Interchangeable Parts and God’s Grace: A tribute to Mike DiPiano, as he prepares for a trip to the Rose Bowl Parade, on New Year’s Day

For over 20 years, Mike DiPiano Sr. has led by example. 

That example was set after the legendary wrestling coach at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, in Newark, NJ, received a new lease on life. It happened on Oct. 25, 1998, when, after battling serious diabetes and on the verge of death, DiPiano became the recipient of a new kidney and pancreas, thanks to a donor known to all of Mike’s friends, as Sean. 

Mike DiPiano and his family, at the Rose ceremony, on Dec. 4., at Saint Barnabas Medical Center.

Sean perished in an accident, on Oct. 24, 1998. Since he had indicated his wish to be an organ donor, a simple request by reflecting that desire on a driver’s license, Sean’s organs were used to save lives, including Mike’s.

Twenty one years later, Mike DiPiano has vowed to honor Sean’s sacrifice, as well as continue to spread the word about the need for organ donation. Many of Mike’s friends have also received a new lease on life by way of organ donation. DiPiano has traveled the world, literally, talking about organ donation, as well as competing in track and field competitions, with others who have received organs, in the Transplant Games. 

And now, DiPiano will head to Pasadena, California, for the 2020 Rose Bowl Parade, on New Year’s Day. He’ll join others on the Donate Life Float. 

This is what the parade float that Mike will be on looks like.

On Dec. 4, many of Mike’s friends joined him at a special celebration of the upcoming parade at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, in Livingston. Mike chose 13 people, either family or friends, who received a rose, and then delivered some heartfelt comments on Mike’s influence, in their lives. Those comments will also be read aloud at the parade.

Before the rose ceremony, a number of dignitaries spoke, including Elisse Glennon, vice president and chief administrative officer of the NJ Sharing Network, Patti DiSanto, co-manager of Team Liberty, of which DiPiano is a proud member, Dr. Stewart R. Geffner, Chairman and Surgeon-in-Chief, for transplant surgery, at Saint Barnabas, Amanda Tibok, Assistant Director, Philanthropy and Foundation Program and Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, the Headmaster at St. Benedict’s Prep.

Dr. Geffner spoke of the day he operated on DiPiano, in 1998, to provide the new kidney and pancreas while Fr. Leahy recalled Mike’s determination to live, when his health was dire. In fact, Fr. Leahy had performed the last rites, on Mike, and plans for DiPiano’s funeral were underway.

Fr. Leahy also referred to Mike’s battle, and ultimate victory, as interchangeable parts, reflecting on the miracle of organs from one body, saving the life of another. And, of course, there was God’s Grace to give Mike his new lease on life.

A tattoo on Mike’s arm is dedicated to Sean.

And then, Mike spoke, looking back at a near quarter century of battling diabetes, once, in frustration, questioning God’s direction, and then receiving counsel as to God’s plan for him, and the ultimate Grace he’s received.

He thanked Sean, and Sean’s family, for the gift he’ll never be able to repay, but will continue to honor, with each day of his life. He joked of his first meeting Amanda Tibok, at a track and field meet, and nearly striking her with an errantly thrown discus. 

It was then time for the 13 recipients of roses to say a few words. The brief talks went from some laughter, to tears, and all the emotions in between. The 13 friends and family were Mary Ryder, Mike Lamberti, Michelle Gaeta, Benny Voza, Michael Strusiak, Paul Jova, Peter Kupoczak, Sandie Solimene, Stephen Searle, Patti DiSanto, Dr. Geffner, Mia Rose DiPiano and Karen DiPiano.

Mia Rose DiPiano is Mike’s 14-year-old granddaughter, who is now a freshman at Nutley High School, and is an excellent athlete. Among Mike’s many blessings, he was quick to note that organ donation gave him a chance to know and watch Mia grow up. And, of course, Karen DiPiano, the former Karen Giordano, is Mike’s wife of 45 years.

The couple has three children, Michael, Michelle and Frank, all of whom are heavily involved in coaching on the high school level, just like their dad. 

Read about DiPiano’s struggles and ultimate victory here.

Karen praised her husband’s role as the family patriarch, and spoke of his battle to live and ultimately thrive as the recipient of new organs. It was great to see Karen’s mom, Eleanor Giordano, aka Ellie, also in attendance, and looking wonderful. 

“I can’t even begin to thank everyone who came today,” DiPiano would tell the large crowd at Saint Barnabas. “This is where my life changed forever.”

DiPiano’s association at Saint Barnabas included dialysis treatments, the eventual transplant and the follow up which has resulted in his good health today. Mike has also given back over the years to the medical center, including playing Santa Claus to children who have had transplants. 

Dr. Geffner and Mike also remembered, with reverence, Dr. Shamkant Mulgaonkar, a pioneer in kidney transplantation, in the United States, who is considered responsible for the success of the RWJ Barnabas Health, Renal and Pancreas Transplant Division being one of the most highly regarded programs in the United States. Dr. Mulgaonkar died on April 16, 2019. 

Mike, here with Dr. Shamkant Mulgaonkar, in February, 2018, at the press conference for the 2020 Transplant Games, which will be held at the Meadowlands.

Mike’s work at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School included a Hall of Fame career as the school’s wrestling coach, where he had a record of 274-89, and later, as the athletic director. In 2011, he received the school’s highest honor, to a Lay Person, the Medal of St. Benedict’s.

Mike, as well as his sons, Michael and Frank, are all enshrined in the St. Benedict’s Hall of Fame, the first time, ever, that a father and two sons all received that honor.

When Mike returns from California in early January, he’ll then prepare for the 10th annual Gift of Life Wrestling Duals, a full day of high school wrestling, which will this year be held at St. Benedict’s, on Jan. 11, 2020. Mike has been front and center at the event, where he talks to all the teams at the event, about the continued need for organ donation.

The slogan of the event, ‘Organ Donation is a Major Decision’, has a definite wrestling theme.

And after that, Mike and Karen will head home to Daytona Beach, Fla, for some down time.

“It’s an exciting time,” said DiPiano. “To spend it with my family and so many great friends is really something. I wish I had a thousand roses to give out at the ceremony, because there were so many who have helped me and my family all these years. And I hope they all know how appreciative I am.”

By mike051893