Ryan Tompkins likens him to Elvis, Oprah and Madonna. Say “Roy” in Gibson City, Melvin or Sibley and that's enough.
Roy has a last name. It’s Roemer. But for generations of students, athletes, coaches and townspeople, he is “Roy.”
“Everybody knows him,” said Tompkins, head basketball coach at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School. “He’s a rock star and a celebrity and a super fan wrapped into one.”
Include “fighter” as well.
Diagnosed early this year with esophageal cancer, the 68-year-old Roemer has continued to support all things GCMS. Some days he has had chemotherapy or radiation treatments in the morning and attended a GCMS middle school or high school camp, practice or game that afternoon.
His ongoing battle has changed what he must do, but not who he is: the most positive person you'll meet.
“He has approached this with such optimism and real determination,” said Tompkins, who was a GCMS player when he first met Roemer. “He has been a true inspiration to the entire community.”
Roemer’s “community” extends to wherever he is.
Tompkins and GCMS football coach/athletic director Mike Allen took him for chemo treatments on occasion this summer.
Once, as they walked in, others battling cancer lit up at the sight of Roemer.
“Everybody was like, ‘Hey Roy, how are you doing?’ ” Allen said. “When he meets someone, he makes an impact. It’s amazing how he attracts people out of his kindness.”
Roemer’s influence at GCMS was reflected by his induction into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014 as a Friend of Basketball. This year, he was chosen as the GCMS Athletic Hall of Fame’s “Friend of the Hall of Fame.”
He will be honored at halftime of Friday’s homecoming football game against Tremont along with inductees Ramie Lantz, Tammy McCullough-Craig and Noel Hutchcraft.
Roemer will feel at home. He has been attending practices and games at the field since moving to Gibson City in the early 1970s.
Until his health problems, he likely never missed a practice, Allen said. He never misses a beat when he’s there.
“You’ll hear him barking out instructions just like the coaches,” Allen said. “Just from listening through the years, he knows what they (the players) are supposed to do.”
Among those closest to Roemer is Vera Bunting, who works on his farm and helps take care of him. She has seen what supporting GCMS players and coaches means to Roemer, not just through the school but in summer youth baseball, softball, etc.
"Roy's passion with GCMS sports programs, from little leagues to varsity sports, is because he loves life and sports is one of the basic joys of life ... and the many, many friendships of yesterday, today and tomorrow," Bunting said.
Roemer’s commitment to GCMS athletics has put a lot of miles on a lot of cars. He’s not been one to arrive late, either.
Allen recalls being an assistant basketball coach and, more than once, finding Roemer had beaten the GCMS bus to a road game.
“You’d walk in and hear people shooting and he might be rebounding for the other team,” Allen said. “He’s pretty special.”
That was evident in February when GCMS hosted a basketball regional against rival Paxton-Buckley-Loda. Roemer had just been diagnosed with cancer, so business students at GCMS made white T-shirts that read, “Roy Strong.”
“It was overwhelming,” Allen said. “Everybody wore white. The people in Paxton all know him. It was really cool to see. Our students think a lot of Roy. They’ve known him from the time they were in little league up through high school.”
It has been that way since 1972 when Roemer arrived at Gibson City in time to see then-senior basketball star Dennis Graff lead the school to the Class A State Tournament.
It is easy to follow a team like that or this year's 5-0 state-ranked football squad. What sets Roemer apart is he is equally devoted to an 0-5 team.
“Athletes and coaches and teams have ups and downs. The one staple has been Roy,” said Tompkins, in his 16th year at GCMS. “It’s not just that he’s there, but he’s there being very supportive of all the athletes and coaches and teams.
“It’s a good reminder to the whole community of how pure being part of a high school athletic team is and everything that’s good about that.”