CHICAGO (AP) — Not a day goes by that Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt doesn’t think about the magic and madness of last March.
She recalls waking up in Dallas before Loyola-Chicago’s first NCAA Tournament game in 33 years and realizing: “Oh my goodness, this is for real. It’s not a dream.”
It sure seemed like one.
Loyola’s stunning run to the Final Four charmed the nation and turned a lovable nun and team chaplain into — as she puts it — an international celebrity at age 98. And as a new season approaches, Sister Jean can’t help but look back on all those shining moments.
“I said, ‘Just one day at a time,'” she said. “And that’s what I’ve done ever since, never dreaming that it would mushroom to — or never thinking that it would almost go on into the new season. But I have to tell you, I’ve had a lot of fun.”
The Ramblers went from afterthought to the national spotlight, winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament to earn their first NCAA appearance since 1985 and then making their first Final Four since the 1963 championship team knocked down racial barriers. By the time they were through, they set a program record for victories at 32-6 and delivered more than a few magical moments.
From Dante Ingram’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Miami in the first NCAA game to a friendly bounce on Clayton Custer’s jumper in the closing seconds against Tennessee in the next round to Marques Townes’ decisive 3-pointer against Nevada in the Sweet 16, Loyola squeezed out one thrilling victory after another before losing to Michigan in the semifinals.
Sister Jean got to throw out a first pitch at a Cubs game in April. The crowd greeted her with loud cheers as she was wheeled out to the edge of the grass in front of the plate and she laughed as her underhand toss bounced several times.
“She’s very important to our team,” said Clayton Custer, the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. “I think she represents Loyola better than anybody could. I’m glad Sister Jean’s known — internationally — now.”
Center Cameron Krutwig said: “She’s always just encouraging us.”
Becoming a celebrity is something Sister Jean did not envision, yet it’s gratifying at the same time.
She mentioned the emails she receives from people expressing their appreciation for the team. There was a letter from a man saying he planned to go to church for the first time in 40 years because of the way the team conducted itself.
And there was this story a Loyola alum and father of two boys — ages 4 and 3 — told her.
“Some mornings, the 4-year-old says, ‘I’m not going to eat my cereal.’ And then of course, the 3-year-old says, ‘I’m not gonna eat my cereal, either,'” Sister Jean said. “And then the father looks up at the bobblehead that’s sitting on the windowsill and he says, ‘I’m not sure that Sister Jean would like that.’ And then the two of them started eating their cereal.
“I thought that was kind of a cute story to tell me.”
Born in San Francisco, Sister Jean joined the religious order of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1937. She taught and served as a principal while coaching various sports — including basketball — for two decades in California and Illinois before arriving in 1961 at Mundelein College, a Catholic all-girls school near Loyola’s campus along the lakefront on Chicago’s far North Side.
Sister Jean stayed on after Mundelein was incorporated into Loyola 30 years later. She retired from full-time work in 1994, though she became team chaplain that year and remained active on campus.
But she doesn’t just see herself as a role model for the young. She also sees herself as an example for other elderly people by remaining active and engaged.
Though she turned 99 in August, Sister Jean is still trying to walk again after experiencing a setback in her recovery from a broken hip last fall. She stays in a downtown facility, rehabbing six days a week for two hours, but remains active on campus.
She goes to her downtown office two days a week. And two other afternoons, she’s on the main campus along the lakefront on the city’s far North side.
“I’m still keeping my contact with the students,” Sister Jean said. “They’re the ones that keep me going so I can’t lose that. And as I look toward the coming season, I see how passionate these young men are. I do have great hope for them.”
The Ramblers start the season on the fringe of the AP Top 25 poll, just behind No. 25 Washington.