, remembers Janky, when he was president of the Varsity D Club and how he reinvigorated the once-fading Matt Dahlinghaus scholarship which is given in the name of the Flyers football player who died from an injury sustained in a 1972 game.

Siewe told how less than two weeks ago Janky orchestrated a celebration of life for his brother Bill, the former Notre Dame football player, who had died of ALS.

“Bill just hadn’t see a lot of people at the end, but George didn’t want him forgotten,” Siewe said. “He got Jim Place to help and they had more some 25 guys show up at Archers.

“George told funny stories and ones from the bottom of his heart. He played the Notre Dame fight song and Irish songs. It was heartbreaking, but it was beautiful.”

Place had a similar memory of Janky’s caring:

“When I was coaching my last game a Chaminade-Julianne, he thought it was the last game of my career and he told me ‘I’m going to be at your last game!’ and he was.

“But as it turned out, I retired four times and he was there for each of the first three.

“The third one was with Withrow and our last game was at Mount Heathy. There was a really big hill you had to walk down and it was freezing out. Afterward he said ‘If you’re coming back again, I’m not gonna be there. I’ve been to three already!’

“Well, I did come back one last time and coached at Ponitz and, sure enough, after the final game, I look up in the stands and who’s sitting there?

“George Janky.”

‘There’s never been a better guy’

Every so often over the past year or so, Donoher, Kenny May, his brother Donnie and Janky would get together for a nice dinner somewhere in the area. Once it was at the Paragon Supper Club and another time at the Oakwood Club.

Next up was to be the Pine Club, which Janky had chosen.

“It was always a wonderful time,” Kenny May said. “We’d just tell stories and reminisce and laugh.”

There was the story Janky once told me about the time he flirted with coaching. Donoher had gotten him to help with the freshman team and in a game at Ball State, he thought the referees’ calls were skewered toward the Cardinals.

He told how Donald Smith was called for palming the ball. Jumping up to protest, he ripped out the seat of his pants. Soon he had a technical and he said: “The next thing I remember was a highway patrolman holding me back from getting to their athletic director.

“On the bus ride home I knew coaching wasn’t for me. I had embarrassed myself, the team and the university.”

The truth is, George Janky will never be remembered for embarrassing UD.

Quite the opposite.

“He was this big, giant of a man who was kind of intimidating to look at, but if you ever talked to him you soon realized he was just a gentle giant of a guy who truly cared about people,” May said.

Waleskowski had a similar view: ‘He was this huge guy with this infectious smile and a great laugh. And he told great stories about his time playing and about watching Flyers over the years since.

“He was just a good guy who cared so much about people.”

Waleskowski’s voice trailed off, then he added: “We’re all going to miss him…Life just sucks sometimes.”

Donoher wasn’t surprised a player from another era felt so strongly about Janky:

“George was just loved by all Flyers – those who came before him and those who came after him, too. He was respected and he was immensely popular.

“There’s never been a better guy than George Janky.”

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