Karl Lindholm: Vermont’s Schoolmaster is in the Hall of Fame
I was skeptical.
When I first heard that Middlebury College was considering an Athletic Hall of Fame, I had reservations.
A hall of fame can be a can of worms, producing as much discord as concord, as much dismay at who’s not included as celebration of who gets in.
Halls of fame are by their very nature exclusive. We preach in schools the joy of competition and the benefits of participation, but we know the most highly accomplished are not always the most highly dedicated.
Considerations of character, social behavior, and academic seriousness of purpose are secondary to sheer performance in athletic halls of fame. Glossy statistics can outweigh such crucial considerations as commitment to the team and leadership.
Well-heeled friends of the college, alumni, take a keen interest in who’s selected to the hall of fame and make those interests known.
Sentimentality also can intrude, and much beloved figures whose actual achievements may fall well short of excellence are advanced as hall of fame candidates.
Those, in a nutshell, were my misgivings, which of course I shared in a memorandum of impressive length to the power brokers in this matter. It met the fate of most of my memos of impressive length: Middlebury now has an Athletic Hall of Fame.
On Jan. 24, Middlebury’s inaugural Hall of Fame class was inducted at a formal dinner for over 300 people in Nelson Arena, part of the grand festivities associated with the dedication of the impressive new field house.
I was pleased to be asked to introduce Ray Fisher at the induction ceremony, one of only five inductees in this first class.
Given my initial, public doubts about very concept of the Hall of Fame, you might question my participation in this big event, but I decided pretty quickly that … oh well, if we are to have a Hall of Fame, I would enjoy being involved.
I had a terrific time at the dinner. I call my adjusted attitude compromise, not hypocrisy.
I was thrilled to meet John Bower ’63, a childhood hero of mine. He is perhaps the most successful American Nordic skier ever, having won the prestigious Holmenkollen Combined Nordic event in Oslo, Norway, in 1968. He was the Middlebury ski coach from 1969-75 and the Director of Nordic Skiing in the U.S. for eight years.
John and I are townsmen: he’s from Auburn, Maine, and I’m from Lewiston, just across the Androscoggin River, twin cities. He was a high school star whose exploits I followed avidly.
I live in Cornwall in John Bower’s house, the house he built when he was the ski coach. I like that.
It was exciting also to meet Phil Latreille ’61, the most prolific goal scorer in the history of American college hockey. He averaged nearly a hat trick a game, playing against all-comers, and in his senior year scored seven goals in a game against Dartmouth and 10 against Colgate. He was an All-American for three consecutive years.
Men’s sports date back to the 1880s; women’s sports (other than skiing) to the 1970s and the revolution that Title IX brought about. Middlebury women athletes and teams have had a profound presence and great success in the last half century.
Dorcas DenHartog Wonsavage ’87 was a spectacular runner at Middlebury, both on bare ground in the fall and snow in the winter. A cross-country national champion in 1985, she was an All-American in two sports in the same year and skied in the Olympics in ’88, ’92, and ’96.
Heidi Howard Allen ’99 is one of the most decorated athletes in Middlebury history, playing both field hockey and lacrosse at Middlebury. Heidi was an All-American in all four of her years, leading both of her teams to national championships.
Ray Fisher ’10 was not there at the dinner (he would have been 127 years old!), but his family was, grandson John Leidy and granddaughter Ellen Wilhite, along with Fisher family friends. I was honored to sit at their table and privileged to introduce Fisher to the assembled throng.
Born in Middlebury, Ray attended Middlebury schools before enrolling at the local college. In his first two years at Middlebury College, he clearly outclassed the competition and signed a professional contract after his sophomore year. Ineligible to play on the college team after that, he coached it instead.
Before he graduated in 1910, he signed a major league contract with the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees).
From 1910-15 he returned to Middlebury in the off-season to serve as an Assistant Professor of Physical Education — in effect, the first director of athletics. The New York press called him “the Vermont Schoolmaster.”
Ray won 100 games in 10 seasons in the majors for New York and Cincinnati — and then left the nomadic life of a ballplayer to become the baseball coach at the University of Michigan in 1920. He coached the Wolverines for the next 38 years, winning 661 games, 15 Big Ten Championships, and a National Championship in 1953. The ballpark at Michigan is Fisher Stadium.
Next year will bring another class of Middlebury Hall of Famers. I can hardly wait to be compromised again.
MIDDLEBURY INDUCTED FIVE members in its inaugural Hall of Fame class. L-R: Phil Latreille ’61, John Bower ’63, Dorcas DenHartog Wonsavage ’87, John Leidy, accepting on behalf of his grandfather Ray Fisher ’10, and Heidi Howard Allen ’99.
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