HIlliard Gates lived a life devoted to sports, his craft and his admirable work ethic

Hilliard Gates, packs up his plaques from his office as he gets ready to retire. (News-Sentinel file photo)

In Indiana, one of the greatest sports legends is the Milan Miracle — the David-and-Goliath matchup between tiny Milan High School and the giant Muncie Central Bearcats in the Indiana High School state championship basketball game in 1954. The Milan victory became the basis for the classic 1986 sports film “Hoosiers” about a small-school team upsetting a big school in the old single-class state basketball tournament.

Part of that legend was the man who called the play-by-play at that Milan-Muncie Central game at Butler Fieldhouse, Hilliard Gates. He was immortalized by reprising his role as the announcer of the state championship game between fictional Hickory and the South Bend Central Bears in the movie’s 1952 title game staged at that same historic Butler arena.

It was an appropriate tribute to the man who has been called the founding father of Indiana sports broadcasting. And now he has joined the 2018 class of inductees into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Gates was the first broadcaster inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame (1969). He was voted Indiana Sportscaster of the Year seven times (he was nominated 20 consecutive years). The Indiana Basketball Coaches Association recognized him in 1977 for his contributions to Indiana basketball. He was elected president of the Indiana Sports Writers and Broadcasters Association twice. He was named a Sagamore of the Wabash, the highest honor bestowed on an Indiana resident. And IPFW honored Gates by naming its multipurpose athletic arena the Hilliard Gates Sports Center.

Hilliard Gates Gudelsky was born on Dec. 14, 1915, in Muskegon, Mich. He was one of four sons in his family, and his interest in sports blossomed as he became a highly regarded local tennis player. He got his foot in the door in the broadcasting profession at a station in Muskegon, using his middle name as his last name for the remainder of his life.

From Muskegon, Gates moved to Fort Wayne to take a position at WOWO radio in 1940 for $17 a week. Fort Wayne remained his home until his death on Nov. 21, 1996, at the age of 80. He was survived by his wife, Rae, children Marsha and Brian, and two grandchildren.

Gates joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, and since he was stationed at Baer Field (now Fort Wayne International Airport), he was able to continue working for WOWO part-time. After the war, Gates was involved in the genesis of WKJG’s radio station, which first went on the air in November of 1947. Gates was the general manager.

On the radio, Gates broadcast the Fort Wayne Pistons’ NBA games through 1957 when they moved to Detroit. He broadcast the first NBA All-Star Game for the Mutual network on March 2, 1951, in Boston. And he gave the play-by-play for the 1967 and 1968 Rose Bowls in Pasadena, Calif., for NBC radio.

WKJG went on to become the first television station in Fort Wayne, and Gates spoke the first words ever broadcast by a Fort Wayne station when he signed WKJG-TV on the air. At 7:45 p.m. on Nov. 21, 1953, he said, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. You are watching history being made. These are the first words and pictures to emanate from WKJG-TV, Fort Wayne’s first television station.”

Gates served as vice-president, general manager and sports director of WKJG-TV until his retirement in 1990 and remained involved with the station as a consultant until May 1993.

Through the years as Fort Wayne’s and Indiana’s premier sports broadcaster, Gates spotlighted local athletes and teams through his popular daily “Gatesway to Sports” show on TV. On a wider scale, he broadcast Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame football games and high school basketball. For seven years, ending in 1981, he was the TV play-by-play voice for Indiana University men’s basketball games.

“He had the old tremendous work ethic,” WKJG General Manager Bill Nichols told The News-Sentinel after Gates’ death. “He would do an Indiana basketball game and get off the air at 10 p.m. in Bloomington. He’d drive back and get in Fort Wayne at 1 a.m. at best. At 8 a.m. the next morning, he’d be at his desk. That was the way he lived and worked.”

Gates appeared on more network broadcasts than any other announcer in Indiana history.

“I always called him my hero,” longtime ABC Sports broadcaster Chris Schenkel, a 1999 Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame inductee, told The News-Sentinel after Gates’ death. “I never had more admiration for anyone in broadcasting.” Schenkel, who was born in Bippus in Huntington County, said he grew up listening to Gates. “He was as pure as anyone can be in broadcasting. He was a pioneer in radio and TV.”

Another Journalism Hall of Fame member, former Bloomington Herald-Telephone Sports Editor Bob Hammel also listened to Gates’ sports broadcasts as a boy in Huntington.

“Hilliard was a central figure in my life for as long as I can remember, starting at least when I was 8 and heard him broadcast IU’s 13-7 season-opening win at Michigan in 1945,” Hammel wrote in an email to News-Sentinel.com. “Hilliard always made me — and a vast, vast audience expanding out from Fort Wayne — feel I was right there experiencing the moment, the action, the drama, the fun.”

Indiana University’s Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight paid tribute to Gates during a post-game news conference after the Hoosiers’ game the day after the sportscaster’s death.

“Hilliard Gates was a wonderful man,” Knight told the assembly of sportswriters. “He was a guy who really enjoyed sports. He really worked at making sports enjoyable for the people who listened to him or watched. I’ve heard Bob Hammel say that there’s never been a better play-by-play broadcaster than Hilliard was on the radio.”

Gates’ No. 2 man in WKJG sportscasting was Dick DeFay, who started at the station in 1955. Following Gates’ death, he paid tribute to his former boss: “He was remarkable in doing play-by-play. He would spend hours getting ready for that. The younger guys now don’t do that. He would go into locker rooms before the games to talk to players, and he’d almost know each one by the time they came out.”

Gates was a familiar face at the Indiana High School Athletic Association’s boys basketball state championship games through the years. His last TV sports broadcast was the state boys basketball finals in March 1993 at the RCA Dome. But thanks to a movie role, he’ll always be remembered for the state championship radio broadcast in 1954.