Wilmette, Community

In Tribute: Through sports and outreach, Wilmette’s ‘Coach’ Bill Kearns brought people together

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 came in the mid-1990s when he was hired by the Wilmette Park District to coach tennis, a sport he had taken up when he was middle-aged, and he went on to serve as a part-time assistant coach at Loyola Academy and Regina Dominican high schools.

Approximately 10 years after being hired by the park district, Kearns assumed another 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 in the basement of the Centennial Park Recreation complex, where he coached tennis.

“He was working at Centennial Park tennis and he came down to my office and said he would like to do a show about sports,” remembered Karen Meersman, the village’s cable coordinator. “I said: ‘Sure, tell me what you want to do.’

“Bill said he wanted to bring in coaches from here in town and interview them.”

“Coach’s Corner” made its debut in 2004 and was an immediate success. With the passing of years, it became increasingly popular

“If comprehensive analysis and inside coverage  of the Wilmette sports scene are what you are looking for then Bill Kearns’ Coach’s Corner…is a proven winner,” Alan Henry wrote in an April 18, 2012 story in the  now-defunct weekly newspaper, The Wilmette Beacon, forerunner to The Record North Shore.

In addition to doing interviews focusing on the panorama of sports at Loyola, New 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 youngsters.

“During a typical week, he featured the rugby team at New 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 time we had rectified those problems Bill started 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 at the age of 91.

“His show ran for 20 years and I have pretty much every episode,” Meersman continued. “The longer he did it the easier it got and the better it got. Everybody knew Bill and Bill knew everybody. He was a joy to work with. He did all of the producing and contacted all of the people 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 sort of found some of these people, a lot of really interesting people that other people wouldn’t even know about. Bill was a joy to work with.”

Although he was an outstanding athlete in his own right, Kearns never was a self-promoter. His interviewing style was conversational and he brought out the best in his guests.

Bob Lepkowki, the tennis pro at Centennial Park, began playing tennis in 2004 when he came to Centennial Park and had Kearns as an instructor. They became fast friends.

“Bill convinced me to get more involved and then to start coaching at Regina and Elk Grove High School,” Lepkowski recalled. “Then, I took a couple of 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 three times every week.

“He was a big fan of Harry Truman and I’d bring my copy of Truman’s biography to every visit right up until two days before he passed away (at The Citadel in Glenview),” Lepkowski said. “We would read the biography together. Those readings led to really deep conversations about his philosophy of life and American democracy, and how everyone has to work hard to keep democracy afloat.

“He was an inclusive guy — there always was a place for everybody. 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.

In part he wrote: “Coach Kearns lived his life as a dedicated instructor for more than 1,000 high school players over many years. Bill’s life swirled around tennis outside the high school format, too. He was known as the unofficial greeter at Centennial Tennis in Wilmette. He knew everyone’s name who came to play, and he relished the friendly banter with them all

“Perhaps best of all, Bill Kearns was an excellent role model for many around him. Knowing how difficult it was to finance a tennis program, Bill spent time collecting equipment — balls, racquets and nets — and delivering them to schools whose budget could not support a robust tennis program. Many players were introduced to tennis because of Bill’s generous efforts.”

While Kearns immersed himself in Wilmette sports, he never forgot his roots.

On 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 buy bleacher tickets and then seeing the Cubs lose to Detroit.

From St. Hillary, he went on to high school at St. George, where he starred in football, basketball and baseball.

Following his graduation in 1950 he served in the Army (where he played baseball and worked as a barber) and began 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 known as DePaul College Prep) and helped start a volleyball team there.

In the 1990s, 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 touch with other graduates of St. George, the Evanston high school that closed in 1971.

“No one worked harder than Bill to keep the St. George alumni together,” said Dennis LaLiberty, a member of the class 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 because of the 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 help,” LaLiberty said. “He would solicit input from alumni, write the information on big pieces of paper and give 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 at the organization’s annual banquet in May.

No one worked harder than Bill to keep the St. George alumni together.”
Dennis LaLiberty, 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 every month.

Kelly has fond memories of Kearns’ athletic prowess as a youngster. “When I had him at Green Briar Billy was good in every sport,” Kelly remembered. “In football he was a hell of a halfback.”

The same can be said for his high school career. “In high school he was big on sports and did everything well,” said Don Butzen, a class of 1951 teammate on the Dragons basketball team.

“Football was his best sport — he was short but awfully fast,” recalled Jim Ward, a class of ’51 football teammate.

Ward and Butzen stayed in touch with Kearns and wound up spending some time 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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Neil Milbert

Neil Milbert was a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 40 years, covering college (Northwestern, Illinois, UIC, Loyola) and professional (Chicago Blackhawks, Bulls, horse racing, more) sports during that time. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on a Tribune travel investigation and has covered Loyola Academy football since 2011.

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