These are the final high school statistics of the Domel siblings of Sleepy Hollow, a quintet of two-sport athletes who recently put the finishing touch on an academic dynasty at St. Edward High School in Elgin.
Reno, the youngest, was named St. Edward valedictorian two weeks ago, thereby completing a streak that began with Tommasina in 2009 and was carried on by brothers Gus (’10), Antonio (’13) and Gino (’15).
Virtually everyone at St. Edward knows the Domels and their academic reputation. Still, the congregation at the recent baccalaureate mass reacted in audible wonderment when principal Barb Villont reminded everyone Reno was the fifth valedictorian from the same family.
“It was just crazy to actually hear it said out loud by the principal,” Tommasina said. “It was like, whoa.”
Tim Brieger bore witness to the Domels’ nine-year run of academic excellence. The 17-year Honors Government and Economics teacher had all five in class but did not realize the scope of the family’s joint accomplishment prior to the mass announcement.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh. That’s right. They were all valedictorian,'” Brieger said. “It’s not something the family publicized. It wasn’t something they trumpeted. There are families that would skywrite something like that. The Domels are not like that. For them, it’s do a job, do it well, do it right and the rewards will come.”
The siblings unanimously point to the example set by their parents, August “Gus” and Gina, for academic inspiration.
Gus is the son of a Chicago firefighter. His parents did not go to college but sacrificed to send their son to Marist when it was still an all-boys school.
After working his way through high school, Gus attended Northern Illinois for two years and transferred to Bradley to complete a degree in civil engineering. He went on to earn a Master’s Degree from Illinois, a Ph.D. in structural engineering from Illinois-Chicago and a law degree from Loyola.
Gina did not speak a word of English when she arrived in the United States from Italy as an 8-year old. The quick learner eventually graduated from Irving Crown High School, attended Elgin Community College and completed her engineering degree at Bradley.
Gus and Gina were placed in the same dorm with other transfer students. They began studying together since they were the only two civil engineering students in the dorm, Gus said. The rest is history.
The couple’s hard work to improve their lives through education made a lasting impression on their children.
“I think we always felt sort of an obligation to honor everything they strived for, to give us a chance to go to St. Ed’s, play sports, get this good education,” said Tommasina, a 2013 Notre Dame graduate now working in marketing in the security industry. “We always saw it as an obligation to honor what they did by working as hard as we could to pay that back to them. We grew up being taught that education was the steppingstone to opening doors.”
That Tommasina set the bar for her brothers was no accident. She entered St. Edward with the goal to be valedictorian, she said. Her focus never wavered through four seasons of volleyball and four seasons of basketball, among several extra-curriculars and volunteer work.
However, honors classes alone could not satisfy the Illinois State Scholar’s insatiable thirst for knowledge. As longtime St. Edward guidance counselor Kerry O’Brien said in nominating Tommasina for the 2008-09 Daily Herald Fox Valley Academic Team, “Her journey here at our school has been one of seeking out her own level in higher academic classes and working hard to gain even more understanding and knowledge. In a very real sense, she competes with herself to reach the heights she does. She is not out to defeat others but to gain satisfaction by giving her all to do well.”
Putting in the effort necessary to perform well in school was all Gus and Gina asked of their children. Titles, honors and awards were the fruition of that effort.
Young Gus — his middle name is different — said his parents fostered the right learning environment.
“There wasn’t extreme pressure to be perfect,” said the Harvard Ph.D. candidate who earned his Master’s there after graduating first in his class from Northwestern’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Our parents just wanted you to do your best and to want to learn. I think that’s the most important thing about all of this. When you’re in the right environment with the right support network, that’s the golden ticket. Then you just had to put the hard work in to make sure you get there.”
Many have noticed the hard work of the oldest Domel brother. Breakthrough work, actually. Gus was the first author of a study that took shark skin as inspiration for designing structures that could be placed atop airfoils. His group found a way to 3-D print the structures directly on an aircraft wing, for example, to improve lift and reduce drag.
The study was published with the Royal Society in London and later written about in Newsweek, National Geographic and Condé Nast, among other publications worldwide.
After Tommasina and Gus graduated No. 1, the pressure began to build on Antonio, the third in line.
“I was pretty confident the two below me had the potential to do it, too, so I did not want to be the one breaking the chain only halfway through,” the Illinois graduate said on a recent sunny day in Palo Alto, where he is about to complete a Master’s Degree in structural engineering at Stanford.
Antonio, who recently accepted a position with an Illinois private engineering company, said the pressure he felt came from within. He also said having a brother and sister trailblaze the path was a benefit.
“It helped having each other,” Antonio said. “It’s not like you were trying to do this on your own. People have gone through it, people you can ask questions of. It’s really hard to pull off, but I think everyone was on the same page. We were going to work as hard as we could and go as far as we could.”
Gino enjoyed the most on-court success of any of the basketball-playing Domels. The mechanical engineering major will be a senior at Notre Dame this fall, but in 2015 he was the Green Wave point guard during a magical run to a Class 2A supersectional appearance.
Gino was the regional championship game hero against rival IC Catholic Prep. He grabbed a rebound in the final seconds, got fouled, sank the go-ahead free throw and stole the ball on the ensuing possession to run out the clock on the school’s first regional title in six seasons. “It was a lot of high stress but high reward when you win,” he said.
Like Antonio before him, Gino felt the internal stress of following successful older siblings. If he forgot, outsiders were happy to remind him.
“You would run into people and they would say “Hey, three valedictorians in front of you. Are you going to be one?” Gino said. “In your mind you’re thinking I really hope so because you don’t wanna be the one not to do it. It’s not really pressure from my parents or any siblings. From them it was just try the best you can. It was more the pressure of, you know, not being the one to break the streak. The pressure of if they can do it, why not me?”
The St. Edward roster listed Gino at 5-foot-8 his senior year. Gus and Reno were listed at 5-9 and Antonio 5-7. Some of those heights might be a tad generous. The vertically challenged Domel family succeeded anyway by hustling and competing.
“My kids were always the smallest in sports,” said Dr. Gus Domel, who spent nine seasons as a volunteer assistant under former St. Edward basketball coach under P.J. White. “My kids always had to work the hardest to compete. I think that makes a big difference in life.”
White coached all four boys. He thinks the Domel family’s competitive classroom instinct is rooted in sports. “They figured out something a lot of us never do, which is that academics could be treated as highly competitive,” White said. “Realizing it was competitive, they were going to do the best they could to try to get to number one. Four wasn’t good enough. Three wasn’t good enough. Two wasn’t good enough. It was a crossover effect. They had that mentality from the athletic side and used it in the academic world.”
One can imagine the pressure Reno Domel felt for the last three years as he attempted to follow suit.
“Poor Reno,” Antonio said.
“I will say I’m happy I wasn’t the fifth one,” Gino said.
The youngest Domel embraced the stress of going for the fivepeat with panache.
“They always told me don’t worry about it,” he said. “I always told them don’t you worry about it because they leave the fastest runner in the relay race for last.”
Asked if the development of five valedictorians in one family was a case of nature or nurture, Reno, like his siblings, pointed to the learning environment at home as the foundation.
“It’s a little bit DNA; You have to have some smarts,” said Reno, who will attend Notre Dame to study computer programming and robotics. “But we value education and we want to learn. That’s a big part of it — we love learning. I also think we’re all just hard workers.”
The theme of Reno’s valedictory speech was how a teenager’s life can get monotonous and repetitive, yet those ordinary moments will look pretty special when viewed collectively through the prism of time.
How will the Domels’ extraordinary 5-for-5 be viewed in the years to come?
“It’s a really amazing feat,” Brieger said. “They were confident and they were quiet about it. They just pushed to be better. Their parents did a fantastic job with them. Each one of those kids was extremely respectful and straight-laced and very funny.
“Just a really fun and unique family.”
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