With passion, fortitude, and humor, Richard Anthony Panella lived a prosperous life in family, friends and service to others. A man who knew no stranger, Rich’s heart proved a safe place for others to simply “be.” Gregarious and magnetic, Rich was often at the center of good times, inspiring laughter, care, and a sense of much-appreciated cohesiveness. He knew how to draw people together and inspire them to greatness. Whether sharing a meal, exploring the road, or coaching and encouraging his players, Rich embraced each moment wholeheartedly; and in so doing, taught us to do just the same. Revered by many, Rich will long be held in the hearts and memories of those who were blessed to share life’s court with him.
1946 was a year marked by much celebration and hope. With the victorious end of World War II, families tuned into the celebratory tunes of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and the Andrews Sisters, while children delighted in the debut of the slinky. While the nation relished in a renewed sense of peace and newfound hope, even greater promise for the future was celebrated at Mt. Sinai Hospital Milwaukee, as Anthony and Rose “Dolly” Panella (nee Chiero) welcomed their son Rich into their hearts and home on November 11th.
Rich had a strong pride in his Italian heritage. His parents were deaf so the families (Panella and Chiero) took a “team together” approach to raising Rich. His parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins raised Rich in a home steeped in Italian tradition that was firmly centered on family and providing the very best for Rich. His Uncle Joe had an especially profound impact on his life. Being an only child, his cousins became his siblings, especially Kevin. Growing up on the East Side of Milwaukee, Rich inherited a deep love of sports from his family, especially from his father who was the head coach for the Milwaukee Silent Club’s basketball team. Rich also enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians and watching westerns. He practically lived on Cass Street Playground where he spent countless hours playing ball with friends when he wasn’t in school at St. Rita Grade School. Some of Rich’s most treasured memories included attending Milwaukee Braves’ games with his grandfather.
After his parents divorced when Rich was about 11 years old, his mother chose to remain in Milwaukee so Rich’s life would not be further disrupted. He continued his schooling where he played football, basketball and track. He loved hanging out with both his high school friends and his band of East Side Brothers. A proud Messmer Bishop, Rich graduated from Messmer High School in 1964.
Following graduation, Rich’s first real job was at Schlitz Brewery where he worked in various positions. It’s also where he started playing slow pitch softball. It was a game that he loved and played for many years. It enlarged his circle of both friends and good memories. He also spent years at the Allied Industrial Union. During these years Rich became seriously involved in the basketball world. First, he worked as a scout for NBA affiliated Bertka Views. A natural in the field, he later started his own scouting service RAP Sports, which ultimately lead to his coaching career, first at St. Joan Antida High School, followed by nearly 25 years at Cardinal Stritch University.
One fate-filled day in 1963, Rich’s life changed forever when he met Mira Koltek in front of Campanelli’s Grocery Store. Love, at first sight, ignited a powerful spark and romance ensued. Clear that their hearts were destined for each other, Rich and Mira were married at St. Casmir’s Church in Milwaukee on June 10, 1967. They would spend the next 50 plus years celebrating that union and loving each other profoundly (sometimes with a bicker or two in between).
As Rich and Mira’s love grew, they were blessed with three beautiful children Lisa, Nick, and Tiffany. Rich relished in fatherhood and with his signature humor, insightfulness and caring, he and Mira created a wonderful home for his family. As his children married he and Mira welcomed John, Laurie and Jerry into their family with loving open arms.
Over the years, the family enjoyed many vacations. Rich especially loved spending time in Naples, Florida. In 1998 Rich coordinated a trip to Europe for the Stritch Basketball Team. While all of these trips were treasured, Rich held especially dear the trip he and Mira took to Hawaii with all of their children and grandchildren along with his buddy Rick Majerus, who generously made it possible for the family to ease in to their journey with ALS.
Without a doubt, sports was Rich’s passion. For 25 years he coached the Cardinal Stritch University (CSU) Women’s Basketball and Softball teams. His impact on the University’s traditions and his “team together” approach resulted in many successes. However, he was most proud of his players and THEIR achievements, both on and off the court or field. He was proudly inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 2010 Cardinal Stritch University honored Rich by officially naming the basketball court, Panella Court. On May 20, 2012, Rich received an honorary doctorate degree from Cardinal Stritch University. He was also inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame, Wisconsin Basketball Hall of Fame, and Messmer High School Hall of Fame. One of his legacies is that he placed his priority on the achievements of others rather than his own, be they family, friends, players, assistants, other coaches….all who crossed his life.
A huge Green Bay Packers, MU Basketball, Milwaukee Brewers, and Wisconsin Badgers fan, Rich could often be found cheering on his hometown teams…and he was always eager to watch any team coached by his good friend, Rick Majerus. Though all of these teams were sure to stir his heart, nothing thrilled his fanhood like cheering on his grandchildren. Most thought Rich was a Packer fan first, but it was actually any team that any of his “Elite 8” grandkids played for that was nearest to his heart. Namely, the Tosa Kickers, Tosa Little League, St. Jude Basketball, Junior Hilltoppers Football, Marquette High Football, Baseball and Cross Country, DSHA Soccer and Basketball Cross Country and Track6 Tool Baseball, Brookfield Bulldogs Baseball, Junior Lancer Basketball, Bigler Baseball, Brookfield Central Football and Baseball. With Mira at his side, he attended countless games and tournaments over the 22 plus years that his grandkids participated in sports. Whether on the sidelines or gathering as a family, there was no prouder grandfather to be found.
Rich possessed an undauntable spirit, and he unfailingly rose to all of life’s challenges. A born winner, in 2009 when he was diagnosed with ALS, Rich responded with customary determination and grit. Rich and Mira’s approach to fighting ALS was to continue to live life to its fullest and adjust to “new normals” as they came along. Rich was a man of strong but quiet faith. He spent his mornings praying for others. He had the ability to see the face of God in complete strangers and responded to them with concern and respect. During the ALS journey many miracles were prayed for and received. From date of diagnosis on November 23, 2009, Rich and his family received 6,624 “miracle” days filled with love, support, kindness, and caring from all who knew him. As in sport, Rich left everything on the court. Rich didn’t lose his fight with ALS; He just ran out of time.
The world feels undeniably less certain in the absence of Rich’s steadfast presence. May it afford deep comfort to proudly carry the best of his legacy in our own lives. With each vibrant “hello” extended to others, joke told, game attended, odd defied, and shot swished, we assure Rich’s spirit continues to inspire others to bring their A-game to every single day they are gifted.
Richard A Panella
January 12, 2018. Age 71 Years. Preceded in death by his loving parents Anthony and Rose (née Chiero). Beloved husband of Mira Panella (née Koltek) for 50 years; he was the love of her life. Proud, honored and cherished father of Lisa (John) Bevington, Nick (Laurie) Panella, and Tiffany (Jerry) Gambatese. Precious “Pops/Papa” of his so very loved Michael, Samantha, Joey, Emily, Gigi, Nick, Sal, and Petey. Dear brother-in-law of Janice & Frank Bohacek, Mary & George Falk, and Helen Stievo and their much-loved families. Loving cousin of Kevin Meagher and special uncle to Greg Koltek and their families. He is further survived by stepmother Andrea Panella, other nieces, nephews, cousins and many cherished friends.
Rich was the head coach of Cardinal Stritch University (CSU) Women’s Basketball and Softball teams for nearly 25 years. He was honored to be “coach” to his players and so proud of them. He felt blessed to be part of the CSU family, especially his coaching assistants and the Athletic Department Staff, families and friends and others who encouraged CSU’s student-athletes.
Family and friends will gather to remember Rich on Sunday, January 21, 2018 at the Suminski / Weiss Funeral Home, 1901 N. Farwell Ave. Milwaukee from 3:00 PM until the time of the Prayer Service at 7:00 PM. Memorial Mass 11:00 AM, Monday, January 22, 2018 at Three Holy Women Parish – St. Rita Church 1601 N. Cass Street Milwaukee, WI 53202.
In lieu of flowers, memorials to Cardinal Stritch Rich & Mira Panella “Team Together” Endowed Scholarship Fund, Les Turner ALS Foundation or Gleason Initiative Foundation for ALS are appreciated.