Frontier League executive director Bob Kowalick was honored at a luncheon Tuesday as the league celebrated its 90th anniversary. Kowalick has served the league since 1976. Chris Fitz Gerald/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The Frontier League celebrated its 90th year in style with a luncheon Tuesday and fittingly, its longtime executive director Bob Kowalick was honored as well.

After all, Kowalick, in invaluable fashion, has guided and run the league for half of its existence and has earned the colorful nickname of “Frontier Bob.”

“It’s just so well deserved,” said Scott Connell, the Frontier League’s assistant director. “When you call him “Frontier Bob,” that’s just the truth. He’s been everything about the league.”

Kowalick, 85, received a pleasant surprise when he entered a banquet room at the Hilton Garden Inn, where friends and family, as well as coaches and athletic directors from around the Frontier League gathered not only to celebrate the league’s anniversary, but to honor him as well.

“I was surprised, I had no idea,” Kowalick said. “I was coming here to talk about the Frontier League because it’s been 90 years.”

A Watertown native, Kowalick was appointed as the Frontier League’s executive secretary in 1976 for the 1976-77 school year and is now known as the circuit’s executive director.

“I was coaching before 1976, I was coaching wrestling and baseball at General Brown,” Kowalick recalled. “We had some outstanding baseball teams at General Brown that were sectional champions and so on. And I kept coaching, I had my teaching job, my coaching job and this job.”

Since then, Kowalick has worn many hats and has worked to expand the league, including establishing boys and girls scholarships, helping to usher in new sports to the league, as well establishing and expanding league playoffs.

“I was an AD for many, many years working with him and just never, I guess, appreciated the complexity of running a league with 17 schools,” said Connell, who served as Copenhagen’s superintendent and athletic director. “With its alignments and all of that and how he (Kowalick) does it, it’s just amazing.”

During the festivities, Kowalick was presented with the first Bob Kowalick Meritorious Service Award in the form of a plaque and the honor will be awarded in the future in his name.

Also, Kowalick was presented with a special desk lamp in the form of a replica covered wagon, which is the symbol of the Frontier League, as well as a league championship banner signed by well-wishers at the luncheon.

“The only reason why I knew it was 90 years was I was able to fortunately find a diary of the Frontier League and the minutes and meetings and so forth, so it was fantastic to read through all that stuff,” Kowalick said. “Just the history of it all.”

The Frontier League was established in 1931 and its first charter schools included Adams, Alexandria Bay, Brownville, Clayton, Pulaski and Sackets Harbor, with six-man football as the first sport, according to Kowalick.

“It has grown,” Kowalick said of the league. “We had some bumps in the road, because we had more than 17 teams at one time ... and what would happen a lot of times, two villages would join together, so we’d lose a team there. It was interesting to see, because all the little villages had a team, like Evans Mills and so forth, and that was probably the center of their existence of having something to rally around, so it was nice.”

Schools such as Dexter were added in 1933 with others being added over the years. At one point, Carthage was denied entry to the league because it was deemed too large of a school, but eventually gained admittance to the league as did Watertown, which didn’t occur until the 1980s.

“Watertown applied three times and the same response was ‘Watertown’s too big,’” Kowalick said. “So it was very difficult to get them in the league ... but we did eventually.”

The emergence and success of girls high school sports in the league is also something Kowalick takes pride in recognizing.

“Shortly after I started in 1976, the movement for girls sports really came on and the job was to make sure they fit in,” Kowalick said. “And you can imagine at the time, the male coaches of the boys teams didn’t want to have anything to do with them, because now they had to share facilities.

“As a league we took it upon ourselves to make sure they were given every opportunity that the boys were given and so on, it was a challenge.”

Under Kowalick’s leadership, some Frontier League playoffs were established, such as in soccer, and others were enhanced, when the boys and girls basketball league finals were moved to Jefferson Community College.

“Playing at JCC is something I tried very hard to do, because of the venue there,” Kowalick said. “Because the boys were used to playing there, but we made room for the girls as well.”

Also significant was the growth of additional sports, which made their debuts over the years, such as volleyball and lacrosse and more recently, cheerleading.

“Lacrosse came in and General Brown was one of the teams,” Kowalick said. “That was an asset because lacrosse is very popular and is a very exciting game.”

Among Kowalick’s primary duties have been drawing up league schedules and divisions among the teams, which have included “A” through “D” divisions in the larger sports, as well as making sure all league game are officiated, a challenge in itself.

“With scheduling, it seemed so easy when I didn’t have to do it,” Connell said. “Now that I have to be part of it, it’s incredibly complex. I know he has issues with his back at his age, but his brain is still 25 years old. He remembers everything, he understands and he’s just a great guy and great to work with, for sure.”

Also under Kowalick’s guidance and directorship, a Frontier League Scholarship at Jefferson Community College, was established in 1980, with separate boys and girls scholarships handed out to a student attending the college.

“Under Bob’s leadership, it’s just been amazing,” Connell said of the growth of the Frontier League. “ ... Like with scholarships, I knew there were scholarships, but I didn’t understand, he’s knocking on doors trying to get people to contribute, so that’s part of it. All of the behind the scenes things that you just don’t see as a coach or even as an AD that goes on in the league to make it be successful and have so many amazing athletes come through here.”

Through the years Kowalick has worked and lobbied for the Frontier League, guiding it to where it has received more respect from other regions in Section 3, including the Syracuse area.

Recent tangible proof of this is South Jefferson, acting as a neutral site, will host two Section 3 girls soccer playoff games tonight, something league schools such as Lowville have done in the past.

Among those who attended the luncheon was Section 3 Executive Director John Rathbun.

“Bob with all his hard work and dedication is a credit to the Frontier League,” Rathbun said.

League officials, including league secretary Christine Bourquin, insist Tuesday wasn’t a retirement party for Kowalick, who maintains his league duties.

“I think it’s awesome,” Kowalick said of the honor. “I’ve probably made sure that coaches and superintendents, perhaps like 200 over the years got this kind of honor when they retired, so I was surprised to get one myself.”

When he does decide to step away from the league, Kowalick’s legacy will live on, first with the plaque dedicated in his honor and also in many other different ways.

“That’s my legacy, so now I can retire,” Kowalick joked.

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