Prognosticator: Sister sprinkles March Madness with San Francisco spirit

By Lidia Wasowicz

Even halfhearted followers of March Madness can find religion in the sport when spotting an iconic fixture at the home games of the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team — a 104-year-old dynamo known to her fans as Sister Jean.

The San Francisco native’s unwavering devotion to the Ramblers and school athletics in general over the decades has attached a celebrity status warranting lunches with the president of one of the nation’s largest Jesuit colleges, major media attention, star-studded birthday celebrations, a Chicago train station named in her honor and bobbleheads bearing her likeness.

“I’m just myself, and I go with the flow,” chuckled Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, a go-to for information about and insight into the sport she has played, practiced, preached and/or promoted for nine decades.

With two full months of court action and 12 conference games in the lineup at the time of the Jan. 30 telephone interview with Catholic San Francisco, she deferred making bracket or playoff predictions for 2024.

However, the Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary confessed she retains long-shot hopes her beloved Ramblers — elevated to the Atlantic 10 conference on July 1, 2022 — can pull off another “Cinderella” upset like the one that catapulted them and her to instant fame in 2018.

That season, they qualified for March Madness for the first time in 33 years, then shocked their opponents and observers by shooting their way to the “Final Four” remaining teams vying for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I crown. The Ramblers had traveled that distance only once before, in 1963, on their journey to the national championship.

Can they do it again?

“This is only our second year in the A-10 conference so nobody should expect (us) to go all the way,” noted Sister Jean, the Ramblers’ spiritual adviser since 1994.

“If we get the right bracket (seed-based roster of teams facing off in a single-elimination game), we might get there … we’re going to do our very best.”

The spunk and strength, wit and wisdom with which she does her very best — from sending scouting reports to coaches to emailing individualized assessments and accolades to players to holding team prayer and strategy sessions based on her analysis of the opponent’s techniques before every game to fielding questions from reporters, anchors and talk show hosts — have earned her legions of admirers.

“I have seen Sister Jean and her devoted fans each year (and) admire the smart way she speaks and presents herself,” said Giovanna Kampmeyer, a parishioner at St. Hilary Church in Tiburon and self-described “fair-weather fan” interested solely in the winners.

“I only pray that I can keep my mind as sharp as hers as I age.”

With similar sentiments, former Oregon State Beavers William McShane and his son Kevin have kept an admiring eye on Sister Jean since their alma mater beat the Ramblers, 65-58, in a March 27, 2021, Sweet 16 matchup.

“The spirit, literally and metaphorically, Sister Jean has woven into that program and collegiate athletics has been wonderful to experience, and the impact she has had will live on,” said Kevin McShane, 35, who shot hoops for OSU, three times as team captain, from 2008 to 2012.

His father and fellow partner, vice president and wealth manager at Steward Partners in Lake Oswego, Oregon, pointed to the “amazing doors” she has opened through her vitality and visibility.

“We have immense gratitude for her and her impact on those lucky enough to hear her story,” said William McShane, 65, on the OSU team from 1977 to 1981, when it was ranked No. 1 in the nation.

That lucky group can expand with the Feb. 28, 2023, publication of Sister Jean’s debut memoir, “Wake Up With Purpose!: What I’ve Learned in My First Hundred Years.”

Co-authored by award-winning sports writer and broadcaster Seth Davis — whom she accepted after refusing proposals from six other men because he promised she would talk and he would type — the book got off to a swift start with its selection for distribution to the 2,969 incoming freshmen, required to read the same work over the summer for a common discussion in the fall.

“I hope all these young people will come back to God,” Sister Jean said in explaining why she undertook the 20-month collaboration in addition to the array of activities on her ample agenda.

“That’s what I tell parents when they worry about their children: I say, ‘They need God, they will come back to God.’ I’m a firm believer in that.”

Her faith was firmly planted during her formative years in San Francisco, home to generations of her devoutly Catholic family, shaken by the marriage of her paternal grandmother to a nonbeliever who wound up converting on his deathbed at the behest of his beloved daughter-in-law, Sister Jean’s mother.

The city had such a strong Catholic identity in those days, residents responded with the name of their parish when asked where they lived, she reminisced.

“My San Francisco roots mean a lot to me,” said Sister Jean, the first of three children of Joseph and Bertha Schmidt, born on Aug. 21, 1919, less than a year after the end of World War I.

Events during her childhood in Eureka Valley, today more commonly called the Castro, left lasting impressions and lifelong commitments, from acceptance of immigrants to appreciation of sports.

Among her fondest memories, she recalled listening to her mom and dad, both football fans, talk about sports and participating in weekly gatherings of neighbors in the oversized garage where her father would set up 30 to 40 chairs for adults and make floor space for youngsters to listen to the popular radio variety show “Blue Monday Jamboree.”

On other days, she looked forward to culturally expanding visits to Chinatown to watch Sunday shoppers select ducks hanging in the windows and other exotic fare and to weekend excursions to Marin County where her father and uncle purchased an ark in Escalle, an area now incorporated into Larkspur that was marked only by a train station and a chicken house on the rustic road.

A half-hour ferry ride Fridays after school would set off three days of swimming, fishing, picnicking and other outdoor pleasures.

On May 27, 1937, Sister Jean and her mother crossed the bay another way, joining 200,000 pedestrians on the Golden Gate Bridge during its inaugural opening to the public.

“I loved every moment,” she recollected.

Her most profound love awakened in a third-grade class at the Most Holy Redeemer Elementary School taught by a BVM sister, who inspired her life’s calling.

From then on, she prayed: “Please God, let me know what you want me to do, but please say you want me to be a BVM sister.”

He did.

As soon as she graduated from St. Paul’s High School in 1937, she boarded a train for a two-day, three-night ride to Dubuque, Iowa, where 19 pioneering sisters had established their first motherhouse in 1843.

She professed her final vows Aug. 15, 1945.

Keenly recalling the void in having no sports options in grammar school and the vitality in playing basketball in high school, she started athletic programs everywhere she was teaching or administering if they were lacking.

From Southern California to Northern Illinois, from bringing athletics to St. Charles Elementary School in North Hollywood to pairing students with seniors at the 53-story Clare retirement tower in Chicago where she resides, she has left an indelible imprint.

Her achievements have inspired the creation of bobblehead dolls, the declaration of a “Sister Jean Day,” the dedication to her of the Loyola train station plaza and official proclamations by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and former Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot.

For her 104th birthday, she celebrated at a block party organized by the university, threw the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game and visited with students.

“I don’t have a typical day,” she mused during the CSF interview, pushed back by half an hour because her monthly lunch with LUC President Mark Reed at the Damen Student Center, where she ate pizza and talked basketball, ran long.

Rising at 5 a.m., she prepares for whatever lies ahead. Since the Ramblers were playing, that particular day would not end until after 10:30 p.m.

When asked what keeps her going, she pointed to paternal genes that had her father and many on his side of the family living into their 90s.

“I tell people I eat well, sleep well and hopefully pray well,” Sister Jean said. “It’s a matter of going along and doing what you can to live a good life.”

Award-winning journalist Wasowicz, former West Coast science editor and senior science writer for United Press International, has been writing for Catholic San Francisco since 2011.

Photo: AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski