It is an iconic photo, one familiar to Lehigh Valley sports fans and wrestling fans around the nation. Twenty year-old Mike Caruso of Lehigh University, the youngest person in NCAA history to ever win three national wrestling championships, stands atop the championship podium, one arm held aloft in triumph, the other clasping the hand of the wrestler he has defeated, Bob Fehrs of the University of Michigan. The year is 1967.
Mike Caruso had defeated Fehrs for the national championship in the two prior years, 1965 and 1966, the only wrestler in NCAA history to defeat the same opponent three times. It is a tribute to both men that they formed and have maintained a strong and valued friendship over five decades, applauding each other’s achievements and visiting with each other often. For those who know Mike Caruso, this generosity of spirit isn’t surprising.
When I stepped off that championship stand,” recalls Mike, “Gerry Leeman (Lehigh University wrestling coach) said, ‘Your life is changed forever now. Your life is no longer your own.’ He was right.” Mike’s wrestling triumphs were covered by the New York Times, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. Lehigh’s wrestling matches routinely attracted more than 4,000 fans to the old Grace Hall ‘snake pit.’ “Coach Leeman told me that my behavior would be emulated, whatever that behavior would be,” Mike recalls.
In the 47 years since that day, Mike’s behavior---athletically, professionally, personally, and philanthropically---has been worthy of emulation. Always wearing his honors with grace and dignity, Mike has a natural humility that directs praise and thanks to others. Marvel at his 141-1 wrestling record and he extols his coaches and teammates. Reflect on his considerable professional success and he praises his employees and clients. Thank him for his university and community philanthropy and he will tell you how wonderful Lehigh University and the Lehigh Valley are and how blessed he has been to learn, live, and work here. He even gives considerable credit to the reality of “good accidents.”
Born in Newark, N.J. in 1946, Mike grew up in an urban neighborhood. “Where I grew up,” he says, “nobody was better than anybody else. We all played ball together. We weren’t Irish, black, or Hispanic. Nobody recognized those differences. Today, people label things. In truth, we’re all brothers and sisters.”
When he finished his elementary school education at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Newark, Mike had his choice of two Catholic schools for his 9th through 12th grade studies. For some reason, he chose St. Benedict’s, the school that was farther away. “In 9th grade I was 4’11” and weighed 81 pounds,” he says. “I loved sports and wanted to participate. Nothing worked until the wrestling coach said ‘Come with me.’ Because of my size, I tried harder.” Mike never lost a match in high school. “St. Benedict’s had a wrestling program, and the other school didn’t, which I didn’t know at the time. Had I gone to the other nearby school, my life might have been entirely different. So much depends on luck and on the random choices we make. Life can be a series of good accidents.”
Mike’s father was a child of the Great Depression who had to leave school in the eighth grade. “Sometimes he drove a cab,” Mike remembers, “sometimes he sold fruits and vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon. He got the nickname ‘Baskets’ from the basket in which he carried produce up many flights of stairs in Newark apartment buildings.”
When Mike’s father died during his freshman year at Lehigh, Mike wanted to leave school to return home and get a job to help support his mother, brother, and sister. Coach Leeman intervened. “Gerry Leeman was my mentor. When I wanted to leave school after my father died, Gerry took me aside,” Mike recalls, “and he told me that my father didn’t climb all those stairs, for all those years, to have me drop out and destroy his dream of my having a better life than he did.”
Lessons from his wrestling career have carried over into Mike’s life. “I always had great mentors. Wrestling taught me discipline. All sports teach discipline. Wrestling taught me to suffer temporary setbacks without losing my dignity or desire to succeed. I learned how to deal with adversity.”
After graduation from Lehigh, where he majored in International Studies and Pre-Law, Mike moved to Virginia to work as a wrestling coach, but he soon returned to the Lehigh Valley. “I love Bethlehem,” he states. “When I thought about the quality of life that I wanted and where I wanted to spend my life, it was Bethlehem.
“I wanted to go into business for myself, but I had no money. Three fields were open to people like me - insurance, real estate, and working in a brokerage. I started with insurance and decided to specialize in the benefits area. I believe you have to reinvent yourself every five years or so or there is a danger of growing stale. I kept finding ways to do that in the insurance and benefits industries.”
Beginning his career with Mass Mutual, Mike went on to create the Caruso Benefits Group, part of BB&T Insurance Services (formerly National Penn Insurance Group) since 2005. What have been the satisfactions of his work? “Serving people,” he says immediately. “Helping people. Building relationships along with building a business and a reputation. Having dealings with people who turn out to be your best friends - that’s the great byproduct of living in the Lehigh Valley. In larger cities such as New York or Philadelphia, when you leave work someone drives one hour in one direction and someone else drives one hour in the opposite direction. There’s little chance to build a relationship or a friendship outside of work. In the Lehigh Valley it’s just the opposite. You can serve in the same community non-profits, belong to the same organizations, and build a friendship.”
What qualities matter most in creating and leading a business? “Always do the right thing,” says Mike, “because you can never take the wrong thing back, whether it is something you said or something you did. When in doubt, don’t. If you have a hesitation about doing something, it’s better to wait until you know more clearly what you should do. A reputation, once harmed, is tainted for life. Leaders don’t ask people to do anything they haven’t done or aren’t willing to do. Being firm and empathetic at the same time. These have been the guiding principles for our firm. Leaders have to be willing to make decisions that are right and ethical even though they may be unpopular.”
Retired from fulltime work, Mike nevertheless works at home each day and goes into his office three or four mornings each week. He’s also active in the community and has, for many years, had an interest in race horses. “Over my lifetime,” he says, “I’ve had a full or part interest in race horses for over 35 years, culminating in winning a Breeders’ Cup race in 2015.”
Mike finds singular joy and peace in his home, the home his late wife, Sandye, planned and designed before her death. “When I walk through the door,” he reflects, “the stress just melts away. I look out at the water and the trees and sky and I am at peace.
"When you lose someone,” he says, “you have to have rituals to help you with healing and grieving. Memorializing someone, as I have in our funds at the Foundation, is a ritual, a very helpful one. Sandye always supported the decision to give to the less fortunate.”
Sandye Caruso is never far from Mike’s mind or memory. “She never had a down day,” he recalls. “Even to the end of her life, she was very positive. She would say ‘I’ve had a great life.’ She was supportive of my career, my work hours, my community life, and my commitments. She looked for the best in life and in people.”
The recipient of the Vision in Philanthropy Award from the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation, Mike has also been honored with the St. Benedict’s Medal of Honor, the Dream Weaver Award from the Northampton Community College Foundation, and, most recently, with the naming of Lehigh University’s new Caruso Wrestling Complex. “I can’t get over seeing my name on Lehigh’s new wrestling arena. Long after I’m gone, something I love will have my name on it.”
Mike’s philanthropy has found an ideal match in the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation, where he has established two charitable funds. “I like the idea of being able to direct diverse grants from a single fund. Philanthropy is and should be a natural part of life. There isn’t a better feeling in the world than knowing you’ve given someone the opportunity to make his or her life better. You can’t do that for them directly. You can only provide the opportunity for them to do it, but that opportunity is so important and so gratifying.”
Mike has had a special interest in providing educational opportunities. “Young people - that’s where our investment should be. They have the potential to change things. Education is a great equalizer. If you can get an education it can change your life. Education is long-term. Social service agencies help people with immediate and emergency needs, but education provides benefits that have long-term effect for good.”
“If you love something, endow it,” he says with a smile. “The institutions and people I love and care about will be taken care of after my death. None of us can live forever, but the good that we can ultimately do will live on. Such giving, such philanthropy, makes us all immortal. Your dreams can live on, and part of us lives on in those dreams and in their fulfillment.
“I never looked at myself as being famous,” he continues. “I’ve seen myself as Mike Caruso who likes people and whose life has been made rich by many friends. I’m a very blessed, fortunate man, and I’m grateful for my entire life and for all the people that made my happiness and good fortune possible. My life has been like the movie title: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’
“My dad used to say ‘Just do good. God will reward you ten-fold.’ He was right about doing good, but he was wrong about the numbers. It has been a thousand-fold.”