Bill Shields sought the sunlight, not the limelight.
He was Goleta Valley’s most influential coach, taking his elementary school students into the great outdoors with the after-school and noon-league sports programs he founded.
Shields’ induction into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame 20 years ago remains unprecedented for someone who never coached in high school or college. It was no surprise, however, to a fellow member of the Round Table’s Hall of Fame Class of 2002.
“Coaches at all levels are important,” said Bob Weirum, a baseball and football star who had been Shields’ sixth-grade student at Foothill School. “At that level, kids are easily influenced. Bill was a positive influence on all of us.
“We wanted to play and have fun. His guidance was just what we needed.”
Shields succeeded with such little fanfare that he was erroneously called “the late Bill Shields” in the newspaper article that announced that year’s Hall of Fame inductions.
Ever the teacher at age 71, Shields offered his best Mark Twain impersonation when he called the Santa Barbara News-Press sports desk later that day.
“The reports of my death,” he told me with a deadpan delivery, “have been greatly exaggerated.”
The memory of his gracious levity flashed to mind when I learned of his actual passing on June 18, barely a month short of his 92nd birthday.
Shields, born in Newport, New York, in 1930, was only 5 when his family headed West “in search of a better life” during the Great Depression.
Bill Shields taught both the fifth and sixth grades for 33 years, and also served as a substitute teacher for eight additional years, in the Goleta Union School District. (Shields family photo)
He faced the Great Suppression at Pasadena High School, playing in the shadows of such athletic greats as basketball’s Jerry Tarkanian, and baseball’s Dick Williams and Bob Lillis. Another schoolmate, Dave Gorrie, would rejoin him at UC Santa Barbara to become a Hall of Famer in both baseball and football.
“It was pretty hard to crack any lineup with those guys,” Shields once explained. “I played basketball but mostly sat on the bench. I played ‘B’ football. I had a freak build, 6 feet tall and 135 pounds.”
But he discovered that his long reach, fast hands and quick feet could be put to good use in a boxing ring. He learned “the sweet science” from a blind trainer, Canto Robledo, who operated a gym out of his garage.
Shields developed into a Golden Gloves champion, winning four tournaments as either a lightweight or welterweight and making the finals of every other event he entered. He also helped Pasadena City College win a national championship.
He later earned a few paydays, winning $20 at one bout — the same as his week of wages at a shoe factory.
“I worked my way up to $40 a fight, but you had to earn it,” he said. “The toughest place was Wilmington. You’d better get in there and start wailing or they’d boo you out of the ring.”
His boxing prowess also paid off when he was drafted into military service during the Korean War. Instead of being sent into combat, the Army assigned him to Gen. Matthew Ridgway’s honor guard in Tokyo so he could compete for its boxing team.
Shields later used the G.I. Bill to earn his bachelor’s degree at UCSB. His heart remained on the Central Coast even while he pursued his Master’s degree at USC. The Goleta Union School District hired him in 1957 to teach sixth grade at the old Cathedral Oaks School. He even drove the school bus.
He also found the time to start the Valley Elementary League for all of Goleta’s schools. Each team would practice after school and then compete on Saturdays in the sports of flag football, basketball, softball, volleyball and track and field.
He was a pioneering force for gender equity 15 years before Title IX, insisting upon the inclusion of girls.
“He was my very first coach in grammar school,” she said. “He worked with kids on their skills and their sportsmanship. I’m just one of the thousands of kids in Santa Barbara that Bill had an impact on.
“Athletics taught me teamwork, discipline, leadership, and how to deal with the ups and downs.”
Bill Shields was inducted into the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame in 2002. He had shaped the lives of thousands of students as a grammar school teacher and coach, having founded the after-school sports programs in the Goleta Union School District. (Shields family photo)
But you didn’t need to be a star athlete to benefit from Shields’ tutelage. Anne Caesar Latimer, one of his sixth-grade students at Foothill School, described him as a “bright star in my childhood.”
“He opened up the world of sports to me from baseball to capture the flag,” she said. “He gave me a safe and fun place to go after school, and most of all treated me like a superstar even though I was an average, slightly overweight tomboy.
“I’ll be forever grateful to Mr. Shields; he is my hero.”
“Bill Shields gave me the confidence to live my life,” he said. “He instilled discipline and ethics.”
Shields said his greatest reward, however, was to meet fellow teacher Diana Grassfield at Foothill. They were married, had two children, and enjoyed 40 years of “laughs and good times” before Diana’s death in 2006.
Active in such city league sports as basketball and softball, Shields continued to play tennis well into his 80s.
His children, Greg and Jennifer, quoted him as saying, “All in all, it was a pretty good run.”
In lieu of a memorial service, they have established the “Bill Shields Scholarship Fund” with the Friday Night Lights Youth Flag Football League in Santa Barbara. Click here to make an online donation.
They described their father as “a visionary” in the sport.
“He truly believed that children should not be playing tackle football until they were more mature physically and mentally,” they wrote on the FNL league’s web site. “He adhered to the belief that children should learn the fundamentals of football; to fall in love and respect the sport.
“He didn’t support children being burdened with the apprehension of the ‘next big hit.’”
The fund will pass on the flag he once carried, they said, and allow his legacy to “live on for generations on and off the field.”