by Jill Ragar Esfeld
ROELAND PARK — St. Agnes parishioner Bill Guilfoil likes to tell a story about the time his friend George Brett was in Australia and saw a local newscast about table tennis.
The baseball Hall of Famer was shocked to see Guilfoil as the featured player.
“Then George came back,” Guilfoil said. “And he told me, ‘You know, you’ve got a problem now — you’re going to be world famous.
“Baseball is just a national sport, but table tennis is all over the world.’”
Brett was right.
Guilfoil has been meeting with reporters from international newspapers and television stations for the past few months because, for the second time in his life, he competed in the U.S. Olympic table tennis trials.
Guilfoil won’t be representing the United States this year in Rio.
But there’s little doubt why he’s famous for trying.
“It’s because I’m 93 years of age and two months,” he said.
At 93, Guilfoil is still teaching at the Overland Park Racquet Club and competing whenever he has a chance.
But he isn’t interested in being famous. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
He wants to get more young people involved in table tennis. He has plans to help with research into how the game can combat Alzheimer’s disease.
And he’s interested in inspiring people of all ages to stay active.
“My ambition is to get people thinking better,” said Guilfoil, “so they can get up and be flexible and start doing something, not sit with their knees crossed all the time.”
And he behaves as if he’s got all the time in the word to accomplish these goals.
“He doesn’t think of himself as 93,” said his daughter, Bridget Fitzwater. “And we don’t either. It’s really an attitude of stamina.”
Love at first love
Originally from Kansas City, Kansas, Guilfoil grew up in Blessed Sacrament and St. Rose of Lima parishes.
He was a natural athlete and interested in every sport — until he was introduced to tennis.
He was 13 years old. And he fell in love. He began practicing and playing every chance he could get.
And practice made him perfect.
He was so good that as a student at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kansas, he was asked to coach the tennis team.
“The priest told me to take it over,” recalled Guilfoil. “Monsignor Mike Mullen was one of my students.”
He served in World War II and was blinded by bombing powder in France. But he eventually recovered his 20/14 eyesight, which he still boasts today.
After the war, he attended Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a favorite among the priests who wanted to get in a game of tennis between classes.
“Father [Joseph M.] Freeman would call me sometimes at five in the morning to play,” Guilfoil recalled.
Sports would continue to be an integral part of Guilfoil’s life — he eventually opened three Guilfoil Sporting Goods stores in Kansas.
And when he wasn’t playing tennis, he was playing table tennis. He’s remained a serious competitor over the years, ranking nationally and competing internationally in both sports.
Guilfoil was inducted into the Heart of America Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2001; his lifetime USA Table Tennis membership qualified him to compete in the Olympic trials.
All in the family
While at Rockhurst College, Guilfoil went on a blind date with a young nurse named Agatha Gray Priebe — and found something he loved even more than tennis.
“I married Gray in 1957,” he said. “We had four girls and raised them here in St. Agnes Parish.”
And through it all, he played tennis or table tennis every chance he got.
“Mom always wanted to sit in the front pew at church,” recalled Fitzwater. “And Dad always wanted to sit in the back pew because he probably had a match on.
“He would wear his tennis shorts underneath his clothes for church in case there was a chance for a game afterwards.”
But even if Guilfoil was running from church to a match, he always took the Holy Family with him.
“He would put J.M.J. on all of his rackets,” said his daughter.
Guilfoil taught tennis at Glenwood Manor in Overland Park, then became the tennis pro at the Overland Park Racquet Club where he also started a table tennis program.
And both sports were always a family affair.
“I remember when Dad would take us over to Strawberry Hill (in Kansas City, Kansas),” said Fitzwater. “There was a table tennis club in the basement of Holy Family Church where we would play.”
All four girls attended Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park where Guilfoil helped start the tennis team — one of many times he shared his talents with the Catholic community.
“I did some teaching at St. Mary’s University (in Leavenworth) one summer,” he recalled. “I looked up at the statue of St. Joseph and said, ‘If you need anything, you can call on me.’”
St. Joseph took Guilfoil at his word: He went on to coach at Rockhurst University and Notre Dame de Sion high school in Kansas City, Missouri.
He’ll be helping with the program as St. James Academy in Lenexa next year.
For many years, Bishop Miege has sponsored a tennis tournament in memory of Guifoil’s daughter Shawna who lost her life to melanoma in 1990.
“Shawna was the greatest Catholic,” said Guilfoil of his daughter. “Twelve high schools come in and play in that tournament every year.”
His own Catholic faith has sustained Guilfoil through the loss of his daughter and — 17 years later — the loss of his wife to Alzheimer’s disease.
“When you talk about Mom with Alzheimer’s,” said Fitzwater, “that was a faith journey for him.”
“I quit working 10 years to be with her,” said Guilfoil.
Now, in a way, he’s working for her.
Guilfoil is headed to California this month to help research the disease that robbed him of his wife.
“I got a call from a psychiatrist at UCLA,” he explained. “We talked for three hours and he said, ‘God, I’m glad I found you. I saw you in the New York paper — I need you badly out here.’
“I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ He said, ‘Alzheimer’s.’”
Guilfoil will spend three weeks as part of a study to determine how playing table tennis may impact brain health.
Keeping the faith
When asked how her dad has survived 93 years with such a happy attitude, Fitzwater didn’t hesitate.
“He’s a prayer guy,” she said.
Prayer is part of his life, every moment of the day.
As is joy.
John Davidson is one of the many people inspired by Guilfoil’s indomitable spirit.
When Davidson first moved to the area in 1987 and discovered the Overland Park Racquet Club, he soon met Guilfoil.
“We’ve been friends ever since,” he said. “I can tell you that his faith plays an integral part in his life.
“The Bible talks about treating everybody equally and fairly — there’s no one he’s ever met that’s not been a friend.”
“If you go with Dad,” explained Fitzwater, “you’ll get stopped over and over again by people.”
A favorite story from a funeral that Guilfoil attended with family and friends serves as an illustration.
“Someone said, ‘Surely, he won’t know anyone here,” recalled his daughter. “And as Dad is walking through the cemetery, he pointed at a grave and said, ‘I played table tennis with this guy.’
“That’s such a great story of how it is with Dad.”