IHSA Announces Seventh Class of Distinguished Media Service Award Winners

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IHSA Announces Seventh Class of Distinguished Media Service Award Winners

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The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) is proud to announce its seventh class of recipients of the IHSA Distinguished Media Service Award. The 2019-20 honorees include two of the longest active media members in the state, alongside a legendary preps writer. Fowler Connell is 95 years young and still going strong as a radio commentator on WDAN in Danville, while Neal Ormond has been the voice of the West Aurora Blackhawks for the past 56 years. The final honoree is Bob Leavitt, who spent 40 years on the prep sports beat, closing his career with a long tenure at the Peoria Journal Star from 1969 through 2000.

The IHSA Distinguished Media Service Award was created to recognize media members who have covered high school sports and activities in Illinois for a significant period of time, while maintaining perspective on the amateur events they report on.

“It is hard to come up with adjectives to describe this group,” said IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson. “Having lived and been a high school Athletic Director near Peoria for much of my life, I know firsthand the impact that Bob Leavitt has had on high school sports in the region. Then you look at the sheer longevity and loyalty that Fowler (Connell) and Neal (Ormond) have displayed, it really is incredible. Both men have given back so much, and are rightfully revered in their respective communities.”

IHSA member schools submitted nominations for the award, with Connell and Ormond being nominated by Danville High School and West Aurora High School, respectively. Leavitt was nominated by Metamora High School.

The IHSA’s media advisory committee, and a veteran committee of retired media members voted on each nominee. Those who received the required percentage of votes were named honorees with a limit of one winner per IHSA Board Division. Each winner will be honored at a high school event of their choosing during the 2019-20 school year.

“A vital element of this award is the recognition within the community,” said IHSA Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha. “We look forward to seeing this year’s winners being recognized in front of the students, coaches, and communities they have impacted with their exceptional work.”

A bio on each of the honorees is below:

Fowler Connell and his career can only be described as amazing, as the 95-year old Danville resident continues to cover high school sports to this day. Born in Chicago, he was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where he made his foray into sportswriting at Paseo High School’s student newspaper. He went on to attend Kansas City Junior College and the University of Missouri following his service in the United States Navy. After being stationed in the Pacific through the end of World War II, Fowler eventually came to Eastern Illinois, where he started his professional journalism career at the Champaign News Gazette in 1949. He then made the short move to Vermillion County in 1952 when he became the Sports Editor at the Danville Commercial News. He spent 37 years at the Commercial News before retiring in 1989, but on January 1, 1990 he got back into the game with a new job at WDAN radio in Danville. He continues to serve as a member of the WDAN broadcast team on high school and junior college games, as well as on University of Illinois pre-game show broadcasts, while also appearing as a regular panelist on the WDAN Sports Talk program for over 30 years. “Seeing the development of young athletes, and then following their careers in high school and into college,” is what Fowler calls the best part of covering prep sports. He also has fond memories of many of the coaches he covered, with Paul Shelby, B.J. Luke, Gene Gourley, John Eakle and John Spezia standing out. The Danville Commercial News published a collection of Fowler’s favorite stories in a book titled “Sports Through My Eyes, 50-Years of Sports Coverage.” Among all the amazing moments he has covered, he is able narrow down his Top 3:
1) Schlarman beating Clinton 76-75 in first round of 1961 state tournament on Brian Williams 50-foot shot in the closing seconds.
2) Danville High School’s football team stunning archrival Champaign Central 16-12 on a lateral kickoff return in final seconds of a game in 1977.
3) Left-hander Steve Kelly throwing a two-hitter to help Danville high edge Moline 2-1 in the state baseball tournament opener in Peoria.
Fowler is a past President of the Illinois Sports Editors Association and was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1979. He led the establishment of the Vermilion County Sportsmanship Award over 30 years ago and continues to serve on the committee.

Award Presentation: Tuesday, January 14 at Danville High School varsity boys basketball game.

A native of Downers Grove, Bob Leavitt got his start in sports journalism covering his classmates at Downers Grove High School (now DG North) as a part of a high school journalism class. He continued his dual role as a student/sportswriter after high school, as he simultaneously attended the University of Illinois, while also working in the Champaign-Urbana Courier sports department. After graduating from U of I, he transitioned into a full-time position with the Courier, before moving on to a position with the Peoria Journal Star in 1969, where he’d be a fixture on the high school sports scene until his retirement in 2000. Bob points out that the experience of covering both preps and collegiate sports while at the Courier helped shape his passion for high school sports due to them being the most “pure” of all levels. Bob’s career intersected with legendary players, coaches and teams, not to mention the golden age of high school basketball in the city of Peoria, as he covered Manual High School’s state title fourpeat from 1994-1997, followed by Shaun Livingston guiding Peoria Central to back-to-back state crowns in 2003 and 2004. Bob notes that the coaches from each of the aforementioned title teams in Manual’s Dick Van Scyoc and Wayne McClain, as well as Peoria High School’s Chuck Buescher and Tom Peeler and Rod Butler from Richwoods left lasting impacts on him. Among athletes, he fondly recalls Sergio McClain as a four-year starter on those famed Manual teams, as well as Peoria High School’s David Ayoub (Peoria High, 1977) running what is still the all-time state best 880-yards/800-meters at the IHSA track state finals in 1977. Richwoods’ football state title games in 1984 and 1988 still stand out today, as does Peoria High School’s overtime loss to East St. Louis Lincoln in the 1989 boys basketball title game. Bob’s lasting impact on both Peoria area preps, and the Journal Star, remain top of mind each spring when the Journal Star Honor Roll Meet is contested. Bob founded the track & field meet that features the top student-athletes from Peoria and the surrounding coverage area in 1979 and served as the meet director for 21 years. Bob reflected on how the relationships he developed with his colleagues were just as important as the games he covered. “I was honored (and intimidated) to work for Bert Bertine at the C-U Courier,” said Bob. “Dick Lien was a good example of perspective at the Journal Star, and former Journal Star managing editor Tom Driscoll was as true a newspaper person as ever was and a fine teacher of the profession. I never thought you had to know all that much about any particular subject to be an effective reporter; just how to find people who did know and get them to educate you. And as far as that philosophy, where better to look than high school coaches, who are after all first-and-foremost teachers.”

Award Presentation
: To be announced.

Neal Ormond epitomized the high school experience as a student at West Aurora High School, where he helped the Blackhawk basketball team to a fourth-place finish at the 1958 IHSA Boys Basketball State Finals. He also ran track, played tennis and was active on the school’s speech team. Those experiences clearly made a lasting impact on Neal. After matriculating to earn a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University and an MBA from Stanford University, he felt a calling to return home to Aurora. In 1964, he was invited by the local radio station to join the on-air broadcast teams, and is still going strong today, having called over 500 West Aurora High School football games and 1,500 basketball games on the radio. His broadcast career has spanned numerous stations and mediums, including WMRO radio (1964-1991), WLXT-TV (1968-1970), WKKD radio (1991-2001) and WBIG radio (2001-current), the last of which also simulcasts his call on the NFHS Network. Neal says he loves broadcasting high school sports because “it provides a wonderful opportunity to publicize and promote to the community, and our loyal fans around the world, the many outstanding accomplishments of our students-athletes in all sports, and the excellence of the academic and extracurricular programs of School District 129.” Among the many memories, Neal treasures the state final basketball seasons, particularly the 1976 (2nd place) team and the 2000 state champion team. He also calls it a “privilege” to meet and cover so many “outstanding” coaches both for West Aurora and their opponents, including the legendary John McDougal and Gordon Kerkman. Many West Aurora students have also been privileged to benefit from Neal’s coaching prowess. He has coached for 70 combined seasons as an assistant in the West Aurora track & field, girls tennis, basketball and softball programs. Neal served 22 years on the West Aurora school board before declining not to run for reelection in 2017. His accolades throughout the years include honors for media and coaching from the IBCA, IADA, and IHSTCA to name a few. Neal’s wife, Mary Clark Ormond, is the former head librarian at the Aurora Public Library and currently president of the board of trustees of the Aurora Historical Society. They have three children in Neal Alan Ormond IV, Laurel Ormond and Chrissy Ormond De Swardt. Neal retired in 1995 after a 31-year career as Vice President of Human Resources at both the Quaker Oats Company and W. W. Grainger, Inc.

Award Presentation: Friday, January 31 at West Aurora High School varsity boys basketball game.

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