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Bill Menefee passes the ball to a few basketball players during his early years as a coach.

University of North Texas photo

Bill Menefee, who was an outstanding college basketball player and an outstanding coach at Baylor, was put into his earthly grave this past Saturday after being rightfully praised and remembered at Austin Avenue Methodist Church for his many years of tremendous conquest.

I say tremendous conquest because he fought his way from the abject poverty he found in his childhood in the West Texas town of Breckenridge during the Great Depression to All-America recognition as a basketball player at the University of North Texas. He went on to recognition as a fine men’s basketball coach at Baylor and finally to even more recognition as a great human being.

All of us should pack so much living into 95 years as Bill did.

Bill lived a life that was far from ordinary. He could remember those years when his family would be thrown out of rent house after rent house for not having the money to pay the rent. He could remember always wanting to get a good education and knowing he was a good basketball player and thus walking on at North Texas, where he not only proved he was good, but extraordinary.

But he was a young man by then and Uncle Sam came calling. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and soon Bill found himself in the U.S. Marines, a 90-day “wonder” as he termed it, a Marine Lieutenant and on his way to the tiny but important island of Guadacanal in the South Pacific.

Several days before his death, I visited Bill at his final stopping place, the Stillwell Retirement Residence in Waco, and he told me this story: “When we landed on the island, a colonel or general or somebody told me every lieutenant gets this, and he handed me five bottles of whiskey in a sack. I was never a drinker but I took them, not knowing what we were facing. Our first assignment was to build a landing strip where planes could fly in and bring us supplies. The only problem was that where we had to build it was a swamp. We tried but we couldn’t do it.

“So I went to the neighboring group of Marines, who were engineers, and I asked them if they could help us. The guy in charge there said no, he just couldn’t do it. He had his own job. I had taken that whiskey with me, so I took out one bottle, sat it in front of him and kept talking. He smiled and shook his head and said he still couldn’t help us. So I took out another bottle. Same response. When I took out the fourth bottle, he took all four of them and said, ‘Maybe we’ll see what we can do.’ And so we got the swamp drained and were able to build the landing strip.”

The war in the Pacific raged on. And after a number of months Bill and his platoon landed on the large island of Okinawa, an important island for staging troops if the U.S. was going to have to invade Japan. Many observers thought the way the Yanks were winning by then that Okinawa would be easy. Those observers were dead wrong.

Bill’s son Pete spoke first the at the funeral services and talked about his father’s military career during World War II. Menefee’s platoon was in the first wave of the invasion.

“He was in the fierce fighting for 88 days. Of the 36 men in his platoon, 13 survived. In a neighboring platoon, only one survived. Of the 14 platoon leaders who were there, only two returned home,” Pete said.

Then after the war ended, Bill had to serve in China for about a year before he was deployed home.

Pete concluded his remarks with these familiar words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, for Thou art with me … I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

When I first got to know Bill Menefee was when coach Bill Henderson was head basketball coach of the Baylor Bears. I had just returned from my three years in the U.S. Army, and found Waco in a frenzy of excitement. Henderson’s Bears were in the process of winning the 1945-46 Southwest Conference championship for the first time since the 1931-32 season. And Menefee was his chief assistant.

They had an even more spectacular season in 1947-48, winning not only the SWC championship but advancing to New York’s Madison Square Garden to play the mighty Kentucky Wildcats for the NCAA national championship. They lost to the Wildcats, 58-42, but since it was an Olympic year they were chosen to participate in that tournament as well (Outstanding players chosen from that tournament were chosen for the U.S. Olympic Team. Baylor’s Jack Robinson made the team and later was named to the All-America team). Menefee shared in all that excitement.

Then when the program had hit hard times (a 4-20 record and 8th place finish in 1960-61), Henderson retired and Menefee succeeded him as head coach. Bill never won a conference title, but his teams had some outstanding seasons, finishing second in the SWC in 1968-69 and again in 1970-71, and tying for second in 1966-67 and again in 1967-68. And he always was especially fond of recalling the 87-73 upset victory his team won over New Mexico State when the Aggies were ranked No. 13 nationally.

In my last visit with Bill, we also talked about what a fine tennis player and fly fisherman he was, and his prowess on the badminton court. He teamed with Jasper Garland to win the state tournament in 1948 and they advanced far (finishing No. 2 in the national tournament, as best I can remember).

“But one thing we never could do,” he said that day. “With both of us playing on our side of the net, we never could beat Tan Jo Hok (sent to Baylor from Indonesia by a missionary in Jakarta).” But Tan Jo Hok was not only a national champion, he was a world champion and proved it several times.

There were three of Menefee’s former players who gave eulogies: David Sibley (played 1968-70, son-in-law of former Baylor athletic director Jack Patterson); Tommy Bowman (1968-70), a member of the Baylor athletics hall of fame; and Larry Gatewood (1968-70), also a member of the Baylor athletics hall of fame.

Said Sibley: “Coach Menefee taught me about life. He was able to unlock the talent he saw in you. He taught us to be a band of brothers, whether we were from big cities or small towns. He gave me a chance. He always said if you want to be great, you have to work increasingly hard. And no one person is indispensable.”

Said Bowman, recruited from Athens, Texas, and the first black basketball player recruited by Baylor: “I remember him as a coach who would sit on your back porch, helping shell back-eyed peas. He taught us discipline. And he always told us, once you make a decision, don’t look back. He also said my Savior is No. 1, my family is No. 2 and my relationships are No. 3.”

And Gatewood, the last to speak, called his old coach “a great man. He left an everlasting imprint on me. He taught us not just about basketball, he taught us about life. He was on this earth for 95 years and I doubt he would come back. Because now he is with his wife, where the streets are paved with gold.”

Several other Baylor basketball standouts were also at the funeral or the Friday night visitation. I saw Baylor Hall of Famer Jim Turner and his wife Julie; Tom Stanton (1971-73), former Baylor athletics director and also in Baylor’s athletic Hall of Fame; Carroll Dawson (1959-60), who succeeded Menefee as Baylor’s head basketball coach (1973-77) and also now a BU athletics Hall of Fame member; and Richard Tinsley (1959-61). Another pall bearer was Bill’s close friend Tommy Goforth, a good tennis player who often played with Menefee.

Several players just recently put together a DVD honoring Bill Menefee and his life and times.

It’s just unfortunate Bill couldn’t have lived longer to witness the fine Baylor men’s and women’s teams in their quest for national prominence. Coach Kim Mulkey’s Lady Bears are ranked No. 3 going into the Big 12 Conference play and coach Scott Drew’s unbeaten Bears are ranked No. 4.

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