Remembering a great athlete

A tribute to Ron Altenberg '60

By Dave Adkins '62

Who was Ron Altenberg?

In short, Ron Altenberg was a small town Iowa guy from Marion, comfortable with himself and a confident world class athlete, who starred in basketball and track at Cornell College from 1958-1960.  I met him for the first time during a visit to Cornell College in the spring of 1957 in a pick-up basketball game in the Cornell gym and ran into him again that summer at the state AAU track meet at Drake Stadium.  He had graduated in 1956 from Marion H.S., 7 miles from the Cornell campus, and spent a semester as a football recruit at the University of New Mexico.  There was a strong Iowa connection at UNM at the time – Dick Clausen from Coe was head coach.  Bill Weeks, who was an All-American quarterback at Iowa State and had coached at Grinnell H.S., and Bob Peterson, who had coached football at Grinnell College, were on Clausen’s staff.  Bill Weeks later became the head coach there.  Altenberg was to be used at New Mexico as a kickoff and punt returner as well as a wide receiver because of his blinding speed.  Life in Albuquerque didn’t fit with Ron, so he returned to Marion in the spring of ’57 and enrolled at Cornell in the fall.  

I made a last minute decision to attend Cornell in September of 1957 and one of the first people I saw on campus was Ron, who suggested we room together, which we did for two years – first year at Olin 410 and the second in the northeast corner room at Merner on first floor- until he was married to Francis Parton of Marion in the summer of 1959.  I played my sophomore season at Cornell with Ron under Coach Paul Maaske, my high school coach at Grinnell.   Jack Sunderlage (61) played freshman football with Ron and recalls this:  “In the fall of 1957 Ron played freshman football.  Jerry Huml and I were the starting ends.  I remember one time where the play was called to come over the right end.  I said, ’do you want me to take the defensive end inside or outside’ Ron’s reply was, ‘it doesn’t matter, just stand him up for a second’.  That was all it took for him to turn on the afterburners.  Sunderlage continued: “I remember vividly watching the basketball game against Prairie View and Zelmo Beaty.  It was in Galesburg, Illinois. Ron had a gash over his eye, and his calf kept cramping.  His wife, Francis, was in tears, but he just kept coming at those guys. What a night.”  

Alt gave up football and concentrated on his first love, basketball, and his second, track and field.   He was very happy to be at Cornell – there was no pressure on him to produce in athletics – he just used his natural talent and love for the competition to break record after record in both sports, be named college division All-American in basketball, dominate the Midwest Conference Track and Field Championships  and finish third in the open 100 yard dash at Drake.  He also liked being close to his home town of Marion, and spent weekends there frequently, especially after he had started going with Francis, who was still in high school at the time.   I recall that Ron was named to the all Midwest Conference basketball team in 1959 and Barry Gable, former Marion and Cornell basketball player, wrote a note congratulating Ron on making the “all academic” Midwest Conference team.   It was no secret that academics were not a high priority for arguably the greatest athlete in the history of the state of Iowa, but he was an intelligent guy, went to class, studied occasionally, and just seemed to enjoy the whole Cornell scene, even some of it with the books.  He was always smiling, seemed relaxed and liked to play and win at 8 ball at the Student Center.

Coach Paul Maaske used to arrange a pre-season scrimmage with University of Iowa Coach Sharm Schuereman – alternating years at Cornell and at the old Iowa Fieldhouse.   Alt, with his amazing speed and overall athletic and jumping ability, as well as his picture perfect jump shot from any distance, stopping on a dime to launch it and vaulting high above the defense, made it difficult for the two capable Iowa guards, Ron Zagar and Dave Maher.  Jerry West, of course, is recognized in the NBA for his great jump shot – better form and range than Altenberg’s?  I don’t think so.  Alt could get an open jumper or a drive on any defender whenever he wanted it.  I never recall him using a screen – he created all of his own shots. Iowa had no answer for him and he made it look easy even in that level of (Big 10) competition.   Dunking was not allowed in those days, even in warm-ups, and Ron, the  9.5 sprinter with a 40 plus inch vertical jump, used to finish his rocket drives with his hand near the top of the square, 12 feet above the floor.  And he did it so effortlessly and so naturally. 

Ron A. was a wiry 6-footer and weighed 165 pounds, but he had sensational, sinewy, muscular legs, yet a rather thin upper body – he never touched a weight in his life.  One second he’s 30 feet from the basket, next split second he’s laying it up with his hand, high on the board.  He was as strong going left as right, in fact, he jumped higher attacking the basket from the left and shooting the lay-up (down off the glass) with the left hand.   He did not shoot runners, nor did he often use stop and pop short jumpers - he either drilled it 20-30 feet out on the court or took it all the way to the hole to finish with the shooting hand at the square.  He would have averaged another 8-10 points a game today with the 3 point goal (as would have I).   Ron was a very good team player, a 2-guard, an off-guard, a shooter and scorer (not a “gunner”), a gambler on defense who frequently stole the ball and turned it into an easy two points, yet not a great ball handler, but adequate for his scoring purposes and he could push the ball up the court on the high, speed dribble and knife to the hole.  The other guard on the Cornell team, Rich Merz, was the point guard and a better ball handler and dribbler than Altenberg.   Merz was an excellent driver and finisher off the drive and had been the team’s leading scorer until Altenberg gained his eligibility the second semester in 1958:  It took most of the 58-59-60 season for that talented guard tandem of Alt and Merz to get into sync, but when they did, the team came from 5 games down with 5 games remaining in the season to tie Knox College for the conference championship, setting up the miracle run in the NCAA Tourney in 1960.  The only words exchanged between the two were “switch” and “ball”.

The first game I started at Cornell as a sophomore was at State College of Iowa, now called University of Northern Iowa, in the old West Gym in Cedar Falls and Ron saw to it that I got my share of open shots in that game to build my confidence and in others that followed.  I dropped out of school after my sophomore year at Cornell – there were just too many good players on the squad and I reasoned a year off would clear the field for me.   Paul Maaske didn’t object. The 1959-60 was the greatest team in school history and probably the greatest in college division basketball in state of Iowa bb history:  they knocked off the number one rated team in the nation,  Prairie View A.M. of Texas, 93-79, led by Zelmo Beaty,  6’9” shot rejecter who was to become an NBA all-star in later years.   Alt had 43 in that huge upset and had ample support from the other guard, Rich Merz, as well as Steve Becker, Greg Koon and Jim Davis. Becker was strong enough and Davis a great jumper, which allowed them to compete, actually dominate, the boards vs. the Prairie View athletes. The 60 Rams then knocked off Northeast Missouri State, led by ex-Hawkeye Larry Swift, in the first game of the national tournament, only to fall in the semifinals of the College Division Final 4 at Evansville, Indiana, to Chapman College which lost to Evansville in the final.   (In those days there were only two NCAA divisions – college division (now II, III) and university division (now I).  The Cornell achievements in 1960 and 1961 are actually recorded as Division II NCAA, not Division III.

The 1960 team would have been very good without Altenberg, but he gave them the extra confidence and the talent to reach their potential and beat the country’s best college division teams.  That was fifty years ago, does the time warp mean that this was a team that shot two hand set shots and played with feet on floor:  definitely not, they were athletes as good, some better, than those of today. They were jump shooters and played a controlled up and down style - besides Alt, Jim Davis was a 6’4” lean, leaper from Davenport; Steve Becker, a strong and athletic under-sized forward at 6’1” recruited from Wyoming, and Koon, a back to basket wheel-and-deal post player.  (Becker, not from Cheyenne, but Wyoming, Iowa). 

I returned to Cornell in the fall of 1960 and played on a Midwest Conference championship team, which actually had a better conference record, at 15-3 vs. 13-5, than the 59-60 national tournament crew and one which advanced to 1961 NCAA Regionals losing to host team South Dakota State, but defeating Superior  State of Wisconsin in the 3rd place game.  Credit for leadership on the successes of the 60-61 go to three senior leaders, who had experienced Evansville as juniors and carried the momentum of the 60 team into their senior season: Dennis Weeden, a scrappy undersized post player, and Dave Peiper, complete point guard, both from Clinton, and Jim Davis, the above-the-rim guy from Davenport.  (Marine Colonel) Jerry Huml  and Ron Parmley were also a positive force on that team and came off the bench to do their part along with Bob Hilmer, who became Iowa’s winningest high school basketball coach,  (Colonel) Ed Truelson,  Jim Hughes and Ken Fisher.  Rick Tomek, a talented guard from Berwyn, Illinois , was a sophomore and the fifth starter and went on to star his last two years at Cornell.   I led the team in scoring and got some glory making the all-NCAA tournament and the all-conference teams, but Weeden, Peiper and Davis were actually the heart and soul of that championship.  A year later, without their focus and influence, I had a disappointing senior season.  Weeden used to tell me before every game: “Good shots only, block out, and play some defense”.   If I took a bad shot, he always gave me a look.  If I made a good play, he acknowledged it.  I respected those three seniors and rode their energy and influence to some productive play.

On my return to Cornell in the fall of 60, Ron Altenberg had used up his eligibility but remained on campus to finish his degree living with his wife, Francie, and his new son, Bradley, in the old barracks south of the campus.  Ron had played some high level AAU basketball with Sanitary Farm Dairies when waiting to become eligible at Cornell after transferring from New Mexico, and I played with that same AAU team the year that I was out of school:  that experience playing with some outstanding veteran players (Bill Seaberg, Jerry Leggett, Dick Brubaker, Len Stewart and others) helped prepare me for a good junior year at Cornell.  Sanitary Dairy beckoned Alt again and he played for them in an exhibition game vs. the Phillips Oilers, a power then in the now defunct NIBL (National Industrial Basketball League) – a league with talent on a par with the NBA in those days.   The game was played at Fort Dodge High School and Ron Altenberg  scored 28 points in an injury shortened performance and walked out of the gym that night with a professional basketball contract with the Oilers, with whom he played for two seasons, 1961-62 and l962-63, from their Bartlesville, Oklahoma base.  Gary Thompson, Iowa State All-American and player-coach of the Oilers, told me that he had never seen anyone in his years at Iowa State and with the Oilers run the court as fast and well as Ron Altenberg.

I went to visit Ron and Francis in Houston in 1966 and that was the last time I saw either of them.  We, of course, had to play some hoops – he had been playing regularly at a Houston YMCA and couple of the Prairie View players showed up there regularly also.  I heard from my cousin, Carl Adkins, retired professor of English at Buena Vista University and Grinnell College ’59 from Marion, that Ron “the Great” Altenberg, had died of cancer at age 50.  He was a world class athlete and superb basketball player, yet a very gentle, modest, descent man.  I am proud to have been Ron Altenberg’s friend and teammate.   His name today has been placed alongside other standouts in the Cornell College Athletic Hall of Fame: but make no mistake, for those of you who don’t know, remember – Ron Altenberg was a special athlete, the best, unquestionably the best ever to have played basketball and participated in track and field at Cornell, quite possibly the best athlete in history of the state of Iowa.  His talent merits special recognition, like a United Center, Jordan-like statue in front of the Cornell Fieldhouse.

Dave Adkins ‘62

Dave Adkins coached Sporting of Lorenzo Marques, Mozambique to the national championship of Portugal in Luanda, Angola in 1973 and later coached the Hobart Devils of the National Basketball League of Australia.   He was an overseas basketball representative for 20 years placing U.S. players in jobs in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South America.   Some excerpts from this tribute to Ron Altenberg appear in his book, “Journey in Overseas Basketball”, published in 1999.  He currently teaches Spanish at Des Moines Area Community College, lives with his wife, Geneva, in Des Moines and they spend winters in Corpus Christi, Texas.

(Note: Comments and editing by Dan Kellams, who did extensive research on Ron Altenberg for his book, “A Coach’s Life: Les Hipple and the Marion Indians.”)

According to old Cornellians, Altenberg set a new basketball career scoring record with 1,274 points.  The record has since been eclipsed.  However, as late as 2009, he still held some single-season records, including most points (604), season average per game (28.1) and most field goals (234).

In three seasons of track, Altenberg won nine individual conference championships.  He was victorious three times in the 100-yard dash and the 220-yard dash, twice in the 220-yard low hurdles, and once in the broad jump. Injuries kept him out of the broad jump in at least one of the conference meets.  As a junior, he won all four of the events mentioned.

He several times ran the 100 in 9.5 seconds, just a few tenths of a second off the world record at the time.  His time in the 100-yard dash converts to a time for the 100 meters of 10.4 seconds, which is well below the Cornell College record (through 2008) for the event (10.73).

He was named outstanding amateur athlete in Iowa in 1960. He was elected to the Cornell College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1971, its inaugural year.