Retiring No. 53
Sept. 30, 2011
By Phil LaBella
"Facta Non Verba"
Fred Morgan Kirby lived his life by the motto in Latin on his family's coat of arms: "deeds, not words."
It is in that spirit that his College and his football program retire the No. 53 he once so proudly wore during his time at Lafayette. It is a fitting honor Lafayette College has bestowed upon one of its most prominent, most dedicated and most humble alums.
It marks the first time that the college has retired a football number, an honor traditionally reserved for sports with smaller squad sizes and less storied pasts than a sport that has been played at Lafayette since 1882. No Lafayette football player will ever again wear the No. 53, and locker No. 53 in the Bourger Varsity Football House will remain unoccupied, housing only a small, simple tribute to Fred Kirby who passed away in February of this year.
Several weeks after Kirby's death, Lafayette College president Daniel H. Weiss approached the Kirby family with an idea to remember their husband and father's legacy while honoring his love for Lafayette football.
"In the long history of our College, no one has contributed to our community more fully or with greater spirit than did Fred Kirby. From the time of his youth, until the end of his life more than 90 years later, Fred devoted a significant portion of his time, his energy, his wisdom, and his philanthropy to Lafayette," Weiss said. "As all who knew him can attest, one of Fred's greatest interests was the success and vitality of Lafayette athletics. Fred was a steadfast supporter of our athletics program and an especially avid football fan. Indeed, it is likely that Fred Kirby attended more Lafayette football games than anyone in the history of the College. Of course, he was also a member of the team during its undefeated season in 1940. We are proud to count Fred Kirby as a Leopard and an esteemed son of Lafayette."
"He would be embarrassed and proud at the same time," said Jeff Kirby '84. "He would think it entirely undeserved but he would be unbelievably proud of the gesture being made by the College."
Jeff's brother, Dillard '81, echoed his brother's sentiments.
"He would be very humble about such an honor and say many others were more deserving. But, he would have accepted it with pride and let Mom know how much it meant to him."
"It is the ultimate honor to be bestowed on a most-deserving individual," said current Lafayette head coach Frank Tavani whose team has also remembered Fred Kirby by having his initials stitched on game jerseys and team gear for 2011. "He was a tremendous supporter and mainstay of the football program for his entire life."
Kirby, a 1942 graduate, was a member of the College's 1940 undefeated football team that ran through the likes of Army, Rutgers and Lehigh while allowing just 33 points in a perfect nine-game ledger.
"He did take pleasure and pride in the fact that he had played on the most recent undefeated team in Lafayette history in his junior year and also played in the last game Lafayette won against Army," Jeff Kirby said of his father's career at Lafayette.
Kirby's athletic talents took him beyond the gridiron, earning him varsity letters in swimming and wrestling at Lafayette.
In December of 1941, following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kirby enlisted in the military and later served in Europe during World War II. At the conclusion of the war, he pursued and earned his master's degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1947.
What Kirby learned on the playing field, he applied later in life, writing of it in his Memories.
"Like everyone else who plays college football, I learned how to get along with types I had not earlier encountered. I also learned team work, how to ignore pain, the value of conditioning, legitimate deception, the importance of sacrificing for the benefit of the team effort and much more."
With a Lafayette undergraduate degree, a master's degree from Harvard and additional invaluable lessons acquired in competitive athletics, Kirby undertook several successful entrepreneurial ventures over the next two decades.
In 1967, Kirby succeeded his father, Allan Price Kirby '15, as chairman and chief executive officer of Alleghany Corporation, a New York Stock Exchange-listed company with interests over the years in railroads, trucking, insurance, asset management and industrial minerals, among others. Over his nearly 39 years as chairman, ending in 2006, Alleghany stock delivered a cumulative return to its shareholders of 23,903 percent compared to the S&P 500 cumulative return over the same period of 5,215 percent.
Kirby served on numerous corporate and not-for-profit boards, including, American Express, Chicago Title & Trust, Cyclops Industries, Hotel Waldorf Astoria, Investors Diversified Services, Pittston, Woolworth, the F.M. Kirby Foundation, Fred M. & Jessie A. Kirby Episcopal House, Morristown Memorial Hospital, the National Football Foundation and Lafayette College.
Kirby had a lifelong involvement with the National Football Foundation which operates as a supporter and promoter of the game in the amateur ranks. He was honored as its Gold Medal winner in 2000, the highest honor the NFF bestows. Kirby attended 52 consecutive awards dinners held annually at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, including the inaugural one in 1958. He served on the board from 1982 until his death in 2011 and was the vice-chairman from 1989-96.
"Fred Kirby stands as the embodiment of everything that the National Football Foundation represents: leadership, integrity, and the drive for excellence in all aspects of life," said NFF Chairman Archie Manning. "A great philanthropist with legendary business acumen, he challenged us all to achieve our best. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve on the NFF Board with him."
His charitable interests vastly exceeded those mentioned previously, and he devoted countless hours and much attention to the advancement of such organizations. He was the recipient of honorary degrees from his own alma mater as well as from Drew University, St. Joseph's University and Wake Forest University; The International Swimming Hall of Fame's Gold Medallion; the National Football Foundation's Gold Medal; The Pennsylvania Society's Gold Medal; and Sports Illustrated's Silver Anniversary All-American Award.
"Dad lived by our family motto, `facta non verba' and it was very much felt throughout his 44 years as leader of the family foundation," said Dillard Kirby. "At the Foundation, Dad liked to keep a low profile. He never made grand speeches, he seldom accepted awards, he merely focused on finding `winners' in areas of keen interests and sticking with them long term. To come to think of it, the Lafayette Football program is very high on that list of `winners' and long time support."
Today, more than 25 members of the Kirby family from four states are on College Hill to witness the number retirement. Watching Lafayette football is something that was part of the Kirby children's childhoods.
"I have fond memories of games as a child, especially the Lafayette-Lehigh games and the intense fights over the goal posts. It was a bit scary at seven years old, but Dad would never, ever, leave a game early," Dillard Kirby said. "Football was all about college spirit. Dad's father used to watch games from a wheelchair even after he had a stroke. I think it was partially my Dad's commitment to his Dad and his pure love of the sport, that he not miss many home games and no Lehigh games."
"My earliest memories of Lafayette revolve around football - attending games with my parents and grandparents, having post-game up at the Chateau Chavaniac and down at Zeta Psi," Jeff Kirby said. "Those things made a big impression even as a little kid. The people we met at those games sure seemed welcoming and friendly. We felt at home at Lafayette at a very young age because of that."
What is an appropriate remembrance to honor a man, a football player, an alumnus who left behind a lifetime of academic, athletic, military, professional, civic and charitable achievements?
A simple deed - retiring No. 53.