Ray 'Rock' Hanson
Courtesy: Western Illinois Athletics  
Release: Friday 05/16/2010
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This brief summary comes from the book "Rock Hanson, The Life of a Hero" authored by Alfred J. Lindsey. As a student and an professor, Dr. Lindsey spent nearly five decades at Western Illinois. On Homecoming eve, September 30, 2000, he addressed the Leatherneck football team on the 50th anniversary of the dedication of Hanson Field.  The players were inspired by Dr. Lindsey's words and earned a 49-7 victory the following day. Dr. Lindsey passed away on April 17, 2001; however, the history he has passed on about "The Rock" will forever benefit Western Illinois.



Ray "Rock" Hanson was born October 5, 1895 in the village of Vasa, Minn. The family moved to Red Wing where Ray was a popular young man who emerged as a leader.  Ray became a high school sports legend as he earned letters in football, basketball and baseball. Amazingly, he held the role of "player-coach" for football and basketball in his last 2 years of high school; leading the basketball team to a state championship in his senior year.

About a year after his graduation from high school in 1916, on April 2, 1917, war was declared. Ray, tired of waiting to be drafted, joined the Marine Corps.

Beginning May 30, 1918, the Marine Brigade, which served with the Second Division, won immortality and glory in the ensuing ninety days; and the name "Devil Dogs," assigned the Marines by the Germans, became synonymous with courage and heroism.

Ray Hanson was one of these Devil Dogs, and he emerged as one of America's war heroes. These "Fighting Leathernecks" turned the tide in favor of the Allies.

Ray Hanson had moved through the ranks of private, corporal, sergeant, gunnery sergeant, and second lieutenant. He had shown bravery and tenacity. He won numerous medals and honors: the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, the Good Conduct Medal, the Victory Medal and the Army of Occupation of Germany Medal. Other than the burns and gassing for which he earned the Purple Heart, Hanson had not been wounded. He had, however, been subject to several close calls. Machine gun bullets had pierced his helmet and had gone completely through his canteen. Part of his rifle had been demolished by a rifle shell. He had shipped home a part of a shell casing that went through his backpack and lodged in the handle of his razor, thus saving him from serious injury. After the war's end Hanson sailed for home on July 25, 1919.

On March 9, 1921, Ray Hanson enrolled at Springfield College, Massachusetts ready to dedicate himself to becoming a coach, physical education teacher, and an athlete. His athletic endeavors began to take shape. He was a gifted athlete in football, basketball and baseball - earning varsity letters in all three sports.
 
Attending summer school in Springfield the summer of 1923, Hanson met the world-renowned coach Knute Rockne. Ray enrolled in a football fundamentals course with Rockne. Delighted to study with his hero, Ray learned well the Rockne system of football and coaching in general. Hanson and Rockne became fast friends, forming a bond that lasted until the tragic death of Rockne a few years later. In November, 1924, his senior year, Ray wed Gladys Minor.
 
After one year of coaching at a Connecticut high school, Knute Rockne contacted Hanson regarding a very good opening at a college named Western State Teacher's College in Macomb, Illinois. That very night, Ray Hanson wrote the letter of application for the position, and Knute Rockne began a campaign to help him secure the appointment. Amos Alonzo Stagg, who had attended Springfield College with Ray, and was later to become the renowned coach at the University of Chicago, called Western's President Morgan, on Ray's behalf. He was soon hired to be Western's Physical Education Director and the head coach of football, basketball, and baseball.
 
In 1926, the Hanson era began; athletics were to blossom. Hanson's coaching theory was that victory was secondary to character development; he wanted to build men. In writing about the traits that a football player should have, Hanson stated, "A player should demonstrate leadership, fearlessness, self-confidence, enthusiasm, and 'ginger'." He added that in any athletic contest "the battle is not always to the strong, but to the active, the vigilant, and brave."
 
After his first year at Western, Rock (the Western community gave him this nickname because of his close friendship with Knute Rockne) began his quest to build an athletic tradition second to none in the nation. He planned to make the Marine ethic a central focus, and he dreamed of using the name Leathernecks at Western; however, no non-military school had ever been allowed to use an armed forces name. It appeared to be an impossible vision. If ever a man had earned the right to use an armed service name, it was Hanson, who had so distinguished himself in defense of his nation. The Rock went to the U.S. Navy Department with the request, and he personally contacted the decision makers, refusing to take no for an answer.
   
Finally, primarily because of his status as a Marine hero and his determination in dealing with it, the United States Navy honored Hanson's request. In 1927, Western State Teacher's College was awarded permission to use the Marine's official seal, the bulldog seal, and the name Leathernecks.
   
The high regard in which Hanson was held by the students, townspeople, and the profession in general is well-documented by some of the comments in the Western Sequels from 1932 to 1935.
   
The success of men's sports at Western can be largely attributed to the work of Coach Hanson. He is the very personification of "contagious enthusiasm, courage, hard work, pep, drive, and energy." He was responsible for the ten second rule in basketball, which saved the game from the stagnation into which it was falling due to the stall. Possibly his greatest accomplishment of all is that he finds time to be a friend of every man who participates in college athletics in addition to many of the non-athletes of the school. He is always doing whatever he can for the men of the college and does not forget them after they have graduated. Enthusiasm, courage, and success - that's Coach Hanson of the Western Leathernecks.
 
Hanson was surely the top public relations person ever associated with Western. Not only were his addresses dynamic but so, too, was everything about his character and demeanor. Western came first in his life, and he worked tirelessly for the college, ever placing it before his own interests. The Marine ethic formed his every decision - and this became part of the Western Tradition.
 
With the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, Ray found himself back at Marine headquarters in Quantico, Virginia.
 
In a letter to President Morgan, Rock reminisced about his years at Western: Sixteen years at Western has meant a great deal to me and it is not an easy task for me to pull up and leave. However, I do know my country comes first. Naturally, the best years of my life are left at Western - sixteen of them. My spirit and enthusiasm has been for you and the school and its march forward. I tried my best at all times.
 
Decision makers in the Marine Corps had special plans for the Rock, partially because of his distinguished performance in World War I and partially because of his charisma. His responsibility: building morale in fighting men during the war. The very nature of his job during the Second World War resulted in a comprehensive list of friendships with world-famed movie stars and other entertainers. Among the stars that Rock became friends with were Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Tyrone Power, baseball star Joe DiMaggio and boxing champ Jack Dempsey.
 
The war came to a victorious end and by February 1, 1946, the Rock was back at his Western post. Dr. Beu, President of Western, and Hanson discussed future plans. By then, the Rock was fifty-one years old, with a record as one of the finest and most colorful coaches in the nation. He had influenced Western as few, if any men, had ever affected an institution. Nationally, he was a giant in the coaching profession, and he had become an important media personality.  Ray Hanson had achieved legendary status. Both of them agreed that the athletic directorship and the physical education chairmanship were status roles from which to increase the Hanson influence on the college, the students, and the alumni. This would mean, of course, that he would no longer coach.
 
In 1950, The Rock was accorded what he considered to be his greatest honor: The new Western football field was to be named after him. Though there was a rule that no building or property could be named for a living person, Ray Hanson was, in fact, so honored, the official name being Hanson Field.
 
On September 23, 1950, the dedication of the field took place at halftime of the game with Central Michigan. The Rock was overwhelmed by hundreds of telegrams, and phone calls, even one from friend Bob Hope.

On May 1, 1953, Gladys Hanson passed away, and the Rock grieved for the rest of his life. He never forgave himself for giving so much of himself to Western and so little to his wife. This overwhelming sorrow he took to his grave. In 1955, Ray terminated his affiliation with the United States Marines which had spanned thirty-seven years. He was retired with the appointment of colonel and was increasingly identified by that name. The Colonel was instrumental in having many nationally known sports figures come to Western and speak in Morgan Gym. Among them were Branch Rickey, Knute Rockne, and Amos Alonzo Stagg.
 
In December of 1963, a month before his retirement and after being widowed for a decade, he married Dorothy Ruggles in the storied Little Chapel on the University of Iowa campus. His life-long joy of speech making did not wane as he got older. For more than a decade after retirement, he delighted in receiving and accepting invitations to speak at high school banquets and other gala occasions. The charisma was still there, as was the skill. To his delight, the Colonel was remembered at the half of a basketball game in 1971; the evening designated as Rock Hanson Night at Western was a fine tribute to the hero. On November 16, 1974, when the Western Sports Hall of Fame formally opened, Rock was named a charter member of the first induction class.
 
Hanson's energy level during his last years was extremely high, up until the very last few weeks. He was, as always, interested in young people. He enjoyed watching children play in his yard, but though few knew it, the old hero had been suffering from serious health problems for some time. There had been a gradual weakening of heart functions. On January 4, 1982, the old hero passed on to Glory. Hanson's funeral was conducted by Father Draper of St. George's Episcopal Church in Macomb. Hundreds of Rock's boys, ready to rush to Macomb to honor the memory of their fallen coach, were kept at home by a glaze of ice.
 
The beloved Rock was laid to rest in Macomb's Oakwood Cemetery, his grave just yards away from the golf course where he had spent so many happy hours. The inscription on his government marker reads, "Lt. Colonel - USMC - WWI & II - October 5, 1895 - January 4, 1982." Several years later the Rock was honored with a significant headstone with the inscription of, "Colonel Ray Hanson - USMC - Western Coach - Athletic Director - 1926-1964 - Western's Legend."
 
So what finally can be said of Ray Hanson? He was a great coach and sports innovator. His public relations on behalf of Western put it on the map. Few patriots would surpass his heroism in two world wars. The deep, abiding affection he offered his players and all students was matchless. Because of Rock Hanson the Western Tradition was born of the Marine's noble ethic and the code of semper fidelis. It demanded hard work, kindness, manliness, honesty, integrity, determination, loyalty, spirit, and utter morality. It brought together mind, body, and spirit. Even more than winning, it focused on absolute and untiring effort by worthy persons who played hard and fairly--whether in sports, school, or life. The goal was building quality people.
 

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