By John W. Gearan
Holy Cross Magazine
Memories of those bicentennial spring afternoons flow back easily. Jeanne DelSignore would be in slight panic mode, grabbing her kit bag of cleats and cudgel, skirts and shirts and bolting from her science labs. Full-tilt, she would race down hillocks, past Alumni Hall and hurtle herself toward Freshman Field. He knew that she would be late for lacrosse practice, though there resides no lax in her. She is all hustle, then and now.
“Usually I’d be late, but less than 10 minutes,’’ recalls DelSignore, who also played four years of Crusader field hockey. “Our coaches, our professors all understood and encouraged us to play sports. Yet we had to arrange to make up classes and tests. At Holy Cross, scholar always comes before athlete.”
In 1976, she was a trailblazer, among the fourth class of coeds to enter Holy Cross. She was determined to break barriers: as an athlete, during the infancy of Title IX that aspires to level athletic fields for women in America; as a professional, heading toward a career as a doctor; as a super woman, who would do it all. And, accomplishing her goals, DelSignore now enjoys a flourishing career as a surgeon while being married with three children and volunteering as an energetic activist for establishing ethical boundaries for sports and medicine.
In her first year, lacrosse had just been elevated from a club to a varsity sport. The team drew women who were already adept at handling a field hockey stick, including DelSignore.
Back then, the dark ages of the sport were still in the rearview mirror. The lacrosse sticks were wooden, there was no protective gear such as goggles, and nobody referred to “lacrosse moms” as a voting bloc. There were no arc lights or modern artificial turf fields like those that grace the top of Mount St. James today.
“We did have some good athletes from towns like Wellesley and from prep schools,” DelSignore recalls. “And our lacrosse women’s team could beat Boston College any time, any place!”
DelSignore is one of eight children born to Louis and Jeanne (Muir) DelSignore, who both hailed from Worcester. Her mom, a French teacher, received her degree from Clark University and earned her master’s degree at Worcester State College. Her dad is an engineer and graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute; his work for the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Pease Air Force Base in the early 1960s landed the family in nearby Dover, N.H.
Achieving a 4.0 grade point average at Dover High, DelSignore excelled as well in lacrosse and field hockey. She studied biology one summer in a program for gifted students at the St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. Top colleges coveted her talents. Impressed by a Holy Cross representative at a college fair, she decided to visit the campus during her third year of high school. DelSignore liked the coziness and camaraderie of the College nestled in her birthplace. She knew Holy Cross would provide a top-rate premedical program. And there would be a chance for her to compete as a tenacious, nonstop midfielder in field hockey and lacrosse.
DelSignore reflects fondly on her time on the Hill.
Of course, there were the unforgettable games, such as the time Holy Cross faced down Amherst in the spring of 1979. “Our goalie and our backup goalie were both sick. Our coach Jan Demars told me I was IT. I hated playing goal,” recalls DelSignore, the team’s co-captain. The Crusaders needed her. All game long, perhaps itching for action, DelSignore attacked the attackers, aggressively coming out of net to cut down opponents’ angles. She rattled them, deflecting shots and causing misfires.
In the end, DelSignore had posted a shutout as Holy Cross prevailed. Later Coach Demars hand-decorated a lapel pin for her showing a woman tossing a graduation cap in the air and yelling, “I did it!” That pin remains among her treasure trove of memories.
While DelSignore prefers not to talk about victories or her individual achievements in lacrosse and field hockey, she was a highly decorated scholar-athlete. Receiving the John C. Lawlor Award as the College’s outstanding student-athlete her final year, she also became the first female and first lacrosse player to be presented with the John A. Meegan Athletic Achievement Award by the Holy Cross Varsity Club.
“I learned so many life lessons at Holy Cross,” DelSignore remarks. “Sports taught me the importance of a unit working toward a common goal. They instilled values such as fair play and teamwork. I learned about motivation and how to budget my time while playing two sports and handling premed.’’
Most of all, DelSignore says, she walked away from Holy Cross, not with a scorecard of victories and losses, but with a strong sense of helping others. Some of her off-the-field time was spent with fellow student-athletes volunteering at Abby’s House for battered women, serving meals, sorting clothes and helping wherever they were needed.
Holy Cross took DelSignore by the hand and showed the way to her life’s path. A 1983 graduate of the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical School, she has become a nationally respected orthopedic surgeon specializing in the treatment of hands. DelSignore married Ned Ballatori, Ph.D., a molecular scientist she met at the University of Rochester.
The couple has raised a trio of lacrosse players: Sarah, a Brighton High standout who played varsity for Yale in her first and second years, has decided to play intramurals and concentrate on her studies as a premed molecular biology major; Rachel, an All-American midfielder at Brighton (N.Y.) High, is playing varsity midfielder for Johns Hopkins University where she is a second-year student, majoring in behavioral biology; Alex, a first-year student, is blossoming as a Brighton High soccer and lacrosse player.
Her children’s involvement in youth lacrosse drew DelSignore back into her favorite sport. “I figured I would be at the games watching as a parent,so I might as well help out with the coaching,” she says. Wholeheartedly embracing her hectic schedule, DelSignore spends workdays examining patients or performing surgery, with the rest of her time devoted to being a spouse, mother, coach and member of a dizzying number of medical or lacrosse special committees. She has also coached local teams and all-stars in regional, state and national tournaments.
How does she manage all this, switching scalpels and lacrosse sticks?
Sometimes she actually combines roles. Once, while at a lacrosse game, a 13-year-old boy broke his arm. DelSignore, rushing onto the field, convinced parents, coaches and trainers that she could treat the boy—who was suffering terrible pain from a severe 60-degree break—on the spot: “Why wait for hours in an emergency room,” she reasoned. With a trainer holding the boy, DelSignore yanked the bone back into place and then fashioned a cast from materials on site. Follow-up exams showed that, without the benefit of X-rays, she had aligned the fracture perfectly.
With all this multitasking in perpetual motion, DelSignore has an important compass in her life: Simply put, it is doing the right thing. Since her days at Holy Cross, when she took an elective called Medical Ethics, DelSignore has developed a passion for understanding ethical behavior: in medicine, in sports—and everywhere.
The first woman to chair the Ethics Committee of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, DelSignore helped design codes of conduct for doctors in her field. In addition, she spearheaded the development of the first Code of Ethics for U.S. Lacrosse, setting standards of behavior for member coaches, volunteers, players and parents.
For DelSignore, telling right from wrong is a relatively simple matter: In medicine, the patient should always come first, she says. In youth sports, the player’s welfare should always be the primary concern. And, DelSignore concludes, one should never be too busy to help those in need and behave ethically.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
John W. Gearan, was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 36 years. He resides in Woonsocket, R.I., with his wife, Karen Maguire, and their daughter, Molly.
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