His friends call him Vinnie, and I’m told that when he walks down the street, people call his name. Vince Boryla? Maybe they recognize him from his five seasons with the New York Knicks or from his stint as the Utah Stars general manager. It could be they remember he played for the 1948 gold-medal winning U.S. basketball team. More likely, passers-by know him as the Denver Nuggets’ general manager in the mid-1980s.
When I mention the public recognition, Boryla shrugs it off: “I’ve been here a long time.”
You have to love that about him. Famous as he is, rich as he is, Boryla always will be the son of a bricklayer from the steel-mill country of East Chicago, Ind. His parents were Polish immigrants. They went to a Polish Catholic Mass and “my dad had a voice you could hear throughout the whole church.”
Boryla made his public name in basketball, but he made his private fortune in real estate. “So, you’re the son of bricklayer who became a multimillionaire,” I say. His reply: “Not bad for a dumb Polack.”
He abhors ostentation and pretension. He and his wife, Mary Jo, go to Mass every day. They live in a very nice, but by no means lavish, condominium in south Denver. Family pictures are displayed everywhere. Out of sight is the wall where his many awards hang.
“Joey,” he calls out to his wife, “bring me the gold medal,” and she does. But she also brings a piece of wood the size of a desk nameplate. The name Boryla is stenciled on it in black letters.
Mary Jo tells me it came from a New York attorney. He was visiting a friend here, and he called Vince — he’s in the book. “He said when Vince was playing for the Knicks, he was so taken with his professionalism, talent and integrity, he made this and hung it in his office until the day he retired,” Mary Jo says.
I don’t know how many people recognize Boryla at the Cathedral. He’s not looking to draw attention. But he’s here every year, just like he was at Holy Ghost Catholic Church when the giveaway was there and his good friend Father Woody — Msgr. Charles Bert Woodrich — was still alive.
That anonymous donor you read about? That began with Boryla more than 25 years ago. Father Woody asked him to raise $10,000 to give to the homeless and Vince said, “I’ll just do it.” Though no longer the sole source of the money, over the years, he has continued to contribute through an account administered by the Daniels Fund.
I only know this because Peter Droege at the Daniels Fund told me, and when I bring it up, Boryla says: “I don’t want you writing about that.”
He long has kept his philanthropy private.
There’s a reason the donor plaque in the Main Hall of Regis University lists Anonymous as its top donor. “We have all been pledged to secrecy,” says Regis University president Father Michael Sheeran. “I understand why. He’s been through a lot of his life in the spotlight and he doesn’t want adulation.”
“You’re 84 years old,” I tell Boryla, not to put too fine a point on it.
“Yeah, but I’m not dying,” he says. “Wait till I’m dead.”
But he calls out to Mary Jo and asks her what he should do. She gives him the pros — others might be inspired to give — and the cons — the Bible admonishes “do not let the right hand know what the left is doing.” And here, it is clear how much they love and respect each other. “It’s a decision you have to make,” she says.
“This is your legacy,” I tell him. He has contributed millions to Regis University alone, and part of that is dedicated to several charities. He provides steady support to Holy Ghost Catholic Church. He contributes both to the Father Woody cash giveaway and dinner through the Daniels Fund. He should be thanked while he is still with us.
But, more than that, it is good to be reminded of the champions among us. They shun the spotlight even when it comes looking for them because the light they seek and with which they are rewarded has nothing to do with fame and everything to do with humility and service and love.
It is a basketball star and shrewd front-office man and Olympian and real estate magnate who sits in that chair at the back of the Cathedral sanctuary. But it is the son of immigrants, husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather who watches the faces of the needy and thinks, “There but for the grace of God,” and who cries.
This article by Tine Griego was originally published by The Denver Post on December 24, 2011.