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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Maroon and Illini Legend Gene Vance Profiled

Here from News Gazette

It's a deep breath, like Gene Vance is trying to summon the memory through the air.

He fiddles with the oxygen tube that makes the breath come easier. At the same time it's a reminder why the memory doesn't.

"That was quite a while ago," he says, and you nod, and the 1943 Big Ten championship ring sparkles in the light, and he fiddles with that too, and he loves that ring. He wears it every day, like it's an extension of his still-strong hands, just as "a member of the famous Whiz Kids" remains an extension of his surname.

"It was hell," Vance says. That's what he remembers about the Korean War, and that's enough. Memories of the Whiz Kids return more quickly, maybe because that's the memory he's asked about most often. "It was a perfect team," he says, a heavenly quintet, really.

At 86, Vance is the last living member of the Whiz Kids.

"He's our John Wooden," says longtime UI athletic trainer Rod Cardinal. "Whenever there's been a high point in Illinois basketball – in 1989 or 2005, whenever it might be – people always bring up the Whiz Kids. He's the tie to that era."

"I stopped by his house the other day," current coach Bruce Weber says. "We talked for a while. He's a big part of our history here."

From where he sits in a dark green recliner, in the comfortable living room of his Champaign home, Vance can see a lifetime of unforgettable gifts, like friendships built through his beloved university, and forgettable hell, like war. The memories often escape him, and frankly, his closest friends who lived those memories, like his Whiz Kids teammates, have passed.

But there, stacked high on a coffee table, stand a half-dozen scrapbooks, rich with history and fading photos and tales that could make a Hollywood film.

Go on, take a look.


"His Beta fraternity brothers call him 'Body' and 'Lana Turner.' (One of the brothers) started the latter by calling him 'the male version of Lana Turner.' ... Really slays the women. Lots of girls call up giggling and ask for Gene."

– Essay written by the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in 1942, titled "Gene Vance, alias 'The Body Beautiful' "

As a youth in Clinton, Ellis Eugene Vance was a kid on the move. The fraternity essay tells of a boy shooting baskets "in rain, snow, fog, sleet, wind, daylight and dark" and burning energy in the YMCA – after basketball practice was over. In the summers he would lifeguard on a lake, returning as a bronzed statue of a figure, 6-foot-3 and chiseled at 200 pounds.

Appearance has always been important to Vance, never more so than as a representative of Illinois, either as a Beta, a baseball or basketball player, the athletic director or as one of 20 players selected to the All-Century team.

"He always wore a coat and tie," his wife Janann says. "He would say, 'When I'm representing the University of Illinois, this is the way I want to be.' "

From his chair, Vance leans over to examine a pair of brown boat shoes. They're worn from time, not from recent overuse. Two hip replacements and two major knee surgeries stole him from the golf course a few years back. Playing partners offered to pick him up, have him drive the cart. Vance politely declined.

When once you were "a world-class athlete," as his son Jon says, and it becomes tough to tee off, the change can be hard to accept. "I don't leave the house much," Gene says.

He's handed a scrapbook. It opens to a photo of him, ripped arms beneath a No. 25 Illinois jersey, dribbling a basketball toward the camera.

He smiles.

"That was quite a while ago."


"Need your permission to get wedding license."

– Western Union telegram sent from Vance, 20, to his parents on Aug. 3, 1943

When he was stationed in Mineral Wells, Texas, Gene wasn't old enough to be legally married to Grace Hoberg. Four days later, he had the permission of Ellis and Barbara Vance, and the couple was bound until her death in 1980.

"The most wonderful woman in the world," says Jim Vance, one of their sons. "Not a day goes by when we don't think about her."

Across the living room from his chair, family photos are perched on a wooden bookshelf. He and Grace had two boys (Jim and Jon) and two girls (Sue and Martha).

"They're all grown now," he says. "Good kids."

And despite his schedule they were always a priority. The children don't recall Dad ever missing one of their games.

"Tennis, golf, basketball, baseball, cheerleading," Jim says, "he was always there."

"He lived for two things: his university and his family," Jon says.

On weekday nights, Vance worked as a high school basketball official, in gyms from Peoria to Hoopeston. The kids would join him, not for the basketball, but for the guarantee of a trip to Steak n Shake after the game. No surprise, it's still his favorite place to eat.

"A burger," he says. "I always get a burger."


"Vance came to the rescue of the water-soaked infantrymen, shortly after they scampered to safety on a precarious rocky island. Minutes earlier a flash flood whipped down the narrow valley, inundating the region."

– Army newsletter, distributed in 1951 during the Korean War

"I imagine I was in a little better shape than most men when I came over (to Korea), but believe me, it didn't do me too much good. There's a whale of a difference between climbing these Korean mountains and running up and down a basketball court."

– Vance, in an unnamed newspaper report in 1951

The smell of Janann's coffee cake sweeps from the kitchen as you see a photo of Vance in military gear. It was taken in Germany, in 1945, with a message scribbled on the back.

"Send this one to my folks."

Vance served in World War II from 1943 to '46 and in Korea from 1951 to '52, where he earned a Bronze Star. Ask him about his military service and the conversation turns back to the Whiz Kids. He's never been one to speak of himself. But if the topic includes him as part of a group, an infantry division, a team, he'll offer what he can.

"Even though we (the Whiz Kids) were apart," Vance says, "we were always together."

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