MADISON - Bob R. "Boomer" Harris died late Sunday morning following a brief illness. Harris is best remembered for serving as head basketball coach at three Madison high schools, West (1947-53), Central (1957-69), and Memorial (1970-75). He also helped coach prep football and, before that, enjoyed an exciting coaching career as a United States Army Captain during World War II, having been the first Madison teacher drafted in 1941. His Camp Grant basketball teams compiled a 58-6 record over two seasons, and the 1942-43 club handed the famed Illinois Whiz Kids their only defeat that season. He also coached the Mitchell Convalescent Hospital football team in California that played USC and UCLA junior varsity squads in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Following his discharge from the Army, Harris decided against several other opportunities and opted for high school coaching. Two of his West teams won Big Eight championships and the 1951 Regents finished second to Wisconsin Rapids in the WIAA State Tournament. A conflict of philosophies at West resulted in the transfer of Harris to Central in 1953, and he served as assistant there until being named head coach in 1957. He didn’t enjoy the same success at Central, but as usual, got the most ability out of his players as well as respect from all those who’s lives he touched. He led Central out of the Big Eight Cellar in 1958 for the first time in four years and was named Coach of the Year. His 1963-64 team compiled a 10-4 conference record, finished second and earned Harris another Coach of the Year citation in the city. Harris said one of his most enjoyable years was at Central in 1953 when he also assisted coach Harold "Gus" Pollack with the football team. "Then having coached my son, "Tuffy" (Robert Harris) at Central was one of my most enjoyable experiences," he once told an interviewer. When Central closed, he moved to Memorial, retiring in 1975. He was inducted into the Madison Pen and Mike Sports Hall of Fame in June 1978. He was awarded the Madison Pen and Mike Good Guy Award. He also was named Mr. Olympic in 1977 by the Madison Service Club Council. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaching Association Hall of Fame in 1979. Harris was a product of the "old school," who taught absolutes to his pupils, emphasizing there wasn’t a right and wrong way, but a "Harris way" to live their lives. Discipline was a key word in his vocabulary. Bus drivers used to say their buses were cleaner when Harris teams got off after road trips, than when they boarded. Harris credited his experiences as a kid on the old Marquette playground, where the late Scott Hake was the instructor, for inspiring his interest in teaching and coaching. He was born May 9, 1915 in Chippewa Falls to Reverend and Mrs. Fred W. Harris. His father was a Methodist minister who brought his family to Madison when Bob was in fourth grade. Harris graduated from Central High School and earned a varsity letter in basketball at the University of Wisconsin. playing for Harold "Bud" Foster. He worked his way through the University at Toby and Moon’s Restaurant, gaining other experience during his high school years at Egan and Kelly’s Restaurant. He also credits former East High teachers Morgan "Doc" Gottschalk and Archie Morrow for aiding his coaching career as well as former UW baseball coach Dynie Mansfield and UW recreation director Pat Holmes. A 1937 University of Wisconsin graduate, Harris was one of only three physical education majors in the class of 62 to land a job during that Depression year. He went to work in Madison’s public elementary schools. During summers, he worked at Madison playgrounds and beaches, supervising swimming programs on all Madison beaches for many years until ill health forced his retirement in 1975. The old coach never put much stock in records, championships or awards. He treasured as his greatest "trophies" those former students and players who became outstanding citizens in their respective communities. Scores of those pupils never lost touch with him, and many appreciated his positive influence on their lives to this date. Bob and his wife, the former Ruth Meyers, were married September 29, 1942. They became parents of two daughters, Ruth A. Garner (Mark Gillingham) of Portland, Oregon, and Betty J. Custer (J. Corkey) of Madison; as well as a son, Robert B. Harris (Nancy) of San Mateo, California. Bob was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Ruth; his father, Frederick, and mother, Estelle; his sister, Dorothy Steinweg and his brother, Lawrence. He is survived by his three children, his two sons-in-law, and his daughter-in-law; two grandchildren in Madison, Genevieve Harris Custer and James Corkey Custer III; and his brother, Wilfred, of Madison. He also leaves behind countless former students and athletes, and teaching and sports colleagues who will never forget that they knew "Boomer". Funeral services will be held on Wednesday, November 10, 1993 at the COMMUNITY OF HOPE UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST, 7118 Old Sauk Road, where friends may call from 4:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 9, 1993. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Meritor Park Hospital, whose dedicated staff cared for Bob in his final days and supported his family; Hospice Care, Inc., who did the same for Bob’s wife; the Wisconsin Dance Ensemble with whom Bob’s granddaughter dances; and the Madison Midnight Basketball Program.
Originally published in the Wisconsin State Journal on November 9, 1993
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