Archive for March, 2008

Minority Coaches

March 28, 2008

Yesterday I came across a December 8, 2007 article in The News Tribune out of Tacoma, Washington. In it reporter Todd Miles wrote, “Not since 1917 have the Washington State Cougars had a minority head coach in football.” Putting aside the fact that Washington State’s teams weren’t called the Cougars in 1917, the statement is still incorrect. Yes, Lone Star Dietz coached the 1918 Mare Island Marine team that was featured in WSC’s yearbook because ten players were from WSC. And, although Dietz considered it Washington State’s second Rose Bowl team, it didn’t wear crimson and gray. The major error is that not one but two minority coaches were overlooked. This is why we study history.

When Dietz was unceremoniously dumped in early 1919, WSC wanted another coach who was steeped in the Warner system because Dietz had been wildly successful with it. So, the administration looked for someone with experience, not just with the single and double-wing formations but with the whole system. Recall that Ace Clark thought that the way Lone Star conditioned his players and reduced the amount of scrimmaging left them in better shape for the games. Albert Exendine was a logical choice but he was under contract at Georgetown. Eventually Gus Welch was tracked down on a former battlefield in France and recruited for the job.

Gus Welch was Chippewa from Wisconsin and Al Exendine was Delaware and Cherokee from Oklahoma, but they have a lot of similarities. Both attended Carlisle Indian School and starred on its teams, Exendine at end and Welch at quarterback (blocking back in Warner’s single-wing). Both got their law degrees from Dickinson School of Law (now part of Penn State) across town from the Indian school. Both had long careers of coaching football in the fall and practicing law the rest of the year. Both were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as players. And both coached Washington State. Welch led the team from 1919 through 1922 and Exendine took over in 1923, lasting through the 1925 season. Each has a chapter devoted to him in Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs.

So, Washington State has a history of hiring minority head football coaches, just not lately.

The Great Crockery Riot

March 24, 2008

While researching Carlisle Indian School students who enrolled at Dickinson College, I stumbled across a small item that was put on the wire and printed across the country in late May of 1912:

CARLISLE, Pa. –Dickinson College students stoned the house of the dean because they thought the annual per capita tax of $1.95 for “breakage” was too high.

Being easily distracted, this curious item aroused my interest and I did a little research. It seems that in those days crockery breakage was significant. It is not known if students were merely clumsy or had hurled cups, saucers, plates or soup bowls at one another on purpose. Regardless, the total cost of replacing the smashed crockery was substantial. So, near the end of the school year, the total amount of this breakage was computed and divided by the number of male students enrolled at the college. Each young man’s share generally amounted to about $2. Why 1912’s assessment triggered such a response is not known. I don’t think this was an early blow for equal rights for women, so we need to look into other possibilities. Because the assessed amount was lower than it had been in some previous years, the cost of the assessment probably wasn’t the match that set off this tinderbox. A Dickinson professor asked if this happened during President Reed’s time. A quick reference to the records showed that Dr. Reed had retired and his successor, Dr. Eugene Allen Noble, was ensconced in the President’s house but had not been inaugurated. That event was scheduled just days after the stoning. Perhaps the students were misunderstood and were merely welcoming Dr. Noble to the campus. Or, they may have been hazing him as part of the inauguration festivities.

We will not likely ever know what was the cause. However, it is known that Dickinsonians were sensitive to the condition of their crockery. Some years earlier, a German professor at Dickinson College’s preparatory school became so agitated after being served his dinner on cracked crockery that it took three large boys to restrain him in his anger.

Celebrity visitors

March 21, 2008

Carlisle had two celebrity visitors yesterday. Robert W. Wheeler and his wife, Florence Ridlon, dropped in at Wardecker’s Mens Wear to buy Bob a suit. Some might think it odd for a person who lives in Sandy Shores, Texas to drive to Carlisle on such an errand. However, it was a return trip for Bob, although close to 40 years in the making. What began as a master’s degree thesis in the late 1960s became a seven-year odyssey to research the life of America’s greatest athlete, Jim Thorpe. Bob’s research was not supported by a foundation grant and, as a graduate student at Syracuse University, he had few personal financial resources and found it necessary to travel across the country by hitchhiking. After he arrived at “The Capital,” as the haberdashery was known when Thorpe patronized it, “Muck” Wardecker dispatched his son, Freddie, the current owner, to chauffeur Bob around the area to interview Thorpe’s old friends. This time Bob and Florence drove themselves to Carlisle.

Much has happened in the intervening decades. For starters, Bob’s master’s thesis became the book, Jim Thorpe: world’s greatest athlete. However, getting college credit for writing the book was not automatic. That is a story best left to Bob to tell. After publication, the book got rave reviews. Dick Schaap compared Wheeler to James Boswell, the author of what has been considered the best biography ever written for any person. Bob got married but his interest in Thorpe did not wane. In fact, his bride, Florence Ridlon, became involved with the effort. One day in a musty archive, Florence found something that would have a major impact on the sports world.

She found the rules for the 1912 Olympics. In those rules she saw that challenges had to be filed within 30 days of the Olympics. The challenge that caused Thorpe to be stripped of his medals was filed almost six months after the Olympics and should not have been allowed. Getting Thorpe’s medals restored was not a simple matter and that story is best left for Bob and Florence to tell, also. Suffice to say that we will always be indebted to them for what they accomplished – and it wasn’t easy.

After having a son in 1989, Bob decided to quit his glamorous job with ABC Sports and work with Florence in their public relations business based out of Texas so that he could be involved in the rearing of his child. Their son is now a tennis star at MIT and they are on the road to watch him play some matches in the northeast.

Bob is making an audiobook with Frank Gifford narrating. Interviews with people such as President Eisenhower will be included as what I would call making of material. I can’t wait for that to come out.

Also visiting with Bob and Florence was Carlisle’s own Dick Darr, who played at Syracuse alongside Florence’s brother, Jim Ridlon. Perhaps we can get an interview with Dick some day to discuss his competition for the tailback position with an upstart named Jim Brown.

It is hoped that Bob and Florence will honor Carlisle with a talk sometime in the future now that they have reason to pass this way again.

Booktalk surprises

March 18, 2008

It was almost two years ago that I gave my first booktalk on Keep A-goin’: the life of Lone Star Dietz. Things went smoothly until the question and answer session when a gentleman informed me that a photo in my book had an incorrect caption. The caption below a photo on page 290 of two men in business suits flanking a smaller young man in his Albright College  football uniform read, “Jim Thorpe shows Leo Disend some tricks as Lone Star looks on.” There can’t be anything wrong with that, I thought, because it came straight from an Albright College yearbook. Also, I knew what Jim Thorpe and Lone Star Dietz looked like, so it couldn’t be wrong. Or so I thought.

The gentleman then informed me that the player in the photo was not Leo Disend. He didn’t know who it was but he was sure it wasn’t Moose, as Leo was better known as. The man identified himself as Sid Disend, Leo’s bother. Well, I couldn’t argue with him because he surely knew what his brother looked like. He also said that the layer in the photo was not wearing Leo’s number. I then had to find out who the mysterious number 31 in the photo was.

The next day I emailed Francine Scoboria, Manager of Advancement Communications at Albright College, to inform her of this long-standing error. She researched the issue and found that the mystery man was John Killiany, class of 1946, varsity quarterback.

The lesson in this was that errors made decades earlier, this time over 60 years before, often are assumed to be correct years later. So, when you’re researching the past, don’t be surprised when you encounter conflicting information. Either or both source may be wrong.

Now I’m off to research the great Dickinson College crockery riot of 1912.

April 8, 2008

It is with sadness I report seeing the following in today’s Harrisburg Patriot-News:

Sidney DisendSid Disend, 86, of Harrisburg, died Sunday April 6, 2008 at the Carolyn Croxton Slane Hospice Residence on Linglestown Road.
Born in Roselle, NJ, he was the son of Samuel and Sarah Disend. Sid graduated from Albright College in Reading, PA with a degree in Education then served his country in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge in the U.S. Army as a sergeant in the 95th Division, Field Artillery.
He was the owner/operator of Ess & Dee Venetian Blind Company then retired as Regional Sales Manager for the R.W. Norman Company of Salisbury, NC, responsible for the entire Northeast territory.
He was a member of Temple Ohev Sholom, a member of the Brotherhood, and Principal of the Religious School. He was the Past President of the Harrisburg Jaycees, and the recipient of their first Honorary Life Membership. He was the Founder and Past President of the Wilson Park Civic Association, Founder and Past President of the Latshmere Crime Watch, a charter member of the Susquehanna Rovers Volksport Association, and a founding member of the Capital Area Greenbelt Association.
Sid was also an active volunteer at the Harrisburg State Hospital, the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg, a Dispatcher for the Susquehanna Township’s Indian Wheels, an Instructor with the Literacy Council, and, with his wife Shirley, was responsible for the development of the “Five Senses Gardens, on the Greenbelt.
Sid is survived by his wife of 64 years, Shirley, son Jeff and his wife Kay of Atlanta, son Randy of Harrisburg, and several nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held on Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 11:00 a.m. in the Bookstaber Chapel of Mount Moriah Cemetery. An additional memorial service will be held in the Manor at Oakridge, 4500 Oakhurst Blvd., Harrisburg, PA on Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 2:00 p.m.
Arrangements by Fackler-Wiedeman Funeral Home, Harrisburg. There will be no viewing or visitation.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Five Senses Gardens, c/o Capital Area Greenbelt Association, P.O. Box 15404, Harrisburg, PA 17105 or Hospice of Central Pennsylvania, P.O. Box 206, Enola, PA 17025.
Sid has donated his body to science through the Humanity Gifts Registry at the Hershey Medical Center.


Helen Keller letter

March 13, 2008

The Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City has a treasure trove of interesting material. Ann and I were there researching Lone Star Dietz’s time at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. If the Oklahoma Historical Society doesn’t seem to be a logical location for such research, consider that it holds Chilocco Indian School archives and that Chilocco’s Superintendent McGowan was in charge of the model government Indian school exhibit at the World’s Fair. (However, it wasn’t a world’s fair, it was the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition held a year late. The scale and scope of the exhibits probably caused attendees to give it that name.) Superintendent McGowan also moved Chilocco’s printing operation to St. Louis where students printed daily editions of Indian School Journal during the fair.

Lone Star Dietz worked in the model government Indian school doing artwork, most notably a mosaic of an Indian hunter made from grains grown at Chilocco. Other information about Dietz’s activities at the fair was found in various issues of Indian School Journal and in files held by the archives.

It was in one of those files that Ann found a folded piece of paper that appeared as if it might be a letter. When she unfolded it, it was indeed a letter typed on a typewriter. At the bottom of the letter was a hand-printed signature in block letters. The signature was Helen Keller’s. The text of the letter Miss Keller was an apology that she had to turn down the invitation to visit the Indian school exhibit because of a prior commitment. An Indian School Journal article discussed a visit to the exhibit by a group of blind children, one of whom Lone Star allowed to feel his face so that the child could “see” what an Indian looked like.

Finding something in an archive file that the archives do not know they possess is not as rare an occurrence as one might think. Archives hold many thousands if not millions of documents and do not have the manpower available to read everything they have. The person who originally created the file probably knew the letter was in it but did not view it as significant enough to note elsewhere. I found a photo of Lone Star Dietz in a different archive in a folder labeled unknown student. Lone Star Dietz was in pencil on the back of the photo. An earlier patron had likely misfiled the photo.

Next time we’ll discuss surprises in question and answer sessions at booktalks.

Jim Thorpe letters

March 10, 2008

Perhaps because I was out of state for six weeks and holed up working on my new book for longer than that, I missed that the Cumberland County Historical Society bought some letters written by Jim Thorpe for a reported $90K. Finally hearing about these letters, I zipped over to the CCHS to take a look at these letters.

They came in two sets of 14 letters each: the first from July and August 1924 when Thorpe was playing baseball for the Lawrence Independents in Massachusetts and the second from December 1925 to March 1926 when Big Jim was struggling to make a little money playing football in Florida.

The 1924 letters were written to his future second wife, Freeda Kirkpatrick, while he was negotiating a divorce from his first wife, Iva Miller, whom he married at St. Patrick’s in Carlisle in 1913. Freeda worked for Walter Lingo, owner of the kennel that sponsored the Oorang Indians football team on which Thorpe played in 1922 and 1923. A common theme found in most, if not all of these letters, was that Thorpe terribly missed Freeda, whom he more often called Libby or Krazy Kitten. He pledged undying love and claimed that he was being true to her. His frequent reminders that they were engaged to be married may have been in response to an indication that she was getting cold feet. The letters she wrote were not part of the package so I can only speculate on what she might have written. He often referred to himself as her “big Injun” or “little boy.” Meanwhile, on the diamond, he was tearing up the league, hitting over .400.

The 1925/26 letters were written shortly after his marriage to Freeda, at a time Jim was having trouble making money playing football in Florida. Red Grange and the Chicago Bears were all the rage at the time and beat Thorpe’s team. Grange was the new star and Thorpe was old news in 1925. Thorpe was about 40 years old and was nearing the time he could no longer compete in professional athletics. According to the letters, he received offers to promote Florida real estate and to sell cars but, probably wisely, did not take them. Letters from Freeda apparently became fewer and less frequent. He also had a scrape with the law over what he might have described as a misunderstanding.

His letters do not reflect the thoughts of a happy-go-lucky person as Thorpe has sometimes been depicted. They do support assertions by former teammates that, contrary to popular opinion, he trained hard and kept himself in shape for games.

Jim Thorpe enthusiasts will want to read these letters.

A newly discovered Helen Keller photo has been in the news lately. Next time we will talk about a Helen Keller letter Ann found while researching Lone Star Dietz.



March 7, 2008

Welcome to my world. For most of the new century I have been researching the lives of Carlisle Indian School football stars, something that has been a very rewarding experience. Along the way we – my wife Ann assists in the research and sometimes finds some unexpected things – have met some interesting and very helpful people. We have also discovered things for which we can’t find places in the books but which people may find interesting. Let’s start with something recent.

In the summer of 2002, Ann and I took a tour of Tanzania with a group of 10 people. At night when we were all assembled for the first time, the guide subjected us to the dreaded circle routine. When it was my turn to introduce myself, I said that I was writing a book on Lone Star Dietz. A woman a couple of places away from me in the circle responded, “Do you mean Lone Star Dietz the football coach?” I responded in the affirmative and asked how she knew about him. The woman – Betty Tyler – informed me that, when she was a child the Dietzes lived next door to her in Reading, Pennsylvania, where he coached the Albright College football team at that time. I was shocked to meet someone who actually knew Dietz in a group of 10 people on the other side of the world.

Betty’s mother, Dorothy Hawkins, was living near Charleston, South Carolina at the time and, although in her 90s, had a very clear mind. That fall Ann and I visited some friends in Charleston – the ones who arranged the Africa trip – so I could interview Mrs. Hawkins. Dorothy was a lovely person and shared information about Lone Star that one cannot find in newspaper reports or public files. She was very helpful, especially because she and her family moved to Pittsburgh and kept in contact with the Dietzes who were also living there after the war. Through Betty and her mother I was also able to interview Betty’s brother. That interview was conducted over the phone because he lives in San Francisco. He recalled Lone Star parading up and down the street in his Sioux regalia and challenging the kids to tug on his pitch-black hair to show that it was all real.

Late last year we received some sad news: Dorothy Hawkins had died. In addition to the bad news, Betty Tyler gave us some good news. Betty’s mother had a painting Lone Star gave her many years ago and Betty didn’t have a place for it in her house. Knowing that I was so interested in Lone Star and would appreciate it, she gave it to me. What good fortune! Now I must reorganize my already cluttered office to give it an appropriate place on the wall.

To learn more about Lone Star Dietz, check out To learn more about my upcoming book, check out If you’re interested in seeing video previews for the books, look at

Now I must go to the Cumberland County Historical Society to look at the Jim Thorpe letters they just acquired. More on that later.