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In Honor of ‘Coach’ Bill Kearns: Uniting People Through Sports and Outreach in Wilmette

Bill Kearns, who grew up on Chicago’s North Side, graduated from St. George High School in Evanston, and lived in Skokie, became a Wilmette sports VIP when he was a senior citizen. His introduction to Wilmette got here within the mid-Nineteen Nineties when he was hired by the Wilmette Park District to teach tennis, a sport he had taken up when he was middle-aged, and he went on to function a part-time assistant coach at Loyola Academy and Regina Dominican high schools. Roughly 10 years after being hired by the park district, Kearns assumed one other role on the local sports scene. He became the host of “Coach’s Corner,” a television show on WCTV-6, a government access channel for the Village of Wilmette, with studios within the basement of the Centennial Park Recreation complex, where he coached tennis.

“He was working at Centennial Park tennis and he got here all the way down to my office and said he would love to do a show about sports,” remembered Karen Meersman, the village’s cable coordinator. “I said, ‘Sure, tell me what you should do.’ Bill said he wanted to usher in coaches from here on the town and interview them.”

“Coach’s Corner” made its debut in 2004 and was a right away success. With the passing of years, it became increasingly popular “If comprehensive evaluation and inside coverage of the Wilmette sports scene are what you’re on the lookout for then Bill Kearns’ Coach’s Corner…is a proven winner,” Alan Henry wrote in an April 18, 2012, story within the now-defunct weekly newspaper, The Wilmette Beacon, forerunner to The Record North Shore. Along with doing interviews specializing in the panorama of sports at Loyola, Latest Trier, Regina, and North Shore Country Day, Kearns explored sports programs at Wilmette Junior High and Marie Murphy and St. Francis Xavier grammar schools and community recreation programs for children.

“During a typical week, he featured the rugby team at Latest Trier, the Wilmette Eagles football team, and the park district ice skating program,” Henry wrote. “Coach’s Corner” continued until late last September when the telecasts were halted while technical problems at WCTV were being resolved. “The last show we shot with him was in September 2023,” Meersman said. “By the point we had rectified those problems Bill began having physical problems.”

Local tennis coach and personality Bill Kearns, of Skokie, died on Jan. 15. Kearns’ condition steadily worsened, and he died on Jan. 15 on the age of 91. “His show ran for 20 years and I actually have just about every episode,” Meersman continued. “The longer he did it, the simpler it got and the higher it got. Everybody knew Bill, and Bill knew everybody. He was a joy to work with. He did all of the manufacturing and contacted all the individuals who were on the show.

“He didn’t just do the high schools and grammar schools. He interviewed people like Jim Phillips (when Phillips was the athletic director at Northwestern University), Dr. Cory Franklin, the (late) former Chicago Tribune sportswriter Bill Jauss, and former Wilmette resident John Amato, who moved to the Republic of Georgia. Bill just form of found a few of these people, a number of really interesting people who other people wouldn’t even learn about. Bill was a joy to work with.”

Although he was an impressive athlete in his own right, Kearns never was a self-promoter. His interviewing style was conversational, and he brought out one of the best in his guests. Bob Lepkowki, the tennis pro at Centennial Park, began playing tennis in 2004 when he got here to Centennial Park and had Kearns as an instructor. They became fast friends. “Bill convinced me to get more involved after which to begin coaching at Regina and Elk Grove High School,” Lepkowski recalled. “Then, I took a few years off and now I’m at Loyola Academy, coaching freshman and sophomore girls.”

After Kearns’ physical condition dictated assisted living Lepkowski visited his “colleague, friend, and former tennis competitor” two or 3 times every week. “He was a giant fan of Harry Truman and I’d bring my copy of Truman’s biography to each visit right up until two days before he passed away (at The Citadel in Glenview),” Lepkowski said. “We might read the biography together. Those readings led to essentially deep conversations about his philosophy of life and American democracy, and the way everyone has to work hard to maintain democracy afloat.

“He was an inclusive guy — there at all times was a spot for everyone. He believed in brotherhood and sisterhood.” Lepkowski paid tribute to Kearns in a message to the Illinois High School Tennis Coaches Association, informing members of his death. Bill Kearns with a guest on the set of “Coach’s Corner” in Wilmette. Partially, he wrote: “Coach Kearns lived his life as a dedicated instructor for greater than 1,000 highschool players over a few years. Bill’s life swirled around tennis outside the highschool format, too. He was referred to as the unofficial greeter at Centennial Tennis in Wilmette. He knew everyone’s name who got here to play, and he relished the friendly banter with all of them “Perhaps better of all, Bill Kearns was a superb role model for a lot of around him. Knowing how difficult it was to finance a tennis program, Bill frolicked collecting equipment — balls, rackets, and nets — and delivering them to varsities whose budget couldn’t support a strong tennis program. Many players were introduced to tennis due to Bill’s generous efforts.”

While Kearns immersed himself in Wilmette sports, he never forgot his roots. On certainly one of his “Coach’s Corner” shows he fondly remembered attending the seventh game of the 1945 World Series with Harold Losby, his grammar school classmate at St. Hillary, after they spent all night at Wrigley Field waiting in line to purchase bleacher tickets after which seeing the Cubs lose to Detroit. From St. Hillary, he went on to highschool at St. George, where he starred in football, basketball, and baseball. Following his graduation in 1950, he served within the Army (where he played baseball and worked as a barber) and started coaching as an assistant at St. George and at Angel Guardian Orphanage in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Then, starting in about 1945 until about 1995, he was an assistant football and baseball coach at Gordon Tech (now referred to as DePaul College Prep) and helped start a volleyball team there. Within the Nineteen Nineties, he helped coach the tennis teams at Regina Dominican and Notre Dame in Niles before becoming an assistant coach of the Loyola Academy girls team in 2003.

Throughout his life, he stayed in contact with other graduates of St. George, the Evanston highschool that closed in 1971. “Nobody worked harder than Bill to maintain the St. George alumni together,” said Dennis LaLiberty, a member of the category of 1955 who co-edited the annual St. George newsletter with him. (After being published for about 30 years the newsletter ceased publication this month due to death of Kearns and the retirement of LaLiberty from the St. George Alumni Board). “Bill was doing the newsletter already, and he recruited me to assist,” LaLiberty said. “He would solicit input from alumni, write the data on big pieces of paper and provides it to me to edit. Kearns founded the annual Saints and Sinners luncheon at Hackney’s in Glenview for alumni, kicking off the Christmas season in December, and he delivered the State of the Alumni Association on the organization’s annual banquet in May. Nobody worked harder than Bill to maintain the St. George alumni together.” Dennis LaLiberty, a former classmate of Bill Kearns He also maintained his friendship with the 100-year-old retired Chicago Park District Superintendent Ed Kelly, whom he met when Kelly was the supervisor of activities at Green Briar Park on Chicago’s North Side. They co-founded the ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out) lunch group that meets at Kappy’s Restaurant in Morton Grove on the last Saturday of each month. Kelly has fond memories of Kearns’ athletic prowess as a teenager. “After I had him at Green Briar Billy was good in every sport,” Kelly remembered. “In football, he was a hell of a halfback.” The identical might be said for his highschool profession. “In highschool he was big on sports and did every little thing well,” said Don Butzen, a category of 1951 teammate on the Dragons basketball team. “Football was his best sport — he was short but awfully fast,” recalled Jim Ward, a category of ’51 football teammate. Ward and Butzen stayed in contact with Kearns and wound up spending a while as cameramen for his “Coach’s Corner” TV show. “On television Bill was just amazing — the knowledge he had, the people he had for his guests, and the questions he asked,” Ward said. “He was just meant for the job.”

Kearns is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, whom he married in 1953; sons Mike, Jim, Kevin, and Larry; nine grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

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