Teacher, football coach became Senior Olympian


Robert Slovak, 86, a retired Toledo Public Schools teacher and the first football coach at the former Macomber Vocational High School who in later years competed in Senior Olympics events, died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday in his Oregon home.

His condition was diagnosed at the beginning of June. Until his illness, he played tennis and, at the East Toledo Senior Center, was on the softball team.

"He was quite upset not to finish the season," his daughter Liza Hirzel said. "My dad loved competition. He felt that sports is a great way to keep yourself physically healthy, and if you're physically sharp, you're mentally sharp."

Mr. Slovak was physically active from an early age. He was a halfback on the Oak Harbor High School football team. He played football from 1937 to 1941 for Clarence Spears at the University of Toledo, from which he received a bachelor's degree. He later received a master's degree from the University of Michigan.

He was a gunnery officer aboard B-24s on combat missions over Italy, Germany, and Yugoslavia during World War II.

"I know he flew missions he didn't have to fly," his daughter said. "But the guys considered him lucky. They came back when they flew with him."

Mr. Slovak, back in civilian life, taught at Morenci High School and coached football there, compiling a record over five seasons of 29 wins, 13 losses, and one tie. His teams had a streak of 25 consecutive wins and scored 985 points to the opposition's 27.

He amassed three Lenawee County Athletic Association championships. His 1949 team was rated first among 286 Michigan schools and won statewide acclaim.

Two years later, he was hired to be the first football coach at Macomber, a near-downtown school that was landlocked and had no playground or practice facilities. Buses took his players to practice at Scott Park and, later, at Sterling Field, but neither place had dressing rooms.

"It was a real challenge," his daughter said. "He grew up in Elliston, Ohio. His widowed mother was there. And when the Macomber job came, that was the way to get back home."

Mr. Slovak resigned from the coach's job in 1956, citing a lack of progress in the football program: The team still had no on-site practice facilities, and the co-operative work programs at the vocational school often meant potential players had to opt out of football.

He continued to teach in the school system, switching eventually to driver's education. He retired in 1976 from Waite High School.

Almost immediately after, he and his wife, Ruth, a registered nurse, joined the Peace Corps and spent time in Kingston, Jamaica. He came home and again picked up a tennis racket. He kayaked on an Outward Bound adventure. He signed up for the Senior Olympics and competed on the regional and state level in tennis, softball throwing, football passing, discus, and track.

"When I turned 70, I started running the 100," Mr. Slovak told The Blade in 1991. He won many medals in Senior Olympics events and competed in a national competition in St. Louis.

"He was a real vital kind of guy," said Karen Lucas, a longtime family friend whose late father, Jim Krupp, coached for Mr. Slovak at Macomber. "He was in incredible physical condition. He loved the experience of new experiences of living and staying involved."

Mr. Slovak and his wife were vegetarians the last dozen years, and he annually planted a large garden. He visited Pearson Metropark most days to bike or walk.

"He was a good debater. He loved history and was interested in politics," his daughter said. "One of his exhortations to people was to stay with positive people."

Surviving are his wife, Ruth, whom he married March 29, 1946; daughters, Liza Hirzel, Nancy Slovak, and Bobbie Farison; brother, Emil Slovak, and four grandchildren.

There will be no visitation. A memorial gathering will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow at Bayside Boardwalk in Oregon. Arrangements are by the Eggleston-Meinert-Pavley Mortuary, Oregon.

The family suggests tributes to the Hospice of Northwest Ohio or a charity of the donor's choice.