Robert C. Polson was the head cross-country coach and an assistant track coach at Proviso East High School in Maywood for many years, along the way guiding three athletes to state championships.
"Mr. Polson was a big influence on me. He made me feel important and cared for, and that's one of the things that really stuck with me throughout my whole life," said recently retired University of Iowa track and field and cross-country coach Larry Wieczorek, who won state titles in the mile run in 1963 and 1964.
"Knowing that someone of his stature held me in high regard and cared about me and thought me important, professionally and privately, that was huge for me."
Mr. Polson, 90, died of cardiac arrest Saturday, Aug. 9, at his home in Glen Ellyn, said his daughter Andrea Polson Imes. He previously lived in Palos Park.
Born in Chicago and raised on the South Side, Mr. Polson graduated from Lindblom Technical High School in 1942 and then attended Woodrow Wilson Junior College for one year before enlisting in the Army during World War II.
During the war, Mr. Polson served in Europe as part of the 2nd Armored Division, taking part in the Normandy landings and later in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded a Purple Heart.
After the war, Mr. Polson worked for four years driving a Cracker Jack truck. He then moved his young family to DeKalb, where he lived from 1950 until 1953 while earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Northern Illinois University. His master's thesis was on poet Walt Whitman, his daughter said.
In 1953, Mr. Polson accepted a job teaching American literature and coaching cross-country at Proviso East. Tall — he stood 6 feet 4 inches — and lanky, he was the school's head cross-country coach, and he helped coach the distance runners on Proviso East's track team as well.
"In the classroom, he didn't always have kids who listened and paid attention, but in cross-country and track, I really do think the boys were like sons to him," his daughter said. "He did not have sons at home, and he cared so much about the runners on his cross-country teams. He had a warm heart for the kids who tried. He admired perseverance."
Wieczorek took lessons learned from Mr. Polson to his own coaching career at Proviso West High School and the University of Iowa.
"I learned from him that the coach and the athlete are a team, and throughout my coaching career, I wanted to give the student-athletes I worked with the same type of coach-athlete relationship that he and I had," Wieczorek said.
Wieczorek recalled that at the start of his Big 10 coaching career in 1984, the first piece of mail he received was a postcard from Mr. Polson, wishing him well.
"It said, 'Larry, as Ralph Emerson, the philosopher, said to Walt Whitman, the poet, I greet you at the beginning of a great career,'" Wieczorek said. "That's a pretty unusual statement from a coach, but that was Mr. Polson. He was a brilliant scholar of literature and really a superbright man."
Wieczorek said one guiding principle through his coaching career was considering whether he was acting "in a way that would make Mr. Polson proud."
"The concept is that the athlete meets the sport at the coach, and a coach can sometimes make or break the experience for the student-athlete," he said. "He certainly made it special for me, and I wanted to pass that part of it on."
Mr. Polson also coached two other state champs: Ken Ward, who won the mile at the state track meet in 1966, and Craig Van Dyke, who was the top finisher in the state cross-country meet in 1983.
"He took a lot of personal interest in us guys, and he kept at us even in the offseason, to make sure we were getting a good start on the season," said Ward, now a Geneva real estate agent. "The man was first-class. He was intelligent, he knew what he was doing and he had a great way of coaching without becoming overbearing."
Proviso East alumnus Bob Ivarson, who ran track for Mr. Polson from 1964 until 1968 and also was a student in Mr. Polson's American literature class, recalled Mr. Polson's acumen at both coaching and teaching.
"He was very, very knowledgeable and tried to make us the best we could be," Ivarson said. "He always made the workouts fun in that he added humor. He was constantly talking with you through the workout, and that made the workout much more enjoyable."
During the 1974-75 school year, Mr. Polson took a one-year sabbatical. With his wife, he studied at University College at Oxford, England.
Mr. Polson retired from Proviso East in 1984. That same year, he was named to the Northern Illinois Track and Cross-country Coaches Association's Hall of Fame.
Mr. Polson also is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Evelyn; another daughter, Karin Polson Kramer; and two grandchildren.
Services were held.