A banner in Shirk Center proclaims Illinois Wesleyan to be the “Fightin’ Titans.” You should know there is a Titan fightin’ like crazy these days.
Ken Anderson is in a battle he will not win. He’s known it for a couple of years. Yet, he’s fightin’ as if he was still playing quarterback for IWU, which he did in the late 1950s.
The opposition back then was Wheaton, Millikin, etc. Now, it is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that makes breathing a chore.
At 76 years old and a Titan to the core, Anderson fights for every breath.
“He knew from Day 1 what he had was terminal,” said Stacy Mackey, a waitress at Bloomington’s Times Past Inn who calls Anderson her surrogate grandfather.
“He told me, ‘Kid, I’m going to fight this with everything I’ve got. I’m an athlete and we fight till the end.”
The battle is waged in his Bloomington home now with 24-hour hospice care. The man who attended IWU athletic events religiously and livened up daily coffee gatherings at Times Past Inn for years couldn’t recall for Mackey the last time he’s been outside. So she goes to him, often with her daughter, Rees.
When Rees was born 20 months ago, the first person to visit Mackey in the hospital was her father. The second was Anderson.
A guy Mackey says is “ornery as a snake” — even now — is in her heart every second. It’s why she has sent him a card with a photo of her daughter every day for the past four months, in addition to several visits a week.
“The mailman wants to know who I am and he won’t tell him,” Mackey said, smiling.
It is Anderson’s way of stirring the pot. He has been a master of that at Times Past Inn. Sometimes it was defending his beloved New York Yankees in Cubs-Cards country. Other times it was taking a side simply because he could.
A retired State Farm Insurance agent, Anderson also has shown up dressed in full costume as Superman, Zorro, the Easter Bunny and, Mackey’s favorite, Tinkerbelly.
“Not Tinkerbell,” she said. “Tinkerbelly.”
Anderson was an IWU senior when Dennie Bridges met him. Bridges was a freshman wide receiver who ran routes for Anderson passes. Occasionally they hooked up, sometimes not. But a lifelong connection and friendship was formed.
Bridges lives near Anderson and visits him a few times a week. The longtime IWU athletic director calls him the ultimate “loyal Titan.”
“He’s at a really tough time in his life and he’s handling it really well,” Bridges said. “He understands what’s happening. But he hasn’t lost his feistiness. He can’t understand how the Yankees are as bad as they are.”
Anderson’s athletic background is extensive. As a junior in high school, he played third base on a Bloomington team that placed third in the state. He played for the likes of Howard Saar, Roger Tobin and Joe Morin in various sports at BHS, then four years of football under Don Larson at IWU.
He worked at the Bloomington YMCA for Don Eddy when it was located at Washington and East streets, becoming one of the best handball players in a town that had some good ones … Marion Tate, Irv Bernstein, Bob Gipson and others.
Now, he is an inspiration athletically. Mackey is training for her first half-marathon on May 4 at Kenosha, Wis. She has had a T-shirt made honoring Anderson to wear in the race. It reads, “Every breath dedicated to Kenny Anderson” along with a set of wings.
“I had it made not knowing if he will still be around on May 4. But one way or the other, he’s going to be there with me,” Mackey said. “He’s been a great friend to me and all of the girls here (at Times Past). I’ve never seen someone so concerned about other people.
“Kenny made me promise him some months ago that I’d surround myself with friends in this lifetime. He told me friends are incredibly valuable and will always be there for you. He was right.”