Memory Lane: Gene Vance

Memory Lane: Gene Vance

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: Paul Klee's conversation with the late, legendary Gene Vance, who passed away last week.

Date: May 31, 2009

Headline: Living Legend

By PAUL KLEE

It's a deep breath, like Gene Vance is trying to summon the memory through the air.

He fiddles with the oxygen tube that makes the breath come easier. At the same time it's a reminder why the memory doesn't.

"That was quite a while ago," he says, and you nod, and the 1943 Big Ten championship ring sparkles in the light, and he fiddles with that too, and he loves that ring. He wears it every day, like it's an extension of his still-strong hands, just as "a member of the famous Whiz Kids" remains an extension of his surname.

"It was hell," Vance says. That's what he remembers about the Korean War, and that's enough. Memories of the Whiz Kids return more quickly, maybe because that's the memory he's asked about most often. "It was a perfect team," he says, a heavenly quintet, really.

At 86, Vance is the last living member of the Whiz Kids.

"He's our John Wooden," says longtime UI athletic trainer Rod Cardinal. "Whenever there's been a high point in Illinois basketball — in 1989 or 2005, whenever it might be — people always bring up the Whiz Kids. He's the tie to that era."

"I stopped by his house the other day," current coach Bruce Weber says. "We talked for a while. He's a big part of our history here."

From where he sits in a dark green recliner, in the comfortable living room of his Champaign home, Vance can see a lifetime of unforgettable gifts, like friendships built through his beloved university, and forgettable hell, like war. The memories often escape him, and frankly, his closest friends who lived those memories, like his Whiz Kids teammates, have passed.

But there, stacked high on a coffee table, stand a half-dozen scrapbooks, rich with history and fading photos and tales that could make a Hollywood film.

Go on, take a look.

***

"His Beta fraternity brothers call him 'Body' and 'Lana Turner.' (One of the brothers) started the latter by calling him 'the male version of Lana Turner.' .. Really slays the women. Lots of girls call up giggling and ask for Gene."

— Essay written by the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in 1942, titled "Gene Vance, alias 'The Body Beautiful' "

As a youth in Clinton, Ellis Eugene Vance was a kid on the move. The fraternity essay tells of a boy shooting baskets "in rain, snow, fog, sleet, wind, daylight and dark" and burning energy in the YMCA — after basketball practice was over. In the summers he would lifeguard on a lake, returning as a bronzed statue of a figure, 6-foot-3 and chiseled at 200 pounds.

Appearance has always been important to Vance, never more so than as a representative of Illinois, either as a Beta, a baseball or basketball player, the athletic director or as one of 20 players selected to the All-Century team.

"He always wore a coat and tie," his wife Janann says. "He would say, 'When I'm representing the University of Illinois, this is the way I want to be.' "

From his chair, Vance leans over to examine a pair of brown boat shoes. They're worn from time, not from recent overuse. Two hip replacements and two major knee surgeries stole him from the golf course a few years back. Playing partners offered to pick him up, have him drive the cart. Vance politely declined.

When once you were "a world-class athlete," as his son Jon says, and it becomes tough to tee off, the change can be hard to accept. "I don't leave the house much," Gene says.

He's handed a scrapbook. It opens to a photo of him, ripped arms beneath a No. 25 Illinois jersey, dribbling a basketball toward the camera.

He smiles.

"That was quite a while ago."

***

"Need your permission to get wedding license."

— Western Union telegram sent from Vance, 20, to his parents on Aug. 3, 1943

When he was stationed in Mineral Wells, Texas, Gene wasn't old enough to be legally married to Grace Hoberg. Four days later, he had the permission of Ellis and Barbara Vance, and the couple was bound until her death in 1980.

"The most wonderful woman in the world," says Jim Vance, one of their sons. "Not a day goes by when we don't think about her."

Across the living room from his chair, family photos are perched on a wooden bookshelf. He and Grace had two boys (Jim and Jon) and two girls (Sue and Martha).

"They're all grown now," he says. "Good kids."

And despite his schedule they were always a priority. The children don't recall Dad ever missing one of their games.

"Tennis, golf, basketball, baseball, cheerleading," Jim says, "he was always there."

"He lived for two things: his university and his family," Jon says.

On weekday nights, Vance worked as a high school basketball official, in gyms from Peoria to Hoopeston. The kids would join him, not for the basketball, but for the guarantee of a trip to Steak n Shake after the game. No surprise, it's still his favorite place to eat.

"A burger," he says. "I always get a burger."

***

"Vance came to the rescue of the water-soaked infantrymen, shortly after they scampered to safety on a precarious rocky island. Minutes earlier a flash flood whipped down the narrow valley, inundating the region."

— Army newsletter, distributed in 1951 during the Korean War

"I imagine I was in a little better shape than most men when I came over (to Korea), but believe me, it didn't do me too much good. There's a whale of a difference between climbing these Korean mountains and running up and down a basketball court."

— Vance, in an unnamed newspaper report in 1951

The smell of Janann's coffee cake sweeps from the kitchen as you see a photo of Vance in military gear. It was taken in Germany, in 1945, with a message scribbled on the back.

"Send this one to my folks."

Vance served in World War II from 1943 to '46 and in Korea from 1951 to '52, where he earned a Bronze Star. Ask him about his military service and the conversation turns back to the Whiz Kids. He's never been one to speak of himself. But if the topic includes him as part of a group, an infantry division, a team, he'll offer what he can.

"Even though we (the Whiz Kids) were apart," Vance says, "we were always together."

***

"Coach Doug Mills' team that year (1942-43) may have been the best college basketball had yet seen. .. There had

never been a college team quite like the Whiz Kids, all of whom were from small Illinois towns."

— The Washington Times, 1986

"He (Mills) didn't give a 'great' pep talk before each game. He said, 'If you play your best, you will win the game.' A simple philosophy."

— Vance, in a hand-written letter to a Whiz Kids admirer, in 2001

The Big Ten championship ring is off his finger now. He passes it over; "Vance" etched on one side, "Whiz Kids" on the other.

"Only one of us was taller than 6-3," Vance says, and that was 6-foot-5 center Art Mathisen, allowing them to play at a faster pace than had been witnessed before. With an average margin of victory of 20 points, and four of five starters named All-Big Ten, the Whiz Kids finished 17-1 overall, 12-0 in the league.

But when three players were drafted into the military after the regular season, the nation's top-rated squad declined a bid to the NCAA tournament.

In several conversations with Vance, the subject of the NCAA-title-run-that-never-happened is one of two times he shows significant emotion.

"We would have won it all."

The other time is when he considers the passing of those dear teammates. It's been five years since Vance wasn't the last of the Whiz Kids. Jack Smiley, Andy Phillip, Ken Menke and Mathisen died earlier this decade.

And you wonder how much the loss of his teammates contributes to Vance's health issues, and why he rarely leaves home. The answer isn't in a scrapbook, but in the tone of his voice.

"I miss them."

From where he sits, Vance can see what has mattered to him most. The photos of his children and grandchildren on the wooden bookshelf. The Block I on his white polo. The scrapbooks, bound with a lifetime of honest and hard work, helping to bring the memories back.

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CecilColeman wrote on February 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Mr. Vance a perfect example of "Illinois Loyalty" - Rest in peace, sir.

ifullofit wrote on February 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm

For many years Gene's picture hung in the lobby of the old Clinton High School. I heard it said by many players of the past Clinton basketball teams, " I sure wish I could be good enough to have my picture hanging there beside this legend. Thanks for the memories.