100 Years of High School Basketball Tournaments - 1916-2006

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Author: Erik Pedersen

The Michigan State Normal School Gymnasium in Ypsilanti was the site of the first basketball game to be held west of the Allegheny Mountains. Wilber Bowen, head of the newly established Physical Education major program at the Normal School, was the person responsible for bringing James Naismith and his Springfield College student basketball team to Ypsilanti to help celebrate the dedication of the new Michigan State Normal School gymnasium on May 18th, 1894. (See the Summer 2006 Ypsilanti Gleanings article on “Ypsilanti, Basketball’s Gateway to the West.”)

1916 to 2016: It seemed only fitting that Bowen, along with Michigan Normal College Department instructors Elmer Mitchell, W. T. Samson, and Lloyd Olds would be the ones to promote the first Michigan High School Basketball Tournament. Michigan High School Basketball will celebrate a very special anniversary on March 23 -25, 2016. Those dates will mark 100 years since the first Michigan High School Basketball Tournament was held on the Normal College Campus.

Tournament Participants: According to the March 10, 1916 Normal College News, an invitation to take part in the 1916 Michigan Tournament was sent out to three hundred high schools. It is interesting to note that only high schools with less than 200 students were invited. Even in the early 1900’s schools in Michigan were divided into classes based on school enrollment. Wilber Bowen was interested in getting the smaller high schools “educated in basketball.” Bowen felt that basketball was still a relatively new game and that not too many small schools knew much about it. He hoped to invite larger schools the next year.

The 1916 Michigan Normal College yearbook, Aurora, indicated that there was another reason for the Normal School to want to host a basketball tournament. The Normal College was primarily a teacher training school. Most of the students enrolled at the college were women. The college’s Men’s Union helped with organizing the tournament in hopes that it would attract more men to the school.

Entrance to the tournament was free. However, expenses related to transportation and room and board had to be provided by the participating schools. The Physical Education Department made it easier for schools to participate by making arrangements with local residents to provide food at 20 to 25 cents a meal and lodging at 25 cents a night for each player.

Students and faculty from the Normal College contributed to the success of the first tournament. In addition, local volunteers helped with different aspects of running the tournament. In keeping with Bowen’s mission to educate, tournament participants were able to attend sessions on conditioning, athletics in general and basketball. Emphasis was placed on providing opportunities to stimulate fellowship and good sportsmanship.

Tournament Requirements: For a school to take part in the tournament, Bowen established the following requirements:

• Principals of prospective high schools had to certify that enrollment did not exceed 200.

• No member on a team could be older than 21.

• No team member had graduated from a four-year high school.

• Team members had to be doing passing work.

• No team member could have entered school later than March 1, 1916.

The Normal College News noted that the splendid Normal College facilities were more than adequate for conducting a tournament. The facilities included four basketball courts that could all be used at the same time. By conducting one session of games on Thursday evening, three on Friday and two on Saturday they were able to conduct a double elimination tournament.

Tournament Results: Of the three hundred schools invited to participate in the tournament only 12 accepted. The teams were Marine City, Dundee, Milan, Mancelona, Farmington, Elkton, Royal Oak, Middleville, Lansing, Mount Clemens, Wayne and Saline. Marine City won the tournament after having to play Dundee in a playoff game. Both teams finished the regular schedule with a 5 and 1 record. Marine City won the playoff game 23 to 22. Milan, Mancelona, and Farmington tied for third.

The winning team was awarded a silver shield mounted on an oak base. Second prize was a silver cup and the third place team received a banner. Individual participation awards were given to all players and the first place winners were awarded medals. The Ypsilanti Press at the time felt the Normal College “went first class with the awards.”

The 1917 Tournament: As noted earlier, Bowen planned to include larger schools in 1917. However, based on the information in the March 23, 1917 Normal College News, it seems that schools with less than 200 students were again the only ones invited. That tournament attracted 21 schools and over 250 participants. The 1917 Normal College yearbook noted the tournament attracted so many players that the gymnasium and department offices were turned into a temporary dormitory. The 1917 tournament was won by Grayling. They easily defeated a team from Chelsea 42 to 9. Milan finished third. It appears that the same Grayling squad took part in the first University of Michigan tournament the following week.

It didn’t take long for other Michigan schools to begin conducting basketball tournaments. Northern Michigan Normal College in Marquette announced its plans to hold the first UP tournament on March 2, 1917. Not to be outdone, the University of Michigan held its first inter-scholastic basketball tournament on March 22, 23, and 24, 1917 in the Waterman Gymnasium. The tournament attracted over 39 schools and was open to any high school that wanted to participate. A majority of those schools were class A schools and had little effect on the Normal School class B tournament. It is interesting to note that the University of Michigan didn’t have a varsity basketball team until the following year when Elmer Mitchell became a faculty member there.

Related Information: The person on the Normal College faculty with the skills and knowledge of how to conduct tournaments was Lloyd Olds. One of Olds’ primary responsibilities was directing the school’s intramural program. Olds’ organizational abilities and ideas related to intramurals were emulated all over the country. Elmer Mitchell served as Olds’ assistant for a couple of years before becoming the director of intramurals at the University of Michigan. Olds also invented the zebra striped officials shirt that helped to distinguish players from officials.

Elmer Mitchell: Another key individual assisting Wilber Bowen in planning the 1916 tournament was Elmer Mitchell. Mitchell coached the 1915 and 1916 Normal College varsity basketball teams. His two-year record was 27 wins and 6 losses. He then went on to coach for the University of Michigan where he had a two-year record of 24 wins and 16 losses. Mitchell served as the first basketball coach for both schools. While at the University of Michigan he is given credit for helping to develop the format for planning state basketball tournaments for many years. When being interviewed by Will Snyder for an Ypsilanti Press article on the 60 year anniversary of Michigan High School Basketball Tournaments, Mitchell gave credit to Wilber Bowen, the Normal College at Ypsilanti and the University of Michigan for developing high school athletics to the level that they had attained at that time.

Student Coaches: It was mentioned above that it wasn’t until 1915 that Elmer Mitchell was appointed as the first basketball coach for the Michigan Normal College and 1917 for the University of Michigan. This was not unusual. During the 1890’s and early 1900’s many college and university athletic teams were coached by students. Student coaches were usually seniors with athletic experience. As the popularity and importance of athletics grew, more qualified and experienced coaches other than students were appointed.

Charles Forsyth: Taking part in the 1916 tournament as a player on the Milan team was Charles Forsyth. Forsyth would become instrumental in Michigan sports when he later became the Director for Michigan High School Athletics.

Ruth Boughner Interview: The 100 year anniversary of Michigan high school basketball probably would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for a June 24, 1980 interview with Ms. Ruth Boughner. While collecting information for the history of a physical education course, I interviewed Ms. Boughner who taught at the Normal College from 1920 to 1952. During that interview Ms. Boughner mentioned how Wilber Bowen and the physical education department faculty organized and conducted the first Michigan State High School Basketball tournament. That interview took place 36 years ago and the information obtained that day has helped recall a significant date in Michigan High School Athletics.

Centennial Basketball Celebration: Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Michael Paciorek, of the Eastern Michigan University Athletic Department Compliance Office, a celebration of the first Michigan High School Basketball Tournament was realized. On Saturday, February 20, 2016, six of the twelve high schools that originally took part in the 1916 tournament returned to the Eastern Michigan University campus. The schools taking part in this event were Farmington, Lansing, Marine City, Milan, Saline, and Wayne.

Recognition of the six schools returning to help celebrate this occasion was given during half time of the Eastern Michigan University and Toledo University basketball game. A representative from each school received a commemorative plaque noting the centennial. The Eastern Michigan Department of Health Promotion and Human Performance provided the recognition plaques for the participating high schools. The Marine City representative provided an unexpected surprise. He brought the original first place trophy awarded to them 100 years ago and a photo of the 1916 basketball team.

Others who helped celebrate the occasion were: Heather Lyke, EMU Athletic Director; Greg Steiner, Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations; Ron Pesch, Michigan High School Athletic Association Historian; Alexis Braun Marks, EMU Archives; Don McLean, Assistant Director for Development; and Julie Jahn, Associate Professor HPHP.

(Acknowledgements: 1: Much descriptive detail was obtained from The Normal College News of March 10, 1916, March 24, 1916, March 23, 1917, and the Ypsilanti Press of March 26, 1976. 2: General background and biographical information was obtained from, A History of Physical Education at Eastern Michigan University from 1852 to 1996 by Dr. Erik J. Pedersen. 3: A special thank you to Alexis Braun Marks, in the EMU Archives, for locating and copying several pertinent Normal College Newspaper articles related to the early Normal School Basketball Tournaments. 4: A special thank you to Ron Pesch, MHSAA Historian, who was willing to share information about the early years of Michigan High School basketball history.)

(Erik Pedersen is an Emeritus Professor of Physical Education at Eastern Michigan University.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Michigan State Normal College Gymnasium.

Photo 2: Wilber Bowen was the person responsible for bringing basketball teams to Ypsilanti to help celebrate the dedication of the new Michigan State Normal School gymnasium.

Photo 3: The person on the Normal College faculty with the skills and knowledge of how to conduct tournaments was Lloyd Olds.

Photo 4: Elmer Mitchell served as Lloyd Olds’ assistant before becoming the director of intramurals at the University of Michigan.

Photo 5: Recognition Ceremony from Left to Right: Dr. Michael Paciorek, Professor EMU Compliance; Dr. Erik Pedersen, Professor EMU Emeritus; Terrance Porter Farmington High School; Julius Edwards, Lansing Eastern High School; Chris Ming, Marine City High School; Chris Pope, Milan High School; Kirk Evenson, Saline High School; Greg Ambrose, Wayne Memorial High School; Christian Spears, Deputy Director of Athletics EMU.

Photo 6: Marine City beat Dundee in the playoff game 23 to 22.

Photo 7: The 1916 tournament plaque was won by Marine City.

The Other “Real McCoy”

Published In:
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Author: James Mann

To say something is “the real McCoy” is to call it the real thing, genuine or Simon Pure. There is a question as to where the term came from. There are many theories about the origin of the term, and as the Dictionary of Eponyms noted, “If all were recorded, they would fill pages.” H. L. Mencken noted, “The origin of this term has been much debated and is still unsettled.”

Of course, here in Ypsilanti, we know it was from the name of Elijah McCoy, the African-American inventor who developed the lubrication cup for railroad steam engines. Soon after the market was flooded with cheap knock-offs, so railroad purchasing agents would ask: “Is this the Real McCoy?”

One of the other claimants to the honor of being “the Real McCoy” is the boxer Charles ‘Kid’ McCoy. He was born Norman Selby on October 13, 1872. His parents, it is said, imagined Norman would grow up to be a success in law or medicine. It was a dream that did not last long. As a friend put it, he was “allergic to books.”

He grew up to be a boxer, known as Charles ‘Kid’ McCoy. As a boxer McCoy was said to be “Vicious, fast and almost impossible to beat.” Tommy Ryan said of him: “The Kid has a mean streak running from the top of his curly hair right down to the troublesome ingrown nail on his left toe.” His life story, Sam Weston said: “would scandalize a P. T. A. meeting and the complete story of his life would make Lolita read like Sunday school literature.”

McCoy stood 5’11” and weighed 160 pounds. He often appeared weak or even sick when he entered the ring. He may even have applied makeup, so as to appear ill. His opponent, thinking he was in for an easy win, soon found himself on the canvas out cold. McCoy had developed the corkscrew punch, like a left hook with a twist at the end. He won the first 20 fights of his career, without a single loss. McCoy would lose only 6 out of 166 career fights.

As to how he came to the name, he told many versions of the story. In one, McCoy was in a saloon when a drunk refused to believe the slender man he insulted was the boxer Kid McCoy. One swing of the corkscrew punch, and the drunk was flat on his back on the floor. When the drunk was able to speak again he said, “Jeez, it was the real McCoy.” His career as a fighter came to an end after his match with Gentleman Jim Corbett, to whom he lost. After the match, it was said by Corbett’s estranged wife, that the fight was fixed.

From the ring McCoy went to Hollywood and a new career in the movies. He was friends with Charley Chaplin and D. W. Griffith. By now he was an alcoholic and broke. Still, women liked him and over the years he was married ten times, at least three times to the same woman.

One woman, who liked him, even in his downward spin, was Mrs. Theresa Mors, who left her husband, an antique dealer, to live with him. Mrs. Mors died of a single gunshot wound on August 14, 1924. The next morning McCoy went into the antique shop owned by Mr. Mors, and waited for the husband to arrive. To pass the time, McCoy took 12 people hostage and robbed them. Then he began to shoot up the place, during which three people were wounded.

McCoy said he and Theresa Mors had fought over the gun, when she tried to kill herself. He also said he had no memory of taking 12 people hostage and shooting up the antiques shop. At the trial, he and his attorney, tried to show how he and Theresa had fought over the gun, even to the point of rolling on the courtroom floor. He was found guilty of manslaughter.

McCoy was released from prison on December 11, 1932, and went to work for the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn. Harry Bennett, the head of the Ford Service Department, said it was McCoy who had taught him how to box while in the navy.

In April of 1940 McCoy checked into the Tuller Hotel in Detroit, and, at the age of 67 killed himself with an overdose of pills. Before his death, he wrote a note:

To Whom It May Concern,

For the last eight years I have wanted to help humanity, especially the youngsters who do not know nature’s laws. That is, the proper carriage of the body, the right way to eat, etc…To all my dear friends, I wish you the best of luck. Sorry I could not endure any more of this world’s madness.

The best to you all,
Norman E. Selby

Kid McCoy had lost his last fight.

(Sources: Kid McCoy, Wikipedia; Real McCoy, Dictionary of Eponyms; Charles (Kid) McCoy, Boxrec Boxing Encyclopedia; Retro Indy: The Tragic Life of Charles ‘Kid’ McCoy by Dawn Mitchell; The Curious Case of Norman Selby by Kelly Nicholson, International Boxing Research Organization.)

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a volunteer in the YHS Archives, and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: McCoy developed a corkscrew punch, like a left hook with a twist at the end.

Ypsilanti Children Share Many Connections with Walter Briggs

Published In:
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Author: Eric and Robert Anschuetz

Robert and Eric Anschuetz are twin brothers who grew up in Ypsilanti in the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. They are devoted Detroit Tiger baseball fans, graduates of EMU, and were raised down the street from the Briggs family home on River Street. Thus, the connection of Walter Briggs to the Tigers, EMU, and Ypsilanti has a special meaning for them. Both of Eric and Robert’s grandfathers also happened to work for Briggs in the automotive industry. In fact, when their mother was a young girl growing up in Detroit, each year she attended a game with her father during the Briggs employee appreciation day, where families could attend a free Tiger ballgame courtesy of Briggs.

Another connection Eric and Robert have with Walter Briggs is that as early teenagers they delivered the Ypsilanti Press to the house where Briggs was born on River Street. Eric and Robert grew up in the Swaine House, which was at the epicenter of their assigned newspaper route which extended in both directions down Forest Avenue and River Street. At the time, the occupant living in the upstairs apartment of the Briggs home on River Street always seemed to be high on drugs and was often dressed in his boxer shorts when the twins came to collect money for the newspaper. One time, he said he didn’t have the money to pay his weekly bill, but said that instead he would pay the bill with some tickets to “the Ypsilanti Policeman’s Ball.” The man then showed Eric and Robert a stack of about five traffic tickets and laughed about it.

Eric and Robert attended their first Tiger game at Tiger Stadium in 1972. They distinctly remember walking into the tunnel of the stadium for the first time and seeing the beautiful green field. It seemed as if they had died and gone to heaven, and heaven had the best-manicured field in the universe. This experience was the first of probably 100 games that Eric and Robert would attend at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull with their dad. Even though they were attending the baseball games at Tiger Stadium, the essence of Briggs Stadium hadn’t changed a bit since the 1950’s, right down to the green colored paint scheme and wooden seats.

Eric and Robert’s dad took them to about five to ten games a year. They almost always sat in the wooden benches in the bleachers, which cost only $1.50 per ticket in the 1970’s. This was especially a bargain when they attended doubleheaders. Eric and Robert remember one day they went to Tiger Stadium on “autograph day,” and the ushers allowed the bleacher attendees to pass through the gate that separated the bleacher crowd from the “upper class” fans who sat in the reserved and box seats. Eric and Robert walked to the right field station and received Al Kaline’s autograph. That day, instead of going back to the bleachers, their dad took them for a tour around the stadium and they ended up sitting in left field for the first time, because the ushers did not check tickets in the left field grandstands since those seats were general admission and not reserved seating.

For many years, Robert and Eric were members of the Tiger-Pepsi Fan Club. For some low annual membership cost, kids were given an honorary membership card, a Tiger hat, a hot dog and Pepsi on game day, and tickets to six games that had unpopular opponents that guaranteed that there would otherwise be many empty seats. The Tiger-Pepsi Fan Club seats were in left field, so Eric and Robert felt like they were moving up in the world from the bleachers where they normally sat. In those days, the left field seats normally cost $4.00.

In 1975, when the Tigers lost over 100 games, Eric and Robert remained loyal and followed every game. That year, their dad took them to see Hank Aaron in his last year of professional baseball when he played for the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1976, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych was called up in May, and ended up starting the All Star Game. Fidrych had the strange habit of grooming the mound before every inning and he also talked to the baseball. Eric and Robert’s parents took the whole family to watch Fidrych’s Monday Night game against the New York Yankees. This was his national “break-out game.”

Eric and Robert remember several games at Tiger Stadium that stand out in their memories. One year in the early 1970’s while they were visiting one of their Grandparents’ house in Detroit, in a last-minute decision they decided to go to Tiger Stadium for Opening Day. They got to the stadium and stood in a long line, but were disappointed that they sold out of bleacher tickets just before they got to the ticket window. There was a free “bat day” they went to one year where Eric and Robert each received a brand new bat with Willie Horton’s autograph engraved into it. There were lots of great memories generated at the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull, from the perfectly steamed Ball Park Franks, to the excitement of getting the Yearbook and Scorebook, to going to the bathroom in the “pig trough” communal urinals.

On one occasion, Eric and Robert took up their dad’s challenge to attempt to walk the 30 miles from Ypsilanti to Tiger Stadium to attend a night game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Eric, Robert, and their dad were joined by the twins’ best friend for the journey along Michigan Avenue. The group left early in the morning, and stopped for lunch in Wayne. By this point, all of their legs were tired, and there was still a long walk ahead of them. They made it as far as Dearborn by dinner time, at which point they made the mutual decision to abandon the walk and take a bus the remaining 8 or so miles. The game was fun, but the real adventure was the journey getting there. After the game, Eric and Robert’s mom picked the group up near the stadium and drove them back to Ypsilanti.

One year, they went to Tiger Stadium as part of a field trip with the Cub Scout troop from Adams Elementary school. Eric and Robert frequented the Ypsilanti Boys Club as kids, and they distinctly remember watching Willie Mays’ appearance in the 1973 World Series between the Mets and A’s on the TV in the Boys Club lounge. Like many young boys, Eric and Robert collected baseball cards, mostly during the years 1973-1978. With every spare quarter they had, Eric and Robert would walk down to Weber’s Drug Store in Depot Town to buy baseball cards, and would often purchase an accompanying candy bar or chewing gum. Weber’s was owned and operated by Mr. Wallaker, who lived down the street from the boys at the corner of Forest Ave. and Dwight Street. Eric and Robert excitedly opened up the baseball packs they purchased and more often than not would be disappointed by getting another Dave Lemanczyk or Duke Simms card instead of Hank Aaron or Al Kaline. In 1974, Eric and Robert purchased a complete set of Topps baseball cards at the K-Mart on Washtenaw Avenue in Ypsilanti.

When Eric and Robert grew up and attended EMU, they frequently passed Briggs Hall, not once knowing that there was a connection to Walter Briggs and the Detroit Tigers. The connection of Walter Briggs to their hometown, their alma mater, their beloved Detroit Tigers, their grandfathers’ professions, the street they grew up on, and even their newspaper delivery route are fortuitous connections interwoven in and around the wonderful city of Ypsilanti.

From Wikipedia.com, here are some interesting facts about Tiger Stadium: Tiger Stadium (formerly known as Navin Field and Briggs Stadium) was a stadium located in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. It hosted the Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball team from 1912–99, as well as the National Football League's Detroit Lions from 1938–74. The stadium was nicknamed "The Corner" for its location on Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Avenue. In 1895, Detroit Tigers owner George Vanderbeck had a new ballpark built at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues. That stadium was called Bennett Park and featured a wooden grandstand with a wooden peaked roof in the outfield. At the time, some places in the outfield were only marked off with rope. In 1911, new Tigers owner Frank Navin ordered a new steel-and-concrete baseball park on the same site that would seat 23,000 to accommodate the growing numbers of fans. On April 20, 1912, Navin Field was opened, the same day as the Boston Red Sox's Fenway Park. Over the years, expansion continued to accommodate more people. In 1935, following the death of Frank Navin, new owner Walter Briggs oversaw the expansion of Navin Field to a capacity of 36,000 by extending the upper deck to the foul poles and across right field. By 1938, the city had agreed to move Cherry Street, allowing left field to be double-decked, and the now-renamed Briggs Stadium had a capacity of 53,000. Supposedly due to then-owner Walter Briggs' dislike of night baseball, lights were not installed at the stadium until 1948. The first night game at the stadium was held on June 15, 1948. In 1961, new owner John Fetzer took control of the stadium and gave it its final name: Tiger Stadium. On September 27, 1999, the final Detroit Tigers game was held at Tiger Stadium; an 8–2 victory over the Kansas City Royals.

Tiger Stadium had a 125 foot tall flagpole in fair play, to the left of dead center field near the 440 foot mark.

The right field upper deck overhung the field by 10 feet. For a time after it was constructed, the right field upper deck had a "315" marker at the foul pole (later painted over), with a "325" marker below it on the lower deck fence (which was retained).

There were over 30 home runs hit onto the right field roof over the years. It was a relatively soft touch compared to left field, with a 325-foot foul line and with a roof that was in line with the front of the lower deck. In his career, Norm Cash hit four home runs over the Tiger Stadium roof in right field and is the all-time leader.

In left field, it was 340 feet to the foul line, and the roof was set back some distance. Only four of the game's most powerful right-handed sluggers (Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Cecil Fielder and Mark McGwire) reached the left field rooftop.

Tiger Stadium saw exactly 11,111 home runs.

At the Corner on July 13, 1934, Babe Ruth hit his 700th career home run. As noted in Bill Jenkinson's The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, the ball sailed over the street behind the then-single deck bleachers in right field, and is estimated to have traveled over 500 feet on the fly.

Ruth also had a good day in Detroit earlier in his career, on July 18, 1921, when he hit what is believed to be the verifiably longest home run in the history of major league baseball. It went to straightaway center, as many of Ruth's longest homers did, easily clearing the then-single deck bleacher and wall, landing on the far side of the park almost reaching the street intersection. The distance of this blow has been estimated at between 575 and 600 feet on the fly.

On May 2, 1939, an ailing New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig voluntarily benched himself at Briggs Stadium, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games. Due to the progression of the disease named after him, it was the final game in his career.

The stadium hosted the 1941, 1951, and 1971 MLB All-Star Games.

(Eric and Robert Anschuetz are members of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and regularly contribute articles for the Gleanings.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: The Detroit Tigers baseball team stadium was named Briggs Stadium from 1938 to 1960.

Photo 2: A view of the field and interior seating in Briggs Stadium.

Walter Owen Briggs

Published In:
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Author: Jan Anschuetz

When I was a child growing up in Detroit in the 1940’s, “Briggs” was a word that I thought of daily. My father went off to a Briggs manufacturing plant to work and his Briggs paycheck paid for my food and clothing and home. We didn’t have many outings as a family because my father worked such long hours at Briggs, but my father did take us to Briggs Stadium at least once each year to cheer on the Detroit Tigers baseball team when Briggs employees were given free tickets. We also went to the Detroit Zoological Park and often rode in the miniature train with the name “Walter O. Briggs” written on it. At least twice a day, when I visited the bathroom at Finney Elementary School in Detroit, I would read the word “Briggs” stamped on the toilets and sinks. In addition to these connections, I even married a man whose father also worked for Briggs.

Now, 70 years later, I have learned many facts about Walter Owen Briggs and was amazed to find out that he was born on the street I live on – North River Street, and then lived in a home a few blocks away on Oak Street. His amazing professional career began working at a factory two blocks away while he was still a child. The life of Walter O. Briggs could serve as the model for the realization of the American Dream. He was a hard working, ambitious, imaginative and generous self-made man whose formal education ended before he was 14 years old, yet somehow he learned the secret of living a good life.

Walter O. Briggs was born February 27, 1877 at his mother’s childhood home at 414 North River Street. This is the house just north of the Thompson Block, which was originally built as a home for military officers during the Civil War. Briggs was the son of Rodney and Ada Warner Briggs. Ada’s father, Oliver, worked for the Quirk family. Oliver’s obituary states that he managed the Quirk home. Ada’s mother was Mary Ann Rook Warner. Rodney’s parents were Elizabeth and John Peter Briggs, whose family originated in New York State, where Rodney was born. According to The Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: A-F edited by David L. Porter, Walter’s father was a locomotive engineer for the Michigan Central Railroad. Walter had a brother named Guy, who became a physician and eventually lived in Flint, Michigan. He also had two sisters, Myrtle who was born in January, 1880 and Lauvin, who was born in 1879.

The family later moved to 6 Oak Street, as we find this address in the obituaries of both of Briggs’ grandfathers who died in the house, which was situated on the north end of the present Depot Town parking lot and once stood at the junction of Norris and Oak Streets. Walter’s first job, while still a child, was crating baskets, probably at the Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Factory in the Thompson Block on River Street. The family moved to Detroit about 1890.

We know that a young Walter attended the John S. Newberry Public School in Detroit where he was a catcher and first baseman for the school team. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 to become a car checker for the Michigan Central Railroad, where his job was to sort the freight cars in the train yard. He also worked as a cement plant foreman, shipping clerk, and auto body trimmer. His hard work, dedication and ambition were rewarded when he was offered a job by C. H. Lewis at B. F. Everitt’s carriage shop. By 1906, Briggs had been promoted to president of this firm, which by this time was manufacturing Studebaker cars and was renamed E-M-F. Everitt sold the company to Briggs in 1909, and Briggs renamed it the Briggs Manufacturing Company.

Briggs Manufacturing Company soon became a major supplier of automotive bodies for Ford Motor Company. Under Briggs’ leadership, the company purchased the Sterling Auto Top Company and the Murphy Chair Company. In 1923, he purchased the Michigan Stamping Company, and by 1925 Briggs was providing 500,000 car bodies to Ford Motor Company alone, and made about $11 million dollars in profit in one year! Briggs also manufactured an Essex auto body which was a closed coach, yet it sold for about the same price as the “open coaches” which provided little protection from the elements. With these business decisions, the poor boy from Ypsilanti became a multi-millionaire. Soon his company was supplying car bodies to other automobile companies such as Chrysler, Packard, Hudson and Willys-Overland. By 1953, Briggs operated 12 plants and had more than 30,000 employees

Briggs personal life also was rapidly changing. He married Jane Elizabeth Cameron in Detroit, on November 22, 1904, who was the daughter of Angus and Elsa Cameron, and they were blessed with five children. His early struggles in finding housing for his growing family is described in the book Michigan: A Centennial History of the State and Its People, edited by George Fuller. “When Mr. and Mrs. Briggs were looking for an apartment in those days when their son Walter O. Jr. was a baby, they found it difficult to obtain adequate quarters because landlords did not want children in their property. Mr. Briggs then vowed that if he ever had the money he would have an apartment building to which no one could come as a resident without children.” (According to Briggs’ obituary, this is a promise that he kept when he invested in real estate. He even had a clause that tenants in his building must have a child under the age of five.)

In 1915, Briggs built a palatial home in Detroit for his family, which still stands at 700 West Boston Boulevard in near original condition. The home was built in the prestigious Boston-Edison area. Families such as Sebastian S. Kresge (Kresge & Kmart), Ira Grinnell (Grinnell Brothers music company), Charles and Edward Fisher (Fisher Body), Henry Ford, Joe Louis, Berry Gordy, Paul “Dizzy” Trout and Willie Horton once lived in this neighborhood. He named his home “Stone Hedge.” It was designed by Chittenden and Kotting Architects, and was built in the English Manor style. It is nearly 10,000 square feet and features 11 bedrooms. There are nine fireplaces, elaborate woodwork with faces carved in them, an elevator and a carriage house.

One of Brigg’s neighbors was Frank Navin, who owned 50% of the Detroit Tigers. When William Yawkey died, who owned 25% of the team, Navin suggested that Briggs purchase Yawkey’s shares. Then John Kelsey, another part owner, died and Briggs quickly bought an additional 25%. At Navin’s death in 1935, Briggs eagerly snapped up Navin’s shares from the estate and Briggs became sole owner of both Navin Field and the Detroit Tigers.

With so much going on in his professional life, Briggs, a lifelong fan of baseball, was still able to make strides in his desire to advance the “everyman’s sport.” Briggs vowed that he would improve and enlarge the stadium so that every man who wanted to buy a ticket could enjoy the game of baseball. It was reported that in the year 1909, Briggs was unable to obtain tickets to attend the American League Championship between the Tigers and Pittsburgh at the Detroit baseball field then known as Bennett Park, which had a capacity for only 10,000 fans. With this in mind, Briggs greatly enlarged his newly acquired Navin Field, making it large enough for 52,000 fans and he changed the name to Briggs Stadium. He also poured his own money into improving the team. Briggs declared that he would never take a penny from the team and sport that he loved.

Briggs is remembered for using part of his own fortune to obtain the best players at considerable expense such as Mickey Cochrane, Al Simons, Fred Hutchinson and Dick Wakefield. Briggs was named Baseball Executive of the Year in 1941. He was recognized for his ability to operate a successful team, his sportsmanship and generosity. While under his ownership, the Tigers won American League pennants in 1940 and 1945, and the World Series in 1945.

Baseball was just one of the sports that Briggs was interested in. He owned a 236-foot yacht as well as a racing stable. His interest in physical education along with his friendship with the president of The Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University) inspired Briggs to donate the funds necessary to build and equip a new field house in 1937. A newspaper article in The Ypsilanti Press describes the gift, which his son “Spike” Walter O. Briggs, Jr., announced at a centennial dinner at the college, as originating from the “old friendship” his father had for his birthplace of Ypsilanti. Today Briggs Hall is still used by the students and faculty at Eastern Michigan University, but not as a field house. It has been remodeled and contains classrooms and office space. Briggs Field House acted as a gateway to Briggs Field, which had seating for 300 spectators for both football and baseball. Today, Mark Jefferson Hall, Strong Hall, and a parking lot cover the former Briggs Field.

One might wonder how Walter O. Briggs continued to give money away during the height of the Great Depression when the sales of automobiles had fallen to a new low. Using his imagination and skills in engineering he branched out into the field of plumbing fixtures and again was able to fill a void in the market. Prior to his inventiveness, bathtubs were heavy, difficult to store, install, or maneuver and were made of cast iron with legs raising them from the floor. Briggs instead manufactured porcelain coated stamped steel tubs which could be stacked for delivery and were more manageable to work with than cast iron. Bathtubs, sinks and toilets were easier to sell, even during the Depression, than were automobiles. This was largely due to the fact that in the 1930s and 1940’s more and more homes were tearing down their outdoor outhouses and building modern bathrooms.

Briggs was involved in other profit making enterprises as well, such as real estate and land development - especially in Florida and Arizona. He owned a stable which bred, raced and sold horses. As if this were not enough to keep him busy, he was also a generous man who spent many hours helping with the founding of the Detroit Zoological Society, buying thousands of dollars worth of zoo animals for the facility with his own money. The Detroit Zoo honored him by naming one of their three miniature trains after him. Briggs was a kind man who remembered his own early struggles to earn money to support his family and was the director of the Detroit Community Fund where he quietly and unostentatiously gave his own money and provided assistance to those who needed it.

Briggs lost the use of his legs around 1944 and was thereafter confined to a wheel chair, but he continued to be active. He spent the winters with friends and family in his mansion in Florida. On January 17, 1952, he died of kidney failure at the age of 74 at his Florida home. His body was brought back to Detroit for burial at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. Besides his wife, he was survived by his brother Guy Briggs, a physician, four daughters and a son. His daughter, Grace, married W. Dean Robinson, who was president of the Briggs Manufacturing Company. Another daughter, Elizabeth, married Charles T. Fisher, who at that time was president of the National Bank of Detroit. Another daughter, Susan Ann, was married to E. E. Fisher, who owned an automobile dealership. His most well-known daughter, Jane Cameron Briggs, was married to then attorney Phillip A. Hart, Jr. who later became a much-loved senator from Michigan, for whom Hart Plaza in Detroit is named. In her own right, Jane was an amazing woman who became the first woman “licensed” helicopter pilot in Michigan and was a noted horsewoman, winning many awards for jumping.

Briggs’ son “Spike”, Walter O. Briggs, Jr. was active in assisting his father with his many endeavors, including the Detroit Tigers. He attempted to keep the Detroit Tigers in the Briggs family after inheriting the team, but due to some difficulties in the conditions of Briggs’ will, he was unable to do so. The Briggs Manufacturing Company was sold to Chrysler Corporation around 1953. My father and father-in-law, and thousands of other Briggs employees, spent the remainder of their careers as employees of Chrysler. My father and father-in-law would talk with nostalgia about working for Briggs and had fond memories of their time under his employ. I have read articles that have stated that Briggs employees were not treated or paid well, but that was not the experience of my family.

So, perhaps the only dream of Walter O. Briggs that did not come true was to keep the Detroit Tigers baseball team in the family for his children and his 22 grandchildren. Even so, knowing what we know about this man’s humble beginnings, hard work, diligence and imagination, no one could ever say that he didn’t have a life well-lived. He certainly is the most famous man to ever have been born on North River Street in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

(Janice Anschuetz is a long-time member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society and a regular contributor to the Gleanings.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Detroit Tigers player/manager Mickey Cochrane and team owner Walter Briggs at Fenway Park during the 1934-35 season.

Photo 2: Detroit Tigers player/manager Mickey Cochrane speaking with team owner Walter Briggs at Fenway Park in 1937.

Photo 3: In 1915 Briggs built a palatial home in Detroit for his family which he named “Stone Hedge.”

Photo 4: In 1937 Briggs donated funds to Michigan State Normal College to build and equip a field house.

Photo 5: Walter Briggs was born in this house at 414 North River Street in Ypsilanti.

The Washtenaw County Clash of 1930

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings
Original Images:



Author: Erik Pedersen

During my thirty nine years at Eastern Michigan University in the Department of Health Physical Education and Dance, I heard many stories about persons, events, and athletic contests of the past. The one story that always intrigued me was about a 1930 football game between the Michigan Normal School in Ypsilanti and the University of Michigan. Upon reviewing articles on the 1930 game, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this game had several interesting aspects to it. In other words, there were many stories within a story. Reflections of someone who was at the game, the game itself, the accolades of an outstanding player, and the influence of a legendary coach were areas that evolved.

The motivation for this article started when I was making a History of Football presentation to the Silver Maples Retirement Community in Chelsea, Michigan on November 29, 2012. While mentioning the September 27, 1930 football game between the University of Michigan and the Normal School in Ypsilanti, a person attending the session, John Keusch, said “I was at that game.”

I was very surprised to actually meet someone who attended a football game that took place over 82 years ago. I asked John if he would be willing to be interviewed regarding his observations of that game and he said he would be happy to do so. John was 103 years old at the time of two interviews held in February of 2013. Regardless of his age, at the time of these interviews, John still had some memories of that game. The strength of the Normal School line and the outstanding play of Andy Vanyo were still clear in his mind.

The 1930 game was of special interest to him since he attended the Normal School in Ypsilanti for his freshman year. He transferred to the University of Michigan in 1928 to attend law school. John indicated that he was an avid football fan. He hardly missed a game and eventually purchased season tickets. His enthusiasm started at ten years of age while watching games played on Ferry Field on the University of Michigan campus. During his lifetime he attended seven Rose Bowl games. He recalled that in the 1930’s the University of Michigan football stadium was not always sold out as games are today. Many times only half the seats were filled during the depression years. People just didn’t have the money to attend athletic events.

Normal School Football and the 1930 Season: The Normal College News of September 29, 1930 noted that “Elton Rynearson had been molding a powerful Huron eleven since his first season as coach in 1925.” Records from 1925 to 1930 support that statement. In his first six years, 1925 to 1930, as the Huron football coach, his teams won 40 games, tied two, and lost only four. Rynearson’s teams piled up 1,069 points to 111 for opponents during that period. During the years 1925 through 1930 the Hurons won one Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Championship and four Michigan Collegiate League Championships.

The 1930 season was considered by many to be the most successful for the Normal School. Although it started with a 7-0 loss to Michigan, many considered the loss as a moral victory. During the 1930 season the Hurons tallied 145 points to their opponents 14. Michigan went on to an undefeated season and were considered to be one of the elite college football teams in the country. They tied for the Big Ten Championship with Northwestern. The Huron squad also went undefeated for the remainder of the 1930 season and won the Michigan Collegiate League Championship.

1930 Football Record

University of Michigan...........................7
College of City of Detroit.......................6
Western State Teachers College.......0
Central State Teachers College..........0
Georgetown (Kentucky) College.........0
University of Notre Dame "B"..............0
Iowa State Teachers College..............0
TOTAL.....................................................13
Normal.................0
Normal...............33
Normal...............19
Normal...............13
Normal...............45
Normal...............16
Normal...............13
TOTAL..............145

Another highlight of the 1930 season was a Huron victory over the Notre Dame B football squad. “The Notre Dame B squad was the strongest the South Bend mentor, Knute Rockne, had put on the gridiron for many years. And the loss was the first that aggregation had suffered that season.” The game was played as part of Normal’s dedication of the new McKinney Union. The 16 to 0 score was also the second victory over Notre Dame in as many starts.

The Game: The 1930 football game between the Normal School and the University of Michigan was the first game of the season for both teams. Michigan was probably intending for its meeting with Ypsilanti to be a preseason warm-up. The fact that the day included a football double header supports this position. The University of Michigan second string opened play earlier in the day against Denison University. Although no score was given, newspaper accounts noted that the University of Michigan “walked off with a top heavy score.”

The same was expected of Michigan against the Normal football team. Although Harry Kipke, Michigan’s coach, “showed a decided respect for Normal when he announced that he would save his first team for the second game against the Hurons, there were few among even the staunchest supporters of the green and white who dared hope that a Michigan eleven could be held to a low scoring game.” An interesting quote in the Normal News noted “and Michigan’s confidence made the outlook none too bright for Normal.”

Starting line Ups

Michigan
Hewitt
Purdum
Lajuenesse
Morrison
Cornwell
Samuels
Daniels
Tessmer
Simnall
Heston
Hudson
vs.
L.E.
L.T.
L.G.
C.
R.G.
R.T.
R.E.
Q.B.
L.G.
R.H.
F.B.
Michigan Normal
Wood
Buckholz
Bernhagen
Stover
Vanyo
Shoemaker
Muellich
Arnold
Hawk
Tuttle
Simmons

Much of the doubt about how the Normal team would perform centered around the fact that they would be starting three inexperienced players in the backfield. The 1929 backfield was considered to be the “greatest trio that Normal ever had on the same team.” In their place were two sophomores and one junior who had very little playing experience. However, there was some optimism in the Normal camp. “The coaches felt confident as they added the finishing touches to a new Huron eleven on Friday afternoon that it contained ample ability to provide Harry Kipke’s Wolverines with an extremely busy session and that at worst, Michigan would only win by a narrow margin.” Coach Rynearson’s hope centered with the nearly all veteran forward line which as it turned out was a dominant force in the game.

“Michigan had the advantage of a “much bigger offensive line, a highly touted array of backs, and superior reserve strength.” Yet Michigan could only manage seven first downs for the game compared to six for the Normal squad. Game accounts indicate that most of Michigan’s yards were gained on “flank plays” and passes by its quarterback Tessmer. One example of the Normal team’s line strength came in the third quarter when Michigan had a second and one situation on Normal’s eighteen yard line. Michigan tried three running plays through the middle of the Huron line and failed to make one yard and consequently had to give up the ball. In the press box “the conversation among the assembled scribes was high praise for the Huron line and how much Normal would take to trade lines with Michigan.”

For everyone except the Huron football team, the outcome was a surprise. Newspaper headlines the next day read “Hurons Make an Unexpected Stand Against Wolverine Eleven,” Normal Line Stops Michigan Cold,” and “Wolverines Eke Out 7 – 0 Victory Over The Normal Eleven.” Before the game, one Wolverine extremist was heard offering odds that the Maize and Blue would pile up a score of 35 to 0 at the half. He probably has a severe headache as a result.”

Coach Rynearson, his staff, and players were very happy with the outcome of the game even though they lost. The Normal School went undefeated the rest of the year and had only one touchdown scored against them for the remainder of the season.

It is difficult to note the performance of just one player from the 1930 University of Michigan and the Normal School football game. Captain Paul Shoemaker and George Muellich, along with Andy Vanyo, formed the highly recognized right side of the Normal line and all deserve recognition. One writer noted “the splendid fighting spirit of Captain Shoemaker and his mates won the hearts of the football world at large. “However, the people who attended the game and those in the press box remarked at the excellent play of Normal’s Andy Vanyo.”

According to the Ypsilanti News, “There was one in particular among the brilliant group of forwards who shown out above his mates. Andy Vanyo simply could not be stopped and he was seen in practically every play. Three times he kicked off to Michigan and twice he tackled the man who received it.” The other time he recovered a Tessmer fumble which proved to be the most exciting moment in the game. “Vanyo brought the 65,000 fans up shouting when he recovered a fumble and raced 67 yards, outdistancing several Michigan men to the goal line. In the excitement of that moment there were few who accurately sensed the situation and the word ‘Touchdown’ was flashed on a dozen telegraph instruments and written on twice as many typewriters before the play was recalled an instant later.” The ball was brought back under a rule, which at that time, made a fumble dead at the point of recovery.

Vanyo’s outstanding play continued all season. Football critics claimed that he was without peer in the Midwest at guard. Robert Zuppke, the University of Illinois coach, was scouting Michigan for an upcoming game and was so impressed with Vanyo’s play that he asked him to play for the 1930 Midwest-Southwest All Star Game on New Year’s day in Dallas, Texas. Knute Rockne selected him as member of his Midwest All-Star Team and he was named to Walter Camp’s All-American Team as a second team selection. Vanyo was elected to EMU’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1978.

Although the main focus of this article has been the 1930 football game between The University of Michigan and the Michigan Normal School at Ypsilanti, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the influence and some of the accomplishments from Elton Rynearson’s career. Rynearson assumed the full time duties as athletic director, head football coach, and teacher at the Normal College in 1925. He was the Normal School football coach for 28 years. He compiled a won-lost record of 114 wins, 58 losses, and 15 ties. He never had a losing season. “Rynie” coached every varsity sport at one time or another and also served as athletic director during his 46 years at the Ypsilanti Normal School. He was elected to the Eastern Michigan University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1976.

Elton Rynearson: Rynearson was respected and admired by his students. He was considered a coach of the “old school” who had a personal interest in those he worked with. Those who knew him said he spoke his mind and stood by his convictions. Among his many professional awards was being inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame.

With regard to the “1930 Washtenaw County Clash,” one Normal school supporter summarized the feelings of many when he commented, “and in back of this team is our coach – Elton Rynearson. No one knows how much he did and how hard he worked to put onto the field such a squad of clean and fine representative athletes.”

(Acknowledgements: As noted earlier, the interviews with John Keusch started the process of gathering information for this article. Much descriptive detail was obtained from The Normal News and the Ypsilanti Press publications from September 26th to November 13th, 1930. Statistical data was provided by Greg Steiner, the Assistant Athletics Director for Media Relations at Eastern Michigan University. General background and biographical information was obtained from, A History of Physical Education at Eastern Michigan University, 1852 – 1996, by Erik J. Pedersen.)

(Dr. Erik Pedersen is a retired Professor from Eastern Michigan University where he taught for 37 years in the Teacher Preparation Program in the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.)


Photo Captions:

1. One of four Michigan Collegiate League championship trophies won by Michigan Normal School from 1926 to 1930.

2. John Keusch holding the helmet worn by Olin Sanders in the 1930 football game.

3. The 1930 Normal School football team.

4. Andy Vanyo.

5. (Needs no title – Vanyo of the Normal)

6. Coach Elton Rynearson.

I Might Have Played in the NBA!

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2012,
Winter 2012
Original Images:

Author: Fred Thomas

As a junior high school student I had never heard of the NBA which officially formed August 3, 1949 when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and the National Basketball League (NBL) merged, creating the National Basketball Association (NBA). Had I known its members would go on to become millionaires, perhaps I‘d have begun improving my hoop skills at a young age. But, at thirteen, what young man was thinking about his future? Life was coming at us head on, and we lived it for the moment!
At any rate, The Ypsilanti Parks and Recreation Department sponsored a ten week basketball program for junior high school boys. Interest in the 1953-1954 leagues drew participants from Ypsilanti High, Roosevelt, and St. John’s schools.
We were the Rough Riders, named after the Roosevelt mascot. The nine other teams in the eighth grade circuit were the Cool Cats, Dragnets, Drifters, Eagles, Greyhounds, Lions, Globe Trotters, St. John’s and Warriors. The monikers chosen obviously favored strong animals, followed by TV programs of the time. There was a popular rhythm and blues singing group at the time called The Drifters. The Globe Trotters were a national basketball exhibition team. Perhaps the names were borrowed from those groups. Cool Cats spoke for itself.
Games were played Saturday afternoons in the Ypsilanti High School gymnasium at 421 North Washington Street. I looked forward to the weekly competitions.We lived on East Cross Street and the mile-and-a-half walk to the games went by quickly.
Our fledgling team was fortunate to have an encouraging coach. Robert Boyd was a student at Michigan State Normal College doing his practice teaching at Roosevelt as a gym teacher. He also played end on the MSNC football team. Thank goodness he volunteered his time with us.
In addition, half our players came with extensive prior experience. I was not one of them and would likely not have participated. However, my best friend, who became the captain, encouraged me to take part. It seemed like a good idea as we went most places together anyway. In retrospect, I would have missed a memorable time had I not participated.
When the nine weekly games were over the Rough Riders (9-0) were in first place. The Dragnets (8-1) swept second place, St. John’s (7-2) captured third, Eagles (6-3) swooped down in fourth, Greyhounds (5-4) raced into fifth, Lions (3-5) roared to sixth, Cool Cats (3-6) danced around seventh, while Globe Trotters (1-8) and Warriors (1-8) were tied for eighth.
In non-league completion we defeated Roosevelt’s top seventh grade team and an eighth grade team from Ann Arbor’s University High. Our only loss was at the hands of a quintet representing Lincoln High (26-24).
Following the presentation of the winners’ trophy and patches, everyone gathered at the home of Ken Ross where we celebrated our victories and took photos.
When the city parks and rec program concluded, so did my organized basketball days. Thus my personal competence never advanced significantly. Other than playing in gym class I didn’t spend much time on the courts. However, I enjoyed seeing other team members play on the high school teams and excel at the sport.
These days I sometimes get depressed when I see big-buck NBA players, and wonder whether or not I might have been one had I stuck with the game!!!!
Of course, I’ll never know the answer. So I console myself that it is still worth a million to dust off the fading snapshots and think about those exciting teenage times.

[Fred Thomas moved to Ypsilanti in 1948, graduated from Roosevelt in 1958, and then from Eastern Michigan University in 1965. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.]


Photo Captions:

1. The Ypsilanti Parks and Recreation Department sponsored a ten week basketball program for junior high school boys

2. Members of the first string: (top row – left to right) Art Dykman, Bob Kidd (Captain) and Ken Ross. (bottom row – left to right) Jim Blodgett, and Lee Judson. Their skills made the difference when the going got tough

3. Other members of the team: (top row – left to right) Larry Hoffman, David Waters and Fred Thomas. (bottom row – left to right) Alan Moore, and Robert Arrick. Members not pictured are Dewey Barich, Gary Barnes, and Reggie Herndon

Competitive Swimming: Then & Now (1920s - 1930s)

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2012,
Fall 2012
Original Images:

Author: Peg Porter

While working on the article about my uncle Craig Porter, the Olympic Swimming events were on TV and, since swimming is one of my favorite sports, I spent lots of time watching. I wondered how the sport had changed over the years and if it were possible to compare times in certain events from the Games in 1928 and 2012. My brother, Don Jr.––a former swimming
coach––and I put our heads together and identified some significant differences.

Swim suits:
Then - men and women wore the one piece tank suit, usually woolen. The suit created a drag on the swimmers both because of the material and the fact that water went through the suit, slowing the swimmer.

Now - synthetic form fitting suits perform almost as a second skin with virtually no drag.

Equipment:
Then - virtually none.
Now - swimming caps also fit the head like a second skin. Swim goggles fit in the eye sockets. No leaks with these streamlined goggles.

Swimming Pools:
Then - pools were usually shorter affecting how a swimmer swam a certain distance. Pool water was very turbulent during a race.
Now - pools are longer, many are built to Olympic specifications. A small runoff rims the edge of the pool allowing the water to remain less turbulent, easier for swimming.

Racing Turns:
Then - in a multiple lap event, the swimmer touched the wall, turned and pushed off. We estimate this type of turn took almost two seconds.
Now - racers use a race turn––essentially a somersault that has little effect on time.

Race Officiating:
Then - the starter had a gun that fired blanks. Other officials had stopwatches.
Now - technology has replaced people in measuring time; time can be measured in much smaller segments. People do rate diving events however.

Training:
Then - swimmers trained by swimming.
Now - weight training is common.

High School Comparisons:
• Craig Porter, 1929, 50 yard freestyle: .28
• Vlad Morozov 2010, 50-yard freestyle:.1943 (lead-off swimmer in relay)

Craig Porter, Freestyle Champion

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2012,
Fall 2012
Original Images:



Author: Peg Porter

Several months ago I found a message in my voice mailbox from Lauren at the Ypsilanti Historical Society. She told me she had received a call from a Scott Porter who thought I might be his cousin. She asked for his telephone number so she could forward it to me. I had not been in contact with my Porter cousin for over 30 years and was anxious to talk to him. I knew that his sister, Mary Ruth, had died tragically as a result of early-onset Alzheimer’s less than five years ago. I called Scott that same afternoon. Scott had “found me” through computer searches. He had read some of my Gleanings articles which convinced him that I was, indeed, his cousin. He then found the YHS website and telephone number. A number of phone calls and email exchanges followed. We shared family stories and I provided additional information on the Porter family tree.

We talked about the Johnny Weissmuller story contained in the article that follows and his dad’s experience as a State Champion swimmer. We were both interested in trying to document the story we knew and began to assemble what information we had. Scott shared photographs and we both did considerable research. The story that follow is the result of our collaboration. It is dedicated to the memory of Craig Porter and his daughter, Mary Ruth.

His high school nickname was “Fish.” He was tall, with long arms and legs, broad shoulders and slim hips: the ideal body type for swimming. He was the second son of Evelyn Havelock Porter and Ellen Craig Porter, both immigrants to the United States from Canada. Craig Porter was born in Webster Township in 1912 while his father was herdsman at the Brookside Dairy.

When Craig was still quite young, the family moved to Ypsilanti where they opened a small restaurant in their home at the corner of Brower Street (now College Place) and Washtenaw Avenue, just a few blocks from the campus of the Michigan Normal. Craig attended the Laboratory School. When the new Roosevelt High School opened in the fall of 1925, both Craig and his older brother Don enrolled. At the time of its opening, Roosevelt was a state-of-the art high school. The ground floor had a swimming pool, shower room and locker rooms.

By the time Craig began high school he was already a swimmer. There were few pools, no community pools and, unless your family had a lake cottage, your opportunities to swim were very limited. So where and how did Craig Porter develop the skills that would make him a State Champion swimmer in a few short years? Perhaps he attended Camp Hayo-Want-Ha, a YMCA camp on Torch Lake. Don, his brother, spent several summers at the camp. It’s also possible that Laboratory School students had access to the college pool, a few short blocks from his home. Finally the Porter brothers had friends whose families had cottages, on Portage or Base Lake.

Although he expressed interest in both baseball and track as a high school freshman, he joined the Roosevelt Swim Team. His first meet took place March 2, 1927 against River Rouge. Three days later he participated in the Inter-Scholastic meet at the University of Michigan. Craig was rewarded with his first varsity letter that year, the only freshman class member to receive one.

He swam freestyle 40, 50 and 100 yard events as well as the 240 yard relay. He set school records, only to break his own records. In March of 1929, Craig led the Roosevelt swimmers to a Class B State Championship, winning first in the 50 and 100 yard freestyle as well as swimming to a first place on the 240 yard relay. In 1930, the Roosevelt team finished fourth, winning four meets and losing only two. The two they lost were to class A schools. The Rough Rider, Roosevelt’s school newspaper, described him as “Roosevelt’s freestyle artist.”

In his senior year the Rough Rider paid tribute to its champion swimmer. “…Craig Porter, an athlete who has forgone the pleasure of playing football, basketball or baseball that he might excel in a sport he likes best and so to add another laurel to the fame of Roosevelt High School.” He was also recognized for his leadership as Captain of the swim team for three years.

In the spring of 1930, a tennis team was organized at Roosevelt. The team’s coach was faculty member, Leonard Menzi. Menzi would later become the school’s principal, serving in that capacity for nearly 30 years. Craig showed up for the first team practice. Although he was only able to play tennis for several months before his graduation, he was awarded a varsity letter in that sport.

While Craig Porter was attending high school and developing his skills as a competitive swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller was on his way to becoming one of the country’s most well known swimmers and later the movie’s second Tarzan. Weissmuller was born in 1904 in Romania. His birthplace would later create some controversy when he was named to the U.S. Olympic Team in 1924. While still a child, he swam regularly in Lake Michigan. As a teenager he began swimming with the Illinois Athletic Club. Later he would win three gold medals in freestyle events at the 1924 Games and two more gold medals in the 1928 games.

In addition, he played on the U.S. Water Polo teams in both 1924 and 1928. The teams earned a bronze medal at the Paris and Amsterdam games. Weissmuller parlayed his success in the Olympics into first a modeling career and then an acting career. He played Tarzan in 12 movies to become the best known of the screen Tarzans.

There is a story that is well known to members of the Porter family. Friends and classmates of Craig Porter knew the story as well. The story is simply this: Craig Porter once raced Johnny Weissmuller and Porter won. How could this have happened? Weissmuller was nearly ten years older than Porter, an Olympian and world record holder. How could a teenager, from a small high school in Michigan, beat the man who would become Tarzan and who frequently boasted that he never lost a race?

Craig Porter, unlike Weissmuller, was not a bragger or boaster. To the contrary, he was quiet and never talked about himself. If you had questioned Craig about whether the story was true, he would nod his head “yes” but would not go on to say when or where. There are at least two times when such a race could have occurred. While still in high school, Craig was a member of the Seagulls, the swim team of the Detroit Yacht Club. We do not know how he was recruited for this team nor how he made regular trips to Detroit to practice and race. Swimming with the Seagulls did provide him with more professional coaching and a higher level of competition. The competition included members of the 1928 U.S. Olympic swim team who trained at the Club. Could Porter have beat Weissmuller in practice?

There is at least one other time when the two swimmers paths may have crossed. Weissmuller returned to Michigan in the summer of 1930 with his water show. He was a star attraction at the Eastern Michigan Water Carnival in Bay City. Weissmuller’s show toured the country and attracted large audiences who wanted to see the man who won five gold medals in the Olympic Games. Often Weissmuller would challenge the best local swimmers to a race. Was there such a race in Bay City or elsewhere in Michigan? Did, in fact, Craig Porter beat Weissmuller. Did the Weissmuller publicists spread the word that Weissmuller was tired from traveling and therefore it wasn’t a valid race?

The search for documentation of the Weissmuller-Porter race continues. The author and other family members believe the story is true. Should any Gleanings readers have information to share, please contact Peg Porter at the Ypsilanti Historical Society. Perhaps the more interesting question is: could Craig Porter have been a member of the United States Olympic Team in 1932?

His times in the freestyle kept dropping through his senior year in high school (1930). The major barrier to achieving Olympic status was money. At the time of Craig’s high school graduation, the country was plunging into what we now call The Great Depression. Money was always tight around the Porter household. Now with fewer people having money to spend on a restaurant meal, money became even more of an issue. Craig’s parents were able to provide their two sons with the basic necessities, primarily food and shelter. The boys were expected to work to earn money for any “extras.” Don worked steadily from his early teens primarily with Lamb’s grocery. He did not participate in high school athletics by choice. He wanted his own car (a convertible), a speed boat and an occasional trip. He was able to earn enough to get them.
Craig, on the other hand, devoted his time and energy to swimming. The University of Michigan offered Craig a tuition award if he were to agree to attend college and join the swimming team. This was not a “full-ride” by any means. He would need to pay for books, fees and transportation. The resources were not there. He would have to work (if he could find a job) to pay for all other expenses.

Swimming is a demanding sport. It requires focus, discipline and many, many hours in the pool. To add a full class schedule, plus a job would be daunting. Had he been able to swim for Michigan and assuming he had remained healthy, he likely would have made it to the Olympic swim trials and perhaps made the U.S. Team. That was not to happen. Instead he alternated work with school and received a degree at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern) in 1938. He met and later married another student, Doris Schroeder, in 1940. They would have a daughter and son, Mary Ruth and Scott. Craig would spend his working days in a lumber yard, retiring early because of chronic health problems. He died on Christmas Day, 1976.

The focus of this story is not lost opportunities, but to recognize one of Ypsilanti’s outstanding athletes or as the Roosevelt Rough Rider summed up his years in high school “…he is one of the greatest swimmers ever produced at Roosevelt.” That remained true until the Roosevelt High School closed in 1969.

(Peg Porter is the Assistant Editor of the Gleanings and regular contributor of articles.)


Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Craig Porter, Ypsilanti Roosevelt’s outstanding swimmer

Photo 2: Roosevelt’s 1930 Swim Team finished fourth in the State Meet

Photo 3: Detroit Yacht Club Seagulls patch worn by Craig

Photo 4: Swan dive at the Detroit Yacht Club – check that wingspan

Photo 5: Porter Women: left in front row - Craig’s mother Ellen Craig Porter; second from right in front row – sister in law Ruth Young Porter; far right in top row – Craig’s wife Doris Shroeder Porter

Photo 6: Porter brothers at family home – Don is left and Craig is at right

Photo 7: Craig Porter in his late 30’s

Photo 8: Porter cousins at Base Lake – Don’s kids were swimmers while Craig’s were not.

Bob Arvin - An Ypsilanti Hero

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Summer 2012,
Summer 2012
Original Images:





Author: Bill Nickels

Our country was in the middle of World War II when Carl Arvin served his country as a Military Police officer. Carl and his wife Dorothy’s first child, Carl Robert “Bob” Arvin was born in 1943 while he served. Carl and Dorothy would have to live their lives to learn the complete role the military would play in their lives.

The family moved to Ypsilanti and lived at 907 Pleasant Drive for most of Bob’s youth. Being across the street from Recreation Park, Bob’s youth fit the ideal 1950s stereotype. He was a prize-winning paper boy for the Ann Arbor News while he attended St. John’s Elementary School. Joining Troop 240 of the Boy Scouts of America at St. John’s Catholic Church, Bob became an Eagle Scout and counseled younger scouts at the Bruin Lake Boy Scout Camp.

A neighborhood girl, Merry Lynn Montonye, frequently saw Bob at Recreation Park. According to Merry Lynn, they never became friends because he was “playing with sticks and doing boy stuff.”

When it came time to attend high school in 1957, Bob choose not to attend a smaller private school and moved to Ypsilanti High School where he hoped his talents could be better exhibited. The fit turned out to be perfect for him.

Bob excelled in both team and individual sports. He played varsity football for four years and was the team’s starting quarterback. He wrestled for four years. During his senior year he was the 154-lb State Champion and co-captain when Ypsi High won the State Championship. Wrestling teammate Tino Lambros remembers “the long, cold, and dark school bus trips to Lansing, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and other places. “Bob would curl up in those ‘wonderful’ bus seats, pull out a small flashlight and a book and study.”

Among his circle of friends at Ypsi High was that neighborhood girl, Merry Lynn Montonye, who now was captain of the cheerleaders. They dated sporadically, even when the year-older Merry Lynn went off to Duke University.

His club activities included four years on the Debate Team and four years with the Forensics Team where “keys” were earned by representing Ypsi High in interscholastic debates or in District speech contests. Two years with the Thespians led to the lead in the school’s senior play. He also spent two years with the school newspaper and his senior year with the yearbook staff.

Leadership skills were developed by being a Home Room Officer in the ninth grade, Class Officer in the tenth grade, Student Council President in the eleventh grade, and Class President in the twelfth grade. Leadership was broadened by participation in Boys’ State, County Government Day, and the Model United Nations. His high school record was topped by being the Valedictorian for his class and membership in the National Honor Society.

In 1989, classmate Dr. Frank Sayre said “Greatness was in his life. If anyone was destined for major accomplishments, for a national presence, it was Bob Arvin.”

West Point
Upon graduation from Ypsi High, Bob received an honor scholarship from Harvard and scholarships from six other schools. Bob’s mom said, “A Yale scholarship didn’t turn Bob’s head, he was West Point bound.” He became a plebe at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in July of 1961. The following summer, at Camp Buckner, New York, he distinguished himself by winning both the Triathlon (swimming, cross country and rifle) and “Recondo” competitions. The latter was a hand-to-hand combat pit fight where he was the last man standing among more than 700 classmates.

Bob was also a star athlete at West Point, lettering in wrestling during all three of his varsity years. During his senior year, he was elected captain. His coach was instrumental in conceiving the Arvin Wrestling Award which is given annually to “the graduating member of the wrestling team who best exemplifies the qualities of Carl Robert Arvin in the area of leadership, scholarship, and commitment to Army wrestling.”

As in high school, Bob was active in other areas of student life. He was a leader in the Student Conference on US Affairs (SCUSA) at West Point. SCUSA was a four-day conference where students discussed issues facing our country. His editing interest continued as co-editor of the HOITZER student publication. His devotion to his
Catholic faith continued as a member of the Catholic Chapel Choir and a Catholic Chapel acolyte. Both were some of his most cherished times.

After Merry Lynn graduated from Duke, her first teaching job was in White Plains, New York, a short drive from West Point. It was said their relationship ran hot and cold during this time.

It was the responsibility of General Davison, Commandant of Cadets, to select the First Captain and Brigade Com- mander of the Corps of Cadets during their senior year. He remembered, “It was my privilege as Commandant to select Bob to be First Captain. I admired him greatly; he was a concerned, compassionate leader who held the complete respect of his fellow cadets.” As First Captain, Bob hosted Dwight Eisenhower for his Fiftieth Reunion of the Class of 1915 and broke ground for a new campus building with Eisenhower. He later led the Corps of Cadets in President Johnson’s inaugural parade in Washington D.C.

Bob graduated 44th out of a class of 596 in 1961. He received the Pershing Writing Award where graduates are asked to reflect on their four years at West Point and express what West Point meant to them. As the cadet who best exemplifies the traditions of the United States Military Academy and the United States Army, he also received the Association of the United States Army Award. For exhibiting military efficiency, he won the Avarian Award. He was truly honored as a student at West Point. He received further distinction as a finalist for a Rhodes scholarship.

United States Army
After graduation as a 2nd Lieutenant, Bob went to Fort Benning, Georgia in August of 1965 for specialized training. He completed both Ranger and Airborne Jumpmaster schools. He selected the famed 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as his first assignment. The selection of the 82nd Airborne was indicative of his desire to serve up front with the action.

While in Ranger School, Bob’s West Point friend Mike Moseley invited Bob and his girlfriend Merry Lynn Montonye to a beach house in Delaware. While driving together, Bob asked Merry Lynn to marry him. They married in Ypsilanti at St. John’s Catholic Church on July 30, 1966. They had nine months together before Bob’s assignment to Vietnam in early 1967 as an advisor in the Military Assistance Command Vietnam

Vietnam
Captan Bob Arvin reported to his advisory detachment, the 7th Vietnamese Airborne Battalion, in May 1967. His West Point classmate Chuck Hemingway was also with the 7th Battalion and was killed in June 1967. Bob was assigned to take his place.

The 7th Battalion was assigned to protect the vital Hue Phu Bai Air Base near the town of Hue (the air base is now Hue International Airport). Hue was in the center of a cluster of towns that included Khe Sanh and Da Nang just south of the DMZ that separated North Vietnam from South Viet Nam.

While serving as advisor to the 7th Battalion, the US Army later officially recognized his value: “Captain Arvin was noted for the inspiration he provided the Vietnamese soldiers and was instrumental in assisting them in successfully accomplishing their missions.”

The pace and intensity of the war picked up in the summer of 1967. According to the US Army, on 5 September 1967 “the battalion was deployed in a three-pronged assault on suspected enemy positions. As the unit approached the objective area, the entire left flank came under intense mortar and small arms fire from Viet Cong bunker and trench complexes located on the rice paddy perimeters. An element on the left flank was overwhelmed by the fierce fire and withdrew, leaving Captain Arvin, his counterpart, and two radio operators alone. Undaunted by the perilous circumstances, Captain Arvin led the group forward to engage the enemy. In doing so, one of the radio operators was wounded. Although wounded, himself, Captain Arvin, with complete disregard for his personal safety, moved through enemy fire to the man and dragged him to a relatively protected location. Returning to the group, he began directing repeated armed helicopter gunship strikes as all elements of the battalion now engaged the enemy. Then, heedless of the increasing volume of enemy fire, Captain Arvin established a landing zone and supervised the evacuation of the wounded. Refusing evacuation himself, he returned to the front to continue to advise and assist in the conduct of the battle. As a direct result of Captain Arvin’s indomitable fighting spirit, positive leadership, and calm courage throughout the hours-long battle, the insurgents were forced from their positions and the 7th Battalion was able to secure the objective. Captain Arvin’s conspicuous gallantry in action was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Army and reflected great credit upon himself and the military service.”

Following a brief hospitalization, Bob returned to his battalion which was preparing to clear enemy forces from the air base. On 8 October 1967, “Bob’s unit was completing a sweep of a suspected enemy base when an entrenched regiment was engaged.” Again, according to the US Army, “Captain Arvin was accompanying the battalion in a sweep of suspected enemy positions when the unit came under intense hostile mortar and automatic weapons fire. As the volume of enemy fire increased, Captain Arvin called for helicopter gunships to support the attacking Airborne soldiers. Realizing that the battalion was facing a determined enemy, Captain Arvin left his relatively safe position and raced through fireswept fields to a forward position where he expertly began directing the gunships on target. With enemy activity temporarily suppressed, the battalion continued to move forward until it was resubjected to punishing mortar and small arms fire. Once again Captain Arvin valiantly and in full view of enemy gunners, moved through the fire to a forward vantage point. There, as fighting raged about him, he directed extremely accurate, close range gunship passes onto enemy positions. As a direct result of Captain Arvin’s unremitting attention to duty, resolute courage, and superb direction of ground forces and supporting aircraft, a strong and determined enemy was forced to flee in defeat. Captain Arvin’s conspicuous gallantry in action was in keeping with the time-honored traditions of the United States Army and reflected great credit upon himself and the military service.”

In moving forward with his Vietnamese counterpart, Bob was mortally wounded by small arms fire and died on the field of battle. By the request of General William Westmoreland, Bob was days away from being transferred to Saigon as one of his staff.

Epilogue
Arvin’s body was returned to Ypsilanti to lie in state in St. John’s Church, the first layman to do so there and, two days later, a Catholic funeral mass was conducted. His school and Boy Scout life began in the same church that saw the end of his life.

Arvin was buried at West Point on 17 October 1967 with military honors. Mourners included wife Merry Lynn, parents, brother David, Ypsilanti and West Point classmates, West Point wrestling team, 82nd Airborne members, and the Academy Superintendent.

For his engagement with the enemy on 5 September, Bob was posthumously promoted to Captain and awarded a Silver Star for gallantry in action and a Purple Heart for his wounds. For the engagement on 8 October, he was awarded a second Silver Star Oak Leaf Cluster for gallantry and a Purple Heart as a result of being mortally wounded.

Our Vietnam veterans were not welcomed home like veterans of earlier wars but, on 25 February 1989, West Point did their part to keep their memories alive: the cadet gym was officially dedicated and renamed the Arvin Gymnasium in honor of Bob. West Point follows criteria requiring athletic facilities to be named after graduates who distinguished themselves in a sport related to the facility and had fallen in battle while in the prime of life. Graduates back to the founding of the Academy in 1802 were eligible.

A $97 million 495,000-square-foot addition to the 1910 cadet gymnasium was completed in 2005.

The complex was rededicated on 9 September 2005 as the Arvin Cadet Physical Development Center. The ceremony was part of the 40th Reunion of West Point’s Class of 1965. That class lost twenty-five members in Viet Nam––more than any other class. Like Eisenhower, Sherman, Lee, MacArthur, Pershing, and Grant, the name Arvin on a West Point building honors a military hero from the academy.

Frankenmuth resident Stan Bozich saw the need to tell the story of Michigan’s military heroes in 1987 with the construction of the Michigan Military Museum in his home town. Identifying Arvin as one of Michigan’s heroes, he asked the family for some of Bob’s military possessions for an Arvin display and they gladly agreed.

Arvin is memorialized locally as well. On 15 June 2002, the Ypsilanti Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2408 dedicated their post to Bob. It is now and will forever be called the “C. Robert Arvin VFW Post 2408.” In order to personalize Bob’s memory, the VFW asked the Michigan Military Museum for display items to duplicate their display. With agreement from the family, display items were shared and the display was duplicated.

VFW Post 2408 created the “Captain C. Robert Arvin Educational Fund” to honor Bob’s legacy. By 2004, golf outings raised enough money to annually award $1000 scholarships to six-to-twelve local high school graduates. To date, over $80,000 have been awarded! In 2008, the Fund was redesignated as the “Captain C. Robert Arvin Foundation” and is now a Michigan nonprofit corporation. The purpose remains the same.

Ypsilanti High School initiated an “Athletic Hall of Fame” in 2004. Bob Arvin was quickly added to the “Hall” on 30 September 2005. He is immortalized in the school that provided the environment for him to grow into the leader he would become.

During the winter of 2012, David Arvin and Merry Lynn thought about increasing the visibility of Bob’s display housed inside VFW Post 2408. Discussing the issue with Stan Bozich from the Michigan Military Museum, Pete Raymond Commander of VFW Post 2408, and Charles Kettles, they decided to ask if the Ypsilanti Historical Museum would accept the display. The Museum gladly accepted. More will now see Bob’s heroic story.

Why should we keep Bob’s heroic story alive? He became a leader by preparing himself both physically and mentally, making the right choices in life, and making sure the people he associated with were people he could trust. As a result, others accepted him as a leader. That is an important story for all people to learn and know. That story cannot be learned by becoming his friend, but it can be virtually learned through West Point, the Michigan Military Museum, and here in Ypsilanti.

Few are honored nationally, in their state, and locally. Even fewer who lived a brief life of 24 years earn the recognition. We are proud that one such person was an Ypsilantian.

Thanks to David Arvin, Merry Lynn Brondos, Charles Kettles, Jay Baxter, and Tino Lam- bros for providing pictures, memories, and to references from:
West Point Assembly, September 1983.
West Point Assembly, July 1989.
The Ann Arbor News, July 8, 1989.
The Ann Arbor News, May 27, 2002.
Speech to Captain C. Robert Arvin Foundation, June 27, 2008.

[Bill Nickels is a member of the Ypsilanti Historical Society, a constant volunteer, and a regular contributor to GLEANINGS.]


"He was one of the most outstanding young men I have had the privilege of knowing. The Army has lost one of its future leaders." - General William Westmoreland

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Clockwise from top right: Bob Arvin in 1961, receiving the U.S. Army Award, with President Eisenhower, with Vice President Humphrey, Purple Heart and Silver Star awards, leading the President Johnson inaugural parade

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Seventh-grader, Bob Arvin raises his hand

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Ypsilanti High wrestling champ

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Cadet Arvin with his parents

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Bob & Merry Lynn, married at Ypsilanti’s St. John’s church, 30 July 1966

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Dedication of the West Point gymnasiium to C. Robert Arvin

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Ypsilanti Historical Museum intern Lauren Carpenter helps arrange the C. Robert Arvin Memorial

Skating

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2011,
Winter 2011
Original Images:

Author: Peg Porter

My Diary: January 1, 1951- I went skating today. We had a good New Years dinner. Michigan won in the Rose Bole. (Sic).

It all started with Sonja Henie, the very blonde Norwegian Olympic champion in figure skating. Sonja went on to appear in movies in the late 1930s and 1940s. She also had her own ice show that traveled the country. I do not remember when I first became aware of Sonja. I do remem- ber, however, that I wanted to become like Sonja, dancing on ice.

My first skates were double runners, baby skates that strapped onto your shoe or boot. Gliding across the ice was impossi- ble. I could stand upright and do a sort of walking motion and once I gained enough forward momentum could put my feet to- gether and actually move a few inches. Ice dancing it was not.

My dad took me to an ice rink on Frog Island. I was bundled up against the cold, layers under my snowsuit with a scarf wrapped around my neck. Once my skates were strapped on I stepped onto the ice and began my walking motion. There were other skaters gliding by. That is what I wanted to do but could not. Still it was exciting to be on a real rink. After about 30 minutes of waddling around the ice I got cold and was ready to go home. The Sonja dream was fading fast.

But then there was a minor miracle. Sonja Henie came to Detroit, Dad got tickets and off we went to the Olympia to see Sonja in person. She did not disappoint, she glittered and sparkled while she danced across the ice. I, along with hundreds of other little girls, was captivated. We did not notice that she was no longer as young as she was when she won her gold medals. She was our beautiful ice dancer.

My next skates were real figure skates. They had belonged to one of the older girls in the neighborhood, most likely Su- sie or Barbie Brien. Their father, Bancroft Brien, had a shoe store downtown. The skates were too big, of course, but I wore several pairs of thick socks and stuffed the toes with cotton. When I laced them up tight they almost felt as if they fit.

In the winter, there was a large rink in Recreation Park. One of my friends and I would walk the five blocks from our house on Owendale to the Park. If we left right after school, we could get almost two hours of skating in before it began to get dark. We changed into our skates in a shed at the edge of the rink, took a few steps to the ice and then joined the other skaters traveling counter clockwise around the rink. Since I’d been roller skating for a few years, the skating motion came eas- ily. We went around and around until the sky started to darken and the streetlights.

came on. By then we were cold and ready to leave. Our feet felt frozen on the walk home. They did not begin to warm up un- til we were eating our evening meal. Then began the exquisite agony of the circula- tion returning to our extremities that hurt, stung and felt good all at the same time.

The following Christmas I got my own skates, brilliant white with sharp, shiny blades. By now I had learned how to skate backwards and to rotate on the ice. I probably tried to do an arabesque with a minimum of wobbling. Still most of the time was spend circling the rink. On one outing I felt a sharp stinging pain in my right foot. I’d been hit by a hockey puck. The hockey players were confined to one end of the rink but pucks did not recognize boundaries. Hockey skate boots have a lot of padding, figure skating boots don’t. Getting hit by a puck hurt!

There was another trip to Olympia to see an ice show. This one featured Barbara Ann Scott, a Canadian Olympic medalist. Unlike Sonja, she was not an “ice princess,” she was a more athletic skater. I half convinced myself that Barbara and I were distant cousins. My grandparents were born in Canada and my great-grand- mother from Scotland was named Ellen Scott. So it seemed possible. Actually my Canadian cousins were hockey players.

About the time I left Estabrook to begin junior high at Roosevelt, my skating days came to a quiet close. I had a chance to try out for the Ann Arbor Skating Club that I turned down. Our parents always emphasized choices. You could not do every- thing so starting a new activity meant ending another one. There was another reason though: fear. At some point I knew I would have to do jumps. Leaping and jumping were no problem in Grace Begoles’s bal- let studio. The surface there, however, was wood. The thought of both feet leaving the ice and then landing on the hard, slip- pery surface was more than I could deal with.

Growing up involves gaining realistic expectations. As painful as it sometimes was, I let go of some of my dreams. The skates went to the back of the closet.

(Peg Porter grew up in Ypsilanti and is the GLEANINGS Assistant Editor and a regular contributor of articles for our publication.)


Photo captions:

Photo 1: Sonja Henie, Norwegian Olympic figure skating champion, appeared in movies in the late 1930s and 1940s

Photo 2: Barbara Ann Scott, a Canadian Olympic figure skating medalist, was a very athletic skater

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