Dick Erzen still finds basketball entertaining and life a fascinating, wondrous adventure.
He’s 87 years old, but the Normal resident, a 1946 East Alton-Wood River High graduate, remains young at heart. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I’ve had a good life,” Erzen said.
He quipped, “I’m not going strong, but I’m still alive.”
He was alive and kicking last week at the Alton Exchange Club’s 70th annual Players of the Year basketball banquet. Alton’s Darrius Edwards (boys) and Civic Memorial’s Allie Troeckler (girls) won this year’s main honors and were rewarded for their spectacular seasons. Erzen, also saluted, remains a special guy in the history of the club’s awards ceremonies.
He was the initial Player of the Year — way back in 1946.
“I don’t remember where it was held,” Erzen said of the first fête, “but it was a small group and it was all boys at that time. I bought a suit and tie to go to it.
“And I remember that Chuck Taylor of Converse was the main speaker.”
Yes, that Chuck Taylor of Converse All-Star tennis shoes, the kind that most of us have worn somewhere along the line. It’s the oldest, most popular and best-selling basketball shoe of all time. Nike has owned the rights to the brand since 2003.
Just like Chuck Taylor, it seems Erzen is carrying on a tradition in his own way. Edie, his wife of 70 years, and his brother Tom, 70, joined him at the Exchange Club festivities. Erzen spoke briefly and received a standing ovation when he finished. You might call him a one-man History Channel.
He worked for years in education and administration, spending plenty of time at Illinois State University in Normal. He taught math and kept in touch with basketball, following the Redbirds.
Erzen retired from ISU in 1988, but not before he helped found College of Lake County in northern Chicagoland more than 45 years ago. That was one of the loves of his life.
“I stayed at Lake County in Grayslake for about 10 years,” said Erzen, who also served a stint in Dayton, Ohio. Education was his gift to students.
His own education included going to Truman State in Kirksville, Mo. It was Northeast Missouri State Teachers College back then. Erzen played basketball with the legendary Harry Gallatin in 1946-47. Gallatin, a Roxana High graduate and now an Edwardsville resident, went on to become an NBA Hall of Famer.
“I keep in touch with him and we have lunch every three or four months,” Erzen said. “We’ve been friends since 1946.”
He added, “There were a lot of basketball players from Roxana, Wood River and Bethalto that went to college there back then.”
It was the place to go.
So was EA-WR High, as far as Erzen was concerned. He grew up in Bethalto and spent his first three years at the high school. Yet since it wasn’t a four-year school then, Erzen had to determine where to go his senior season.
He chose EA-WR, which placed third at state in 1939 and then won regional championships the next five seasons. The Oilers finished 18-8 in 1945-46.
“I decided on Wood River because of coach Chick Summers,” Erzen said. “They (Oilers) were in a strong conference and it was an adjustment for me. I went from playing against smaller schools to playing ones in the Southwestern Conference. It was big-time high school basketball.”
His year at EA-WR was good enough to earn him the Exchange Club’s Player of the Year award, something he truly cherishes.
“They can’t take that away from me,” Erzen joked.
Nobody will do that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he should get another award for being the first of the best.
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