RACINE — One would never guess Gordon Taylor, a man who can offer a rare personal glimpse into a bygone era of Racine’s rich sports heritage, will turn 95 in June.
The only surviving member of a Park High School boys basketball team that won the 1943 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship still goes for a brisk one-hour walk three days a week near his Southwest Ranches, Fla., home.
Taylor’s only prescription is the glaucoma medication he drops into his left eye once a day. He speaks clearly on the phone and, during the course of a 45-minute interview, he gave no indication of being hearing-challenged.
And does Taylor ever remember.
Until he returned to Racine in February for a 75th anniversary celebration of the only Park boys basketball team to win a state championship, Taylor had only been back in town once since he graduated in 1943.
However, he still remembers the address of the rented home he stayed in during his dozen years in Racine — 1511 Owen Ave., and names of his former Park teammates roll off his tongue: Bob Orwig, the Panthers’ 6-foot-3 big man. Sharp-shooting Art Johnson. Forward Bruce Larson. And coach Clark Van Galder, who was only 34 at the time of that state championship but has been dead since 1965.
When Taylor was brought back to Racine by Park’s administration for the anniversary celebration, the experience was so overwhelming that he still pauses with emotion when reflecting on that night.
“I think I lost my voice for about 5 minutes,” he said. “I just choked up. To see Washington Park High — you know, it’s such a beautiful piece of architecture — it was breathtaking then, and it was breathtaking when I saw it again.”
Taylor, an only child who was born on a small farm near Cando, N.D., moved with his mother, Maie, to Racine during the depths of the Great Depression around 1931 to live with Edilie McCarthy, Maie’s half-sister.
Growing up on Owen Street, Taylor became friends with the core of what would become Park’s state championship team. Under the exacting watch of Van Galder, who would go on to become a successful football and basketball coach at Fresno State from 1952-58, the Panthers reached the pinnacle.
“He believed in a very strict, in-your-face defense,” Taylor said. “And he believed in running a lot of set plays. I think we had eight or nine set plays that we would run; we’d bring the ball up the court, and the player with the ball would hold up a hand with the number of fingers to indicate what play we were going to run.”
Taylor remembers Park’s 40-23 state championship victory over Shawano in the University of Wisconsin Field House at Madison as being almost anticlimactic.
“It was the easiest game we had all year,” Taylor said. “I don’t think Shawano had ever met a defensive unit like ours. As a result, they turned the ball over a number of times, and we scored almost every time they turned the ball over.”
Life beyond basketball
As memorable as the championship was, Taylor has lived such a full life that the game is nothing more than a distant footnote.
Van Galder helped Taylor, who also was a right halfback at Park, get a football scholarship from the University of Maryland, but he left after one year to join the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He served on a ship that delivered tanks to the Western Front in Europe for the Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive campaign of World War II.
That fall, Taylor almost lost his life near Okinawa, Japan, when a typhoon scuttled his ship. He survived only because of a life jacket and a helpful current.
“I noticed a current going by, and it curved about 400 or 500 yards from our ship and it went toward the beach,” he said. “I was lucky.”
Taylor enrolled at the University of Miami in Florida in 1948 and earned a law degree four years later. He went on to work for 48 years as a trial attorney in Florida.
He was married in 1955 to Gloria Ramirez, a flight attendant, and the couple became the parents of sons Gordon, Paul and Anthony; and daughters Laura and Loretta. Both daughters died from multiple sclerosis.
Gordon and Gloria divorced in 1978 — he cites the numerous hours he devoted to his work as a reason — but they remain on good terms 40 years later (Gloria is about 10 years younger).
Through such a fulfilling life, Racine — and that 1943 Park team — has remained dear to Taylor’s heart.
“Do me a favor and give the team credit for that championship,” he said. “It was, 100 percent, a team effort.”