January 11 2018

Longtime Wheaton College wrestling coach and professor Pete Willson died at 89 years old on Dec. 30. Willson is survived by five daughters, 16 grandchildren, 30 great-grandchildren and his wife, June Coray, daughter of Wheaton basketball coach Ed Coray. Willson coached the wrestling team for 26 years, including 16 as head coach. Wheaton football coach Jeff Peltz remembers him as a man who was at once both “tough and tender.”

“He could flip the switch when he was a wrestler and coach and then be humble, compassionate and caring for the soul,” said Peltz. “He would quote you scripture when you needed it, start class with a devo, but also look you in the eye if you needed accountability.”

Willson graduated from Wheaton College in 1950 after being part of the football and wrestling teams during his years here. Willson competed in three NCAA championships while competing at Wheaton and was the first wrestler to win the Wheaton Invitational four times. Willson coached a variety of sports at the high school level before he returned to the college in 1964 as an assistant wrestling coach. Ten years later, he took over the head coaching position from 1974 to 1990 and again from 1995 to 1996. Between 1974 and Willson’s retirement in 1990, the wrestling program won three CCIW championships, produced 19 Division III All-Americans and saw three Division III NCAA championships for individuals, one of whom is his grandson Paul Elsen. Willson was also a professor in the physical education department from 1969 to 1990 and served as the tournament Director for the Wheaton Invitational until 2000, after which it was renamed in his Honor.

Willson is a part of the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s Division III Hall of Fame; he was also inducted into the Illinois State Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame in 1979. According to the Wheaton College Athletic Website, Willson was inducted into Wheaton’s “Hall of Honor” for his athletic accomplishments as an athlete and coach while serving the school. He was also named Wheaton’s Alumnus of the Year for Distinguished service to Alma Mater in 1987. Outside of his success as a coach, Willson invested deeply in his family and his community.

“He loved his family dearly and spent uncountable hours working for widows and those who could not pay or do work around the house for themselves,” Peltz said.

Associate Athletic Director Bill Stukes, who first met Willson as a student at Wheaton in 1981, echoed Peltz’s thoughts, calling Willson a “quintessential Wheaton guy.”

“I think after the Lord and his family his next love was Wheaton College,” Stukes said. “You could never outwork Pete; he was always the first in and the last out. … [And] Pete was always joyful, especially about his faith. He was always singing a hymn or sharing the good news of Jesus with others.”

The annual Pete Willson-Wheaton Invitational and the Pete Willson Wrestling Room where the team practices are only the most immediately apparent marks of Willson’s legacy; current head wrestling coach Jim Gruenwald affirmed Willson’s strong faith as his defining characteristic.

“Pete Willson was a man who was unashamedly a Christian,” Gruenwald said. “He served God and loved his neighbor. He mentored, coached and built into 30 years of young men at Wheaton College.… That right there is a life that is lived well and God-honoring. And if Pete heard me say this, he would put his head down in humility and say ‘God is good.’”

The Pete Willson-Wheaton Invitational will be held this year on January 26-27, followed by a memorial service at 2 p.m. at College Church on January 28.