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Of all Bill Vendl’s accomplishments, the only Morton College graduate to participate in an Olympic Games most cherishes involve a second act.
Vendl struggled at Morton High School and lacked the grades for a four-year school. He followed a number of friends to Morton College, where Vendl discovered his academic second act in the Fall of 1949.
“It was a turning point in my life,” said Vendl in a telephone interview from California. “It was kind of an accidental decision, but one of the best I ever made.”
At that time, Morton High School and Morton College were housed in the same building – the current Morton East High School in Cicero. He made the same assumption that many current students do today.
“You’re on the same grounds,” said Vendl, who grew up in the 1400 block of Austin Boulevard in Cicero. “You expected a continuation of high school. It was a shocking revelation.”
Vendl participated on Morton College’s soccer, swimming and track teams. He was the sports editor of the College’s yearbook and newspaper. He belonged to the Press Guild, Vivace Club and Choir Club. When Vendl graduated with an associate’s degree in 1951, his grades improved enough to receive a swimming scholarship to Eastern Kentucky University.
“Things kind of snowballed,” Vendl said. “I was a terrible student in high school. All of a sudden, I started having a little success academically and athletically. One thing led to another. I started socializing those two years and I guess I blossomed out. Those were probably the most important two years of my life right at Morton College.”
It was at Morton College where Vendl learned to think as opposed to memorizing facts.
“In my first educational years, grade school and high school, nobody taught me how to study,” Vendl said. “It was, ‘Here’s the subject, the who, what, where, when and why.’ It was memorization of facts.
When I got to Morton College, that all changed. The instructors were asking how and why. All of a sudden, you had to think. You had to create images. The philosophy of teaching changed from my first 12 years to the next two. It really changed my life.”
It was at Morton College where an instructor delivered a message that Vendl still lives by this day.
“One of my teachers freshman year said, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail,’” Vendl recalled. “That way you’ll know your limitations. I started doing things I wasn’t sure of and started concentrating on other areas. It’s now something I’ve been doing all my life. I’ve got into things that I wasn’t sure what to do. There’s been a lot of failures, but a lot of successes, too.”
Vendl has traveled to 125 countries and visited 47 of the 50 U.S. states. He stands 48th out of 11,046 people for the distinction of Most Traveled People, an on-line newsletter that maintains rankings. He participated in the modern pentathlon at the 1956 Summer Olympics Games and was on the organizing committees for the modern pentathlon events at the 1959 Pan-American Games and 1984 Summer Olympics. He’s also served in the Coast Guard, worked as a Hollywood stuntman, college professor and coach, author and singer. He’s been written about in Sports Illustrated and is a member of the International Modern Pentathlon Hall of Fame in Stockholm.
At age 81, Vendl still is going strong as the director of Worldwide Site Selection for California-based RT Travel & Incentives. It’s a travel-based company started by one of Vendl’s former students. He was enjoying retirement in 1992 when she asked Vendl to come on as a consultant. That’s been 20-plus years later.
In addition to his role at RT Travel & Incentives, Vendl started devoting a portion of each year for a personal second act. Originally, it started as a way for Vendl and three friends to meet girls as students at Eastern Kentucky.
“We basically started to impress the girls who had a curfew of 9 p.m. in their dorms,” Vendl said. “The gentlemen could be out longer. We’d go over to the ladies’ dorms and sing outside once a week.”
Fifty-plus years later, the Singing Colonels are back together and spend three weeks a year on the road putting on one-hour variety shows at VA hospitals, medical centers and nursing homes. They're booked for 10 performances in VA hospitals across Florida in November of 2014. It’s something Vendl calls “one of my favorites.”
The four reunited at a 50-year reunion at Eastern Kentucky. They remembered all the songs. Vendl added, “It seems like we never skipped a beat. We did it the same way, but even better.”
Hugh Brooks, a Baptist minister and one of the original members, suggested putting the group back together.
“We’ve done seven states,” Vendl reports. “So far, there are no signs of slacking. We give up three weeks a year, but the rewards we get are incredible. It’s so satisfying.”
Bill Vendl certainly deserves to be in the running for the
title of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
The 1951 Morton College graduate has traveled to 125 countries and visited every U.S. state except for Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota. He’s among the Most Traveled People’s top 50, an on-line newsletter that maintains such standings.
He participated in the modern pentathlon at the 1956 Summer Olympics Games and was on the organizing committees for the modern pentathlon events at the 1959 Pan-American Games and 1984 Summer Olympics. He’s also served in the Coast Guard, worked as a Hollywood stuntman, college professor and coach, author and singer. He’s been written about in Sports Illustrated and was a past president of NIRSA (National Intramural Recreation Sports Association). He achieved a doctorate degree in education from Northern Illinois University.
At age 81, Vendl still is going strong as the director of Worldwide Site Selection for the California-based RT Travel & Incentives. He was retired, but one of Vendl’s former students hired him as a consultant for her new travel-based company 20 years ago.
The Olympic Games…Vendl was in the Coast Guard when his commanding officer entered him in a competition among the branches of the service that featured three of the five events in the modern pentathlon. He competed in swimming and track at Morton High School and Morton College. When Vendl was in the Coast Guard, he discovered he was a natural at shooting.
“I represented the Coast Guard and won the competition,” Vendl said. “I didn’t know this, but it was a try out to participate in the modern pentathlon at the Olympic Training Center.”
After his second year in the Coast Guard, Vendl went to Fort Sam Houston in Texas to train.
“If you could three of the events, they’d teach you how to fence and steeplechase,” Vendl said. “I never got good at fencing, but I could hold my own. I was able to compete in the steeplechase.”
The 1956 Summer Olympics were held in Melbourne, Australia. It was the first Olympics held outside of the United States and Europe. Because of the tilt in the Earth’s axis, summer takes place in the Southern Hemisphere during November to February. So, the Games took place from November 22 to December 8.
Flying today to Australia usually takes about 22 hours. It took Vendl and his pentathlon teammates eight days going from San Antonio to Los Angeles to Hawaii to Fiji to the China Islands to Sydney before finally landing in Melbourne.
“1956 was a turning point in the Olympics,” Vendl recalled. “It was the last year of strict amateur status. If you were a lifeguard and were paid for it, you couldn’t swim. At the Summer Olympics in Rome four years later, it was the first year the medals were put around the athletes’ necks. Before 1960, you got a little box with no ribbon on the medal.”
Vendl remembered making friends with many of his fellow Olympians. The late Bob Mathias, a two-time Gold medal winner in the decathlon, became the godfather to Vendl’s daughter. Al Oerter, who won his first of four consecutive Golds in the discus at the 1956 Games, was another as was Bob Richards, the first athlete to be on a box of Wheaties.
“The competition was friendly,” Vendl said. “We hung out together. Now it’s cut-throat.”
Vendl made another go of it for the 1960 Summer Games, but twisted an ankle and later plunged over the side of a ravine, rolling some 30 feet to the bottom during the 4,000-meter run at the Olympic Trials.
Alice Higgins of Sports Illustrated wrote of Vendl’s effort, “He staggered back up to the top and continued the course. Finally, five minutes overdue, he lurched toward the finish gates, barely able to walk and weaving from side to side. Instead of going through the gate, he fell through the tape beside it and was disqualified. Later at the hospital it was discovered that he had two broken bones in his foot (probably from stepping in the hole) and three fractured ribs from hitting the tree.”
Life as a Hollywood stuntman…Vendl worked part-time as a Hollywood stuntman. He was in a pair of Hollywood hits that seemingly featured every major star of the 1960s – “How the West Was Won” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
He stunt doubled for Sid Caesar in “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.” Vendl said Caesar was “probably the strongest man I ever met.” The late Hal Needman, who went to fame as the producer and director of “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Cannonball Run,” was a contemporary of Vendl’s during their days as stuntmen.
A stunt in “How the West Was Won” ended Vendl’s days as a stuntman. He was one of the bad guys in a scene involving a gunfight on a moving train between the sheriff and a gang of train robbers. Vendl was supposed to be crouched next to a pile of logs on a flatcar. Somehow, Bob Morgan, another stuntman, took his place.
The chains holding the logs together snapped and Morgan, the husband of Yvonne DeCarlo, was crushed by the falling logs. Morgan was so severely hurt that it took him five years to recover.
“It could have been me,” Vendl said. “I’ll take my bumps and bruises, but not nearly being killed. It wasn’t for me.”
Traveling man…Vendl majored in physical education and geography at Eastern Kentucky. The geography part of Vendl’s degree came in helpful when he taught travel and tourism courses at the University of Chicago and Long Beach State.
At RT Travel & Incentives, Vendl does a number of things. He’ll help companies arrange trips for anywhere from 50 to 2,000 of their employees. Vendl assists with things like customs, immigration and basically takes care of the “red tape.”
By a conservative estimate, Vendl says there are 316 countries in the world. His two favorite places are Prague because of his Czech heritage and Bangkok. Chicago is his favorite destination in the United States. His other stops for the remainder of 2013 are Las Vegas, Panama, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
“Travel is full of surprises,” Vendl said. “Every time you think you know everything, there’s a new experience, a new set of people. There’s different problems have to solve along the way.”Bill Vendl died on October 30, 2016, at age of 84.