Two coaches who built new programs into Illinois High School Association state powers headline the Class of 2017 set to be inducted into the Evanston Athletic Hall of Fame this weekend.
Girls track coach Karen Huff and boys gymnastics coach Ron Walden are among the 6 individuals and 2 teams that will be honored at halftime of Evanston’s Hall of Fame football game on Friday and at the Hall of Fame luncheon on Saturday.
Also earning recognition from a HOF committee that includes faculty, administration and members of the Evanston community are Mike Farmer, Class of 1955 (boys swimming); James Henry, Class of 1951 (cross country); Andrew Pink, Class of 2001 (boys volleyball); Ray Woods, Class of 1913 (boys basketball); the 1949 football team, and the 1916-17 boys basketball team.
Call him The Natural.
Even though Mike Farmer worked as hard as any swimmer during the Golden Age of Evanston swimming in the 1950s under legendary coach Dobbie Burton, his natural ability in the breaststroke set him apart from the rest.
After Farmer placed fourth in the 100-yard breaststroke as a sophomore at the 1953 Illinois High School Association state finals, he was a perfect 4-for-4 the next two years when it came to collecting gold medals. Farmer captured individual titles in the breaststroke as a junior (1 minute, 2.04 seconds) and senior (1:01.7), both times establishing new state records, and he also swam with back-to-back state championship relay teams in the 150-yard medley event.
His breaststroke times in 1955 ranked as the best in the nation and he is one of only three swimmers in the history of the program to compete on three state championship squads.
“My years at Evanston were just outstanding, and winning all those state championships felt terrific,” Farmer recalled. “I have nothing but praise for the swim program, for Coach Burton and the whole school. I can’t say enough about Coach Burton because he made us what we were. He would challenge us all the time. He made it interesting, and he praised you when you should be praised. I can’t imagine a better coach.”
Farmer excelled in the breaststroke partly due to his mastery of the “frog kick,” but suffered in part from a change in that technique after he graduated. The “dolphin kick” became legal in 1955, at the same time that Farmer took a two-year hiatus from the sport while attending Northwestern University.
He came back out of semi-retirement to place fifth in the 200-yard butterfly event at the Big Ten championship meet in 1958. He broke the NU record four different times in a race that wasn’t his specialty.
“Somebody liked the way that fish-tail (dolphin kick) looked, and everything then was about how to be faster, bigger and stronger in the pool,” Farmer said. “That’s why they changed it.
“We were specialists in those days. Not everyone was a freestyler. I remember going to a meet when I was in grade school and watching them use those butterfly arms along with the frog kick, and I thought man, that looks hard. But the next summer I started doing it at the beach and I got good at it. A girl said she’d bet me I couldn’t go fast doing it, and I just pushed off and did it. I didn’t know what I did, really. After that, things just came together for me.
“I just worked as hard as I could every day and took each meet as it came. That’s really the best way to accomplish anything. Working with Coach Burton made it the greatest experience for all of us. I can’t thank him enough.”
While changes have occurred in the sport in the past 50 years since Farmer last competed, he holds a record that won’t be broken in the 150-yard medley. As a junior he combined with Dick Nelson and Dave Pemberton to win the state title in 1 minute, 20.2 seconds. As a senior, he and Skip McCallum and James Stackhouse teamed up to tie that record.
And that record will stay in the books, since the IHSA changed the race to the 200-yard medley relay the year after Farmer graduated.
James Henry, who graduated in 1951, may be the greatest cross country runner ever produced by Evanston’s program. He is the only runner in school history to earn top four State finishes at the Illinois High School Association state finals and helped the Wildkits place second to Paris in the state team standings in 1949.
As a junior, Henry played second fiddle to fellow Hall-of-Famer Ted Wheeler at both the Suburban League meet and the district meet, finishing runner-up over the 2-mile distance at both meets. But he saved his best for last on the state course at the University of Illinois in Champaign, pulling away from the field to win in a record time of 9 minutes, 35.1 seconds.
With the win, he became the first African-American athlete to win the cross country state crown.
As a senior, Henry was limited by a sprained ankle at the state finals and settled for a fourth place finish, after cruising to the district championship in 9:18.14 on a short course at Maine Township. Steve Murphy of Chicago Calumet, the defending state champ in the mile, ruled the cross country finals over Charles Matheny of Paris, Clarence Jones of Bloom and a hobbled Henry.
Ironically, Henry never made an impact in track for the Wildkits. Highlights of his junior season included a runner-up finish at 880 yards in the Suburban League meet, but he fell short of qualifying for State at the district when he placed third in the mile run.
Henry did not letter in track as an ETHS senior and joined the United States Army right out of high school. He continued his running career as a soldier, and returned to Evanston to work as a custodian at the high school for 24 years.
He never considered himself the best player on any volleyball team he played on. But after earning All-State recognition as a senior at Evanston in 2001, Andrew Pink enjoyed a fruitful college and professional career, including an appearance in the 2012 Olympic Games in London competing for Great Britain.
Pink joins Jeremy Hoff as the only other player in the history of the ETHS boys volleyball program to make it to the Evanston Hall of Fame.
Not bad for someone who began his athletic career as a tennis player as a freshman, and then was forced to choose another sport that same spring.
“It was spring break and I wanted to go on vacation with my family. But the tennis coach told me we were going to practice over spring break, and that if I went away, I wouldn’t play in any matches that counted after that,” Pink said.
“So I quit tennis and went on vacation. My Mom told me I had to find another sport, so I just wandered into the volleyball gym. There were about 5 guys in the gym and it was a pretty rough mix of guys who were not very good athletes. I walked in with two of my buddies and played the second half of the year for the freshman team. I knew nothing about volleyball, nothing about technique, but I got pulled into the club volleyball world then and that changed everything for me.”
Pink joined the volleyball program the same year that Chris Livatino — now the athletic director at ETHS — became the head coach. He earned a spot on the varsity team as a sophomore and was named all-Central Suburban League South division for three straight seasons.
“I first played for Chris on club and he brought me to the varsity as a sophomore,” said Pink. “I was always the first one to say that I was not good at (volleyball) technique, I was just a good athlete. I bot better training and practicing under Chris. When I was a sophomore we had guys who went on to play in college on that team, and I really didn’t have any kind of presence on the court. Coach just told me they’ll set you the ball, and you hit it as hard as you can. I did not have a lot of responsibility and I think I had more mistakes than kills.
“We had a great team my junior year (third at the Illinois High School Association state tournament, still the best finish in school history with a 36-5-1 record).
We lost unexpectedly to Warren — I remember how frustrated Chris was because he was so driven to win in those days — and after that we won 15 matches in a row. We didn’t lose again until the state semifinals.”
Pink led the Wildkits to a 31-6 mark as a senior, then had a stellar career at Rutgers University. He was a first-team all-conference choice three straight years at Rutggers and ranked in the top 15 nationally for kills his last three seasons. He was named Athlete of the Year at Rutgers in 2005.
“It was really competitive at Rutgers, and I really enjoyed the challenge,” Pink remembered. “But after graduation I felt like maybe I’d play (professionally) one year in Europe. I’d had two shoulder surgeries while I was in college, and I didn’t know how much longer I wanted to play. I went to Germany and played — basically for beer money — and that’s when we found out that London would host the Olympics in 2012. I was going to go back to the United States, but the (Great Britain) coach was looking for players and that’s an opportunity you don’t usually get. So I had to go for it.”
Britain’s decision to basically build a program from scratch found more money pouring into the sport in the years leading up to the Games. In the interim, Pink also competed in Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and France and earned a total of 145 “caps” international appearances over a 5-year span.
Pink participated in 3 World Championships, 4 European Championships and 5 European leagues while helping Great Britain climb up from a world ranking of about 140th in 2007 to 27th. The hosts didn’t advance out of pool play at the Olympics, however, and Pink’s days with the national team ended about 6 months following the Olympics.
“On the first day of practice we had about 50 guys out there, and only 3 of them had played at the pro level, including myself,” Pink said. “The first time we went to Egypt to play in the African Championships, they put an under-16 B team up against us — and we struggled to beat them. But four or five years later we weren’t getting embarrassed and we were beating teams like China and Egypt’s senior team. I might have stayed another four years if they kept the funding going — but they didn’t.”
Pink also played soccer at ETHS and as a senior was a member of the squad that went 23-2-2 and lost to Fremd in the Elite Eight.
“Coach (Franz) Calixte used me a lot on corner kicks, because I could outjump everyone,” he said. “I think I started about half the games that year.
“To be honest, I never expected to make it to the Hall of Fame. It’s fantastic and it puts me in quite exalted company. I’m shocked and thrilled and delighted.”
There was a center jump after every basket scored and no basketball player even thought about dunking. But Ray Woods was the Michael Jordan of his era, a 5-foot-10 guard who led Evanston to three consecutive Central States Tournament titles in 1911, 1912 and 1913. ETHS finished a perfect 17-0 in his senior season.
On the first of those powerhouse Evanston teams, he teamed up with brother Ralf, a forward with exceptional shooting skills, and Ernie McKay. The three of them played together at the University of Illinois and started for the greatest team in Illini history, the 1914-15 undefeated squad that was voted mythical national champion by the Helms Foundation. The trio played key roles for teams that finished 16-0, 13-3 and 13-3 at Illinois.
Woods was the main figure in two dynasties, using his great shooting skill and exceptional athleticism to excel at both the high school and collegiate levels. He remains the only product of the Suburban League to earn first-team All-American honors for three straight years while at Illinois, and the Helms Foundation named him the College Player of the Year in 1917.
Woods also earned all-Big Ten recognition in 1915, 1916 and 1917, was the team captain as a senior and had his number — 1 — retired by the university. He was also named to the All-Century team representing Illinois.
Karen Huff will never forget her first meet as the head girls track and field coach at Evanston Township High School.
“My first assistant coach was Inga Petermann, and we really went into the meet blind,” Huff recalled. “We were up at Waukegan and it was cold and rainy, and we were just standing in the middle of the track, trying to give our girls directions where to go for their events.
“We ran away with every event and at one point, Inga turned to me and said, ‘My goodness, I think we have something here!’ “
Huff’s first year was the start of a track and field dynasty. She guided the Wildkit girls to a total of four top 5 finishes at the Illinois High School Association state finals, 8 district championships and 8 Central Suburban League titles from 1974 to 1984. She is the first female coach in ETHS history to win a state team trophy (state runner-up in 1977) and is just the second female coach to be inducted into Evanston’s Hall of Fame, along with Shirley Nannini.
“Truly, one person can make an impact on so many lives,” said current ETHS girls track coach Fenton Gunter. “Without Mrs. Huff, there never would have been so much of our history. No Mrs. Huff, no foundation. Mrs. Huff and her staff built a solid foundation for the next 43 years.”
“It’s such an honor for me to make it to the Hall of Fame and I’m truly excited about it,” Huff said. “I didn’t realize we would turn out to be a track powerhouse when I first started. It was a great opportunity to work with some of the greatest athletes on the planet!
“I was hired as a PE teacher at Evanston (after attending the University of Hawaii, where she threw the javelin) and I was fortunate enough to walk into that interview having been active already in track and field. It was a pioneer program for the girls and that first year we had 115 girls out. It was hard just to know their names and sort out their events. I’m not sure how I did it at first, because I was finding my way just like the girls were.
“I could have been tougher on them and we probably could have won State if I hadn’t been such a softie. At first, I really didn’t run them hard enough. But I thought high school sports were supposed to be fun, something to enjoy where you could be part of a team. Those were such exciting years. We succeeded, first by inches and then by leaps and bounds. I always tell Coach Gunter that I built the frame — and he painted the picture.”
Huff, who also coached at Northwestern University until 1988 when the university cut the women’s track program, had roots in the sport even before the passage of Title IX legislation opened doors for female competitors. Her mother, a German immigrant, also threw the javelin and was a seven-time team handball champion who competed in the 1936 Olympics. Her father was a prominent hurdler who just missed qualifying for the Olympics.
“There was really nothing else I wanted to do but compete in track,” said Huff regarding her childhood. “I tried the high jump and the high hurdles, but it was the javelin that stuck with me. I won the 1960 Junior National title (with a toss of 152 feet) but I finished third at the Olympic Trials. I was 9 inches short of the qualifying standard.”
Huff caught the eye of representatives at the University of Hawaii who were trying to form the nucleus for a women’s Olympic squad, and earned a rare athletic scholarship. She met her husband there and raised three children — Michael, Matthew and Malia — when they moved to the North Shore after college.
“I had a lot of great assistant coaches at Evanston and everyone helped out and brought something to the table for us,” Huff recalled. “The older athletes taught the younger athletes, and everyone really pitched in. All of the teachers and parents supported us and the boys coaches, Willie May and Don Michelin, were really great with the way they put up with us and helped us right from the start.
“I had a lot of great kids at Evanston, and my greatest reward was seeing them do well and move on in their lives.”
No coach in the history of Evanston’s athletic programs has delivered so much success in such a short amount of time. Ron Walden didn’t just build the Wildkit boys gymnastics program from scratch, he established the Kits as a state power by winning three state championships — in 1963, 1966 and 1967.
ETHS teams coached by Walden also placed third in 1964 and fifth in 1966 at the Illinois High School Association state finals and captured five straight Suburban League crowns before he gave up coaching to become an assistant principal at the school.
Walden was just 21 years old when he came to Evanston from Indiana University, where he earned All-American honors in tumbling in 1959. He was hired as a physical education instructor and was the right man for the job when the high school decided to start a boys gymnastics team.
“Leo Samuelson was the athletic director, and he told me we have a gym that will be converted for gymnastics, now tell me what else you need to start a program,” Walden said. “They gave me free rein, and every year we’d upgrade things. It helped that I was a PE teacher and that every freshman had to take gymnastics for a period of time. I was a pretty good recruiter, I guess, and we started with freshmen I recruited out of PE class.
“At one time we had 100 kids in the gym. 1959-60 was the first year we had a team, and by the time those freshmen were seniors, we achieved our goal and won a state championship. None of them had been gymnasts before they got to high school, but they really matured.”
Wildkit teams were dominant in the state finals once the program arrived, winning by decisive margins each title year. Evanston outscored runner-up Niles East 67-54 in 1963, clipped Proviso East by a 53.5 to 43.83 margin in 1965, and breezed to the 1967 title by topping Prospect 51.5 to 36.5.
Walden helped develop remarkable depth in the Wildkit program. A total of 14 different gymnasts he coached in that five-year stretch claimed state medals, including state champions William Rondinella (1965 trampoline), Richard Crim (1966 trampoline) and Lee Wayman (1967 parallel bars).
“He was a great motivator, both for the kids and for their parents,” Wayman pointed out. “Some of the things we did looked a little crazy and he always wanted to assure them of our safety. He always led us in our warmup exercises and he really believed in good preparation when you were getting ready for a big meet.”
“All the kids we had out for gymnastics were the ones who were too small for basketball and football, and who weren’t tough enough for wrestling,” added David Silverman, who placed second at State in trampoline and fourth in tumbling on that ’67 squad. “He was a motivator and a disciplinarian, too. He didn’t put up with much. (Gymnastics) technique was not his strong suit, but he made everyone work hard and he brought out the best in every one of us.”
“In those years, some of the other coaches were only interested in developing one or two of their stronger gymnasts,” said Walden. “My goal was to build a team, and every year after Year 4 our goal was first place in State. I’m most proud of the fact we won State as a team with such few champions. It was always basically a team effort.
“I remember the first year we won and the guys threw me in the shower. My oldest son David was a little guy at the time, and he cried because he thought something bad was happening. I had to tell him everything was OK.
“Early on I decided that 90 percent of building the program was motivation and organization, and that the other 10 percent was knowledge of the sport. I wasn’t all that knowledgeable about teaching methods at that time, and for the most part the kids had no background in gymnastics coming in, so it was nice to see how they developed.”
Walden left Evanston after earning his PHD at Northwestern to become the school superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He also served as a superintendent in Phoenix, Arizona before retiring. He was named Coach of the Year by the Illinois Gymnastics Coaches Association in 1967 and also served a term as president of that organization.
1949 Football Team
The first team to play its home games in Memorial Stadium, the 1949 football squad perfected the new Split T offense and finished off a perfect 8-0 season with a 12-0 victory over arch-rival New Trier in the season finale.
Head coach Bob Reihsen ushered in a new era in high school football when he turned to the new Split T — created in 1944 by Don Faurot at the University of Missouri — and the Wildkits outscored defending state Wisconsin champion Madison East (38-6), Morton (36-7), Highland Park (47-0), Proviso (32-6), Oak Park (36-21), Waukegan (45-6) and York (47-0) on their way to the school’s first Suburban League grid championship since 1940.
Reihsen’s innovations on offense came at a time when most high schools were still relying on the single wing power formation, but the wider spacing in the offensive line opened up holes on the other side and allowed the Wildkits to average 37 points per game.
Leading the attack were all-Suburban League quarterback Jim Miller, All-State fullback Baird Stewart and All-State tackle Dean Perrin. Other notables included halfback George King and all-league linemen Tanner Davis, Harry Schrader, Bob Heap and Willie Grant.
Bill Logan, who played offensive and defensive end as a junior on the team, recalled that even with an undefeated record, the Kits were underdogs for the titanic showdown against New Trier.
“We came into that game feeling we could win it, even though we were not favored,” Logan said. “We had good coaches and good athletes that year, and we just clicked at the right time.”
Touchdown runs by Fred Connally and Stewart on Evanston’s first two possessions were enough to cement the unbeaten season, as after that the defense shut down New Trier’s single wing attack.
That win also nailed down the No. 1 ranking at season’s end by the Chicago Sun-Times, which had a weekly poll for high school football for the first time. Fenwick, with future Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner, had dominated the rankings from Week 1 but lost to Public League champion Schurz 20-7 in the Prep Bowl city championship game.
1916-17 Basketball Team
Evanston didn’t have to travel far to win a national basketball championship in 1916-17. The Wildkits, coached by J.W. Bixby, won five straight games at the University of Chicago’s Bartlett Gymnasium to take top honors in a 23-team tourney created by football coaching legend Amos Alonzo Stagg at UC.
Evanston defeated Waukegan (IL), Spirit Lake (Iowa) 33-7, Mechanic Arts School of St. Paul (Minnesota), St. John’s Military of Delafield (Wisconsin) and then trimmed another Illinois power, Freeport, by a 27-22 margin for the title.
The team also won the prestigious Central States Tournament that season, although records from that era are incomplete. ETHS did not participate in the Illinois High School Association state tournament that year.
The team was led by captain Evy Hellstrom, a forward who would later go on to serve as team captain at the University of Illinois. The team’s center was Charles “Chuck” Carney, who also played at Illinois and became the first Big Ten Conference athlete to earn All-American honors in both football and basketball. Carney is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
The rest of the starting five included senior guard Roland Butow, senior forward Norman Hoff, and senior guard R.C. Phalen. Reserves were junior Vernon Franzen, senior Irving Holmgren, senior Norwood Burch and junior Benjamin Sargent.
Teams rarely substituted in the days when there was a center jump after each made basket, and Evanston’s tourney title certainly deserved the tag as an “iron man” performance.
“They won five games in three days and my Dad always talked about how exhausted they were at the end,” said Rick Phalen, son of A.C. Phalen. “It was a big deal for them to win that tournament, and he said they couldn’t have been prouder or happier. They felt a lot of pressure to win for the school, which at the time probably had no more than about 400 kids.
“He said Coach Bixby was a fair man, a hard worker who was all business. They learned not to whine about things, just to work hard.”
Evanston was presented with a championship banner which read “First Annual Interscholastic Basketball Championship; Given by the University of Chicago, March 16 & 17, 1917. Won by Evanston Township High School.”