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Longtime Lancaster Catholic assistant battling cancer

The lunch crowd in the Giant supermarket’s cafe, such as it was, was beginning to dwindle when Tony Arcudi made his way into the place just before 1:30 on Monday afternoon.

This was hardly an accident. He makes the short drive from his home on Esbenshade Road to the store, based in the Lancaster Shopping Center, at roughly the same time every day.

“This is a great place for me to come over in the afternoon, instead of sitting at home in front of the television,” he said.

Walking with the aid of a cane he moved purposefully, grabbing a copy of the New York Daily News and the New York Post (and, in time, a cup of coffee and a cup of water), then finding a table near a window.

Arcudi, who turns 85 next month, has been part of the boys’ basketball machinery at Lancaster Catholic for nearly three decades, serving as an assistant coach through 2014-15 and coming to be known as “Pop” within the program. For several years before that he served as a CYO coach, and developed the uncanny knack for picking out which middle-school kid would one day be a varsity contributor. And not just the obvious ones -- the guys like Greg Testa, who led the Crusaders’ undefeated state championship team in 2003. Often it was a bench-sitter, a kid who was slow to develop but dogged in his approach.

Again, just a matter of making the best of one’s circumstances.

It is not the easiest thing to do, as Arcudi well knows. He suffered a minor heart attack in May, and during a two-week stay at Lancaster General was diagnosed with kidney cancer as well. He is scheduled to have his right kidney removed next Tuesday at LGH.

Is he worried? Scared?

“Both,” he said. “I’m worried just at the idea of what they’re going to do. I just hope everything works out all right, that they don’t find anything else. It’s bad enough.”

His doctors haven’t told him a lot, he said, only how they’re going to attack the dreaded disease. In the meantime he leans on his family; while his wife Mary Ann died two years ago at age 80, he has four children (three who live no farther away than Sinking Spring), as well as six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

And he is fully aware that there are plenty of people out there praying for him.

“I believe in that,” he said.

Joe Klazas and Sam Paone, the Crusaders’ head coach and scorekeeper, respectively, often pick Arcudi up and drive him to camps or summer-league games, just to keep him involved, just to get him out of a house that has grown far too quiet since Mary Ann’s passing in August 2014.

That’s appreciated, and helpful.

“I don’t feel too bad,” Tony said, adding that he is “a little wobbly” when he tries to get around -- hence the cane – but does the best he can.

He played football and basketball at McCaskey, graduating in 1950, then spent a handful of years working as an Air Force recruiter on the West Coast. It was while he was home on leave that he met Mary Ann; she was working in her family’s drycleaning business when Tony brought in some clothing.

They were married on May 1, 1954. And she immersed herself in athletics at Catholic High (her alma mater) as fully as he did, becoming, he said, the school’s “No. 1 fan.”

He began coaching -- first at St. Anthony’s, then at St. Anne’s -- and for a time continued playing hoops, too. One summer he was part of a Boys Club team that beat an outfit visiting from Philadelphia. The following year there was a rematch in Conshohocken, and the Philly club recruited the ultimate ringer – guy by the name of Wilt Chamberlain.

“We did well,” Arcudi deadpanned. “We held Wilt to 59.”

One time Arcudi tried to double Chamberlain in the post, when the Dipper brought the ball down lower than he should have.

“I held onto it,” Arcudi said. “He took me right up. I let go then.”

He worked at the Woolworth Distribution Center in Denver before retiring, then was part-time at the old Lancaster YMCA. And in 1987-88 John McKay, in his lone season as the Crusaders’ varsity coach, asked Arcudi to join him as an assistant, a position that was voluntary at first but later earned him a small stipend.

He remained on the bench for 28 years, also working under Mike Garman, Danny Walck, Bill Southward and Klazas. Last season Arcudi relinquished that post but was still around, helping his friend Paone with the scorebook.

“What I think he represents is how to be dedicated, how to be a friend, how to be a teacher, how to be a coach – all together,” said Southward, who held the job from 1994 to 2005. “When the kids looked at him, they saw something special.”

Mary Ann passed a few months after the couple’s 60th anniversary, and the family asked that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the school’s athletic association. In the case of the boys’ hoops team, the money was used to buy new practice gear, with the word “Pop” emblazoned on the right shoulder.

Mary Ann’s memory is, in the meantime, emblazoned on Tony’s heart.

“It will be two years already,” he said. “I think back and where did it go? I think of my wife and I miss her.”

He looked out the window, thumbed at the newspapers lying on the table, considered what he is facing now.

“Everything hit me at once,” he said. “All these years running around, feeling good. Then this hits you – not one thing, both things.”

Still, he will try to make the best of his circumstances.

As indeed he must.