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Frank Olivo of Burbank was always a particularly Special Olympian

Special Olympian Frank Olivo at 55, in 2003, cheers on his fellow Marquette Park teammates at opening ceremonies at Eckersoll Park on the South Side. | Sun-Times files

By any standard, Frank Olivo was special.

As one of the last of Chicago’s original Special Olympians who competed at Soldier Field in 1968, Olivo collected thousands of medals during an athletic career that spanned six decades.

Yet it was his contribution to the Special Olympics movement outside of competition, as a goodwill ambassador and spokesman, that might have been his greater achievement.

Olivo, 71, of Burbank, died Tuesday from a brain hemorrhage.

His death shocked family members, many who’d visited with him on Easter Sunday and expected their robust “Frankie” would outlive them all.

Olivo was a just 9 months old when he contracted spinal meningitis, which left him intellectually disabled and subject to seizures.

“It made me slow,” he told the BBC a few years ago.

Slow but not incapable, say his many cousins, who describe Olivo as very high-functioning in the world of individuals with developmental disabilities.

Olivo could read and write. He was verbal and liked to joke around. He could travel on his own on the bus, which sometimes made them nervous because he had a penchant for slipping away.

“He wanted to be a normal average guy,” said his cousin Kristine Tassone, who became Olivo’s caregiver six months ago after his 90-year-old mother, Anne, moved to a nursing home.

So much has changed for the developmentally disabled since Olivo was born during a time youngsters like him were called retarded, shunned by society and often sent away to live in institutions.

The Special Olympics were a big part of those changes, and Olivo was there from the start with a group that trained out of Gage Park.

At those first games at Soldier Field, a 20-year-old Olivo competed in the 50-yard dash and won his race, the first of his many medals.

“I was excited but kinda nervous,” he later recalled.

Over the years, Olivo tried everything Special Olympics had to offer — except swimming. His mother, Anne Olivo, always very protective of her son, would not allow him to swim.

“I competed in track and field, basketball, softball, volleyball, floor hockey, bowling, bocci ball, gymnastics, power lifting, golf and cross country skiing,” he said at the opening ceremonies of the 35th anniversary Special Olympics in 2003.

His biggest athletic moment came in 1995, when he won a gold medal for softball skills at an international competition in Connecticut.

Still, immediately after winning, Olivo told the Daily Southtown bowling was his favorite sport. “I don’t have to exercise on that,” he said.

Olivo’s success and longevity, coupled with his verbal skills and warm smile, opened other doors. Special Olympics made Olivo a Global Messenger, making speeches on behalf of the program, mostly for fundraising purposes.

In 2003, Olivo spoke at a ceremony unveiling a postage stamp commemorating Special Olympics’ 35th anniversary.

As one of the original competitors at Soldier Field in 1968, Frank Olivo often served as a spokesman for Special Olympics, as he did in 2003 for the unveiling of a commemorative postage stamp. | Provided photo
As one of the original competitors at Soldier Field in 1968, Frank Olivo often served as a spokesman for Special Olympics, as he did in 2003 for the unveiling of a commemorative postage stamp. | Provided photo

The Chicago Historical Society included his photos and medals in an exhibit on the city’s great athletes.

“Special Olympics is my life. It’s where my friends are,” Olivo said during those 2003 opening ceremonies.

But Olivo’s life was more than that. He also enjoyed his work at sheltered workshops and, recently, at the Garden Center Services day program in Burbank.

“He had a sharp sense of humor. He always had two girlfriends at a time,” said Angela Mancari, another of the cousins at his bedside when he died.

Tassone said a friend got it right when she observed of Olivo: “He was bigger than the life he was given.”

Olivo developed special bonds with Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, who founded the Special Olympics, and with Pat Molloy, who began coaching him as a teenage volunteer at Gage Park, brought him along when she switched to Marquette Park and continued through 2015, when she says Olivo retired from competition because his mother could no longer drive.

Molloy also formed a close relationship with Anne Olivo, who occasionally asked for help in dealing with her son’s behavioral issues.

Molloy says that when she would arrive at the house, Frankie would ask: “Are you here as a coach or a friend?” That was his way of figuring out if he was in trouble.

Visitation will be from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at Lawn Funeral Home in Burbank, with services at 9:30 a.m. Monday at St. Albert the Great Church in Burbank.

In the BBC interview, Olivo said it wasn’t easy growing up with his disability. “People always put me down. And said I wouldn’t amount to anything. And now they say, ‘He does amount to something. He’s special.’ ”