By Mark Inman
Al Cecchi, ’49, decided early on he wanted to give back to St. Bonaventure University. Initially enrolling at his alma mater, however, was another matter.
“The ironic thing was I came to St. Bonaventure quite accidentally,” Cecchi said. “I had never intended to go to college because back in those days it took a lot of money.”
After serving in the Pacific during World War II, however, Cecchi’s collegiate aspirations began with five years of free higher education from the G.I. Bill.
A huge New York Yankee and Lou Gehrig fan, Cecchi’s first inclination was to attend the same university his hero had: Columbia. But first, he needed to obtain paperwork from St. Bonaventure professor James Hayes. Having heard Cecchi’s decision, Hayes asked what he missed during his time in the military.
“Friends and family,” Cecchi said. Then Hayes, familiar with Cecchi and his family, asked, “Didn’t you miss your mother’s good Italian cooking?”
“Right! I missed that the most,” Cecchi replied.
With the practicality of living at home and getting a degree in mind, Cecchi decided to enroll at St. Bonaventure as a “dayhop” and wiped Columbia out of his mind.
Since 1951, two years after his graduation, Cecchi and his wife of 56 years, Virginia, have contributed much time, effort, and donations to St. Bonaventure University.
“The two of us put in lots and lots of hours on a voluntary basis,” Cecchi said. “It’s just been part of our life, really.”
Cecchi was very involved in alumni activities, serving as president of the Olean Alumni multiple times, initiating projects such as a national alumni bulletin, the annual alumni golf tournament in Olean, the President’s Day dinner, and the Communion Breakfast. He also served on the President’s Council.
Cecchi stressed the importance of the Olean chapter of alumni: “Olean was the biggest chapter and it was very important that Bonaventure retained it to help motivate the other chapters.”
In fact, Cecchi helped promote all the other chapters as national alumni president from 1966 to 1970. In addition, he was national alumni fund chairman for two four-year terms and agent for the class of 1949.
Fr. Robert Gavin, alumni director from 1960 to 1966 and close friend to Cecchi, remembers fondly the time they spent on alumni activities.
“He was a very efficient, wonderful, and helpful guy. I was happy to work with Al,” Gavin said. “He helped immensely. You couldn’t ask for a more loyal guy.”
Cecchi’s activities have not gone unnoticed by the community at large, either. He has helped develop local commercial interests as a member of the Board of Directors of Manufacturers Hanover and the Greater Olean Area Chamber of Commerce as well as serving 27 years as a member of the Olean Urban Renewal Agency.
Additionally, Cecchi is a dedicated baseball fan. A former player for the Olean Platers, he also attended many New York Yankees games.
He even has an unused ticket to game five of the 1956 World Series, the only no-hitter in World Series history. Attending games three and four, Cecchi needed to leave for home and thus missed the historic game. “During the game I’m tearing my hair out saying ‘why aren’t I down there?’” But Cecchi now said he gets “more of a kick out of showing people that ticket” than he would have going to the game.
Cecchi’s love of sports does not end with baseball. He started watching Bona basketball games in 1936 and has been a season ticket holder since 1952, even winning an American Cancer Society Coaches vs. Cancer Fan of the Year Award in 2004.
During his activities with the university, he was appointed to the sports advisory board, gave the opening remarks at the Reilly Center dedication in 1962, led a rally of thousands of fans at the corner of State and Union in Olean after the 1967-1968 season, and became good friends with such men’s basketball standouts as Bob Lanier, Freddy Crawford, and Sam and Tom Stith.
Cecchi is also close with legendary St. Bonaventure men’s basketball coach Larry Weise.
“We would talk over lunch—talk in confidence,” Weise said. He was particularly grateful for Cecchi’s support during the most difficult aspects of coaching, such as recruiting. “It was nice to hear feedback,” he said. “Al was like a big brother to me.”
Indeed, family is of the highest importance to Cecchi, especially in his career, as his business and family life are intimately linked. He owned and operated the Cecchi News Agency for 43 years, working in the ground floor of the building during the day and retiring to his home on the second floor at night.
Later on he formed the Hallmark and print retailer, Rontina of New York, which he and Virginia named after their children, Ron Cecchi and Tina Stetz. His children now own and operate the business.
“I think the best part of my career is that we were able to have our two kids and our four grandkids in Olean,” Cecchi said.
This connection between business and family defines Al Cecchi. Larry Weise best describes his longtime friend: “Al is the epitome of a Bona man,” he said. “A successful businessman and a great family man.”