By KEN DENBOW
Former Dell Cerro resident and San Diego Rockets Star, Don Kojis, died at 4 a.m. the morning of Nov. 19 after a courageous fight with cancer.
Don Kojis was born July 15, 1939, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to George and Agnes Kojis. He attended Notre Dame High School in Milwaukee an developed into a 6-foot, 5-inch basketball standout. From 1957 to 1961 he attended Marquette University where he blossomed into the basketball player who would be a major factor in the NBA 1963 to 1974.
While at Marquette, Don was a two time All-American, setting multiple school rebounding records that are unbroken. He was the 13th overall pick by the Chicago Packers in the 1961 NBA draft, but Don elected to play for the Phillips Petroleum Phillips 66er’s in the National Industrial Basketball League, while working in the marketing department.
While with the 66er’s, he partnered with teammate Charlie Bowerman to popularize the “alley-oop” play, then called “The Kangaroo Kram.” He captained the United States team that won the Gold Medal at the 1963 Pan Am games and the World Games.
He decided to forego the 1964 Olympic Games and joined the Baltimore Bullets. He played for five other teams, including the San Diego Rockets, where he made two All Star teams, averaging 22.5 points per game in the 1968-1969 season. Throughout his career, Don was noted for his smooth jumper, hustle, sharp elbows(!), and leaping ability. Wilt Chamberlain described him as “the jumpingest white boy I’ve ever seen”.
In 1968, while flying between games, Don met Maureen McNeill, a tall, vivacious, flight attendant who was undaunted by the wise cracking athletes on her flight, giving as good as she received. One year later, Don married Mo twice (once in her Methodist church, once in Don’s Catholic faith, giving rise to his claim of twice as many anniversaries as years of marriage) in a loving union that ended only with his death. The couple had three sons, Dan, Matt and Mike.
In 1976, Don attended a Protestant Family Camp with a group of Catholic families. It was a deeply spiritual experience, but even more, it was fun! Several of the children on the trip asked their parents, “Why doesn’t our church have something like that?”
The incident would lead to Don’s calling in life. A calling that has had a positive effect on hundreds of thousands of people since then and is the defining legacy of his life.
At the Del Cerro home of his good friend, Dr Jerry Tisi, the two discussed the children’s question, then asked the obvious follow-on: “Who will build such a camp?”
The two men searched the local area, finally finding the perfect spot in Cuyamaca Mountains near Julian. The problem was the $3.5 million price tag. The seller of the property, Charles Woods, a World War II veteran who had suffered third degree burns over his entire body while flying gasoline to resupply Chinese forces fighting the Japanese, reduced the price of the property by nearly half when he learned the purpose. “I can’t make money off God,” he said. The total down payment the two partners had between them? — $25 dollars!
Don and Jerry met with the Bishop of San Diego to pitch the camp, and while the diocese would be supportive of the camp’s mission, the bishop said the needed to be funded and directed by the laity.
Woods carried the balance as a loan, and the payment was $9,000 per month, more than the income of the two purchasers. The sight of 6-foot 5-inch Don with the 5-foot 6-inch Tisi became a familiar sight, pitching their dream of a fun, healthy, spiritual camp. Don took over the fund raising on his own following Jerry Tisi’s death in 1988. Donors always had a sense of anticipation as to what Don would wear for his pitch. It varied from a business suit, a tuxedo, or even the habit of a cloistered nun (his Sister Mary Larry costume!).
The result is the current Whispering Winds Catholic Conference Center near Julian where more than 10,000 people each year – youth, individuals, couples, families and groups – get away from the stress and distractions of daily life and hear God’s voice in the beauty of nature. Over the years, Whispering Winds has developed unique ministries tailored for families with special needs children, military families, and siblings separated from each other by placement in foster homes.
Don found another source of fulfillment — grandchildren. His tall form was a familiar sight at volleyball and other competitions, McDonald’s playgrounds, and as the mobile diving platform in his backyard swimming pool.
Don was preceded in death by his parents and his brothers, George and Tom. He is survived by his wife, Maureen (Mo), three sons, Dan (Nikki and Samantha), Matt (Brianne, Ainsley, Sela, Augustine, Colette), Mike (Ana, Jimena, Milani), sister Barbara Pfeil (Larry) and several nieces and nephews.
A Celebration of Life Mass will be held Santa Sophia Parish on Dec. 18 at 10 a.m. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to Whispering Winds Catholic Conference Center at www.whisperirngwinds.org.
— Ken Denbow is a San Diego-based freelance writer.