Littleton’s beloved Joe Guennel, who died May 13, touched the lives of thousands of soccer-playing boys and girls — and their parents — over half a century, while also conducting serious scientific research. After he retired, he wrote and illustrated two handsome volumes on Colorado’s wildflowers.
In 1961, Guennel came to work at Marathon Oil Co. as a palynologist (a scientist who studies spores and pollen). In addition to building an international reputation in science, with more than 30 papers published, he became known as the “Father of Colorado Soccer” and had involvements in the sport across the nation. He worked with the U.S. Olympic Committee for 12 years.
Born in Oelsnitz, Germany, Guennel moved to the United States with his family in 1934 at the age of 13. In high school, he lettered in football, basketball and baseball. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany from Butler University in Indiana, served in the Army Reserve, then served in the the U.S. Army from 1943-45 in Germany, France and Austria. He returned to Germany as a civilian employee, where he met and married Hilde Lang in 1947. She died before he did.
Guennel worked for the Indiana Geological Survey and received his Ph.D. from Indiana University, where he started a soccer program that now is at the top nationwide, according to former Marathon colleague and fellow soccer enthusiast Hossein Kazemi.
When Guennel joined Marathon in Littleton in 1961, he met John Meyer, a Dutch man who advocated a junior soccer program for the area and was eager to start it, although he had not played as a child. Meyer was transferred out of state in two years, but Guennel was hooked.
Kazemi, now a Castle Rock resident and faculty member at Colorado School of Mines, said Guennel recruited him when he joined Marathon as a 30-year-old scientist — and Kazemi is still coaching more than 40 years later.
Kazemi estimates that there may be as many as 70,000 boys and girls playing soccer in the Colorado Youth Soccer Association. “He had a tremendous amount of influence — I can’t say enough about it,” Kazemi said.
When Guennel started his organization, he had to do it all: lining up fields, ordering balls from the east, coaching, officiating, fundraising, holding clinics and more. He also encouraged European teams to play in Denver so families could watch the pros. Initially, he was not allowed to pound goalposts into the ground in Denver, since the sport was so little respected and authorities did not want to damage the grass.
Guennel convinced school boards to include the sport — the Centennial League accepted it as a varsity sport in 1968 and the Colorado High School Activities Association sanctioned it in 1971.
Guennel later found time to help programs start in Ohio, Montana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Texas, according to the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame website about him. Intercollegiate teams and two semi-pro teams are now on the scene in Colorado.
Guennel was elected to three different Halls of Fame: Colorado Sports Hall of Fame, Colorado Soccer Hall of Fame and U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.
When Guennel retired, he intensified his study of the flora of Colorado — painting, photographing collecting and cataloging slides and specimens. He wrote and illustrated a user-friendly two-volume “Guide to Colorado Wildflowers,” with watercolor paintings and photographs of each variety.
Many local friends enjoyed mountain hiking with this energetic man.
Guennel married Inge Holmgren on April 19, 2010, and continued to live in Littleton, still visiting soccer games when possible. He gained a stepdaughter, Janine Holmgren, with whom he established a warm connection, as he told her about German heritage.
Inge said her husband also taught a number of local kids to ski in earlier days, including a young Bill McKinnell Jr., who said Joe and Hilde were like a second set of parents to him. They recall trips to the mountains in Guennel’s Volkswagen, almost choking on the smoke from his often-present cigar.
Burial was at Fort Logan Cemetery, and friends gathered to share stories about Joe Guennel, although there was no formal service, in keeping with his wishes.