Russell Attis, beloved Arlington High icon, dies at 95

  • Russell Attis, a longtime athletic director and coach at Arlington High School, passed away last weekend. Here he acknowledges the crowd after the final Arlington basketball game in 1984 in Grace Gym.

    Russell Attis, a longtime athletic director and coach at Arlington High School, passed away last weekend. Here he acknowledges the crowd after the final Arlington basketball game in 1984 in Grace Gym. Daily Herald file photo

  • Russell Attis, in an undated photo, died Saturday in Glenview. He was a teacher and coach at Arlington High School for 34 years.

    Russell Attis, in an undated photo, died Saturday in Glenview. He was a teacher and coach at Arlington High School for 34 years. Courtesy of Glueckert Funeral Home

 
 
Updated 3/19/2019 1:05 PM

I was 9 years old when I walked into Arlington High School's Grace Gymnasium in 1968, making sure I didn't stray too far away from my father, a sports writer covering the sectional championship.

When the doors swung open on that March night, I had that same feeling you get walking up the stairs for the first time into Wrigley Field.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The place was packed, including the stage. Fans were shoulder-to-shoulder even in the charming third balcony which seemed miles away.

The first person I met was Russell Attis.

That was like meeting the Cubs manager.

The Arlington athletic director showed my dad and me where to sit, and I watched in awe as Evanston claimed the sectional before marching on to become state champion.

For many, Russ Attis was Arlington's state champion.

Attis, 95, who died Saturday at the Abington of Glenview, retired in 1984 after 34 years of coaching and teaching at Arlington High School.

He was named Athletic Director of the Year in 1978 by the Illinois Athletic Directors Association.

At Arlington he was head coach of the boys track and cross country teams and varsity girls track. He served as an official at the boys state track meet for 24 years.

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As retired hall of fame Daily Herald Sports Editor Bob Frisk wrote, Attis was a man of boundless energy whose dedication to physical fitness is legendary.

Frisk said Attis impacted many young people in positive ways as he launched the cross country program.

Attis built the track and field team into a state powerhouse, molded popular park district summer athletic programs and guided a successful Arlington athletic program that won the first four Paddock Cups for varsity boys sports excellence in the Mid-Suburban League.

Frisk, whose name was later added to the trophy, was a member of Attis' track teams.

George Davajon, Attis' longtime friend, was a successful hurdler for Attis.

"We became friends and we were season ticket holders for the Cubs and Blackhawks," said Davajon, a 1952 Arlington grad who also played football for coach E. Elliot "Bus" Ormsbee, who later became a hall of fame AD at Wheeling. "Russ and I would go to the games and just had a good time together.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We played golf together. I was a pretty good cook and when he'd have friends over, he'd call me up to help cut the tenderloins and broil them."

Davajon recalls Attis' passion for Arlington.

"He was so proud of Arlington and he did a great job," Davajon said. "His only regret was that they closed the school in 1984."

Bob Baker taught in the physical education department with Attis in the 1960s.

"I have a lot of fond memories with Russ," said Baker, who directed the Cardinals' baseball program for five years and coached Major League pitchers Fritz Peterson and Paul Splittorff.

After attending Taft High School for three years, Baker transferred his senior year to Arlington in 1950-51 when he became a student in Attis' physical education class.

After majoring in P.E. at Northern University State College (now Northern Illinois University), Baker returned to Arlington as a student-teacher under Attis.

He eventually joined the P.E. staff full time, and taught classes with Attis.

"We even shared duties supervising a study hall," Baker recalled. "A lot of the time doing that we spent trying to counsel kids before the days of school counselors. We tried to take time to help kids with problems."

Baker, who went into the sporting goods industry and real estate and now lives most of the year in Florida, remained friends with Attis.

"After teaching, we used to still watch 'Monday Night Football' together," he said. "And we did a lot of other things together.

"What I will remember most is Russ' enthusiasm -- it was contagious. He was upbeat, always positive. He would do anything for the rest of the fellows he taught with as well as the kids. He really had the kids' interest at heart."

In his senior year at Arlington, Baker played baseball for coach Wally "Pappy" Grace, the Cardinals' athletic director for whom the gym is named.

"Becoming the future athletic director would have been the logical course for Russ as far as I was concerned," Baker said. "He had everyone's respect.

"He was very well organized. He had the respect of all the coaches as well as the kids he worked with. He was very dedicated and so well respected by his peers."

Attis, a Chicago Wells High School graduate, earned his undergraduate degree in physical education in 1945 and his master's in education in 1946 from the University of Illinois.

He taught at Illinois for one year (Urbana and Navy Pier campus), in Chicago Public Schools for 2 years and later at NIU before arriving at Arlington in 1950.

His career includes 14 years as a member of the Lattof International YMCA board of directors.

He was a member of the Des Plaines Elks Club, Arlington Heights Optimists Club and a longtime member at St. James Catholic Church.

Visitation is 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Glueckert Funeral Home, 1520 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights. The funeral Mass is 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Edna Catholic Church, 2525 N. Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights.

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