September 29, 2004

The Man, The Myth, The Legend, The Hockey Ticket Guy

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Had I been duped?

My friends all called and told me it was happening. The information came from the military, and since when has military intelligence ever been wrong? Plenty of other people were outside of Barton Hall, waiting for tickets. Oat from was there, and CalgAri07 from eLynah forum. Was the ticket line all a dream? Kevin Rex walked by when football practice was over, and he’s often in my dreams…

Decidedly from the 259-person list, crammed ever so elegantly into my back pocket, the hockey ticket line Monday night was not a dream. Unfortunately for hardcore fans, it also wasn’t real. We were fooled by our own greed; like that lightweight guy who sits in your row in wines class, we were all drunk on our own wisdom.

“What happened?” my friend Liz asked me later that night.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

“I hate Gene Nighman.”

“Hate is a strong word, and an even stronger emotion,” I replied. “Do you really mean that?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t even know the man.”

It was a deep response to a deep question. Liz, the girl who once baffled me by admitting she was vegetarian, had done it again. I mean do any of us really know Gene Nighman ’81?

The man’s name practically spells Enigma – Enigma Neghn to be exact — yet Enigma nonetheless. Looking for answers, I walked to Lynah Rink and turned to the woman who seems to know everything: Sue Detzer, the administrative assistant to coach Schafer and the hockey team.

Sue just laughed.

“What do you want to know?” she asked me. “He really cares about the students, and about Cornell.”

“I know that,” I replied, “But what makes him tick? What does he do outside of work?” Sue thought for a moment. Knowing Gene since he started on East Hill, there was a lot to get through. Nighman had already established a respectable history for himself, graduating from Cornell, earning an MBA …

“He’s really into motorcycles,” she burst out. “He’s like the champion of his age group.” I leaned forward, eager to hear more.

“One time he came into the office all bent over,” she continued. “I was like, ‘What the heck happened to you?'”

Apparently Nighman had gotten into a motorcycle accident while racing one weekend. Neck and neck with two other riders, the three of them were headed over a hill when one of the other riders lost control of their bike and hit Nighman.

“He was bragging about it,” Sue recalled. “‘Most people get hauled off in a stretcher, but I walked away,'” she remembers him saying.

The Enigma was clearing up: Nighman was tough as nails. Some more digging found that he was a wrestler while at Cornell, and finished seventh nationally in 1981 for the 142-pound division. It was good for All-American status, and great for J. Andy Noel, Nighman’s coach then, and boss now.

Looking to uncover his current ties to Cornell wrestling, I headed to the Friedman Center to see head coach Rob Koll.

“I wish I could tell you he was involved,” Koll told me. “I’d like to get him more involved with our program because he’s so tough.”

“What’s keeping him,” I asked.

“His job,” Koll replied. “He’s got quite possibly the two most thankless jobs in the Athletic office.”

The number two surprised me. As it turns out, Nighman takes flak from students and townies about athletic ticket sales during the year, and fields calls from parents about their children during the summer. In addition to overseeing the ticket office, he also assists Koll in running Cornell’s summer athletic camps.

“Camp during the summer is 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Koll continued. “You’ve got people calling you in the office, out of the office, at home. They want to know where their kids are. Then during the year, people do the same thing over tickets. That guy never gets a break, especially on the weekends.”

Selfless. Tough. Respectable. The Gene Nighman I was hearing about seemed like an amazing guy, and certainly didn’t fit any of the names I heard him called by students Monday night. Still, I didn’t quite know Nighman. Running low on time, I turned to one last source. Frank Araneo, the associate director of business and finance for athletics.

“He takes flak from coaches, and from students, especially for the hockey line. The most ironic thing about it is that none of it is really his decision,” Araneo explained, noting how various administrators have helped to shape Cornell’s ticket distribution process. “Few people could do Gene’s job, and the University is lucky to have him.”

Araneo went on to confirm that Nighman was an excellent racer, and a mechanical wizard who had once rebuilt his entire car engine. Our half an hour chat was filled with stories about the man, and as time passed, laughter seemed to fill Frank’s already crowded office.

Eventually, we turned back to wrestling.

“He was a good coach at Cortland, even had some national champs,” Frank offered. “As a wrestler himself, he always had a very methodological approach. He was always learning for the next match. That’s why Andy said he never coached a guy like Gene – one of a kind.”

And there it was. Frank had done more than hit the nail on the head; he drove it straight through the wall. Nighman was selfless, motivated, tough, and likeable. It’s easy for most alumni to write checks, or subscribe to the Cornell magazine, but an alumnus like Nighman bleeds Carnelian and White, whether he’s taking on the wrestling team, announcing Cornell home games, or running the hockey ticket line.

Keep in mind that no one is going to come to your office next year, and yell about how you’re screwing up financial analysis, or loafing off in your Veterinary practice. Let’s try to extend the same courtesy for Gene Nighman. And above all, remember he’s one of a kind.

Archived article by Matt Janiga