New ROVA school made history in first hoops season in 1948-49

Barry McNamara
Special to The Register-Mail

Editor's Note: This is the first of a six-part series on the first ROVA basketball team.

The last students to graduate from Oneida, Victoria and Altona high schools did so in the spring of 1948. When that summer came to a close, students in that region became the first to attend the new ROVA High School, which also included students who would’ve attended Rio High School, which had closed its doors a few earlier.

The first ROVA Tigers boys basketball team – or the Rovans, as some newspapers took to calling them — had a memorable 1948-49 campaign. But rather than reveal some of their accomplishments in this introduction, the story of that season from 73 years ago — witnessed by very few of today’s readers — will unfold over six parts.

The story is brought to life thanks in large part to firsthand accounts from two starters on that team now in their 90s — Jim Asplund and Dean Truelove — who recently sat down to relive it all.

im Asplund (left) and Dean Truelove are pictured earlier this year at Asplund’s home just outside of Oneida. Truelove was in the first graduating class at ROVA in 1949, while Asplund graduated the next year. Truelove’s shirt supports the Missouri high school where his grandson, ROWVA standout Eric Holmes, now coaches.

‘To start with, we didn’t like each other’

MONMOUTH — In 1834, Cambridge High School opened its doors, making it, by some accounts, the oldest public high school in Illinois. What followed in the field of education was a century of growth, with nearly every small town in downstate Illinois establishing its own high school.

But not long after Cambridge celebrated its centennial, administrators and school boards in small communities were forced to take a hard look at their situations. With roads and modes of transportation improving, would their students be better served by coming together in larger numbers? Smaller buildings and one-room schoolhouses had previously carried the day, but was it time to make them extinct?

Three of the first schools in the state to take the consolidation plunge were located in the Galesburg area. Spoon River Valley, AlWood and ROVA all began operations in the 1948-49 school year. But bringing four communities together, as was the case at ROVA, was not a seamless transition.

As families from ROVA’s previously rival schools were attempting to get acquainted with each other, the football team did not help the process. But there was a good reason for that — there was no football team in ROVA’s first year.

Despite merging high schools in Rio, Oneida, Victoria and Altona, the new consolidation did not exactly lead to an overflowing enrollment. In that pre-Baby Boomer era, there were just 143 students in ROVA’s first year, and those 70 or so boys all came from schools that were too small to field a football squad.

Instead, fostering a sense of community fell to ROVA’s basketball team, which had players from all four of the small towns.

The varsity’s 11 main players included Jim Asplund, Bill Holcomb and Bob Seiler from Oneida; Claude Boland, Clark Main, Jim Quanstrom and Harley Pearson from Altona; and Bill Gueldenfennig, Bob Heflin and Dean Truelove from Victoria. Team member Curtis Nelson resided in Rio, which had closed its high school a few years earlier, sending its students to Oneida, Alpha, Alexis or Galesburg.

Other players who saw varsity action at various times during the year were Bob Johnson, Gayle Krantz (who is still alive, residing a few miles west of Asplund), Bob Milroy, Dale Peterson and Everett Steward.

Asplund, who lives just outside of Oneida, turned 90 in March. On a warm mid-June morning, he was joined at his kitchen table by Truelove, who turned 91 later that week. A starter on the team along with Asplund, Truelove has lived in the same Main Street home in Victoria for more than 60 years and been married to his wife, Shirley, for even longer. The couple is due to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary in 2024.

Together, Asplund and Truelove took a walk down Memory Lane, with Asplund’s recollections aided by a thorough scrapbook his mother kept.

“To start with, we didn’t like each other,” said Truelove. “It was hard getting used to the guys. I was one of the only kids from Victoria. It took some time to get used to guys like Jim and to Harley,” who would become one of Truelove’s best friends.

“Twenty-five guys came out for basketball that first year,” said Asplund, a junior that season. “At least a dozen of us had started the year before. We were a little concerned that we’d even be on the team. We really didn’t know each other particularly well before that. The four towns had a long history of rivalry with one another.”

Eventually, of course, ROVA became the school we know as ROWVA today. The late local historian Tom Wilson explained why, at first, it was only a four-community consolidation.

“When the initial plan of forming the ROVA consolidated district was placed before the voters for approval, it was rejected,” wrote Wilson. “Since much of the opposition came from Wataga, a second attempt was made to entice the electorate; Wataga was left out of the picture.”

The second effort worked, but just barely, as Altona voters narrowly agreed to the new school district.

“Altona almost didn’t pass it,” said Asplund. “It had to pass in all four towns to start the consolidation.”

But as the wins on the hardwood piled up, more and more people got on board with the strange new R.O.V.A. abbreviation.

“The basketball team was definitely a unifying factor for the district,” said the late Bill Adams in a Peoria Journal-Star article from 1976, written by Stan Hieronymous. Adams, who served as an assistant coach with the 1948-49 team, was the head coach for ROVA’s first 16 football seasons (which began in the fall of 1949) and also served as athletic director.

Hieronymous was looking back on ROVA’s first basketball season because the 1975-76 Tigers had advanced to the Elite Eight.

“It was no secret that many residents of the new school district were very apprehensive towards the consolidation,” he wrote. “This made the task of being a rookie basketball coach and pulling a team together a huge challenge. As it turned out, it may have been a group of very talented basketball players and (their) coach that made the transition smoother.”

That rookie basketball coach was Jim Pogue, an All-Midwest Conference hoops star and member of the Class of 1948 at Knox College, located in the same town as his high school, Corpus Christi, from which he graduated in 1938. His World War II service in the Army delayed his college graduation, as it did for many young men that decade.

Any of the previous varsity coaches at Oneida, Victoria and Altona would’ve been worthy candidates to lead ROVA’s first team, but Asplund said there was a reason the inexperienced Pogue was chosen over that group.

“They didn’t want to slight anyone, so they went with someone new,” he said.

One of those coaches, Victoria’s Eldon Gearhart, found a new home at Abingdon, where he would cross paths with his former standout Truelove two times during the season.