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A life dedicated to recording history

Jose E. Garcia
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 12, 2005 05:44 PM

Barry Sollenberger took his last breath lying down next to the history he preserved.

It was a black and white poster-sized portrait. In it were a young Sollenberger and a neighborhood friend, a kid named Steven Spielberg, who grew up playing and filming his first homemade movies with the Sollenberger brothers, Barry, Jim and Mark, on 49th Street near Arcadia High.  

Spielberg, who earned a bit of fame on his own, is probably a reason Sollenberger blew up the photo, but Sollenberger's desire to conserve the past also made him do it. Numerous high schools, Arizona State and the Arizona Interscholastic Association are filled with sports photos Sollenberger excavated, restored and delivered. 

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Sollenberger was his own boss, sacrificing his time in basements of libraries to give Arizona its high school sports information foundation and pay homage to Arizona high school athletes long forgotten.

Sollenberger was a simple man who never married but was never alone. He had as many friends as he had files. In 1999, Sollenberger earned one of the few job titles — the AIA's part-time sports information director — he held. But even during his AIA tenure, he ran off to accomplish things that didn't fit the job description but benefited the AIA. He somehow found ways to pay the rent.

Sollenberger had just returned from his regular morning jog when he died June 23 from a heart attack inside his modest Tempe town home. He probably knocked down the black and white photo.

The ironies of Sollenberger's death didn't escape relatives and friends. He died on his 60th birthday, a birthday that Sollenberger wasn't looking forward to, say friends, who didn't know why Sollenberger was upset about the day.

Their guess is that Sollenberger felt he was too young to turn 60. He never asked for the senior discount when Sollenberger and his good friend, longtime Tempe Marcos de Niza coach Ron Cosner, made their usual stop at a McDonald's.

The fact that Sollenberger died from a heart attack also seemed odd.

“It is ironic that he died from a problem with his heart, because when you look back on his life you realize he was all heart,” wrote one of Sollenberger's nephews, John, in a note that was read during Sollenberger's funeral services.

That Sollenberger died at home close to the photos and endless amount of boxes of high school information he cherished comforted his family.

Everything you needed to know about Sollenberger were in those boxes, which friends also stored. Sollenberger never stopped searching.

The start
That desire to discover and record probably started when Sollenberger and his family moved to the Valley from Ohio when he was 12.

Spielberg wasn't the only one interested in filming things in the neighborhood. According to a 1981 article in The Arizona Republic, Sollenberger also made homemade movies.

“(Spielberg) was always a step ahead of us,” Sollenberger said in the article. “We were showing silent movies, and he was showing sound and color. He put us out of business.

“We all changed our interests from that to sports. He stayed making films. Steven Spielberg never grew up.”

Sollenberger's humor was always a constant. Spielberg sent a letter that was read during Sollenberger's funeral service that was attended by more than 500 people.

“All of us on North 49th Street looked up to Barry as our neighborhood big brother,” Spielberg wrote. “I admired the closeness of your family and often complained to my dad Arnold and my mom Leah, ‘How come I got three kid sisters while Jimmy got to have the coolest older brother in town?”

Sollenberger became more popular once he started turning to sports at Arcadia High.

He graduated as one of the state's all-time best decathletes. His 6,271 points in the decathlon as a senior were one of the best totals in the nation in 1964. Only former Olympians Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias and relative unknown Melburn Campbell had better totals at the time. Sollenberger then went on to star at Arizona State, where he earned the school's intramural athlete of the year three times.

It's at ASU where Sollenberger met baseball player and another longtime friend Cliff Martin, who introduced his sister Jackie to Sollenberger. Jackie and Sollenberger were engaged, a fact that few people, even some of Sollenberger's family, didn't know until after Sollenberger died.

Sollenberger was smitten by Jackie's black eyes and dark curly hair, and Sollenberger's blue eyes and movie-screen looks attracted Jackie. Jackie, like Sollenberger, was a very private person and liked sports. Jackie taught at Morenci High, where Cliff coached the football team to a Class 3A title in 1974.

“My husband (Cliff) always joked that the only reason Barry came to Morenci was to see Jackie,” said Ree Martin, Cliff's widow. Cliff Martin recently passed away from heart failure.

Sollenberger never got the chance to marry Jackie, who passed away from cervical cancer about nine
years ago.

“Jackie and Barry were together for a long time and never married,” Ree said. “They decided that when they were going to get married they would. But they always knew that they were going to be the best of friends.”

On a shoestring
Sollenberger never held a steady job until entrenching himself into archiving high school sports information without a salary.

He worked as a male model, was in the Army reserves, and when he couldn't get a job teaching American history, he started to develop his high school sports niche when he was about 26, Sollenberger told The Republic in 1981. The teaching profession's loss was Arizona high school sports gain.

Sollenberger followed a completely different path than his father Galen “Solly” and brothers, who became very successful businessmen. While Sollenberger earned part of his living helping produce and sell ASU programs during sporting events, Solly, who was heavily involved with ASU's booster club, the Sun Angels, was helping raise and donate money to the campus.

“Barry did what he wanted to do,” Jim said. “A lot of people could be envious of that. How many can say they died doing what they wanted to do? Barry didn't care about money.”

Sollenberger always seemed to have a good time with what he had.

In fact, some of the best memories Cosner has of Sollenberger were of the used cars Sollenberger bought.

There was that Monte Carlo that Sollenberger's mom, Junia, gave him. Cosner and others always had to sit in the back seat, since the front was always packed with magazines and files.

The car was stolen one day, but the police recovered it. Sollenberger couldn't afford to fix the steering column that was broken during the robbery, and the police showed Sollenberger how to start the car with a screwdriver. Not surprisingly, the car was stolen again and completely destroyed.

Then there was that Gremlin, which Sollenberger had to enter through the hatchback door because the two front doors didn't work.

“Those were some of the most memorable times I had with Barry,” Cosner said.

While his cars were usually changing, Sollenberger's home base didn't.

Sollenberger lived for two-plus decades at Parkside Manor Apartments in Tempe. He'd usually mow the lawn around the complex to pay for his rent, friends said.

When Solly passed away, he left Barry some money. That helped Sollenberger move into the Tempe town home and buy an SUV — used, of course.

One of the other jobs Sollenberger had to help pay the bills was helping high schools, which hired him to dig up its sports history for their annals.

“I'm going to miss my friend,” Cosner said. “Arizona high school football has lost an individual who just loved it. It's going to be years before people realize how much high school football is going to miss Barry. He was that sincere about it.”

This week marked the release of one of Sollenberger's biggest annual contributions — Phoenix Metro Football magazine, a preseason outlook on every Valley high school football team and beyond.

This year marked the 35th year that Sollenberger had produced some sort of high school publication. It took a lot of persistence and years to get Phoenix Metro Football off the ground.

Sollenberger's first high school issue was published in 1971 as Arizona Prep, which was later bought by a publishing company and turned into a national prep magazine with Joe Namath on the cover. While publishing Arizona Prep and working for the national magazine, National Prep Sports Magazine, Sollenberger met another longtime friend and business partner, Dave Kukulski, an ASU alum who started working for Sollenberger as a stringer.

Kukulski and Sollenberger would go on to produce programs for ASU and other Southwest universities for two-plus decades. The duo experienced some success with the programs, but they also experienced bankruptcy, as they had to adapt to the constant changes in the publishing business.

National Prep Sports Magazine also folded, and in 1981, Sollenberger failed to produce a high school edition for the first and only time during 35 years of publishing. Despite some difficult times, Kukulski and Sollenberger had a great working relationship.

“In 30-plus years of working together, we never had more than two arguments,” Kukulski said. “We had a lot of freedom when we worked together and on our own.”

Kukulski and Sollenberger would rebound with their bread and butter — high schools.

Kukulski and his brother Dan's publishing business now produces the most high school state championship programs in the nation, including the AIA's programs, Dave said.

Newsstands at major chains would charge too much to sell his annual magazine, so Sollenberger created his distribution with mom and pop sports shops, and various high school boosters helped him sell and buy advertising space to produce the magazine.

Sollenberger didn't start receiving a profit from the magazine until the late 1990s, but that wasn't his goal.

“It never was about making money,” Dave said. “He wasn't the typical publisher. If you look at the magazine, it was a vehicle for Barry's historical record keeping.”

Every Phoenix Metro Football had a story about a team or player from the past.

The magazine mirrored what Sollenberger was all about. It was heavy on content, not style.

Sollenberger's stubbornness kept him from hardly ever making design changes that Dave suggested. Sollenberger died just as he was getting ready to finish this season's issue, which Dave finalized with Sollenberger's traditional subtleties.

The end
Sollenberger's death by a heart attack took his family and friends by surprise. Almost every morning, a healthy and still athletic Sollenberger timed his morning jogs.

Jim and his family requested and paid for an autopsy.

The autopsy revealed that one of Sollenberger's heart valves was blocked by plaque, which readily accumulates in people who hardly eat at home.

Sollenberger's refrigerator at his town home was empty when they found him on the day he died.

Sollenberger was always on the road either visiting friends or exploring some state library for another nugget of information.

When friend and AIA Executive Director Dr. Harold Slemmer brought him on board in 1999, Slemmer found another home for his records. One of the reasons the AIA's web site ( is the envy of other state associations is because of the record archives that Sollenberger compiled.

Sollenberger also compiled a bunch of friends. He was known to a lot of people as uncle Barry.

His Donald Duck imitation brought laughs, and Sollenberger was an old movie buff who would call Cosner out of the blue to trade barbs about a movie he saw.

“The other day I reached for the phone to talk to Barry about a movie, but I forgot” a saddened Cosner said. Honoring Sollenberger

Every Arizona high school coach and athlete can honor Sollenberger from now on by doing a simple task.

Whenever a coach or athlete reaches a milestone, call the AIA to record the achievement. That's one way the AIA is going to update Sollenberger's records, Slemmer said.

It's going to take that many people to replace the efforts of one man.

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