Several outstanding Illini athletes during the 1954-55 school year thrived on the University of Illinois campus — football’s Bobby Mitchell, basketball’s Paul Judson, and track and field’s Willard Thomson to name three — but there was another lesser known star who rose to the very top of his craft in his sport.
At just 5 feet, 8 inches and 165 pounds, University of Illinois fencer Herman “Pete” Velasco literally fought his way to the 1955 NCAA foil title.
That’s a notable accomplishment for a man who joined coach Max Garret’s Illini squad as a walk-on.
The son of a Mexican emigrant and a product of Chicago’s Senn High School, Velasco was a four-year member of the north side school’s ROTC program. His exceptional hand-eye coordination, speed and balance made him an ideal candidate to join Senn’s fencing team when he was in high school.
“I thought I was a pretty good baseball player as a 13-14-year-old, but I found out that I wasn’t good enough to play at the high school level,” Velasco said. “Then I discovered fencing. I’ve always liked swordsmanship, Zorro and the like. One-on-one sports are those I’m always be drawn to. Team sports are wonderful, but I like to depend on myself.”
Velasco became an exceptional performer for Garret at Illinois. He twice won individual Big Ten foil titles (1954 and 1956), both times helping the Illini to the team championship.
During his junior year of NCAA competition in 1955, Velasco defeated 41 other fencers to became national foil champ. He had placed third at that meet the year before.
As a senior, Velasco placed second. He vividly remembered that final meet with the Illini at the Naval Academy.
“We had 27 or 28 bouts in the course of 16 hours,” Velasco said.
Following four years in Illinois’ ROTC program and his graduation from the UI in the spring of 1956, Velasco received a commission into the United States Army. He went on to 30 years of service in the Army, retiring as a full colonel in 1985.
“I love the military tradition and all that it stands for,” Velasco said.
Following his service, he joined Honeywell International as a chemical salesman.
In retirement, he remains active with AARP as a volunteer, helping seniors with their taxes and also teaching driving safety.
This coming Thursday, Velasco will celebrate his 87th birthday with his wife, daughter and grandchildren at his home in North Las Vegas, Nev.
Sunday: Michael Hoomanawanui, football (33)
Monday: John Sidari, football (50)
Tuesday: Dave Wright, football (70)
Wednesday: Olivia Howell, track & field (20)
Thursday: Scott Davis, football (56)
Friday: Ron Bess, football (75)
Saturday: Eva Rubin, basketball (23)
By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter @IlliniLegends and @Spartifacts2021. His website is www.SportsLLL.com.