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It’s been 50 years since the fencing team won its first NCAA championship.

By David Porter

Lajos Csiszar

A charismatic stranger arrives in town and irrevocably changes the lives of those he touches. It is a plot line as old as the Bible and as new as the latest Hollywood blockbuster, and it also provides an apt framework for the story of a little man who arrived at Penn in 1948 and over the next two and a half decades left a huge imprint on Penn’s athletic program.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first NCAA team championship won by a Penn team in any sport, and it is due in no small part to the lasting influence of Lajos Csiszar that the Penn fencing program still owns the only national team titles in the school’s history (the men also won in 1969 and 1981 and the women in 1986). It is a distinction not shared by the basketball teams of the 1970s and today, nor by the storied football teams of Munger and Bagnell and Murray, nor any of dozens of other great teams in Penn’s rich athletic past. The sport that gave us the phrase “first blood” indeed carved out new territory that it continues to inhabit alone.

Csiszar, who was called “Maestro,” an honorific bestowed on elite fencers in Europe, was that rare amalgam, an athlete with brilliant technique who also possessed a coach’s patience and willingness to teach. Small in build, he apparently also had the stamina of several men. As a result, his training sessions were legendary. In a sport where 15 or 20 minutes of non-stop action can leave a trained athlete winded, Csiszar would often take on the whole team, one by one.

The man described in a 1955 Sports Illustrated profile as possessing “the soft, kind eyes of a basset hound and the alacrity of a cat” inspired intense loyalty in his charges, even though he could be irascible and his coaching methods a tad on the politically incorrect side. “When you lost, he wouldn’t say, ‘Get ’em next time,’” said Bob Parmacek W’53, one of three All-Americans on the 1953 championship team. “He’d say, ‘You stupid cripple.’ But he cared about us deeply.” Frank Bartone C’53, a dual All-American and the captain of the 1953 team, remembers losing a bout and having Csiszar say to him in a half-serious tone, “‘Thank you, Frank, thank you. Now they will send me back to Hungary so the Communists can murder my daughters.’”

Penn’s 1953 team had all the ingredients for a run at the national title. They’d finished second and fourth the previous two years, and in seniors Parmacek and Bartone and junior John Tori C’54 had three fencers reaching the peak of their skills. Bartone and Tori bore the pedigrees of the fencing program at Philadelphia’s Central High and had faced some of the toughest scholastic competition around. Parmacek, meanwhile, had attended public high school in Chicago and “couldn’t catch a ball, couldn’t swim,” he says. “I wasn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. But I was fiercely competitive.” His school had a fencing team taught by a coach who learned the sport by reading books about it, and they won the city championship, “which means we defeated the other two teams in the city that had fencing teams.” 

Fencers compete in three events—saber, épée, and foil. In foil and épée, the torso is the target, while in saber the head and arms are fair game. Touches are registered by electronic sensors embedded in each fencer’s protective gear, though in the early 1950s only the épée was scored electronically. The lighter épée, or dueling sword, in particular requires patience, a quality Tori had in abundance, according to Bartone. “He had the right personality for it,” he said. “He could wait all day for the right moment.”

Penn hosted the 1953 NCAA championships in March at Hutchinson Gym, which unfortunately fell during Penn’s spring break, which limited coverage in The Daily Pennsylvanian. But Philadelphia’s daily newspapers carried accounts of Parmacek scoring a come-from-behind victory over Navy’s Frank Zimolzak and then winning two more bouts to lock up the individual saber competition. Tori won the épée, and Bartone finished second in the foil, making him the first fencer to earn All-American status in two weapons following his third-place finish in the saber two years earlier. The Quakers edged Navy 94-86 for the team title. 

The celebration was restrained, Bartone recalled. Csiszar “acted like he expected us to win it,” he said. Parmacek added, “He did expect us to win it. It was tough; we were expected to win every time out.” The championship may have been just a little sweeter for Bartone and Parmacek, both of whom confide that their parents felt fencing was interfering with their education. Parmacek considers winning the title a life-altering event. “It was the most important thing in my life at the time,” he said. “It proved I could accomplish something completely on my own.”

Years later, after Csiszar retired and was given a well-deserved place in Penn’s inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1996, Bartone, who had become a urologist, and Parmacek, who competed internationally while in the Navy and later became a successful executive, visited him at his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. It was a moving moment for all three men, made doubly so when the man they called Maestro died of heart failure a few weeks later at 93.

“For me, he was like a miracle,” Parmacek said. “Of all the people I met, he had the most influence on who I was and what I did for the rest of my life.”

Sports columnist David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press and is the author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.

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