One of the good guys: The life of Russ Reilly '66, beloved at Bates and Middlebury

Middlebury photo

Russ Reilly's celebration of life is Saturday, September 21, 2019 at 3:00 p.m. at Mead Chapel in Middlebury, Vt., followed by a reception in Pepin Gymnasium. On the same day, the Bates-Middlebury football game will be played on Bates' Garcelon Field, beginning at 1pm.

July 24 was a sad day to be a Bobcat...and a Panther. 

That day saw the passing of Russ Reilly '66, who was directly associated with Bates or Middlebury as a student, coach, or athletic director for 55 of his nearly 75 years of life.
 
"He was one of the good guys," says former longtime Bates basketball coach George Wigton, for whom Reilly played as a student. "Nobody has anything but great things to say about Russ Reilly."
 
 A beloved Bobcat and Panther, Reilly's connections and contributions to Bates and Middlebury underscore a reality: The NESCAC is as much, if not more, about what unites our schools than divides them.
 
Reilly began his career at Bates where, from 1969 to 1977, he was head athletic trainer and, for part of that time, an assistant basketball coach under Wigton. 
 
Wigton's friendship with Reilly began the day that Wigton and his wife, Eleanor, arrived at Bates in 1965. "When we pulled into the driveway of our college house at 17 Mountain Ave., there was Russ and other men from the basketball team to help unload our moving van," recalls Wigton, now 90. "Russ was loyal and dependable — a guy you could count on."
 
Seeking a head coaching opportunity, Reilly left for Middlebury, where he coached the Panther men's basketball team for 19 years, then served as director of athletics until his retirement in 2006, the year he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. 
 
In recent years, Reilly served as a volunteer coach for men's basketball and PA announcer for football games, among other gigs for the Panther community.
 
As a Bates student and then a Bobcat coach and athletic trainer, Reilly was mentored by a close-knit corps of coaches and administrators.
 
They included Bob Hatch, a longtime football coach who became AD in 1974, and coaches Chick Leahey '52, Web Harrison '63, Bob Flynn, and Wigton.
 
"In one way or another, Russ always expressed gratitude that his career in athletics was begun and incubated at Bates under strong mentors and colleagues," says Karl Lindholm, a longtime friend of Reilly's and the son of Bates Dean Emeritus of Admissions Milt Lindholm '35 and Jane Ault Lindholm '37. (Karl's daughter is a Bates senior.)
 
As did his Bates mentors, Reilly found purpose in coaching and athletics administration. "Russ derived great pleasure from both the work and from the people around him," says Lindholm. 
 
At Bates and Middlebury, that sense of purpose manifested itself in both schools' upbeat and supportive athletic departments. Reilly, in fact, is part of the origin story of the famous Bates cheer, "Great Day to Be a Bobcat."
 
As the late Harrison recalled in 2013, he had fun greeting Reilly in whimsical ways, including an adaptation of the mandatory greeting to superiors during Harrison's Marine Corps officer training in the early 1960s.   
 
The Marine version was, "Good afternoon, sir, and welcome to another grand and glorious day to be alive and a member of the U.S. Marine Corps where every day is a holiday and every meal is a banquet."
 
The Bates version Harrison used was, "Good afternoon, Russ. What a grand and glorious day to be a student at Bates College where every day is a holiday and every meal is a banquet." 
 
Over time, that greeting simply became, "It's a Great Day to Be a Bobcat."
 
For Reilly, Lindholm, and others, inter-NESCAC connections and relationships aren't zero-sum: They're about doubled loyalties and loves, not divided ones. Bates remained central to Reilly's family; his widow is Jane Hippe Reilly '68 (Wigton served as best man at their wedding) and one of their three daughters, Joann Reilly Soja, graduated in 1998. 
 
As a coach and athletics administrator, Reilly came of age when Title IX fundamentally changed American college sports.  And while key Title IX–related changes in programs and facilities occurred at Middlebury prior to Reilly's becoming AD in 1997, he's credited with solidifying the culture of support for female Panthers.
 
"Russ' insistence that Middlebury's women student-athletes be allowed the same opportunities as their male counterparts connects directly to the success of our women's teams today," said longtime former Middlebury coach and administrator Missy Foote.
 
"He was a fair, kind, and fun athletic director and colleague, and we will miss his guidance and leadership."
 
"He was very supportive of women's athletics at Bates and everywhere else," Wigton says.
 
To be sure, before colleges ever created new facilities and programs to support female athletes, there needed to be administrators committed to change. And at Bates, Reilly's intramural program clearly welcomed women, foreshadowing a mindset that would be valuable at Middlebury. 
 
As The Bates Student said with great understatement in 1972, "the trend in physical education seems to be pointing toward coeducation." As such, "Russ intends to stress this point in his program this year." 
 
A telling aspect of Reilly's "fair, kind, and fun" approach was his long and sincere commitment to intramurals. During his stint at Bates, Reilly ran the intramural program with gusto and creativity. 
 
A trademark offering was the 1972 Bates College Cross-Country Bicycle Race, a 10.5-mile trek open to the entire Bates community. He hoped it would be "challenging enough for the eager cyclist, and appealing to those who are just out for the exercise and a little scenery." 
 
Back in 1971, not long after his appointment as athletic trainer, the Student praised the work of behind-the-scenes members of the department, including the training staff.
 
"No matter what your complaint is, they'll find something for it," said the paper. "Russ Reilly is the man in charge."
— Jay Burns
 
Russ Reilly '66 (right) joins Bates friends and mentors at a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, circa 1990. From left: Milt Lindholm '35, Bob Hatch, Chick Leahey '52, Bob Flynn, and Reilly. (Karl Lindholm)