By Burt Constable
Universally beloved, always upbeat and a legend in suburban high school sports, Bob Frisk’s rough entry into the sports section of this newspaper shaped his career.
As a member of a strong Arlington High School track squad, Bob’s relay team botched a baton handoff and lost the race. This newspaper’s headline referred to “Frisk’s fumble.”
Bob never forgot that.
“I have tried to emphasize positive writing to all our full- and part-time reporters for all these years. I am proud of that legacy,” Bob wrote in the 2008 column announcing his retirement from the Daily Herald, where he started working as a high school sophomore, was hired full-time after his 1958 graduation from the University of Illinois, and quickly became a columnist and sports editor.
Bob, a longtime Arlington Heights resident who would have turned 84 in June, died Saturday at the Hospice Center at the Lutheran Home a few months after refusing treatment for cancer.
“I’ve had a great life,” Bob told former Daily Herald sports writer Charles Dickinson and me during a chat before visiting restrictions that kept Bob from being exposed to COVID-19.
Bob cherished the idea of impressionable teenagers, devoted parents and caring coaches coming together to make something positive and far bigger than a final score. And they loved Bob for helping them realize what is truly important. People felt better after reading Bob’s columns or chatting with him on the sidelines.
“Be positive, he always said, because these kids will have a lifetime of dealing with negatives,” says John Radtke, the Daily Herald’s current high school sports editor. “Bob was never one to shy away from issues, but instead of expanding on the negative, he had a wonderful way of offering solutions to negatives to turn them into positives. Bob became not only a mentor, but a great friend and confidant. His legacy will live forever.”
Editors can make enemies. Bob didn’t do that.
“When I joined the newspaper in 1970 as a young reporter, Bob was the person we all looked up to in the newsroom. He knew everyone in the community, cared so much about young athletes and the sports section where their talents were displayed,” remembers Douglas K. Ray, CEO and chairman of the Daily Herald. “I admired him through the years as he became a mentor to all of us. We have never had anyone quite like Bob and his impact on the newspaper is carrying on.”
Whether he was on the sidelines or in the stands, Bob drew a crowd of admirers.
“Bob wasn’t just a legend in the high school sports community. His devotion to the well-being of the athletes also made him an inspiration to thousands,” says John Lampinen, editor of the Daily Herald. “In our coverage, he was committed to doing right by them, and in his heart, he delighted in their successes as much as any fan. Beyond all that, Bob was a joy to be around and an inspiration also to all of us who had the pleasure of working with him.”
His enthusiasm for kids, coaches, sports, the suburbs and the Daily Herald was genuine, says his daughter, Susan Alesia.
“He was that way all the time. He meant it. It was all good, and that was wonderful.”
Bob was born in Berwyn, where his parents, Don and Pearl, lived in an apartment with his older sister, Joann. The family moved to an apartment in Evanston, where Bob attended grade school before their move to Arlington Heights. His junior high yearbook listed sports writer as his career ambition.
“Bob’s efforts have produced a litany of awards and honors, including IBCA (Illinois Basketball Coaches Association) Hall of Fame induction, as well as Hall of Fame enshrinement from three local high schools,” reads his biography for the Illinois High School Association, which quotes Bob as saying, “Sports at this level are still refreshing. I love watching kids compete.”
His trophies, plaques and other honors were important to him, but not because of ego, says Tom Quinlan, a longtime friend and retired Daily Herald sports editor.
“All those were affirmations that he lived a good life,” says Quinlan, who met Bob for breakfast every Saturday and was a frequent visitor after Bob got sick.
“To truly appreciate Bob Frisk and what he meant to high school sports and the Daily Herald, all you had to do was tag along with him to a game. It didn’t matter whether it was softball or baseball, basketball or football, track or volleyball. Whatever the sport, Bob would arrive on the scene and a variety of friends and acquaintances — coaches, parents, scorekeepers, announcers, athletic directors, referees, officials, trainers and boosters — would spot him and come over to say hi,” Quinlan says. “Before Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, Bob Frisk was our social media at the Daily Herald. No one was more connected. He knew everyone around high school sports, and everyone knew him. And many of those who had never met him felt they knew him — and his beloved grandson — through his insightful columns.”
Bob was proud of his role in getting the Prospect High School Field House named after his friend Jean Walker, who played an integral role in the passage of Title IX and putting girls sports onto a more even plane with the boys.
Track was the only sport Bob participated in during high school, but he rooted for all amateur sports.
“His love of high school sports — both boys and girls — was unconditional. He couldn’t wait for each new season to begin,” says retiree Jim Cook, who worked alongside Bob in the sports department for a quarter century before becoming assistant vice president of marketing and promotions. “In hiring and grooming his staff, Bob’s positive attitude infiltrated our thinking and writing. Never a disparaging word about high school athletes, only positives. The kids weren’t playing for money, only the love of the game. And that’s what Bob cherished. His vise-like handshake almost made your knees buckle, and he punished his old Smith-Corona typewriter keyboard, pounding with lightning speed and accuracy on deadline. Bob was your biggest fan, most delicate critic and the reason those who worked closely with him or for him, never considered their life’s work a job. It was truly a privilege.”
An example of his quiet leadership comes from the former sports writer and author Dickinson: “I grew up reading Bob and the Daily Herald’s prep sports coverage, so having him as my first boss was like clocking in at the Mount Rushmore of local journalism,” Dickinson writes. “Bob was the calm center of it all. ‘BF’ had given us nicknames, such as ‘Cookie,’ ‘The Wisp,’ ‘Baron,’ ‘KR’ or ‘Stick.’ Bob would read, edit and write the headline for each game story. On deadline, he had time during all this to lay out the section’s pages and raise questions about items in each story — while also laughing and joking and making upbeat observations about a prep sports world that we could argue would not have existed without Bob and the Herald.”
Working under Bob’s direction for nine years left an impact of Paul Logan, who was the assistant sports editor until he left in 1976. “I’ve worked with many sports editors in 40 years, but no one was as devoted to high school boys as well as girls,” says Logan from his home in Idaho. “He loved watching young people competing for the love of the game.”
When he retired, longtime Daily Herald sports columnist Mike Imrem reached out to his former boss to ask how he handled life after newspapers. “Well, among other activities like reading, he had lunch on this day with that group of friends and on another day with another group of friends and on another day with another group of friends, on and on,” Imrem says. “Most of those groups were composed of former coaches he had written about and had supported over more than a half-century. He admired them because of how they helped young people build character and they respected him for the way he chronicled their efforts.”
Bob’s wife, Nancy, died of cancer in 1992. He lived in the Arlington Heights home they bought in 1964, until his recent move to the Lutheran Home in Arlington Heights. Bob wrote columns of letters to his grandson, Mark, the child of his daughter, Susan, and her husband, Tom Alesia, of Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to the Alesia family, he is survived by his older sister, Joann Frisk Svikhart, who lives in Utah.
Bob drew admirers wherever he went, and his memorial service will be delayed until the COVID-19 restrictions against crowds are lifted.