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Spring Valley High School Class of 1959

Bob Willis:
A Major League Opportunity

While older brother Emil was away at college, younger brother Bob was making a name for himself on the fields and courts of Rockland County. Bob was a three-sport standout for the Spring Valley Tigers throughout his high school career. He was a starter on the basketball team, but it was outside on the gridiron and baseball diamond that Bob excelled like no other athlete during that time. Bob was a three-year starter at quarterback on the Spring Valley football team, coached by Ed Stanczyk, and was selected to the Rockland All-County team at that position twice. In addition, Bob was also an outstanding punter for the Tigers. But it was his first love, baseball, that brought Bob the most recognition. An all-around player, Bob earned four varsity letters playing baseball. His primary position was pitcher and Bob, a right-hander, was selected to the All-County team twice at that position. Throughout his high school career Bob averaged 10 strikeouts per game pitched
against all opponents. His coach in baseball was Jim Depasquale.

After beating Nyack for the league championship, Bob’s ability so impressed Nyack baseball coach Frank Nelson that Nelson took Bob and his father to Philadelphia for a tryout with the Phillies. Bob was given a uniform by Manager Gene Mauch and told to warm up. According to Sam Basson, a Journal-News sports reporter who accompanied the group to the tryout, “Bobby was fast but a trifle high. Mauch sent five batters to face Willis. After the workout nothing was said except for a handshake between Mauch and the Willis’s and Manager Gene Mauch walked away. Coach Nelson then informed everyone that the Phillies made an offer of $5,000.00 signing bonus and $500.00 a month for Bobby to sign with the team.” During that same time Johnny Murphy of the New York Mets was also trying to entice Bob to sign with them, dangling a contract worth $30,000. In the
end, it was dad, Emil Sr., who helped Bob wisely decide to complete his education first and then if the opportunity was still there after college they would revisit it. “My mom and dad both grew up during the Great Depression,” Bob said. “For them to turn down a contract with more money than they could have ever imagined left a great impression on me. The value of education to them was priceless!”

A College Diamond Dandy

Bob followed in his brother Emil’s footsteps and chose to attend Springfield College as a physical education major after graduating from high school in 1959. While at Springfield Bob chose to concentrate on baseball and again had an outstanding career. He was the first player to hit a home run over the 420-foot left-field fence at Springfield’s Berry Field, and struck out 10 or more batters in a game numerous times. As a sophomore he was the No. 1 pitcher on the team, compiling a 5-1 record, and was named the starter in the first round  of the NCAA District I playoffs. In 1962 Bob was selected “Little All-American” as the No. 1 pitcher on that team. During the summers while in college he kept his skills sharp pitching for the semipro Spring Valley Bengals along with fellow Hall of Famer Steve Drummond. The two of them were a formidable force who led the Bengals to the league championship. Bob later played for the Emerson-Westwood Merchants and the New York Yankees Rookies in the off-season.

Making His Mark in Education

After graduating from college, Bob was offered a job as a physical education teacher, assistant varsity football coach and freshman baseball coach by Ed Stanczyk, the athletic director at Spring Valley. Forgoing a chance to again try out for a professional baseball team, Bob took the job, settled down and married his sweetheart Judy Komar and they started a life together in Spring Valley. While Emil Jr. chose to stay in Rockland County and spend his career coaching and teaching at Spring Valley and RCC, Bob moved up the
education ladder from coach and teacher to administrator and eventually to superintendent of schools in the Midwest. He received his master’s degree from Seton Hall University in 1967 and his doctoral degree in educational administration from the University of Minnesota. Bob taught in Minnesota for a while and then rose to become superintendent of schools in Braham, Minn., a position he held for seven years. He then held superintendent positions in Watertown, S.D. (two years), Rock Island, Ill. (six years) and Des Plaines,
Ill. (11 years), before serving as “interim” superintendent for four districts in Rockford, Ill., over a two-year period. He received a “Break the Mold” award from the Illinois State Board of Education in 2003 for innovative practices in improving schools, and earned the Outstanding Community Leadership Award from the Rockford YMCA in 2013.

When asked if he ever regretted his decision to leave baseball behind and pursue a career in education, Bob replied, “Judy and I have talked about it over the years but we’ve come to the conclusion that our current life was so good, it’s unimaginable that it could have been any better had I played professional baseball. We have been truly blessed during our 58 years of marriage.”

A Nod to Family Support

Bob cites his family as his inspiration. “My entire youth was dedicated to baseball and football from the time I was old enough to handle a football and a glove,” he said. “All those years in organized sports taught me teamwork, discipline and character that served me well throughout my lifetime of serving communities as a superintendent of schools. I want to thank big brother Emil Jr., my mother Henrietta and my father Emil Sr. for constantly encouraging me to reach well beyond what I thought was my ability.”

Bob remembers walking with Emil Jr. to the old Spring Valley High School on South Madison Avenue in the winter, shoveling snow off the tennis courts to be able to shoot baskets. He would stand near the basket, get the rebound and pass the ball back to Emil so he could shoot again. “My brother was always my idol in anything I did,” Bob said. “I hung on him like a bad rash. In retrospect, I know I was a bother to him but he never said anything to discourage me.”

Bob’s parents also played major roles in his athletic and personal development. His dad, the custodian at Spring Valley High School, was on the sideline encouraging Bob at all of his games. He also taught Bob how to run and punt on the football field. Bob’s mom was in the stands at every game also. At home, she would hit him ground balls on their front lawn to help improve his fielding skills in baseball. “They were wonderful, loving and supportive parents,” Bob said. “I was so lucky to grow up in Spring Valley in the fifties.

Bob, who is 78, and Judy have been married 58 years and currently reside in LaValle, Wis. They have three grown children: Robert Willis Jr., a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps; Jennifer Gori, who works in family counseling; and Ryan Willis, a technology manager for a Minneapolis firm. All three children have two children of their own: Robert Jr. – Robert III and Jaclyn; Jennifer – Sophia and Olivia; Ryan – Benjamin, age 11, and Theresa, 8.

These days Bob spends his time enjoying reading, landscaping and traveling with Judy.