Ray “Rock” Hanson – War Hero / Athletic Coach
Raymond W. “Rock” Hanson former United States Marine Colonel and highly decorated veteran of World War I and World War II, was best known as the football coach at Western Illinois State Teachers College (now Western Illinois University) in Macomb, Illinois from 1926 to 1941.
Hanson enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1916 and served during World War I. He was assigned to the 75th Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. Hanson participated in the Battle of Belleau Wood, Battle of Château-Thierry and many other battles.
During the Battle of Château-Thierry, Corporal Hanson saved his comrade, Private William A. Weaver, who was seriously wounded in leg and pinned down by enemy machine gun fire. Hanson went out in the front of US lines and after reached the wounded Pvt. Weaver, he stopped the bleeding and carried him to the safety. For the extraordinary heroism in combat, Hanson was decorated with the Navy Cross. He was also decorated with the Silver Star, Purple Heart and French Croix de guerre 1914-1918 with Palm by the Government of France.
After the War, Hanson remained in the Marine Corps after the War and served during the Allied occupation of the Rhineland. He subsequently resigned from the Marine Corps, but stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve.
During World War II, Hanson was recalled to the active service and was assigned to the Camp Elliott, San Diego as Chief Morale Officer. He later served as Fleet Marine Force recreation officer and was responsible for planning of tours of Pacific bases by his troupe of 30 Marine entertainers. He retired with the rank of Colonel.
After the war’s end, Hanson set back for home in July 1919. Two years later, he enrolled at Springfield College in Massachusetts, and continued to excel in athletics at the collegiate level, as he played football, basketball and baseball. According to John Hallwas‘ book, it was at Springfield College where he became friends with world-renown Notre Dame Football Coach Knute Rockne (hence the nickname “Rock”). Hanson enrolled in a football fundamentals class with Rockne and studied under the fabled coach.
Following Hanson’s graduation, he worked as a coach at a Connecticut high school for one year before Rockne helped him secure a coaching position at Western Illinois State Teachers College. Hanson was hired by President Walter Morgan as the head of the Physical Education Department for Men, and as such, he was the football, basketball and baseball coach. Hanson enrolled in a football fundamentals class with Rockne and studied under the fabled coach. Following Hanson’s graduation, he worked as a coach at a Connecticut high school for one year before Rockne helped him secure a coaching position at Western Illinois State Teachers College. Hanson was hired by President Walter Morgan as the head of the Physical Education Department for Men, and as such, he was the football, basketball and baseball coach.
Hanson had the distinction of being the football coach the first year that a black athlete, Ernest Page, played on Western’s team, as well as having the longest tenure of any head football coach ever at Western. As head college football coach for the Western Illinois University Leathernecks located in Macomb, Illinois Hanson held the position for sixteen seasons, from 1926 until 1941. His career coaching record at Western Illinois was 55 wins, 59 losses, and 12 ties. This ranks him third at Western Illinois in total wins and 11th at Western Illinois in winning percentage.
Hanson is most remembered as the person who gained permission from the Marine Corps to use the name “Fighting Leathernecks” for Western’s teams. To this day, Western Illinois University is the only public school in the U.S. that has permission through the Department of the Navy to use the United States Marine Corps official seal and mascot (the Bulldog) along with the nickname.
Western’s mascot, a Bulldog named Colonel Rock (or more commonly “Rocky”), was named in honor of coach Hanson, as was Western’s football field (Hanson Field).