Willis Kleinsasser dies at 86; pioneer masters multi-event champ

Willis as collegian.

Willis as collegian.

Willis Kleinsasser is often relegated to “Father of Olympian Ruth Wysocki” status, but today we mourn the passing of a masters track pioneer who helped put our sport on the map. Willis died early Monday, Ruth reports. She writes: “He had turned 86 on May 9. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about 13 years ago, and put up a valiant fight with this horrible disease.  My mother was his caregiver, and did an amazing job of caring for him, which enabled him to live at home until the end.  I had the privilege of being by his side as the Lord called him home.  He is at peace.” In 1968, at the first USA National Masters Championships, Willis won the “Masters Six” sextathlon and the outstanding athlete award. Competing at San Diego’s Balboa Stadium, he was the top scorer in a two-day challenge, winning five events: the 220 in 24.0, 440 in 53.1, 880 in 2:09, long jump with 18-10 and shot (40-10¼). He was third in the mile — the final event on Day 2. In a Track & Field News discussion, we also learned from Ruth: “By the way, my dad is originally from South Dakota and the youngest of 12 kids.” Ruth says a memorial service is set for Saturday, June 28, at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Reno, Nevada. Our deepest condolences.

Family prized this Don Chadez photo of Ruth running with her dad.

Kleinsasser kin prized this Don Chadez photo of Ruth running with her dad.

More information shared by Ruth:

Born May 9, 1928, he married Ethel on August 20, 1950 — this summer would have been their 64th Anniversary.

He had four children — Alan, Parry, Ruth and Brian. All were accomplished runners in their own right. He also is survived by 10 grandchildren — most of them ran and competed through high school and/or college — and five great-grandchildren

He was fourth in the California state 880-yard final in 1946, and went on to compete at Tabor College in Hillsboro, KS where he was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2007.

He also was an excellent basketball player.

His 120-yard high hurdle record at Tabor was still standing when the conversion to meters took place.

Even though he was an accomplished athlete, his true legacy will live on in the many, many lives that he touched. He was very well-loved by people whose lives were changed for the better because he had a part in them.

His work career started in teaching, and he then became a pupil personnel consultant for the Azusa Unified School District until retirement in 1992. They then moved to Reno.

Of the grandchildren who are adults, most of them have chosen a career in teaching, which made him very proud.

Ethel was a devoted wife and caretaker. After a 12+ year battle with Parkinsons, she made every effort to give him incredible care and love.

When Willis turned 80 in 2008, I posted this note:

Olympian Ruth Wysocki graciously brought us up to date on her dad.

Ruth reports: “He had to give up running years ago due to ankle problems that dated back to his basketball days. He has stayed active with swimming and some weightlifting. He follows the track that manages to hit the news, and of course, the exploits of his grandchildren.”

Contrary to Pete Mundle’s list of “Athletes who enter a new division this month” in the May issue of National Masters News, Willis doesn’t live in Azusa, California.

“My folks moved to Reno in 1992 when my dad retired from the Azusa School District,” Ruth writes. “Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease several years ago. His athletic training and competitive spirit have really helped with this. He works hard to stay as active as possible and, thanks to my mom, eats very wisely.”

With masterful medical help and his own great attitude and diligence, Ruth says, her dad is “facing a challenge and is fighting it full-strength. He is still very active (all things considered), and doing very well.”

In 1946, Willis was fourth in the 880 at the California state high school championships with a time of 2:01. He later attended Tabor College in Kansas, and in 2007 was named to Tabor’s Athletic Hall of Fame “for his prowess in basketball and track and field, as well as his years as a teacher and school psychologist,” said one citation.

Please join me in wishing Willis a wonderful birthday and the strength to deal with Parkinson’s. He’s one of our founding fathers.

Tabor’s Hall of Fame bio said:

Willis Kleinsasser grew up in Dinuba, California, and began his freshman year at Tabor College in the fall of 1947. He participated in basketball and track and field. In the spring of 1950, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Minors in English and Psychology.

Willis played three years of basketball while at Tabor and his senior season was name to the first All-Star basketball team in the Mid-Kansas Collegiate Conference. He particularly remembers a basketball game in December of 1948, when our friends from Bethel came to Hillsboro with a basketball team that was much more refined than Tabor’s. That night, however, Tabor scored what Willis considers the “biggest upset win of all time.”

Willis at 2007 Tabor College Hall of Fame induction.

Willis at 2007 Tabor College Athletic Hall of Fame induction.

Track and field was the sport, though, in which Willis excelled. He competed, and competed well, in many events. He would often run the 120 yard high and 220 yard low hurdles and anchor the mile relay. Then, he would also high jump, long jump, pole vault, and threw the shot put and discus. During the conference meet in 1950 he placed first in the high hurdles, second in the high jump, third in the shot put and discus, and fifth in the pole vault. He participated in the decathlon at the Kansas University relays in Lawrence and finished eighth.

College competition was definitely not the end of Willis’s athletic endeavors. In 1968, at the first National Masters Meet in San Diego, California, Willis was awarded the “Outstanding Athlete” trophy for winning the septathalon – a modified version of the decathlon. The events were the 220 yard, 440 yard, 880 yard, and mile races; plus the 12 lb. shot put and the long jump. His times and distances in five of the events were better than those in the open competition for his age group. The septathalon was replaced by a full decathlon after two years. At age 42 Willis won the open 880 and matched his high school, fourth place state finish time of 2:01. And, at age 50, he ran the 880 at the masters meet in San Diego in 2:13.

After completing his degree at Tabor College, Willis was a coach and teacher at Immanuel High School in Reedley, California, for five years. In 1955-56 he was the only coach for cross country, basketball, and track and field.

As Willis says, “this fulfilled any desire to coach.” He then moved to Southern California where he earned a Master’s Degree from Los Angeles State University and a school psychology credential. He taught in the Azusa Unified School District for six years and was a school psychologist for 29 years, retiring in 1992. Willis has been active in various church positions and is presently an elder at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Reno, Nevada.

Willis and his wife, Ethel, were married in 1950 and currently reside in Reno, Nevada.

Willis had an outstanding athletic career while at Tabor College in basketball and track and field. We honor him tonight as a member of the Tabor College Athletic Hall of Fame.

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June 4, 2014

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