A three-year veteran of the U.S. Navy during World War II, Robert ďBobĒ Burgess came to Walla Walla in the fall of 1949 to launch a coaching and administrative career that eventually touched all or parts of five decades.
Burgess made his biggest mark in coaching the menís tennis team for 32 years, suffering just two losing seasons, and compiling a superlative dual match record of 357 victories against 145 defeats. In the spring of 1951, his first squad produced the conference singles champion in Tim Penrose and the top doubles tandem in Adrian Cibilich and Bill McKay. It marked the first time in a decade that Whitman had swept both the singles and doubles crowns.
In 1961, after placing second at the conference championship tournament for five consecutive seasons, Whitman won the first of six straight menís tennis titles, posting undefeated dual match records in 1963, 1965 and 1966. At one point Burgess and his racketeers pieced together a 25-match win streak. Beginning in 1958, his players won the conference doubles titles in eight of the next nine seasons.
With Burgess at the helm, the menís tennis program also dominated the NAIA District I championship tournament for much of the 1960s, winning five consecutive team titles. Competing at the NAIA national championships, Whitman players advanced as far as the semifinals in singles and the quarterfinals in doubles, and the squad finished as high as fifth in the team scoring.
The menís tennis team captured its final conference and district titles, under Burgess, in 1975. Burgess was named NAIA District I Coach of the Year.
Early in his stay at Whitman, Burgess coached the menís basketball team for 14 seasons, winning a share of the conference title during the 1953-54 season. That was Whitmanís first basketball title since 1938.
Burgess also served as athletic director for 17 years, acting as the primary planner for the Sherwood Athletic Center, which was dedicated in 1969 and remains in use today. With the opening of Sherwood Center, Burgess served as coach of the menís swim team for its first seven seasons. In 1975, he added to his resume by assuming the role of athletic trainer.
In 1981, Burgess received Whitmanís Town-Gown award for his longtime service to the local community, which included teaching first aid and CPR classes, and serving on the local Red Cross executive board. Long into his retirement, which began after the 1980-81 academic year, Burgess continued to coach tennis, providing free tennis lessons to local youth during the summer months, asking only that each youngster read one book and learn 20 new words each week.
A native of Edgewater, New Jersey, Burgess remembers paying 25 cents admission at Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play. He played varsity basketball and tennis at Springfield (Mass.) College, graduating in 1943. A lieutenant at the time of his discharge from the U.S. Navy in 1946, he completed his masterís degree at Springfield in 1949.
At the time of his induction into the Whitman Athletic Hall of Fame, the 88-year-old Burgess and his wife of 61 years, Eleanor, continued to make their home in Walla Walla. They have five grown children.Back to main news release