Joe Soltys would make the trek from his home near campus to Harry A. Gampel Pavilion and sit at the press table behind the name placard reserved for him. It was an end seat, so he could easily set down the cane he used.
“I think Joe used to love to sit there and savor all that was happening around him,” says Jeff Hathaway, UConn’s director of athletics. “He would see the sell-out crowds, national championship banners, and the Hall of Fame coaches. I think he took in every single game with a tremendous sense of appreciation.”
Soltys, the longtime UConn sports information director who died Nov. 10 at the age of 89, is remembered as a pioneering sports communications professional who helped set the stage for the Huskies’ emergence as a national athletics program. Working as a virtual one-man band for nearly a quarter of a century beginning in 1959, Soltys had a typewriter and telephone as his primary tools to work with reporters and promote the Husky teams and UConn student-athletes.
“He was one of the treasures of that time because he set the tone for a whole lot of people, with yearbooks, press guides, and marketing,” says Dee Rowe, former UConn men’s basketball coach. “He made an incredible contribution when we hadn’t yet expanded to where we are now.”
Soltys also served as a mentor to the staff he began to build in 1980 and to students who worked in what would become the Department of Athletic Communications. The first full-time assistant he hired was former Norwich Bulletin sports editor Tim Tolokan, just before UConn joined the fledging Big East.
“A lot of people would say Joe Soltys is one of the guys to go to and watch how things were done,” recalls Tolokan, who is now trademark licensing coordinator. “He turned out some great people.”
Soltys’ handiwork is apparent in the recently published history of UConn men’s basketball, UConn Basketball Vault, written by former Hartford Courant reporter Ken Davis. Game programs, news releases, player biographies, and other historic documents connected to UConn’s rise as a national basketball powerhouse were the result of Soltys’ meticulous attention to detail and, most importantly according to Davis, keeping an eye on history.
“I love history and you have to credit the people who helped to preserve the history,” says Davis. “Joe was one of the first to keep things and put them in boxes so we could go back and look at them. He was probably one of the first to get player biographies so he could put information in the media guides.”
“He treated me like he was my mentor and gave me an awful lot of guidance on how to deal with the press,” says Andy Baylock, a former UConn baseball and football coach who is now director of football alumni/community affairs. “He was extremely kind to me. I’ll never forget it. He cared.”
Moments of silence in memory of Soltys were observed before the UConn-Pittsburgh football game at Rentschler Field Nov. 11 and before the opening game of the men’s basketball season against Stony Brook Nov. 12 at Gampel Pavilion.
A native of Haydenville, Mass., Soltys served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and held civil service jobs with the Navy Department in Boston and the Veterans Administration in Northampton, Mass. He became sports editor for the Northampton Gazette, where he served for three years before his appointment at UConn in 1959.
During his career, Soltys was part of some of the proudest moments in UConn athletic history, as the Division of Athletics went through an incredible growth period. Among those achievements were the men’s basketball team advancing to the NCAA Eastern Regional Final in 1964; three trips to the College World Series in 1965, 1972, and 1979; and the men’s soccer team winning the NCAA Division I National Championship in 1981.
He worked a total of 272 consecutive men’s basketball game at UConn, 173 consecutive football games, and was on hand for 251 consecutive baseball games.
Soltys was also a member of the NCAA Public Relations Committee and was the leader in the New England Region in the establishment of the College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-America program. He also served as the statistician for the Yankee Conference in football, basketball, and baseball.
Soltys was predeceased by his wife Elizabeth. His is survived by his three children and six grandchildren, and two of his six siblings.
Calling hours will take place at Potter Funeral Home (456 Jackson Street, Willimantic, Conn) on Wednesday, Nov. 17 from 5 to 8 p.m. A funeral Mass will take place on Thursday, Nov. 18 at 10:30 a.m. at St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel on the UConn campus (46 North Eagleville Road, Storrs).
Memorial contributions may be sent to the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel Scholarship Fund, 46 North Eagleville Road, Storrs, CT 06268, or to the UConn Foundation, 2390 Alumni Drive, Storrs, CT 06269-3206, indicating in the memo line of the check that the gift is in memory of Joe Soltys.