Nearly every small town has someone in its legacy who citizens can point to as a success, whether at a regional, state or national level. Very few can claim someone of international acclaim as one of their own. Atwood can.
Kenneth “Tug” Wilson was born in Atwood in 1896 and graduated from Atwood High School in 1914 before becoming a force on the international sports scene. He served as chairman of the United States Track and Field Committee for the 1948 Games in London before being elected as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1953, 1957 and 1961.
The dedication of an historical marker supported by the Illinois State Historical Society (ISHS), and sponsored by the Big Ten Conference and many other donors, will occur at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 22, at Rajah Park, near the site of the former Atwood-Hammond High School, on the north side of Atwood. The dedication will include Bill Furry, the ISHS Executive Director, and Linda Kellough, Tug Wilson’s granddaughter. The event is open to the public.
After teaching at a one-room country school to earn money for college, Wilson matriculated to the University of Illinois, where he played and starred in track and field, football and basketball. He was the captain of the 1919-20 basketball team. Wilson helped Illinois to Big Ten titles in both the conference indoor and outdoor meets, while qualifying for the 1920 U.S. Olympic team in the discus and javelin. He qualified at the U.S. Championships by throwing a javelin made from a hickory fence post taken from his family farm. At the 1920 Antwerp Games, he finished 10th in the discus throw.
In his professional career, Wilson served as a coach and athletics director at Drake, where he elevated the national profile of the Drake Relays, and athletics director at Northwestern from 1925-45. As the second Big Ten Conference Commissioner from 1945-61, Wilson enforced established rules governing financial aid to student-athletes, ensuring that athletes were bona fide students, and promoted racial equality in a time the conference was becoming integrated. Wilson also negotiated the Rose Bowl pact with the Pacific Coast Conference that exists still today where the champions of both conferences play in the annual Granddaddy of Them All.
Wilson served as secretary-treasurer of the NCAA and, from 1953-65, as President of the U.S. Olympic Committee. He supported his hometown of Atwood through school donations, motivational speeches and frequent visits. He died in 1975 and is buried in Lexington, Illinois.