When it comes to Helberg's life, there's plenty to celebrate

  • Standing with their state track and field trophies are Ron Helberg flanked by his sons, Don Helberg (left) of Wheaton North, and retired Wheaton Warrenville South coach Ken Helberg.

    Standing with their state track and field trophies are Ron Helberg flanked by his sons, Don Helberg (left) of Wheaton North, and retired Wheaton Warrenville South coach Ken Helberg. Photo courtesy of Bill Gommel/The Picture Man, Inc.

 
 
Updated 11/15/2018 2:00 PM

Ron Helberg meant a lot of things to a lot of people.

He was a hall of fame track and field coach and official, a high school teacher, department chairman and administrator, a state champion and college track MVP. He ran a summer camp in Canada for high school boys.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He was a family patriarch, a disciplinarian, role model, mentor, raconteur, outdoorsman, traveler. He was a brother, husband, father, grandfather and, finally, great-grandfather.

There are many stories and chapters in the life of a person who lives to the age of 81, as did Ron Helberg before passing Aug. 6 in Barrington due to complications from pneumonia.

"A lot of them were the same stories, but we always laughed," said one of his three children, retired Wheaton Warrenville South boys track coach Ken Helberg.

The stories and laughter will be rekindled Nov. 24. Timed so those among Ron Helberg's six grandchildren still in college can attend, a 10 a.m. visitation at Barrington United Methodist Church will be followed by an 11 a.m. service. Guests are then invited to The Garlands of Barrington, residence of Marilyn Helberg, Ron's wife of 61 years.

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"We haven't referred to it as anything but a celebration of life," said Samantha "Sam" Helberg, his first granddaughter, a Waubonsie Valley graduate now living in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood and loving it.

"I don't want to speak on behalf of all the grandkids, but I think it's safe to say we're all very glad to have had him be such a big part of our lives and be such a good man and raise such good kids," she said. "As a coach and as an educator I know he took care of a lot of kids that were not necessarily his blood. I consider myself fortunate to have him be such a big part of my life."

Two of those good kids, Ken Helberg and kid brother Don, who coaches boys track at Wheaton North, were groomed for the sport of track and field before they even realized it. Their sister, Beth, chose the business world instead, but her son, Zach Sheasby, qualified out of Buffalo Grove for the 2018 Class 3A meet in long jump and triple jump.

It was hard for those cinders and sand not to rub off. Ron Helberg ran on a gold-medal 880-yard relay for Blue Island's (later Eisenhower) 1955 state championship track team. On scholarship at Southern Illinois, he was a four-year letterman and two-time captain.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Upon graduating he taught math and coached track first at Palatine, then Maine East. He coached the state's first 7-foot high jumper and its first 60-foot shot putter, according to one of his grandsons, Jeff Helberg, who wrote a great tribute on the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association website.

Ron Helberg moved to an already-strong Evanston program in 1967. His Wildkits won four state titles in five seasons from 1970-74. Forced out of coaching the next year due to becoming Evanston's physical education department chair -- his successor was his Blue Island relay teammate and friend, the late, great Willie May -- Helberg turned his focus to officiating, which he did 37 years at the state meet.

Jeff Helberg, in his first year teaching history and coaching girls track at Lake Park after nine years at Wauconda, was just a lad when his grandfather retired. In Jeff's youth Ron Helberg was a grandpa, not so much a track coach. Jeff remembers the fishing lessons with his brother, Ross, at Ron and Marilyn Helberg's place in Volo; he remembers granddad teaching him to shoot a BB gun.

As an adult he appreciates just how difficult it is to make teaching, coaching and parenting all happen. Jeff Helberg also appreciates that before he passed away Ron saw his first great-grandchild, Jeff's toddler, Nicolene.

"It wasn't until I obviously was older, in high school and college, that I realized just how hard he worked to be as successful as he was," Jeff said. "Now especially being in the profession and knowing how hard it is in the day-to-day teaching world and even on the coaching side, how much he was able to accomplish in a short time was remarkable."

Ron Helberg went on to become athletic director at Hoffman Estates and Glenbrook South, where Ken, Don and Beth attended. An ITCCCA founder and former president, Ron in 1979 preceded both his sons into its hall of fame, one of several halls that honored him. In 2004 Ron Helberg was inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

"What I said when I was inducted into the (ITCCCA) hall of fame (in 2008), I became a teacher and a coach because of dad, and I think Ken is the exact same way," Don Helberg said. "We saw how he coached, how he handled his team and without him necessarily trying to influence us, he did. We saw what you do to try to run a successful program."

Don said running at North Central College under Al Carius "polished" the two Helberg boys, "but it all started when we were little kids. It was a great way to grow up. He was such a good role model that as kids we were observant. So when we were put in that position we kind of knew how to do it."

They were observant in part because as a disciplinarian, Ron Helberg demanded it.

"Dad had a certain expectation about how you were supposed to behave and how you were supposed do things," said Ken Helberg, an all-state football receiver at Glenbrook South on top of his track career. "He didn't have any issues about letting his wishes be conveyed."

"And I needed it," Don said.

Coaches sometimes need to be dispassionate, and disciplinary. Ron told and showed his boys that, and they haven't forgotten.

"I think as a coach you have to make some tough decisions," Ken said. "You can't be wishy-washy about the decision, you have to make the tough decisions."

Eventually, as his children matured into adults and his own professional responsibilities diminished, some of the old coach's hardness softened.

Ken remembered walking to the podium in 1996 to accept his medal after Wheaton Warrenville South won its first state track title, one of his two titles and four state trophies. Following his athletes with eyes focused forward, the Tigers coach bowed his head, felt the medal slip around his neck and upon straightening up saw his father extending his hand in congratulations. It wasn't Ron Helberg's job that day to distribute medals, but for his son he'd made it his job.

"I was happy," Ken said, and obviously so was his father.

"The thing I'm going to talk about at the service is whatever we did, we had a good time doing it," Don Helberg said.

"Even in lousy situations we always would have a good time. As a family we would always laugh, we would tell stories. Even on dad's last day when he was in the (intensive care unit) everyone was in there and we were telling stories and laughing. He couldn't respond, but I know he was laughing inside," he said.

"I think that's what I miss about him most is just talking to him," Don said. "I really enjoyed talking to him as teacher and a coach, getting advice from him. Those are things that I miss. That's when it hits me -- Oh, he's gone."

Work ethic. Helping a pal. Taking time for others whether than meant attending a grown son's track meets or a granddaughter's junior high musicals.

"He was such a warm man," Sam Helberg said.

Yet the thing about death is despite Ron Helberg's chair at The Garlands sitting empty and still, memories of those goofy jokes, quiet advice, fishing lessons and family cruises never wane, and the departed remains among us. This is a celebration of life.

Ken Helberg neatly summarized his father's coaching philosophy but perhaps it translated to parenthood as well: "The bar was raised higher than what the kids thought they could accomplish."

Challenge thrown

Naperville Central's hockey team already laid down the gauntlet with its 3-2 shootout victory over Naperville North on Nov. 9, avenging the Huskies' rare cross-town win last season.

That should amp up the stakes Thursday night in the second semifinal of the inaugural Carillon Cup High School Hockey Showdown, when Naperville North takes on Naperville Central at 8:30 p.m. at All Season Ice Rinks on North Aurora Road in Naperville.

The first semifinal, 7:05 p.m. at the All Seasons Red rink, is the District 204 matchup between Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley-Metea Valley. It'll be the season's first game between those two.

The winner of those semifinals will play for the Carillon Cup championship at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at All Seasons. Admission is free to all Cup games and a 50-50 raffle will be held during Thursday's games.

The Carillon Cup was initiated by Naperville North coach Bill Driscoll, modeled after Boston's annual Beanpot Tournament between Boston College, Boston University, Harvard and Northeastern. The trophy will eventually be modeled after Naperville's Millennium Carillon, a traveling trophy bearing a plaque inscribed with the name of each year's winner.

Through Tuesday in this young season Waubonsie-Metea was 7-1 and tied with Oak Park in third place behind powerful Glenbard and Maine in the Illinois High School Hockey League West Division. Neuqua Valley was 4-5 plus an overtime loss to Oswego.

Naperville Central's win over Naperville North helped the Redhawks move to 4-5 while the Huskies entered Wednesday with 3-5 plus 2 overtime losses.

Back on the scene

In 1990 Naperville's Cheryl Gudinas played in her first professional racquetball tournament, at Glass Court Swim and Fitness in Lombard. She lost in the first round of singles but won the consolation and open divisions, earning a little bit of money.

That cash helped pay her way to a tournament in Los Angeles, where she repeated her results from Lombard.

"Eventually I caught a break and I worked my way up from there," said Gudinas, among the sport's top-five female players from 1993-94 through 2010-11 and No. 1 in the world from 2000-04.

Cheryl Gudinas
Cheryl Gudinas - Photo courtesy of Cheryl Gudinas

Knee surgery, the inevitable creep of age, a new generation of players and less time spent on the court all have combined to usurp her position among the top echelon. While she remains tops among Illinois women, according to USA Racquetball, Gudinas is ranked No. 34 in singles and No. 24 in doubles.

Wherever she's seeded, 28 years after turning pro she'll swing into action back at her home court this weekend, which will host the Chicago area's rare premier racquetball tournament, the Glass Court Turkey Shoot. Spectators are welcome.

About 215 players representing the Ladies Professional Racquetball Tour (LPRT) Tier I, the men's International Racquetball Tour Tier 5, as well as amateurs, had signed up as of this writing.

They include 26 female professionals, "like all the top women in the world," Gudinas said.

Heading the cast is Paola Longoria, a 29-year-old Mexican with 92 professional victories and one of only three women -- including Gudinas -- to win three world singles titles.

Longoria, recipient of Mexico's National Sports Award in 2010, has been ranked No. 1 by the end of the competitive season seven straight years and nine of the last 10. She's so big in the sport she's got her own tournament, the Paola Longoria Experience, in her hometown of San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

"She's virtually unbeatable," said Gudinas, who holds the record of 21 years finishing in the top 10, three more than fellow American Rhonda Rajsich, who also will compete at the Turkey Shoot. The one person to defeat Longoria in a 2017-18 Tier 1 and LPRT Grand Slam event, Samantha Salas, will play at Glass Court as well.

Gudinas, a personal trainer at HealthTrack Sports Wellness in Glen Ellyn, coaches racquetball and recently earned a realtor's license (she celebrated her first closing Nov. 13). She will play her first singles match Friday morning. A little home cookin' may add some pep to her step.

"The main thing is, it's my club, it's where I've spent most of my life," she said. "I'm appreciative of all the people who have helped me along the way, and every time I play at this club, even now, I feel inspired to play. And maybe I will play a little bit above my head."

doberhelman@dailyherald.com

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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