This is a story about a college. And it is a story about college sports.
But this is not a story about anybody you’ve ever heard of.
It’s not a story about a sports legend whose death brought back memories of his college’s golden year. It’s not a story about an industrial titan who bequeathed millions upon his favorite school so a building would be named after him.
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This is a story about a quiet, loyal man who lived the simplest of lives, but after he passed away did a most extraordinary thing.
Frankly, Ray Vadnais would probably be a little bit embarrassed that this story is about him, and his lifelong love affair with the college basketball team in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.
Vadnais graduated from Providence College in 1954, back when the Providence Friars still played basketball in a local high school gym. Vadnais went to as many of those games as he could. It was the days before Dave Gavitt and Rick Pitino, before John Thompson and Lenny Wilkens, before NIT championships and Final Four runs and Big East slugfests.
Vadnais joined the Army, spent some time in Europe, came home to Providence and got a job as a claims adjustor at Liberty Mutual.
He worked in that same job until he retired, 35 years later.
“He was a very loyal guy,” said his cousin and close friend, Dave Duffy. “You learn that at Providence College, by the way. It was the first college in the country to offer a degree in public service.”
Ray Vadnais (left) served his country in the Army before returning home to his beloved Providence, R.I.
Vadnais was a lifelong bachelor, and his circle of friends was small: his parents, whom he cared for until their deaths; his cousins, since he was an only child; people he knew from St. Cecilia Church in Pawtucket.
“I wouldn’t call him a recluse, but his life consisted of a few good friends, his work and following Providence basketball,” Duffy said. “Some people don’t want to leave their own backyard.”
For half a century, Vadnais came to just about every Providence home game. Later in life, though, he missed a few. He didn’t want to come if it was a game against a Big East power like, say, Syracuse, a game he was sure the Friars would lose. “We’re gonna get killed,” he’d say. “I can’t watch that. It’ll be awful.”
Vadnais subscribed to all the recruiting publications. He listened to road games on radio. He could remember 1961, when Providence won its first NIT championship, and when the team bus had a police escort from the state line until it got back home, where 10,000 fans awaited.
He was there in 1973, the year the school started playing in a brand-new arena and the year Providence’s most talented team went to the school’s first Final Four. He was there in 1987, too, when young head coach Rick Pitino took advantage of the newly drawn three-point line and took tiny Providence College – by far the smallest school in the Big East – back to the Final Four.
Vadnais didn’t travel to NCAA tournament games, though. He didn’t have money for those sorts of extravagances.
Last year, Ray Vadnais passed away. He was 80, and had battled leukemia for a decade. Duffy attended the meeting when a lawyer read Vadnais’ will and divvied up his estate.
Duffy figured it wouldn’t be much.
After all, Ray Vadnais was a simple man.
Ray Vadnais left $200,000 to St. Cecilia Elementary School.
And he left $100,000 to the Providence College men’s basketball program.
Ray Vadnais died last year at age 80, but his gift to the Providence basketball program wasn’t made public until this week.
“That really was something,” Duffy said. “I just loved him for it. You always hear about the big corporate gifts, the Wall Street million-dollar gifts, all that. You don’t hear about normal guys like Ray. And there’s a million stories like this around the country. He never asked for any glory. He’d be shocked Providence College put it up on its website.”
Providence announced the $100,000 gift this week. On Thursday, I ran into Providence head coach Ed Cooley at a recruiting event in Las Vegas. Cooley is a Rhode Islander. He grew up in Providence, knows how many people who are from Rhode Island don’t like to leave Rhode Island, and knows how much basketball means to his community.
“He really sent a message of he’s all in, regardless of his financial situation – just someone who is loyal to his community and to his college and to this basketball program,” Cooley said. “God bless him and his support for doing what he did, and for setting an example for our state. His loyalty exceeds money.”
Duffy still has his season tickets to Providence basketball. His family has five seats. The fifth seat used to be for his cousin, Vadnais. Last season, after Vadnais had passed, that seat usually stayed empty. Duffy would use Vadnais’ old seat to hold their winter coats.
“We say, ‘That’s Ray’s seat,’” Duffy said. “We miss him.”