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Bob and Shirley Larkin pulled into their driveway at dusk one day a few years back, their car full of tired kids, balls and bats, sweaty caps and chunks of clay. They were met by a neighbor who shook his head. He gestured at the Larkin lawn, which was generously spotted with dandelions and bare patches. The neighbor said, "You know, if you spent a little more time on your lawn, that grass would look a lot better."
Bob politely replied, "Well, I'm really more interested in raising kids than I am in grass."
The Larkin lawn is still perhaps a bit scruffy by local standards in Silverton, Ohio, a pleasant Cincinnati suburb of brick houses and tall oak trees. The Larkin kids, on the other hand, have flourished. The only daughter, a biochemistry major on an academic scholarship at the University of Cincinnati, is preparing for a career in medicine. Last September, Silverton honored one of the sons, an Olympic medalist, with a motorcade. "The Larkins epitomize the all-American family," says Jeff Fogelson, athletic director at Cincinnati's Xavier University. "They're extraordinary."
And, in one respect, unique. Three of the Larkin children are starters for three different Division I colleges in three different sports. Mike, 22, is a defensive co-captain for the Notre Dame football team. Barry, 21, is the leading prospect on the Michigan baseball squad; he played shortstop for the U.S. Olympic demonstration team, which won a silver medal at Los Angeles. Byron, 19, a guard on the Xavier basketball team, was the fifth-highest-scoring freshman in NCAA Division I last season.
"And the best Larkin athlete hasn't even come to rise yet," says Notre Dame football coach Gerry Faust. He means 12-year-old Stephen, who is still trampling dandelions in the Larkin backyard.
Faust is practically a Larkin himself. On his desk he proudly displays an autographed Olympic baseball, a gift from Barry. He coached Mike and Barry in football at Cincinnati's powerhouse Moeller High before moving on to South Bend in 1980. He held 7-year-old Stephen's coat when the youngster put on shooting exhibitions at halftimes of Moeller basketball games. "They're such a solid family," he says. "That mom and dad, they exemplify what parenthood is all about."
If the Larkins were a television series instead of a family, they would be The Cosby Show—black family, both parents in professional jobs, five lively kids. Bob is an analytical chemist, supervising a staff of 21 at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency in Cincinnati. He's a genial, articulate man who rarely raises his voice. "I call him Cool Guy," says Barry. Shirley, who met and married Bob when they were students at Xavier University of Louisiana, is a part-time medical technologist at Children's Hospital in Cincinnati. An enthusiastic bowler and bingo player, she's as spontaneous and uninhibited as her husband is reserved, a woman who speaks her mind and cares deeply about big issues. She once invited the police to Silverton Elementary to talk to a Brownie troop about drug abuse.
Like characters in a TV script, the Larkin children are just as sharply defined. Robin, 23, the eldest, took ballet lessons, practiced scales on the living-room piano and made life difficult for her brothers, as big sisters do. As the oldest boy, Mike got into the most mischief and won the most backyard fights. "Michael used to catch bees, drown 'em and pick their wings off," Byron says, raising an incredulous eyebrow.
Barry was the sensitive second son, quiet and trustworthy. Says Michael', "Barry is the sort of person who will lie so as not to hurt someone's feelings." Byron was Skinny-minny to his mother, best pal to Barry and sparring partner to Mike. "I always tried to be like Barry," Byron says sheepishly, "but I ended up being like Michael."
Finally, there's Stephen, the ham of the clan. Faust tells how he once devoted a weekend morning to watching Stephen as a running back for the Deer Park Cobras. "Stevie leaned out of the huddle to see if I was watching," Faust says, "and he waved. Then he broke off a 60- or 70-yard touchdown run and looked over his shoulder and grinned at me on the way. Is that something?"