By Bob McCormick '74 and Jim Drohan '74
The news, flashing belatedly onto a hundred different screens, jolted the Class of 1974: Bill Corso '74 had died, age 62, at his home in Virginia nine months earlier, on Sept. 11, 2018.
To his classmates, Bill was easily recognizable, and fondly remembered, as the man-child who arrived at 84th Street freshman year at his full adult height of 6 feet, 5 inches. His loose lope distinguished him on the basketball court, where he ably filled the pivot for Coach Ed Lata's team and played stout defense at the other end of the floor.
In the subsequent exchange of electronic smoke signals we have come to know as email (which seem to now invariably attend news of the loss of a member of one's tribe), the comments regarding Bill were notable, if not remarkable, in at least two respects.
First, the descriptions of Bill's character and temperament were strikingly similar ( and, indeed, far exceeded the usual encomia for someone we hadn't seen for over 40 years): Bill was a “gentle giant" and a “good soldier," a lovely guy who would simply smile at teasing, or trash talk (was that even a thing back then?); and no one could remember his ever having a cross word with anyone during his Regis career.
Bill's teammate and friend Bill O'Connell '74 reminisced about their games of one-on-one in the upper gym: “[We] must have played over a dozen [times] during junior and senior years .... [I] threw everything I had at him - elbows, hips, trash talk."
However, as Bill O'Connell described it, he found his ferocity met with equal measures of his opponent's equanimity, skill, and grace.
“[Bill Corso] would patiently set aside my jostles and jabs, back me into the basket and bank in a hook shot. After each contest, Bill would smile and congratulate me on a good game (Bill's heart was as broad as his shoulders)."(1)
Teammate Tony Ceritelli '74 described Bill as “one of the nicest guys I ever met" and “one of the smartest."
“[Bill] let little things and even bigger ones just roll off his back. He was ribbed many times and just smiled."
Jim Heimann '74, a rugged forward on the squad, echoed Tony in describing Bill as “one of the best teammates that we ever had . ... [He] would never give up despite playing against much taller opponents." (Giants roamed the earth in those days, at least that part of it inhabited by the Bronx-Manhattan-Westchester division of the Catholic High School Athletic Association.)
Second, the other remarkable discovery made by Bill's classmates in the aftermath of his passing was that Bill was every bit as self-effacing as he was talented, as none of us apparently ever had the full (or even partial) measure of his professional accomplishments in directing elite scientists who plumb the earth and scour space.
1: Billy O' Connell has also candidly shared that the final reckoning on the upper gym Battle of the Bills was something in the neighborhood of Corso: 12, O'Connell: 0.
The Milkman's Son Becomes a Geophysicist
The son of a milkman from Queens, Bill grew up in a garden apartment by LaGuardia Airport — the jet-propelled window-rattling no doubt kept generations of glaziers gainfully employed.
At the time of his death, Bill had served as the director of Goddard Earth Sciences, Technology and Research (GEST AR) with NASA, since 2011. GESTAR conducts research in collaboration with NASA's Earth Science and Solar Systems divisions, as well as its Office of Communications, on issues such as predicting hurricanes, famine, landslides, and drought.
GESTAR's public statement, issued after Bill's death, described him as follows: “ . . (A) highly respected and beloved leader, Bill Corso managed approximately 190 staff members at GESTAR who conducted research in diverse areas ranging from Microwave Instrument Technology, Information Science and Technology, Earth Science, to Biospheric Sciences, and Planetary Environments. Bill was always inspirational and encouraging, and had a passion for sharing his learning, for music, for storytelling, for travel, for family, and for life itself."
Longtime colleague Dagmar Morgan related that Bill kept in his office a baseball bat autographed by the dozens of grateful scientists for whom he had “gone to bat" against the bureaucrats.
Prior to his stint as director of GESTAR, Bill had worked at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) in several capacities, including as acting director of the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, and at Lockheed Martin (where he directed a project group at NASA's Stennis Space Center, in Bay St. Louis, Miss., managing NASA's remote sensing program). Bill had also held various other academic, administrative, and teaching positions, including a role as senior scientist on cruises focused on scientific activities for the Sea Education Association at Woods Hole, Mass.
It dawned on some of his classmates that these positions were all a long way from both the dungeon-like, sweat-soaked recesses of Regis' lower gym and the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia.
Adrienne and The Boys
How, indeed, did Bill arrive there, from here?
It was while obtaining his Ph.D. in geophysics from the University of Texas at Austin that Bill met the love of his life, Adrienne, then an undergraduate at UT pursuing her own degree in geophysics.
Asked about her affinity for the bookish (2) doctoral student from New York City, Adrienne provides an explanation borne out of an objective assessment of physical data: “Actually, the first thing I thought of when I saw Bill was that (being somewhat tall myself) if I do date this guy, I'll actually be able to wear high heels ... "
And so it began. Over the course of two and a half decades, Bill and Adrienne would marry; travel up and down the Eastern Seaboard for Bill's various scientific and academic appointments; and ultimately (in Adrienne's words) “create ... two more scientists," their sons, Andrew and Jack.
When asked which of his varied accomplishments he might have been most proud of, Adrienne responded, without a moment's pause, "It's the boys."
Andrew, a graduate of William and Mary College, is working as a marine biologist in Antarctica for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, studying the ecology and distribution of Antarctic larval fishes.
Their son Jack, a 2019 graduate of Princeton University — he starred on the offensive line for two Ivy League title teams, for which his dad served as an unofficial photographer — is embarked on a career in ecology and evolutionary biology, with special attention to the intricacies of coral-reef ecosystems.
Adrienne credits their family trips to the Florida Keys, including Bill's discourses on flora and fauna during beach walks, as a critical influence on their sons' decision to pursue marine biology as a career.
Asked whether Bill had had much occasion to employ his scientific skills “around the house," Adrienne related how Bill selected their Mississippi house based on the fact it was built on an “ancient sand dune." Sure enough, the next hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast destroyed the first three houses on their street, but spared theirs.
2: At lunch with visitors, Adrienne allows that she is somewhat familiar with the phenomenon that academic settings can be replete with introverts. She asks her lunchmates "... How do introverts make friends?" and (when her inquiry is met with silence) replies "(T)hey don't. They get found by an extrovert."
The Lovettsville House
Two years before Bill's death from the prostate cancer that he battled valiantly for 11 years, the couple decided to buy their dream home in Lovettsville, located in the verdant, rolling hills of Loudoun County, just a few miles east of the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers in the northwestern-most part of Virginia.
It is at Bill and Adrienne's home in Lovettsville where a visitor can decidedly feel his presence. It's where 150 colleagues from Washington journeyed last fall to celebrate his life.
Rows of apple, cherry, and peach trees dot the gently sloping hillside of the four acres overlooking a spring-fed pond and a hillside opposite on which horses lazily graze. Adrienne, a science (and math) teacher, keeps an apiary. She shares that Bill wanted his grandkids to be able to pick fruit from the trees, when they ultimately might come to visit.
Visitors to the Lovettsville spread run a gauntlet consisting of Gus and Norman, Bill and Adrienne's brobdingnagian Newfoundland dogs (Adrienne puts them at about 150 pounds each — a too-modest assessment, perhaps). They bound up to greet Adrienne's visitors, and inquire after possible treats.
Rows of pictures of Bill, Adrienne, and the boys line the walls, recalling visits to the Keys, high school and college sporting events, and (more recently) a trip two years ago when Bill and Adrienne traveled to Pamplona to watch the boys (successfully) test their mettle in the running of the bulls.
At the end of the visit, two classmates compare notes about Bill with a fellow traveler. When we first met Bill, he was already larger than life. Almost 50 years later, when we were privileged to catch up with his lovely wife, visit the place he loved, and hear of his estimable personal and professional accomplishments, we see it as fitting that he remain just that, in our memories.
It was said by the Ancients that a society becomes great when men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit. It occurs to the classmates that they may have envisioned just a man as Bill Corso, cultivating fruit trees in anticipation of grandchildren he would not yet meet, this side of heaven, and directing forward-looking scientific research for the benefit of unseen future generations.
He was, without doubt, a Man for Others.
Bob McCormick and Jim Drohan worked together on The Owl.