Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson, 1914 AHS Graduate, Honored with Historical Marker

Speakers, guests and committee members for the Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson Historical Marker dedication on August 22 included, left to right, Atwood Village President Davey Herring, ISHS Executive Director Bill Furry, Katie Riesner, Great Granddaughter of “Tug” Wilson, Linda Kellough, granddaughter of “Tug” Wilson, Vanessa Curry, Marsha Burgener, Kent Brown and Danny Powell.

By Doris Elmore
Staff Writer

Growing up and attending school in a small community is so much different than in larger towns. There are good and bad points to both. So many parents want to move to larger areas so their child can be exposed to a larger variety of subjects, supposedly it will make them better students. I have always disagreed with that theory. What you put into a subject, is what you will get out of it. A lot of students graduate, go off to college and very seldom look back at their roots and what made them the person they are today.

Why am I beginning my story on the Kenneth L. “Tug” Wilson historical marker dedication in this manner? I could begin the normal way by saying what, when & where it happened, but I am trying to make a different point. “Tug” Wilson was born in 1896 and graduated from Atwood High School in 1914. We have read how difficult it was in those years, but this young man from a small village in Central Illinois had the determination to achieve and that is what he did. He worked hard to accomplish his goals and was honored for those achievements with a historical marker in his memory at the Rajah Memorial Park on Saturday, Aug. 22.

For those of you who might not be aware, Rajah Memorial Park is a park in the making and is located east of where the A-H High School once stood and was called the “Pea Patch” or band practice field. Progress on the park was halted this year due to COVID-19, but the committee wanted to get the historical marker in place and dedicated to let people know something was being done.

Back to “Tug.” According to an article written by Kent Brown just prior to the dedication ceremony and research also by Vanessa Curry, both A-H Alum, “Tug” became a force on the international sports scene. He served as chairman of the U.S. Track and Field Committee for the 1948 games in London before being elected as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1953, 1957 and 1961.

After teaching at a one-room country school to earn money for college, Wilson matriculated to the University of Illinois where he played and starred in track and field, football and basketball. He was the captain of the 1919-1920 basketball team. Wilson helped Illinois to Big Ten titles in both the conference indoor and outdoor meets, while qualifying for the 1920 U.S. Olympic team in the discus and javelin. He qualified at the U.S. Championships by throwing a javelin made from a hickory fence post taken from his family farm. At the 1920 Antwerp Games, he finished 10th in the discus throw.

In his professional career, Wilson served as a coach and athletic director at Drake, where he elevated the national profile of the Drake Relays, and athletic director at Northwestern from 1925-1945. As the second Big Ten Conference Commissioner from 1945-1961, Wilson enforced established rules governing financial aid to student athletes, ensuring that athletes were bona fide students, and promoted racial equality in a time the conference was becoming integrated. Wilson also negotiated the Rose Bowl pact with the Pacific Coast Conference that still exists today where the champions of both conferences play in the annual Granddaddy of Them All. He served as secretary-treasurer of the NCAA and, from 1953-65, as President of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“Tug” never forgot his hometown of Atwood and the school where he graduated. Regardless of how prestigious he became, he stayed grounded in remembering his roots. He supported his hometown of Atwood through school donations, motivational speeches and frequent visits. He died in 1975 and is buried in Lexington, IL.

The Village of Atwood is very proud to have this historical marker and have an alumnus they can claim of international acclaim as one of their own.

The dedication drew a wonderful crowd of residents, several alumni, from Mattoon, Decatur, Sullivan, Tuscola, Evanston, Arthur, Argenta, Oreana, Wahoo, NE, and “Tug’s” great-granddaughter, Katie Riesner and fiance’ Matt from Los Angeles. Will Lindgren, son of Bill & Marilyn Lindgren, graduated with the Class of 1975 and came from Wahoo. Marsha said there was a gentleman from Mattoon in attendance (she didn’t get his name) that was related to the Gadburys that lived out by the Wilson family. He has been following the Wilson stories in the newspaper.

The program consisted of: Kent Brown, MC; Danny Powell, A-H Class of 1965, benediction; speakers Davey Herring, Atwood Village President; Bill Furry, ISHS Executive Director; Linda Kellough, Wilson’s granddaughter and Vanessa Curry. A special thank you to the “Tug” Wilson Historic Preservation Committee Brown, Marsha Burgener, and Curry. Also, thanks to Alyssa Issler Ringering, A-H Alumnus & Graphic Artist, who designed the “Tug” Wilson logo.

Persons donating their time and talent to prepare for the historical marker included: Bob Burgener, Mikie Stirrett, Jeff Dick, Marsha Burgener, Vanessa Curry and Harris Electric.

Gratitude was given to the donors of the historical marker: Big Ten Conference, Rotary One Foundation, Champaign Rotary, Gary Senteney, Hilligoss Shrader Funeral Home, Atwood Chamber of Commerce, Donald Kellough, Atwood Hammond Public Library and A-H Alumnus Dennis Spencer.

Following the dedication ceremonies, various comments were made on FB, along with pictures. I would like to share a few of them with our readers.

KENT BROWN: “The Tug Wilson Historical Committee’s goal was accomplished today with the dedication of the Kenneth “Tug” Wilson Historical Marker at what will be Rajah Park, next to the site of where Atwood-Hammond High School was located. Working with Vanessa Curry and Marsha Ayres Burgener was a joy and gratifying since the beginning of this project almost two years ago. Thanks to all the Rajah alums and friends who came to the dedication today. Getting to know Linda Kellough, Tug’s granddaughter, today was a bonus as she and her daughter, Katie, made their first trips to Atwood. Seeing a marker like this installed in your home community will hopefully inspire the young people of Atwood, Hammond, Pierson Station and Garrett to take on the world and accomplish things at the highest level.”

LYLE DORJAHN: “1st addition to Rajah Park. A celebration and commemoration of one of Atwood’s greatest athletes. An all Big 10 track & field performer and 1920 Olympian, Tug Wilson went on to build the Drake Relays into one of the premier events world wide while AD at Drake. He eventually became the 2nd Big 10 Commissioner and served as President of U.S. Olympic Committee. His impact internationally was incredible!” Lyle is a 1975 A-H grad and is now coach of the ALAH Cross Country team.

VANESSA CURRY stated to this reporter: “The Tug Wilson dedication event shows what can happen where people with the same interest work together for a common goal. Everything went smoothly and it didn’t seem like it had been 2 years since we started the project. I am grateful for donors and those who helped in the smallest way. I also was extremely proud to see the alumni and others who attended.”

MARSHA BURGENER: “I am proud to have worked with Kent Brown and Vanessa Curry to secure the Tug Wilson historical marker. We made new friends, locally and from other states that wanted to be a part of this endeavor by their financial support or just passing on their respect and support of making this day happen. The challenges Tug Wilson must have endured up to 1920 did not hold him back from the Olympics and COVID did not stop us from honoring the 100th anniversary of a local student that achieved and continued to participate and pave the way to sports as we know them today.”

Work continues on Rajah Memorial Park. As of last week, there were over 300 pavers to order. It will be a lot of work and donations and volunteers are needed to help with the project. It is surprising how much the cost is to lay sidewalk, pavers, landscaping, etc. If you would like to support this project, please mail your donation to Marsha Burgener, c/o the A-H Public Library, P. O. Box 440, Atwood, IL 61913 and earmark it for Rajah Memorial Park. If you would like to volunteer, please call Marsha at the library with your name and contact number.

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