For Shorty Eichelberger, Illini softball is family

Shorty+Eichelberger+joined+members+of+the+Illinois+softball+team+and+DIA+staff+and+at+the+Eichelberger+Field+Groundbreaking+Ceremony+April%2C+2000.

Daily Illini FIle Photo

Shorty Eichelberger joined members of the Illinois softball team and DIA staff and at the Eichelberger Field Groundbreaking Ceremony April, 2000.

By Lauren Mroz

In the back dining room of the Esquire Lounge in downtown Champaign, Shorty Eichelberger makes her way to her usual front table with three or four close friends. As she enters the restaurant, the 87-year-old woman greets other friends and fellow Illini fans with a motherly air. With a big smile on her face, Shorty slowly moves through the restaurant, recognizing just about every face in the room.

It’s a quarter to five, and the usual Monday night crowd is gathering for a weekly radio show.

Shorty comes off as just a sweet old woman, catching up on the week’s events with her typical company as they wait for the show to begin.

Wearing her orange sweater and Illini scarf, Shorty doesn’t stand out from the Illini fans standing next to her. But she’s more involved than almost anyone. Her unique connection with the University of Illinois dates back as far as the 1940s.

Growing up in Mason City, Ill., sports became a focal point of Shorty’s life in high school. She joined the Girls Athletic Association and participated in its activities. Although her mother played softball before World War II, she insisted that Shorty study home economics at Illinois; however, sports were still her major emphasis.

After graduating from the University, she taught for six years in Fisher, Ill., where she met her husband, Paul Eichelberger, another sports enthusiast.

When the couple married, Shorty and Paul each had $2,000 in the bank. A year later, Paul was drafted for military service in the Korean War. When he returned two years later, Shorty told Paul that she expected they’d eventually have children. She said she didn’t want to work for the rest of her life, meaning they would need to start living off his income.

But then the couple moved to Champaign, where Shorty taught for another 34 years. She taught home economics at Champaign High School, and in 1963 she was instrumental in founding Centennial High School. She taught there until retiring in 1989. The couple never had any children.

The Eichelbergers’ used Shorty’s income to go on vacations. But, because she was teaching during the week and working toward her master’s degree on the weekends, the pair didn’t have time for many trips and had saved up a lot of money toward the end of Shorty’s teaching career. 

After Shorty retired, Paul was diagnosed with emphysema and the couple feared that he would not live for long. From the suggestion of a lawyer and the president of a local bank, the Eichelbergers decided they should pick a beneficiary for their money. 

When an adviser asked what she wanted to do with the money, Shorty responded, “It’s the University that helped us make it. We should think about that.”

Paul said, “That’s a good idea, but I don’t want my name on anything.”

There was a long silence. Everybody looked at everyone else. 

Finally, Paul said, “Well, I guess whoever is left can make that decision.”

Softball had always had a place in the Eichelbergers’ hearts. Though Shorty never played, of the seven boys in Paul’s family, five played amateur fast-pitch softball. After the couple married, they spent their summer weekends at softball games.

Some 25 years before the Eichelbergers discussed where they would put their savings, Shorty wondered what it would take to create an Illinois softball team. Dr. Karol Kahrs, who was hired by the University in 1974 to create and develop the women’s athletics program, told her a softball team was in the master plan, but could take a while. At the time, Shorty asked how much it would cost to build a softball field and Kahrs said about $300,000.  

In the late 1990s, when the Eichelbergers met with their financial advisers, Kahrs told Shorty that an Illinois softball team looked like a possibility.

Paul passed away in 1997. 

Ground broke in 1999 and Eichelberger Field was dedicated in 2000.

However, the process between the Eichelbergers’ donation and the dedication of the field didn’t go as smoothly as Shorty expected.

The original plan showed that the field would stand along Florida Avenue. But Ron Guenther, the athletic director at the time, said that the plan wouldn’t work due to its close vicinity to the baseball field. His main concern was that on game days the teams’ could hear each other’s public address systems.

But Shorty said she had dreamed the field would be on Florida Avenue.

“(Guenther) began to tell me that they had decided it would be on St. Mary’s Road. I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in that at all.’”

When the athletic department presented additional reasons why the field could not be built on Florida Avenue, Shorty simply responded, “Well, then it won’t be built with our money.”

Another issue was that the College of Agriculture was raising farm animals on the land. After negotiations concluded, it was decided that the poultry research in the area would stay, but the rest of the animals would move to make room for Eichelberger Field.

Eichelberger Field was eventually built at 1201 W. Florida Avenue in Urbana, where it stands today.

Shorty built a close relationship with players and she and head coach Terri Sullivan developed a mother-daughter-like relationship. Insisting on covering her own expenses, Shorty traveled with the team for several years — the times reminded her of the summers she had cherished with her husband years before.

“From start to finish, she is the No. 1 Illini softball fan,” Sullivan said. “We’re all a big fan of hers as well. Some donors keep their distance after contributing to a program, but since our program began, she’s always stayed involved. There’s no better fan. She’s part of the Illini family for sure.”

Shorty has season tickets for multiple Illini sports, but the softball team is her pride and joy. It is a connection to her husband, and it is her family. 

[email protected]

@MrozLauren