A memorial service will be held for Frank Bissell '33 on Saturday, November 3, 2012 on the morning of The Hill vs. L'ville weekend. The service will take place in the Memorial Chapel from 11:15 a.m. to noon. We also will honor David Mercer, former Hill athletics director, who passed away on August 9.
|Frank Bissell '33|
We learned the sad news today that Frank S. Bissell, Hill class of 1933 and Hill School wrestling icon, passed away on Sunday, September 9, at the age of 99. Frank’s stellar career in independent school athletics began during his time at The Hill as a student. Frank arrived at The Hill in 1929 for his third form year and quickly immersed himself in the opportunities Hill had to offer. He was captain of The Hill’s undefeated 1932 football team, and was the school champion wrestler as it was only an inter-form sport at the time. He also was a member of the track squad and was a gym leader and member of the gym team all four years he was at Hill. He also chaired the Executive Committee of the Athletic Association and was a member of both the Record Board and English Club.
After The Hill, he went on to wrestle at Michigan, captaining the 1937 Wolverines and also winning the Big 10 championship at 155 lbs. Frank placed second in the 1940 Olympic trials, and won the 1946 AAU National Freestyle Wrestling Championship. In 1947, Frank returned to The Hill School as a faculty member and became the guiding force behind the creation of a nationally celebrated wrestling program that amassed 17 prep national team championships, with 44 of his wrestlers as individual weight class champions and with six being named the tournament’s Outstanding Wrestler. Thirty of Coach Bissell’s wrestlers went on to be captain of their collegiate team, two were NCAA Champions and two NCAA runners-up. In 1958, on the heels of the wrestling team’s 10th consecutive Hill victory at the Lehigh Interscholastics, Coach Bissell was recognized in New York’s Herald Tribune for his excellence in coaching and shaping young wrestlers.
Frank Bissell produced an unmatched record (214-62-4) as wrestling coach over his 26 years at Hill in one of the toughest wrestling territories in the USA, Eastern Pennsylvania. He made sure his teams wrestled the best teams and never had them duck a tough opponent. Instead of concentrating on prep schools, he scheduled the likes of Easton, Northampton, Springfield, Pennsbury, Dieruff, and Bethlehem high schools and college freshmen teams, and even sought out Sprig Gardner’s Mepham H.S on Long Island. Frank always had his eye on the National Prep School Championships held at Lehigh and knew his team would do its best there by wrestling the best during the dual meet season.
Clay McEldowney ’65, P’95, former Hill wrestling champion and co-captain and Princeton University team captain, noted that Frank’s success as a coach didn’t depend on recruiting but on creating wrestlers, in many cases out of boys lacking any identifiable athletic talent. Some of those boys who entered the school as un-athletic third formers became champions as sixth formers. Frank instilled in his boys a mindset that doing anything less than their best was not enough and created a championship culture. His boys understood that their work on and off the mat was beyond anything they had done before. The lessons learned were indelible: the values of preparation, hard work, dedication, sportsmanship and teamwork necessary for success, not only to wrestling but to just about everything in life. Frank taught his wrestlers that they didn’t have to be a champion to be a winner. Frank’s coaching proved to be a life’s lesson.
The Hill’s Bissell Wrestling Room, the official home of Hill wrestling located above the Annan Strength Center, features anecdotes regarding Frank’s philosophy and plaques honoring national prep champions and Hill alumni who captained their college teams. In 2010, The Hill celebrated Sweeney Gymnasium as a new, additional space used for The Hill’s wrestling program thanks to the generosity and leadership of Walter C. Price, Jr. ’66 through his establishment of The Frank S. Bissell ’33 Wrestling Endowment. During Reunion Weekend 2012, Frank was announced as a member of the Founders Hall of the newly created Athletics Hall of Fame. He was to be formally inducted during the Red Meat Dinner on November 2. Frank was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in April of 2012 and is a member of the Pennsylvania Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame.
Frank had a tremendous impact on the School’s football program as well, taking over as football coach in 1953 after then coach Jack Riley suffered a heart attack. Frank led three teams to championship seasons (’53, ’55, ’57) and accumulated a 50-20-4 overall record, before handing the program to Dick O’Shaughnessy ’50 in 1964.
Beyond coaching at Hill, Frank served on Hill’s Admission Committee and as secretary of The Hill Scholarship Committee. He earned the nickname the “Flying Recruiter” for his cross-country, twin engine Piper Comanche flights to recruit scholarship students.
Like Clay McEldowney, time and time again, former Hill players, colleagues, and friends of Frank Bissell remember his genuineness, dedication, warmth, humor, and his encouraging enthusiasm.
Former Headmaster David Dougherty commented: “When Kay and I first visited Frank and Nellie Bissell in Easton, Md., I was both eager and anxious: eager, because I’d heard from many Hill alums of his importance to them; anxious, because I imagined him to be, well, an icon, not real. When we pulled into their driveway, the Bissells greeted us, Nellie with a hug, Frank with a smile and a handshake that almost brought me up out of my shoes. He was so strong. And real. Then, after we walked through their garage, converted into an exercise room and a Hill School mini-museum, we sat in their living room, recollected great Hill games of the past, athletes, and campus memories, and we talked about the future of the School as well. Over the years and many visits, I regarded his kindness and support – he was the first person I called after the Board of Trustees announced in 1997 the coeducation of the School – to be the highest compliment I could receive as the headmaster of The Hill. I was very proud to be his friend.”
In 2010, Coach Bissell’s former athlete Bevan Alvey ’66, father of Bevan ’95, Rudy ’96, Eugene ’13 and Kresse ’14, and member of the board of directors of Hill’s Wrestling Association, noted: “Frank was a remarkable wrestling coach but what he really excelled at was making men-- self-reliant, honorable, highly- disciplined men who believed they could overcome anything -- physical, mental, and emotional-- if they just had the chance to work at it long enough. Wrestling was just the crucible. And, even though it has been nearly 50 years since I first wandered into the wrestling room and heard Frank’s voice boom, I still draw upon the lessons he taught me and I will be forever grateful.”
During a celebration of the Bissell Wrestling Endowment in 2010, Leon Harbold ’55, former athlete of Frank Bissell and current president of Hill’s Wrestling Association, expressed his hope that Frank’s spirit, a man whom he fondly refers to as “a great, and marvelous man with such thoughtfulness and depth—much more than just physical depth will live in the halls of The Hill School forever.”
Frank is survived by their three children and their families: two daughters, Burma Bochner and Jean Rudd, and son, F. Steven Bissell, a member of Hill’s class of 1972, who also is a celebrated Hill wrestling champion as captain of the 1972 wrestling team under his father and winner of 29 consecutive matches in two years.
The Hill School extends its deepest condolences to the entire Bissell family. Plans for a service honoring Frank will be shared at a later time.