Sally Bye and Goldy Gopher at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Billy Bye given U of M farewell

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN
  • Star Tribune
  • June 18, 2009 - 2:56 PM

Billy Bye expressed one sentiment so frequently around his house that Jim Bye repeated it twice for effect Wednesday during his father's memorial service.

"Billy would commonly say, and I quote: 'During my adult life, almost everything good that's happened to me can somehow be linked to my attending the University of Minnesota,'" Jim Bye said.

And so, it was fitting that the service at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie concluded with several Gophers pep band members playing the Minnesota Rouser, after which about 25 school administrators and coaches in attendance, including football coach Tim Brewster and women's basketball coach Pam Borton, thrust their right hands into the air and chanted: "M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A."

More than 700 people attended the service to say farewell to Bye, one of the state's legendary athletes, both in high school and at the University of Minnesota. Bye, 81, died in a boating accident on Bay Lake near Brainerd on Friday.

Bye won 21 varsity letters and a state golf championship at Thief River Falls and Anoka high schools, then starred for the Gophers football team from 1946 to '49. The crowd was a Who's Who of Minnesota sports, including former Vikings coach Jerry Burns, former governor and Gophers hockey player Wendell Anderson and numerous former Gophers football players.

At the university, Bye developed a close friendship with his football teammate, Bud Grant, who gave an emotional talk about his personal relationship with Bye. Also sharing memories during the 75-minute service were Bye's children, Jim and Julianne Bye, and Frank Tonnemaker, son of former Gophers All-America Clayton Tonnemaker. Bye was remembered as a gentle man who loved planting flowers almost as much as telling a good story.

And, of course, he was remembered for his devotion to his beloved U of M. Bye led the Gophers in rushing in three of his four seasons, helping the Gophers to a 7-2 record his senior season of 1949. Bye coached at Edina High School, then became a successful businessman, never losing his allegiance to the Gophers.

It was Bye, Grant said, who kept in touch with his former teammates, organizing at least one outing a year at Bay Lake for between 25 and 30 former Gophers. Bye also served on several Gophers search committees for athletic director and football coach, and in the mid-1990s was one of 17 members of a committee charged with finding a way to return Gophers football to national prominence.

"He stayed very close to the university and was involved with a lot of university work," said Bob McNamara, who succeeded Bye as a Gophers running back. "He's been one of the main cogs that has kept things going."

Grant, the Hall of Fame Vikings coach, choked back tears on several occasions and clutched a red hankerchief in his left hand as he spoke.

"He was my best friend, that's why I'm here," Grant said. He said their friendship dated to 1944, when Bye was at Anoka and Grant at Superior, Wis., and their unbeaten high school football teams met. Grant said Bye caught a touchdown pass, ran for another score and returned a punt for a third touchdown as Anoka won 19-7.

They joined the Navy after graduating from high school, played football for Great Lakes Naval Base and enrolled at Minnesota at the conclusion of World War II.

"Today, we're in deep sorrow," said Grant, also 81. "Now, that sorrow will be replaced over time by memories, and all the memories of Billy are good. I can't think of a bad memory."

Then, his voice cracking with emotion, Grant said: "And so, old friend, you have left a mark that will never be erased. ... See you soon, Billy."

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