Family Affair
by Tiffany Fox
illustrations by Alisa Burke

family1For some people, success is marked by a clear pinnacle, a point on the mountaintop where they can stop pushing the rock uphill and consider the mission accomplished.

Then there are those like Michael Bajo. Even after achieving success as a professional baseball player, a naval officer and a beloved physician, he set his focus on the towering peaks in the distance, always striving to clear the next summit. It’s a legacy he left to his 15 children, six of whom call USD their alma mater. Of those six, four followed in his footsteps and went on to pursue medicine.

The son of Slovak immigrants who came to the United States in 1912, Bajo was born in East Chicago, Indiana in 1919, and graduated with honors from St. Precopius University (now Benedictine University). A lifelong sportsman, Bajo starred in basketball and baseball while at St. Precopius, and was later drafted and signed as a left-handed pitcher by the Chicago White Sox in 1941. Once he decided his true calling was medicine, he attended Loyola Medical School in Chicago, graduating with an M.D. in 1944 at the height of World War II. Bajo became a medical officer for the destroyer USS Dobbins and cared for wounded soldiers in the Pacific theater. Following the war, Bajo was stationed in San Diego and pursued further medical training at Mercy Hospital.

While a resident, he took notice of Sarah, who worked as a nurse in the surgical ward. It wasn’t long before he asked her to go on a “grunion run,” something she thought was just a silly line to get her to go out with him. But soon enough, the two were married. In 1948, the couple relocated to San Ysidro to start a medical practice in that underserved community.

This move established Bajo as one of the most beloved physicians in the South Bay, caring for patients on both sides of the border, sometimes accepting payment in the form of chickens or produce. A specialist in obstetrics, he delivered more than 11,000 babies. When infants were abandoned by their mothers, he was known to call his wife and announce he was bringing home a bundle of joy. (Altogether, the Bajos adopted four of the children he delivered).

“At the time they moved to San Ysidro, I don’t think there were any other doctors down there,” recalls son Michael Jr. “My dad’s home phone was listed in the phone book, and he used to do a lot of house calls, especially at night. Sometimes, he’d take us kids on house calls, and he was always talking about his work. He’d come home from some surgery or a tough delivery and during dinner — we had this huge blackboard behind the kitchen table — he’d draw diagrams up on the blackboard. One thing that I was always really impressed with was his work ethic. l never once heard him complain about work. He just loved what he did. “

“A deeply spiritual Catholic,” according to USD professor emerita Sister Pat Shaffer, Bajo sent his children to Catholic grammar schools and Marian High School (now Mater Dei High). When it came time for them to head off to college, he encouraged them to attend USD.

Because his own father never had the chance to pursue higher education, Bajo always stressed the importance of earning a college degree to his children.

“He used to say his best investment was his kids,” Michael Jr. says.

“He never pressured us to attend USD specifically, but he had attended a Catholic university, so it was a tradition kind of thing. But USD wasn’t cheap, even back then. Putting that many kids through college was an amazing feat.”

At one point during the 1970s, four Bajo children were matriculating at USD: Stephen Bajo ’72 (now a physician in internal medicine), Michael Bajo Jr. ‘73 (now owner of Bajo Construction), Philip Bajo ’74 (now a cardiologist) and Mary (Bajo) Reardon ’75 (now an OB/GYN). Their father purchased a home near USD for all the children to live in; Michael Jr. considers those years to be an especially memorable time in his life.

“Some of us had classes together once in a while, which was kind of fun and made things easier,” he muses. “It was someone to study with. Back then everybody knew us in the department, but we were individuals. We had a lot of similar characteristics, but I think we also had a lot of diversity within our family.”

Retired chemistry professor Jack Opdycke recalls having both Michael Jr. and Philip in his class. “The thing I can say unequivocally about the two of them is that they’re such quality people,” he says. “And that’s the essence of what I heard about the rest of the family. They had quite a reputation at USD.”

Several of the Bajo kids were known for their abilities in sports: Michael Jr. played basketball, Stephen played basketball and baseball, Philip played baseball and their sister, Ruth ’89 (M.Ed. ’91) was on the volleyball team.

Sister Shaffer, who taught five members of the Bajo clan in her biochemistry class, remembers seeing the family patriarch at various USD sporting events throughout the years, most recently at the West Coast Conference basketball tournament at the Jenny Craig Pavilion in March 2008, when the Toreros beat Gonzaga to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.

“Even when he was pretty elderly, he was still coming to tournaments,” Shaffer recalls of the doctor, who passed away in September 2008. “Although he was a doctor who started out as a sportsman, he remained devoted to USD as well.”

Adds Michael Jr., “Of all the things he was — a dad, a husband, an athlete — the main thing was, he was a doctor. That’s his legacy.”

family2It’s a simple memento. A rip-cord grip (the kind used to release a reserve parachute) affixed to a block of wood. But the keepsake on USD associate professor George Reed’s office wall is much more than that. It symbolizes the night that Reed — then a U.S. Army paratrooper performing a behind-enemy-lines training exercise — managed to walk away from a catastrophic parachute failure that should have killed him.

“I like to say that I haven’t had a bad day since,” Reed chuckles. “I keep that up there as a reminder to myself that life is good, and it’s short, so we have to make the most of it.”

Reed spent 27 years as an Army officer — including six as an instructor at the prestigious U.S. Army War College — before bringing his expertise to USD’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences in 2007.

“The transition has actually been pretty easy,” Reed says. “Context matters when you’re talking about leadership, but the process of leadership extends across many different job sectors and endeavors. It’s not strictly science. It’s an art and a science.”

Not that there aren’t some welcome differences in the military and civilian approaches to higher education.

“In the Army, we worked with an insane work ethic,” Reed says. “There were many competing demands on your time and a lot of that time was not your own. So to come into a field where discretionary time is part of the culture, I really relish that opportunity to pursue my own academic interests and research.”

In addition to teaching leadership and organizational theory, Reed has used his scholarly freedom to focus particular attention on negative management styles. “I’m definitely interested in the dark side of leadership,” Reed says. “Truth is, we can learn just as much from bad examples as we can from the good ones.”

Reed was drawn to USD for its reputation as a groundbreaking academic leader in leadership studies; he says the research conducted by SOLES faculty translates to military officers and corporate professionals as well as it does to school principals and leadership consultants. Still, he relishes the challenge of adapting leadership principles across a variety of disciplines.

“One particular leadership style isn’t going to be effective across all people and situations,” Reed says. “You can take one leadership approach if you have time to make a decision and the impacts are long-term. But if you’re in a position where the building’s on fire, you’re going to need a different approach.”

— Nathan Dinsdale

family3Online gathering spots like have some nasty things to say about many a pedantic science professor, but Mitch Malachowski’s profile shines squeaky clean. He’s head over heels for organic chemistry — and all of his students feel the love.

“I teach my students that I will do whatever I can to help them be successful,” he muses. “I think they’re surprised sometimes to hear that, but I tell them I make a commitment to them every day when I show up. I work really hard for them and I ask them to make the same commitment to themselves. I think [students] tend to identify with people who genuinely want them to be successful.” Malachowski wants everyone in his classes to “become more than someone who’s reading a chemistry book.” With his guidance, “They think like chemists. They personalize their education.” And they go on to shape and mold, create and cure. “They become chemists.”

— Stefanie Wray

family4Joan Kroc had a vision for the institute that bears her name at USD: that it be a place that not only talked about peace, but made peace. The creation of the internship program in 2002 at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice was a firm first step. The program has flourished ever since, attracting those students — both locally and internationally — who have a keen interest in becoming peacemakers.

“The internship program is [former IPJ Director] Joyce Neu’s brainchild. She loves nurturing the next generation of leaders,” says IPJ Internship Director Elena McCollim.

The Fall 2008 class consisted of senior Elisabetta Colabianchi, Chris Groth ‘06 (M.A.), senior Ali Wolters and UC San Diego senior Carolyn Smith. Their duties included working with the Women PeaceMakers participants, supporting IPJ events and writing weekly reports on current events in two countries.

Wolters, a political science major, focused on Peru and Uganda. She’s studied and worked in both Uganda and Rwanda; her passion stems from seeing the documentary film Invisible Children. “There was a guy sitting next to me from Uganda, his eyes welling up with tears. I became aware of a war I had no clue about, that had gone on longer than I’d been alive.”

Colabianchi, majoring in Spanish and biology, speaks four languages and has studied in Italy, Argentina and Mexico. She tracked Guatemala and South Africa. “I love being in other countries, seeing new cultures and learning from them. Studying abroad gives you a better perspective. There are so many things that need to change, and this makes you want to help make that change.”

Groth will finish a yearlong stint as the IPJ’s inaugural graduate intern this spring. He’s tracking the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal.

“When I was doing my master’s, I followed what the IPJ did in Nepal. It’s exciting to be a part of it now, even if I’m contributing a small piece. The country is really transitioning, with elections and democracy at work.”

Smith covered Columbia and Bangladesh. She says the IPJ internship whets her appetite for more.

“There’s so much information out there on world affairs at our fingertips that it’s hard to sit back and watch what’s going on without trying to do something to get involved.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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