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Morton College’s lone Olympian Bill Vendl makes most of second act

By Morton College News | Posted August 1, 2014

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.

 

One of my teachers freshman year said, “Don’t be afraid to fail.”

 


“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. 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.”

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