Happy 71st birthday to John Bitzer, the 20th individual to portray Chief Illiniwek, the longtime symbol of the University of Illinois.
Son of Chief IX —Robert Bitzer —the Collinsville High School grad contacted Everett Kissinger, then director of the Marching Illini, early in the summer of 1967. Influenced by his father, Bitzer immersed himself in Native America lore and dance. He explained his exuberance about filling the role in a story written a few years ago for the UI’s Beta Theta Pi website.
“Graduates from Illinois were more special than those from other schools, so I always knew I wanted to attend (the University of Illinois)”, Bitzer said. “And because (portraying Chief Illiniwek) was such an immense tradition and meant so much to so many and that my dad had done it, I knew that when I got to Illinois I would try out to be Chief.”
Winning the competition against 30 other hopefuls, Bitzer ultimately held the role for four years (1970-73), a span matched only previously by William Newton (1931-34) and Edward Kalb (1935-38). So spectacular was Bitzer’s performance in the eyes of Kissinger that the Chief’s routine remained unchanged by the next six individuals who succeeded him.
For more than 30 years, Bitzer has operated the Bitzer Law Firm in Collinsville, specializing in personal injury law.
Men and women who portrayed Chief Illiniwek prior to John Bitzer:
1926-28 Lester Leutwiler
1929-30 Webber Borchers
1931-34 William Newton
1935-38 Edward Kalb
1939-40 John Grable
1941-42 Glenn Holthaus
1943 Idelle Stith Brooks
1944 Kenneth Hanks
1945-46 Robert Bitzer
1947 Robert Bischoff
1948-50 James Down
1951-52 William Hug
1953-55 Dean Spotts
1956 Ronald Kaiser
1957-59 John Forsyth
1960-63 Ben Forsyth
1964-65 Fred Cash
1966-67 Rick Legue
1968-69 Gary Simpson
1970-73 John Bitzer
Sunday: Mike Thorne, basketball (27)
Monday: Kevin Anderson, tennis (34)
Tuesday: Jerry Renner, basketball (79)
Wednesday: Pimploy Thirati, golf (27)
Thursday: Ed O’Bradovich, football (80)
Friday: Elizabeth Cablk, soccer (21)
Saturday: Brian Wilson, tennis (38)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.