by Jeff Helberg
I have thought for a while now about writing something for this website but have struggled to come up with a topic that I wanted to write about. There are so many knowledgeable people that write on this website (Tony Holler, Dan McQuaid, Jim Aikens, Rob Assise to name a few). So, I felt like if I ever decided to make a submission, it would have to be well done and live up to the standard these great coaches have set. Through some events that have happened recently I found my inspiration. This website would not exist without some of the great people that came before us to create the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association. One of those men was my grandfather, Ron Helberg.
For those who are not aware, my grandfather passed away on August 6th, 2018. He had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for a good portion of my life but was always so strong. He is one of the main reasons why I am in the career I am today. I strive to even accomplish half of what he did. Ron Helberg graduated from Blue Island High School (now called Eisenhower). He was a member of the State Championship team in 1955 and won the 880 yard relay with the great Willie May.
I was not aware that in that time, the state championship meet was contested prior to the conference meet. So in that year, the Blue Island team that won State Meet did not even win their own conference! Ron earned a scholarship to run at Southern Illinois University. He was a two year Captain and won the Most Valuable Track Award twice. In 1957 he married his high school sweetheart and wife of 61 years, Marilyn.
After graduating from Southern in 1959, he became a Math teacher and Head Track & Field coach at Palatine High School. In 1962 he left Palatine and went to Maine East as the head Track & Field Coach. In 1967, he made the jump over to Evanston High School where he led the Evanston Boys Track teams to state titles in 1970, 71, 72 and 74. He helped coach the national 880 record holder, Larry Kelly in 1964. He also coached Howard Jones, 100 and 220 state champ for 3 straight years, and Nat Page, the first 7 foot high jumper in Illinois history. Ron also coached the State’s first 60 foot shot putter, Andy Marutka in 1962 with a put of 62’ 2.5”. He left coaching the year after Evanston won the 1974 State Title to become the PE Department Chair. As Evanston did not allow their Department Chairs to be head coaches, Ron became active as an official.
He officiated the IHSA State Track & Field Meet for 37 years, 14 years as the meet referee, 6 years as the starter and assistant starter. In 2000 Ron was named the Honorary Meet Referee. After Evanston, Ron became Athletic Director at Hoffman Estates High School and then Glenbrook South until his retirement in 1994. Ron is a part of numerous Halls of Fame, including ITCCCA, Illinois Track and Cross Country Officials Association, the Illinois Athletic Directors Association, the Eisenhower High School Hall of Fame and the Evanston Township High School Hall of Fame. In 2004 Ron was inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association hall of fame.
Because I was born in 1987, I only know my grandfather as just that, a grandfather. But at most of our family gatherings I would always get to hear stories and we would talk a lot about teaching and coaching. My grandmother (Marilyn) was an elementary educator, my father (Ken) retired from Wheaton Warrenville South in 2016 and is currently a part-time teacher and men’s and women’s track coach at North Central College. My mom (Paula) is a reading specialist in Naperville, my Uncle Don is currently at Wheaton North teaching physics and is the Head Boys Track and Field Coach and my brother Ross is a Special Education teacher, cross country and track and field coach in the Wauconda school district. My wife likes to joke that if you don’t know a lot about teaching or coaching you may not have much to talk about at our family parties. So for me, my family is a track and field family. Then, when I take a step back and look around the state at the coaches and athletes participating in the sport, I think that it is really that track and field is a family in and of itself.
The parallels of family and Illinois track and field are plentiful. Many siblings are competitive with each other just like we all are in the coaching community, but we are also our biggest supporters when we need it. There are few other sports where the coaches are so open and willing to share what has worked for them because it means the betterment of the kids involved in the sport. Some of my best friends are the people that I lived with and competed with on the track and field team at North Central College. One of my favorite days of the year is when the North Central Cross Country and Track Alumni Golf outing occurs. It is always great to see so many old teammates and different NCC alums. Plus there is always the benefit of seeing Al greet every person that comes in by shaking hands and saying hello while we are still in our cars. You will always see Grammy (Frank Gramarosso) yell at Al that he has to keep the line moving. Every single NCC alum has a great Al or Grammy story that they love to share. A lot of those memories would either be team trips, funny incidents during practice or team meetings.
For those of you who know Al Carius and have heard him talk, most of his talking points revolved about being a team and acting as one. Some buzzwords of his would be “synergy”, “collective effort”, “love”. Al always says that when you love something and there is cohesion the effort of the task is so much easier.
So many of us coaches bring those ideas into our programs on a daily basis whether or not you had Al as a coach. I have yet to come across any track and field or cross country coach that does not teach the value of team and working together. Whether or not we use the word, what we are teaching our athletes is to be a family. Just like a family, there a highs and lows to every season. Emotions can run high but at the end of the day there are very few other people we would want to be around than those that are in our programs, coaches and athletes alike. I have seen Big Sister/Little Sister programs, pumpkin carving contests, games of Connect Four, teams making trips to Naperville Running Company Underground, costume contests, theme days, and so on. These are all things that we might do with blood families. We may not be aware in the moment, but we as coaches have a huge impact on our athletes.
I am now getting to the point in my career where my first students and athletes are graduated from college and when I see them and we get to talking about sports they always mention the fun times that they had– not always the games or contests. They always like to talk about great moments from practices, nicknames, times where adversity was overcome by triumph. Athletes past and present will ask us for advice, talk to us about things that they tell very few people. How can this not be the characteristics of what a family is?
As coaches we always look back on successful seasons from the past with great reverence just as we do with loved ones that have passed. When my grandfather passed, my family received an outpouring of support and it was very overwhelming. It was amazing to see all the people that my grandfather impacted throughout his life and career.
There will be a celebration of life service on November 24th, at Barrington United Methodist Church for my grandfather for anyone who would like to attend. Visitation is from 10 to 11 AM and the service will start at 11 AM. Also, if anyone wishes to donate to the Parkinson’s Foundation or the Michael J. Fox Foundation in honor of Ron Helberg that would be appreciated. I am sure that there will be plenty of stories and laughter from many members of what I consider to be my family.