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In life and in sports, alumnus Bob Marshall plays his heart out

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

State senator.  Military veteran. Pilot.  Four-sport college athlete.  Bob Marshall has a rich and diverse background – and tying it all together is a degree from the University of Kansas School of Engineering.  He adeptly balanced his athletic and academic pursuits during his time at KU, playing football, baseball, basketball and track, and earning his degree in civil engineering in 1960. 

“It was a great education, a great school.  Engineering was housed in Marvin Hall (now home to the School of Architecture, Design and Planning).  It was an old, wonderful building and it was great to be located on the main part of campus,” Marshall said. 

He specifically mentioned Don Haines, George Bradshaw and Clayton “Crusher” Crosier (three professors with a combined 118 years teaching experience at the School of Engineering) as professors who made an impact on his engineering education.

“They were all wonderful instructors.  There were really some neat characters teaching in the engineering school. They were excellent and they got the best out of you,” Marshall said.

Marshall also brought his best to athletics.  As a freshman in 1955, he played on the junior varsity basketball, baseball and football teams (freshman were not eligible to play varsity sports at that time).  He arrived on campus just in time to play basketball for one KU legend and alongside another. He was a member of the final team coached by Forrest C. “Phog” Allen before his retirement, and was joined on the JV team by a 7-foot center from Philadelphia who would go on to become an NBA Hall of Famer.

“I was on the freshman team with Wilt Chamberlain.  He was great guy, very friendly, and easy to be around.  Everybody accepted him for who he was,” Marshall said.  “What we really used to enjoy doing in the winter was to go down to Allen Fieldhouse after school. We had Bill Nieder, who was a world-class shot-putter, Al Oerter, who went on to win Olympic gold medals in the discuss throw, and Wilt, who was just a tremendous all-around athlete.  They would have weightlifting contests.  That was great fun to be there and watch those guys show off their strength,” Marshall said.

Marshall did not return to the Fieldhouse for his sophomore season in 1956.  He played quarterback for the football team that fall, and separated his shoulder in next to last game of the season.  He played through the injury, but felt he’d better off if he skipped the basketball season and got healthy for baseball.   The same year, the door opened for another athletic opportunity.

“I did run indoor track my sophomore year, the 60-yard dash.  The best sprinter on the team flunked out of school, so the coaches came to the football team and asked for the two fastest guys, so (running back) Homer Floyd and I went and ran indoor track,” Marshall said.

While natural ability and circumstance led to his opportunities in baseball, basketball and track, it was on the football field that Marshall really set himself apart.  He earned the starting quarterback job halfway through his sophomore season and was named honorable mention for the Big 7 Conference team.  That same year, he also set the record for the longest punt return (90 yards) in KU history, which stood for 40 years, and still ranks second on the list.  His junior season was lost after an achilles tendon injury in the second game, but he came back to start each game his senior year, serving as co-captain (along with Floyd) of the 1958 squad.  

Marshall remained on campus the following year to finish up his engineering degree, and with his playing eligibility used up, he served as a coach to the freshman football team.  But his focus was beginning to shift away athletics to life after graduation.

“I was in a Marine platoon leader class program while I was at KU.  I was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Marine Corps the day I graduated.  My intention was to fly in Marine Corps,” Marshall said.  He accomplished that goal in 1962 and flew for three years with a Marine fighter squadron, which included a tour in the Far East. 

He had a job lined up at Black & Veatch when his time on active military duty concluded in 1965, but another profession came calling.

“The airlines were hiring, and I landed a job with Braniff,” Marshall said.  “I was a commercial airline pilot for 33 years.  I loved the job.  I got to go all over the country, plus the Caribbean, and Central and South America.”

Marshall’s last year as a commercial pilot was 1997, the year he turned 60 and hit the Federal Aviation Administration’s mandatory retirement age.  His love for the job lead him to join forces with his colleagues in hopes of staying on a little longer.

“I was with a group of 100 other pilots who filed a class-action lawsuit against the FAA trying to get the mandatory retirement age moved to 65.  We were unsuccessful, but the FAA eventually moved the retirement age back to 65, but it was too late for me because I was already past that age by the time they did it.   I would’ve loved to stay because I really enjoyed the job,” Marshall said.

Retirement from the airlines meant Marshall could return his focus to another life-long pastime, athletics.  He settled in the southeast Kansas town of Fort Scott, and volunteered to help with the football team at Fort Scott Community College.  After five years as an assistant football coach, the school’s president offered Marshall the athletics director job, which he held until his election to the Kansas Senate in 2008.

Marshall, a Republican, serves the Senate’s 13th District, which covers the southeast corner of the state.  He said the nation’s financial troubles have made for some challenging times in Topeka as lawmakers work to balance the budget, but he’s also managed to play a role in an initiative to help spur the state’s economy, and bolster its engineering industry. 

He served on a committee that in 2011 secured additional dollars for engineering programs at KU, Kansas State University and Wichita State University.

“We’re just having a hard time getting young people to go into science, engineering and math.  There’s a strong demand for more people to work in these fields in Kansas, and this effort should help change that trend,” Marshall said.

Additional engineers educated and employed in the state are expected to strengthen the state’s economic outlook – and provide new opportunities for the next generation of Kansans.  Marshall hopes this group stays focused on guiding principles that can help them down the path to success.

“Take advantage of every contact that you have, really get to know people and follow up with them,” Marshall said.  “Be involved in things.  Don’t stay within yourself.  Get involved in your community and that will be very beneficial to you.”



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