George Kalil

George Kalil, center, greets UA basketball assistant Jim Rosborough after victory over Providence in the 1997 NCAA Tournament. Arizona went on to win the NCAA Championship. Head coach Lute Olson is at left, back to camera.

George Kalil, president of Kalil Bottling Co. who grew up learning the business from his father and grandfather, died Wednesday night. He was 81.

“He died at his home after an illness,” said his younger brother John Kalil, 67, company vice president and general manager.

The business was owned by George and his two brothers and four sisters. Their father, Fred, died in 1993, and their grandfather, Frank, died in 1972.

The younger Kalil said George was his mentor. “He taught me everything from production to warehousing to selling. And, the most important part was building relationships with everyone,” said John Kalil.

To many long-time University of Arizona basketball followers, George Kalil was one of Tucson’s most visible basketball fans. Kalil did not miss a Wildcats’ road trip for more than 30 years, and, until recently, regularly sat in the first row immediately behind the UA bench during games at McKale Center.

UA President Robert C. Robbins said in a statement, “George was a tireless supporter of the University of Arizona and Arizona athletics. We will miss his remarkable enthusiasm for our teams and for our students. My thoughts are with his family, friends and the entire Wildcat nation as we mourn this loss.”

John Kalil said his brother “knew so many people and he was in love with the bottling industry, and following the UA basketball team was his vacation.”

“He was on ‘60 Minutes’ back in the ’80s. A crew came to Tucson and filmed George in his office at 931 S. Highland Ave. about the beverage industry. That was very significant. They spoke to an independent bottler about issues in the industry,” recalled John Kalil.

In 1948, the brothers’ father Fred, and their grandfather, Frank, founded Kalil Bottling Co. in Tucson, according to the company’s website. The original building was on West Fifth Street, near North Stone Avenue, and Frank and his wife lived in the house next door, their kitchen serving as the original syrup mixing room.

More than seven decades later, Kalil Bottling operates out of four locations and distributes beverages across the Southwest, with the support of more than 700 employees and a large fleet of delivery trucks, according to the company.

UA basketball fan

George Kalil was a regular on Arizona’s basketball trips from 1973-2018, missing just two games during a 35-year span — one to attend a bottling conference and the other to attend former UA coach Fred Snowden’s funeral.

Kalil first began traveling with the UA basketball team under former coach Snowden, then through Ben Lindsey’s one-year tenure and then watched as Lute Olson led the Wildcats to four Final Fours and a 1997 national championship.

At first, Olson was understandably wary of the booster who traveled with the team. It didn’t take long for the new coach to welcome Kalil aboard, and their relationship lasted more than 35 years.

Kalil was a bundle of activity during his trips with the Wildcats. The man who cracked that his life was simply “soda and basketball” would pursue both while on the road, taking taxis to mini-marts and grocery stores to inspect local bottlers marketing techniques.

Kalil sat close to the action for all road games, offering smiles and support regardless of the outcome. But he could get heated, too. When a Washington State student chucked a battery at Olson’s head, nearly missing him and spooking the coach’s wife, Bobbi, Kalil offered $1,000 on the spot to whoever could identify the perpetrator.

Kalil, who was born in LaGrange, Georgia, on Jan. 29, 1938, his family moving to Tucson in 1944, told the Star in 2003 that he knew the pressure that coaches faced. As the head of a family-owned business, he felt it too.

“There’s a lot of similarities with basketball and our business,” Kalil said. “You can’t win them all, and you can be sideswiped,” said the 1956 Tucson High School graduate who attended the UA, taking business classes.

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UA Athletic Director Dave Heeke said in a statement: “George’s impact on the University of Arizona and Southern Arizona is profound and his legacy will carry on through the many lives he touched.”

Longtime UA trainer Justin Kokoskie said Kalil was “our superfan.” Kokoskie spent much of the day talking to former players and support staff about Kalil. “And that just shows what an impact George had on Tucson and the Arizona basketball community. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better person,” he said.

George Kalil “was a tireless supporter of the University of Arizona and Arizona athletics,” UA President Robert C. Robbins said.

Philanthropist

In January, Salpointe Catholic High School named its gymnasium after Kalil and his family following a $1 million donation to the school. Kalil’s money helped Salpointe fix its basketball facility and paid for new lights on the Lancers’ baseball and softball fields as well as their track. Kalil attended the ceremony.

Kalil’s philanthropy included donating $1 million to the UA to assist in the renovation of McKale Center, said his family. He also donated UA home-game basketball tickets to Salpointe’s foundation, generating more than $420,000 for the school since 1970.

Kalil was inducted into the Beverage Industry Hall of Fame in 1992 and was named Beverage Industry’s Executive of the Year in 1998. He also was named Supplier of the Year in 1991 for the Retail Grocers’ Association of Arizona and Arizona Small Business Person of the Year in 1981.

In addition to his six siblings, Kalil is survived by dozens of nieces and nephews.

Services will be held at Saints Peter & Paul Catholic Church, 1946 E. Lee St., on Thursday, July 18. The viewing will be at 9:15 a.m. followed by a 10:30 funeral Mass. Burial will be at Holy Hope Cemetery at 3555 N. Oracle Road.

Star reporter Bruce Pascoe contributed to this article.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at cduarte@tucson.com or 573-4104. On Twitter: @cduartestar.

Reporter

Carmen started at the Star in 1981 and covers the aging population. She wrote “Mama’s Santos: An Arizona Life”, a book about the Mexican and Mexican-American experience in the Southwest through stories about her family. It won 11 awards.