Martin William “Bill” Guilfoil

guilfoil photo

Martin William “Bill” Guilfoil, was born in Hillsboro, Kansas on November 18, 1922 to Dr. William George Guilfoil and Mary Horan Guilfoil, and passed away on November 12, 2021 at St. Luke’s Hospice House surrounded by immediate family. 

With a twinkle, a wink and a story, Bill Guilfoil made you feel welcome and loved. Regarded as Kansas City’s “original tennis pro”, Bill was known as a tireless tennis and table tennis promoter. A legend in Kansas City and beyond both for his prowess on the court and his uncanny ability to turn strangers into friends, Bill loved nothing more than to connect with people, and to connect people with one another. Whether at Guilfoil Sporting Goods on Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, in France during World War II, at Glenwood Manor tennis courts, at an international table tennis competition in Ireland, or most recently at Hi Hat Coffee on State Line, Bill never met a stranger. His family and friends are the well from which he nourished his soul…and from which he nourished others.

Raised in the Strawberry Hill area of Kansas City Kansas, Bill grew up in Blessed Sacrament and St. Rose of Lima parishes and attended Bishop Ward High School. His love of sport and competition and the relationships he gained from them began in earnest at age 13 when he received a table tennis table as a Christmas present and immediately found a life passion. The same year he began playing tennis on public tennis courts including the rock dust courts at The Country Club Plaza. From that point on he dedicated himself to honing his tennis and table tennis skills, promoting both sports, accumulating titles, and befuddling decades of opponents with his trademark trick serves and crazy spins. A two-sport phenom, over the course of his life, Bill competed in tennis against top pros such as Pancho Gonzalez and Pancho Segura, and in table tennis against world champs Richard Bergman and George Hendry. 

Bill’s education and fledgling tennis and table tennis careers came to a brief halt during World War II. He entered the Army in 1943 at the age of 18, and when the brass discovered his table tennis prowess, he was initially sent to play table tennis exhibitions at bases from La Jolla to Camp Shanks in New York Eventually he was deployed to the front lines with the 331st company, 83rd Division, 94th Infantry, where he saw combat in France, Germany and Belgium. He was temporarily blinded in battle, but fortunately his sight returned in a matter of weeks. He mustered out after three years in 1946, but rarely if ever spoke of his time fighting for our country, and we have learned of late just how traumatic it was and how much it shaped his life. 

After the war, Bill returned to his beloved Kansas City and attended Rockhurst College. A true entrepreneur, he started Guilfoil Sporting Goods in Kansas City, Kansas with his mother and later grew his various tennis businesses in Overland Park, Kansas. Under Bill’s stewardship, Glenwood Manor became a tennis mecca, holding major tournaments which brought champions like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Alex Olmedo, Arthur Ashe, and Jimmy Connors to Kansas City. Bill was also instrumental in the formation and growth of Overland Park Racquet Club, where he taught into his 90s. In his lifelong effort to make sports available to everyone, he also initiated numerous tennis, table tennis, and even racquet stringing associations.

In addition to his time on court and in sporting goods, he was constantly developing new business ideas and ventures, usually around tennis and table tennis. Even after being hospitalized for the last time, he was voicing plans for multiple ventures which would spread his love of sport to others.

As a true ambassador for all racquet sports, he was well-known throughout the entire world among the tennis and table tennis communities. In honor of a lifetime of contributions, he was inducted into the Heart of America United States Tennis Association Hall of Fame and the Missouri Valley United States Professional Tennis Association Hall of Fame, awarded the United States Professional Tennis Association President’s Award, and similarly recognized by numerous other professional and honorary organizations.

Bill was intellectually curious, a lifelong learner who was constantly reading to expand his knowledge, especially in finance and health and fitness. “I think of myself as a ‘Doctor of “Neuology’” he said in recent years. “I’m always interested in learning.” For instance, he closely followed research that showed how racquet sports could combat Alzheimer’s disease, saying, “My ambition is to get people thinking better so they can get up and be flexible and start doing something.”

He practiced as well as studied these passions, investing constantly and pursuing stringent fitness routines and dietary measures involving organic foods and sometimes unusual drink concoctions. His healthy lifestyle allowed him to continue competing throughout his life, and at the age of 93 he traveled to North Carolina to compete in the Olympic Table Tennis Trials, becoming, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee, an official Olympic athlete, and thereby likely the world’s oldest Olympian. Age simply did not matter to Bill; he loved competition for the health, the social and the mental aspects.

Of most importance to Bill was his faith and his family. A lifelong member of St. Agnes in Roeland Park, Kansas, he could often be heard speaking the mass refrains and prayers in Latin. His deep faith, however, did not prevent him from wearing his trademark, classic “tennis whites” under his Sunday church attire so that he could get to the courts as quickly as possible after the services.

In the mid-1950s Bill was set up on a blind date with a beautiful young nurse by the name of Agatha Gray Priebe, and found something he loved more than tennis and table tennis. Bill and Gray were married in 1957 and she was his partner in business and in every passion he had, and tennis became a family affair. Together they raised four tennis playing daughters—Bridget, Shawna, Maureen and Eileen, to whom he was unconditionally devoted.

He leaves behind three daughters and their families: Bridget Fitzwater (Montgomery) of Westphalia, Kansas; Maureen Young (Frank) of Leawood, Kansas; and Eileen Noonan (Timothy Troupe) of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; 13 grandchildren: Sara, Ian, Fallon, Leah, Shawna, Rem, Will and Ella Fitzwater; Frank Jr., Maggie and Casey Young; and Tommy and Patrick Noonan; and five great grandchildren; his cousins Gloria Murray, Chuck Arnold, Patty Stilley, Joan Horan, Tom Horan, Kathy Komatz, and Anne Belinger, as well as many special friends. 

He was predeceased by his parents, his brother Eugene, who died as a toddler, his wife Agatha Gray Priebe Guilfoil, and daughter Shawna Guilfoil Froeschl.

The family wishes to thank Bill’s many friends for their recent prayers, good wishes and visits in Bill’s final days, and wish to convey our sincere sorrow that the realities of the pandemic forced the hospitals and hospice to limit Bill’s visitors to immediate family. Bill knew you cared, and that brought him great peace on his final journey. We also wish to thank the St. Luke’s Hospice House for their extraordinary love and compassionate care.

Service

Services include a rosary and reception held at St. Agnes Catholic Church on Saturday, December 11th at 9 am. All are welcome to participate in the meditative prayer, music and celebration of Bill’s life.

Memorial Donations

Donations in Bill’s name may be sent to the Bill Guilfoil Tennis Legacy Fund at the Stephanie Waterman Foundation at P.O. Box 10776, Kansas City, Missouri 64188. This fund will be used to promote racquet sports to under-served communities, after school programs, and other initiatives.

 

29 Comments

  1. Carl Lewis on August 21, 2022 at 11:20 pm

    I attended wyandotte high and bill would come to the YMCA in kck and teach the basics of table tennis I won a few kck tournaments at Kensington park and he gave me lessons at his store and he sold me my first sponge bath when I was 15. We became friends and he came down to Ottawa university and we would put on exhibitions showing how table tennis could be played. I still play and saw him for the last time while attending a tt tournament in KC in 2018. Bill was why I loved to play table tennis.

  2. Scott Newitt on April 20, 2022 at 9:00 am

    I have fond memories of Bill and his Minnesota Ave. store in the early 50s. I recently was thinking of him as I began competing in the over 85 singles competition category of USTA tournaments.

  3. John & Judy Clements on December 7, 2021 at 8:50 am

    Bill defined the word INSPIRING~

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