The Life of Willis Allen

Willis M. Allen – Willis Allen, 93 years of age, passed away on June 13, 2004 at his home in La Jolla, California.  Willis Allen, the son and grandson of rear admirals, was born in Philadelphia.  He was married to Ruth Annable, who also shared his passion for polo ponies.

As a youth in Connecticut, he became enamored with polo, a sport he would play up to two weeks before his death.  His last game being played at Lakeside Polo Club with seven other members of his family, including two daughters, two grandkids, two great grandchildren and his son-in-law (4 generations).  Willis may have been the oldest active polo player in the history of the game at age 93.

At age 19, he accompanied some friends in driving from Greenwich, Connecticut to San Diego where he found work at Stables in Mission Valley.  He later sold automobiles, schooled polo ponies and competed in an arena on the old show grounds in Coronado.

In the 1930’s he purchased half interest in the College Riding Academy at 70th and El Cajon Boulevard, renting horses for 1 cent per minute.  They had a local polo club using the best of the rental horses and had only four mallets, so when switching players they had to share mallets.  From this start, Willis Allen ventured in other business interests, selling insurance policies, real estate and eventually establishing separate mortgage and insurance firms to compliment his real estate business.  His real estate firm became one of the largest independently owned companies in San Diego County.

Willis went overseas in the Navy during World War II, serving in the Pacific and left the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander. He loved to talk about Polo in the South Pacific and Hawaii during and after the war years.  His stories about the old days, playing polo on the beach at La Jolla Shores during low tide and Mission Valley were truly amazing.

Willis had a love for polo that took him too many parts of the United States and several countries around the world.  He was the recipient of the first annual sportsmanship award presented by the United States Polo Association.  He played in the U.S. Polo Nationals in Oakbrook, Illinois.  He represented the USA on a 1960’s team that included Bob Skeen and others in New Zealand and Australia.  He played in England and numerous other countries.

At age 70, Willis played on the Winning Team in the Eldorado Polo Club Senior’s Tournament.

Willis was a Founding Member of San Diego and Eldorado Polo Clubs and a long time member of Lakeside Polo Club.  Willis also indulged an interest in recreational flying. He was more than an Eldorado Polo founder he actually discovered the acreage by searching in his private plane.  Later the games on several fields would pause while he landed his plane and until Willis could taxied clear of the action.

Willis was a great supporter of youth polo, generously donating his time and money to help the young and upcoming players. He felt that the young players needed special recognition and came up with the San Diego Polo Club Willis Allen award to be presented annually to a young player exhibiting all the elements of a true sportsman.  The elements are, gamesmanship, mallet work, sportsmanship but most importantly horsemanship.

Willis was honored by the Polo Hall of Fame in 2003, being presented with the Iglehart Award.  Willis served a USPA Pacific Coast Circuit Governor from 1969 – 1974.

Willis has many polo friends all over the world, written about in several books and won many polo games but the thing he valued most was the friends he made playing polo.

He taught that the competition itself was not important; it was how you played the game. Any young player that he could impact, he jumped at the opportunity to share his infinite wisdom with.  He had a warm smile and kind word for everyone but was feisty to the bone out on the polo field. His love of the sport has inspired many to be a better polo player and his love of life is something we should strive to emulate.

Willis leaves a memory of many years of polo going back to before 1940. He will be missed by his many friends worldwide.

The first time I saw him was about 1980 and he was sitting on a horse in Indio. I thought he was an old cowboy from West Texas or the foothills of Colorado. Willis looked just like many of those hard and as tough as rawhide. He had a glint in his eye that said "try me young feller. Make my day." Little did I know he was rich, famous and the most important man in Southern California Polo. Willis was the tick behind the clock in making Eldorado the biggest club in the U.S. and he was the Godfather of San Diego Polo Club. He made it happen and I think that's the way he was. Willis made it happen. He knew horses, people and power. Willis never used these things for anything else, only to improve someone or something he liked. I do not know if he ever used it for anything he did not like because it would be gone and you would never know it. My son, Jason, won the Willis Allen award a few years ago and he thought that was the coolest thing because he really liked to ask him questions so he could hear Willis talk. He did talk just enough to make you really enjoy that sparkle in his eye and he leaves polo for the big one in the sky. Guess what Artie and Big Gee & Eric Friden? You now have a boss up there. Our thoughts are with his family.

The Crowder Family

I will always remember Willis Allen for his good humor, love of polo and as a good friend to everyone. I first met Willis at Lakeside Polo Club when I took my grandkids, Shane & Danika Rice to some kids polo chukkers. When Willis saw how much they loved Polo, he told me the only way they were going to get to be good polo players was to have a horse that already knew polo. He sent us to his ranch in Julian to pick up “Cookie” a great polo pony he had purchased from Tommy Wayman, played and then retired her to pasture. He said when the kids are done with her, take her back to the Ranch & we will do the same for my great grandkids when they are ready. Cookie never made it back to the ranch as she won the hearts of all my grandkids, teaching them not only polo but how to love and care for horses. Willis knew what the kids needed and made sure they got what they needed because to him all polo players were family.

I also had the pleasure of sharing a special game of Polo at San Diego Polo Club with Willis and his family playing my family in a two chukker pre-game match. Four generations on his side and three on mine, we were all winners for knowing Willis. Willis was a great supporter of youth polo, generously donating his time and money to help the young and upcoming players. He felt that the young players needed special recognition and came up with the Willis Allen award to be presented annually to young players exhibiting good sportsmanship, playing ability but most importantly horsemanship. He was always there to make sure the local Interscholastic Polo Team had what they needed to be able to travel to the National Finals for the last six years. It was super for him and Harry to share with the Chris Collins family young Chris playing in the Interscholastic National Championship game this last April. It was neat for Great Grandpa, Grandpa and family to travel to Texas for some special time together during this tournament.

Willis was honored by the Polo Hall of Fame in 2003, being presented with the Iglehart Award. Both he and Joe Rizzo received the award in 2003 and both pasted away this year. Willis has many Polo friends all over the world, written about in several books and won many polo games but the thing he valued most was the friends he made playing polo.

We will miss you Willis but you will always remain with us in all the fond memories you provided. Keep the polo fields green up there and the ponies ready – we will see you again."

Russ SheldonGrandfather of Poway Polo Club

Willis Allen has helped my family so much with polo that words can not come close to expressing my gratitude. He gave us the best gift of a horse named "Cookie". Many of you saw Shane, Danika, Jared and many other children getting their start playing polo on that horse. To this day, the best polo I have ever played was with Willis at Lakeside Polo Club. We all would be laughing during the chukkers, having the best time and telling me I reminded him of his grandaughter. I will cherish the memories of playing with him along with his family. The video of the Allen/Collins 4 generations playing the 3 generations of Sheldons will be one of my most valued treasures. His sponsorship of the Willis Allen Award at the San Diego Polo Club to promote sportsmanship along with playing ability for the young players hopefully will live on. Willis, I hope you and Cookie are now playing polo in heaven together. Look for those special polo balls that are marked with yours and Cookie's names.

Sherry SheldonPoway Polo Club

If there was ever a story of a life that is to be celebrated as opposed to mourning, that would be the story of Willis Allen. My heart goes out to all of the family for their tremendous loss, but at the same time, how fortunate we all have been to know the man.

I have always admired his love of horses and his genuine interest of young players in the game of polo. Several years back, Willis agreed to have a trophy named after him, that would honor a young player who possessed all the elements of a true sportsman. The elements were horsemanship, gamemanship, malletwork, and above all, sportsmanship.

I was also gifted to have played at Lakeside this past year along with Willis. It was the first opportunity that I had to witness the routine Willis had to continue to participate in the sport that he so loved in his golden years. I sat and listened to his wonderful stories at his tackroom, and then witnessed his ceremony of mounting up onto his thoroughbred pony. Horse placed appropriately for ease of mount, and the mallet hanging on a well placed nail on route to the arena.

In the chukker, I tried to get the ball to Willis, only to have Willis immediately set me back up for a run to goal. It was an honor to receive an assist from a living legend.

I was so touched to hear the story of Willis's dream to be a polo pro, but then realized if he were to capture the heart of his long time wife and partner, Ruth, he was going to have to get a better paying job. The rest is history. A wonderful history, that the families will be able to cherish.

I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Willis-he always had kind words and wonderful stories."

Tom GoodspeedPrevious General Manager of San Diego Polo

A man we will never forget. We will always remember the stories and advice in between the chukkers. If you ever got to play with him at Lakeside Polo Club or anywhere you could always tell how much he loved the game. Truly he looked better on a horse than he did walking around. He was never afraid to go into a play at 93. I remember going down the field about a month ago and I was going full out down the field and he was right there next to me trying to ride me off. It scared the crap out of me, but he always knew that he knew what he was doing. At Lakeside also before every chukker he would ride up to me and say "you have to tell me where the ball is because I cant see it as well anymore." And always before a big game right when is was starting to play in like the four goal he would always ask "Now how many times have you gone to the bathroom." Then he would tell me that when he was younger and just starting out that he was so nervous he would have to go to the bathroom. I don't know just one of those stories. Another thing that I will never forget is his tail. He could always get you the ball if he was hitting a tailshot. I know that the people that knew him will never forget him and his funny stories even if you heard them 3 or 4 times. We will always love you Willis and you are not going to be forgotten.

Chris Collins Jr.

My husband and I have had the honor on many occasions to play with Willis in Lakeside. I personally enjoyed Willis’s great humor and spirit! When I first met Willis it was out in Lakeside. After a brief conversation, I mentioned to him that my Great Grandfather donated the trophy for the Spreckels Cup. He then mentioned to me that he had met my Great Grandfather many years back. I was completely taken back that I was, “actually talking to someone that had met my grandfather.” Willis mentioned that he was in his teens at the time. He played polo in front of the Hotel Del Coronado and that is how they met. I feel truly honored to have had a friendship with Willis.

Jessica Spreckels Burch

Willis was my Dad’s best friend. They played polo together for the better parts of six decades, from the 30’s through the 80’s. Willis, Jess Mc Millin, and my father Bud Hering played their infamous “low tide” matches in front of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club in 1940.

In retrospect, I think Willis was everybody’s best friend. There was never an unimportant person in his life. He made us all feel special. He loved the Lakeside Polo Club and we loved him. He would ride up to a prospective new member or visitor before the first chukker and tell them quietly “ this is a friendly club, we play hard and have fun but we don’t holler, we only give encouragement”. He always had a kind word and a bit of wisdom to share, like “remember, you can pass the ball faster than your horse can run”.

We will miss his wisdom, his friendly encouragement and most of all the sincerity of his friendship. So long Ol’ Buddy, we’ll try to carry on in the spirit and tradition that you instilled in us.

Kip HeringLakeside Polo Club

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