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Barnstorming: Passing of McLeese brings back memories

Barnstorming: Passing of McLeese brings back memories

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It was not a fight he was destined to win; one during which he lost 70 pounds and aged 20 years.

Yet, when former Bloomington High School standout Bob McLeese died Saturday, he was ready to leave as was his family to let him go.

Perhaps the legendary John Neal, his football and baseball BHS teammate, summed it best when he said, "He was the sweetest guy ever made."

Neal, Bob Pomrenke, Ken Waters, Dean Compher and McLeese were close friends on those outstanding teams of the mid-1940s. McLeese, called a sticky-finger end in Pantagrraph game stories, was a wide receiver and a baseball outfielder, where he was an outstanding left-handed hitter.

One Pantagraph game story referred to him as the "fleet-footed center fielder."

McLeese was diagnosed in February and had a cancerous stomach tumor removed, including about three-fourths of his stomach, on March 28. He was told he had a 20 percent chance of making it if the chemotherapy and radiation worked.

However, it was soon apparent that he had months to live and the prognostication later was changed to days.

"He was ready to go," said his wife, Mardell, a Trinity High School graduate. "At first, I did not want to see him go, but then when I saw how much he was suffering, I was also ready. I don't know how he put up with it, day after day."

The couple would have been married 55 years in October. They had four boys and four girls; 23 grandchildren; and one great grandchild.

"Our oldest son, Bob, lives in Monticello and he and his father met every Friday at LeRoy to play golf. My husband looked forward so much to their playing this summer and was so disappointed when they couldn't." said Mardell.

Golf was McLeese's passion after retiring from Ralston Purina in 1991.

Neal, who is a retired police detective and lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., had kept up with McLeese through the years and visited him by phone recently.

"Bob caught most of my passes," said Neal. "He played a little basketball, but hurt his knee as a senior. I think we would have won the state in baseball our senior year if we had another pitcher.

"All the girls loved Bob. He was handsome and very popular."

This and that

w Former Illinois State basketball coach Bob Donewald has agreed to be the color analyst for Fresno State (Calif.) basketball conference road games. He will commute from his Kalamazoo, Mich., home.

When discussing the position, Donewald was asked if he knew anything about Las Cruces, N.M. Fresno State and New Mexico State are WAC members.

He better hope the statute of limitations has passed because that Las Cruces motel was not happy when assistant coach Pat Cunningham stole bed sheets so the team could watch game film on the late-night bus ride from Las Cruces to Ruidoso, N.M.

Donewald might even find that bus driver, who after the team lost by a few points at New Mexico State, greeted the players and Donewald by congratulating them because they came close.

w Jayne Conner Runyon, a member of the Learning Resource Department in Unit 5, is the daughter of the deceased Streator mayor Moose Conner, who I mentioned in a previous column.

Moose was also an outstanding athlete at Streator.

Jayne wrote, "When I teach 'To Kill a Mockingbird' I always mentioned how my dad was like Atticus Finch. He never played both sides. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He also loved Streator.

"No matter where we were or where we went, he always found a way to bring up Streator. It would break his heart to see how it is today. It sure has changed!"

Jayne told about her oldest sister returning to Streator for her 35th class reunion.

"A friend of hers was home from Arizona and was talking about how my Dad always seemed larger than life. This friend lived at the end of a dead-end road. His grandpa couldn't get the car out of the driveway after a bad snowstorm.

"He called my Dad. Her friend said about 10 minutes later, here comes a snow plow and my Dad is hanging out the side of it. The road was done."

w John Neal's son, also named John, is defensive backfield coach at the University of Oregon. He recently turned down the defensive coordinator position at Brigham Young, his alma mater.

The younger Neal and former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon were teammates at Brigham Young.

w How many area high school football teams have had brother all-staters during the same era?

Bloomington High School did with Pete and Bump Elliott and John and Ed Neal in the mid-1940s.

Jim Barnhart is the retired sports editor of The Pantagraph. Contact him at brnhrtj@aol.com

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