They Also Serve who Watch and Cheer: Ellinwood’s Heroes on the Sidelines

This year, KHC features weekly posts related to the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition Hometown Teams, opening in Ellinwood on January 31st.

The Zahn Hall of Memories is just one way that Ellinwood's heroes on the sidelines have honored their hometown teams.  Image Courtesy Ellinwood School & Community Library.

The Zahn Hall of Memories is just one way that Ellinwood’s heroes on the sidelines have honored their hometown teams. Image Courtesy Ellinwood School & Community Library.

In sports, athletes understandably get the lion’s share of the glory. But especially in small towns, where everyone feels like part of the team, players aren’t the only people who become sports legends.

In the central Kansas town of Ellinwood, the folks lining the sidelines are equally important. And now they’re the focus of Ellinwood’s Hometown Teams exhibit.

“We wanted to recognize the contributions of these unsung heroes…because they helped to shape our successes and who we are as a sports community,” said Sharon Sturgis, Ellinwood School and Community Library’s Hometown Teams Host Site Project Director.

Sideline heroes aren’t necessarily lifelong Ellinwood residents, just people who love the town’s teams. Nick Loburgio fits the bill. He married into the community and quickly became one of its own, serving on the school board and coaching town baseball and basketball teams.

But to generations of Ellinwood sports fans, he’s best remembered as the high school football announcer—a position he held for more than 40 years. Win or lose, the “Voice of the Eagles” signed off after each game by reminding listeners, “Folks, drive to arrive alive, and don’t do anything ol’ Nick wouldn’t do!”

LeRoy Zahn wasn’t a native of Ellinwood, either, but he too became a proud adopted son of the community. He was a particularly devoted fan of local sports, working track meets, keeping score during basketball games for 15 years and running the clock at football games for 46 years.

LeRoy also assembled a collection of photographs of all of Ellinwood’s athletic teams, captioning each one with team members’ names, season records and highlights. When he retired, he donated the collection to the Ellinwood School System, where it now forms the Zahn Hall of Memories.

Many of the photographs on display in the Hall of Memories were taken by Fred Meyer, another of Ellinwood’s heroes on the sidelines. His enjoyment of photography led him to serve as the high school’s sports photographer for many years.

As an Ellinwood High School junior in 1939, Fred volunteered to keep statistics for the football team. He kept it up for the next 50 years, recording every play in detail for the coaching staff. He did the same for the basketball team, operating the electric scoreboard while he kept track of the Eagles’ point totals over the next five decades.

Another iconic figure in Ellinwood’s sideline sports history is Henry “Hank” Denker. Born and raised in Ellinwood, Hank was an enthusiastic member of the pep band until he was in his early 80s.

For about 60 years, Hank could be seen at every home football and basketball game, playing his drum alongside generations of Ellinwood high school students and inspiring the home crowds with his dedication to Ellinwood sports.

Unsung heroes like these men are important to the community, Sturgis said: “They don’t ask for credit. They don’t get the fame and glory of competition. They just loyally do their best to help and support. And they do it over and over, week after week.”

Both the Hometown Teams traveling Smithsonian exhibition and Ellinwood’s exhibit about heroes on the sidelines will be on display at Ellinwood School and Community Library at 210 N. Schiller Ave. from January 31 through March 15. For more information, contact (620) 564-2306.