Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Two Generations Lost

PS Magazine, January/February 2011

Just as the February 13, 1961 issue of Sports Illustrated was reaching the homes of subscribers, its cover girl, 16 year old newly crowned U.S. Women’s Champion Laurence Owen, was glancing down at the beautiful Brussels countryside from Sabena Flight 548. Laurence and the rest of the U.S. delegation were on their way to the World Championships, hopefully to continue the domination of U.S. skaters as they had for the previous decade. Following the greatness of Tenley Albright, Carol Heiss, Dick Button, Hayes Jenkins, and David Jenkins, Laurence and her teammates looked forward to continuing their success. But in less time than it took to skate a long program, the dream wretchedly turned to nightmare. In one heart wrenching moment, a generation of talented skaters, coaches and judges were gone…
"It is often in times of tragedy that the finest and most unselfish aspects of human character become evident,” said USFSA President F. Ritter Shumway, at an Ice Capades performance to benefit the Memorial Fund on September 18, 1961.
Ironically, it was another tragedy that thrust Ritter into the Presidency in the first place. A week before the 1961 National championships, and only three weeks prior to the crash, USFSA President Howard Herbert died suddenly. As written in Benjamin Wright’s, Skating in America, “...Ritter took immediate charge and exercised outstanding leadership throughout the crisis.” Unfortunately, misfortune struck the USFSA again in April of that year when the Association Secretary, Col. Harold “Pete” Storke also passed. The subsequent Governing Council meeting held in New York was preceded by a memorial service for the late President, Secretary, and World team.
In retrospect, extraordinary circumstances saw a third of the USFSA Executive Board, 18 athlete members of the US World team, 6 elite coaches, 4 World Judges (Team Manager Deane McMinn was a judge at the 1960 Olympics) and 1 World Referee… all gone! As noted in Skating in America, “In effect, while one generation of skaters was lost, there were two generations of coaches taken away as, since many of the top skaters in 1961 would themselves have eventually become coaches.” Mr. Wright also commented that the standard of skating never fully recovered from the loss of so much talent, especially in the Boston area. In fact, PSA Hall of Fame inductee Montgomery “Bud” Wilson, who elected not to travel to worlds on the ill fated flight but instead, was to fly later that week, died in 1964.
Also spared by a strange twist of fate were Ron Luddington and Sonja Dunfield. They coached the Dinneens who couldn’t afford to pay for their expenses so they stayed behind. Pierre Brunet was supposed to be one the flight as well as future US Champion Laurie Hanlon, the Jelinek’s from Canada, and even Ben Wright’s wife Louise.

As seems to be the case most often, my research at this point took my story in an unexpected direction…
When I started this piece, I assumed that there was some sort of a larger plan by U.S. Figure Skating. To my surprise, when I contacted Ben Wright, he told me he was unaware of any plan for the “reconstruction” of the USFSA during this period. As I begun to dig deeper, I realized that an organized reconstruction of the era was in reality, “everybody for themselves.” Those that came to the United States where seeking opportunities. Clubs mostly looked out for themselves, making decisions based on each unique situation.
While the Boston Skating Club had chosen not to bring in any additional coaches after the crash, many of the great European coaches were invited to move to the US. The Broadmoor hired Carlo Fassi to replace Edi Scholdan, and John Nicks ended up at the Zamboni families Iceland in Paramount, California where Billy Kipp taught.
In Indianapolis at the Winter Club, Rose Anne Ryan, widow of Danny Ryan and a coach herself, was left with 5 children under the age of 6. Past PSA President Sandy Lamb who was coached by the Ryan’s recall’s, “Winter club members were with her most of the time, taking care of the kids, keeping the house straightened up, cooking, etc. etc.” For the next season after the tragedy, Rose Anne brought in a male British dance coach who tried to change the skaters style from Danny’s to the British Style. The situation was difficult at best and did not last long. Rose Anne took over for the rest of the season and the following year brought in Ron Luddington, only two years after he won his Olympic medal.
According to Jerod Swallow, managing director of the Detroit Skating Club, one of their skaters, Doug Ramsay, did perish along his coach, Bill Swallender. Bill wasn’t a resident coach at DSC at the time but taught and operated his own studio rink, as did the Hadley’s in Seattle. Bill would work with Doug on the days Doug skated at DSC. “Bill taught a number of DSC skaters over the years and his death was no less a terrible loss to the club and skating community in Detroit,” said Mr. Swallow. Predictably, both Bill’s and the Hadley’s studio rinks did not prosper for long after the crash.
As far as the void of top skaters, the ranks were filled with future stars, judges, and coaches like Monty Hoyt, Scott Allen, Gary Visconti, Tommy Litz, Richard Callaghan, Tim Wood, Pieter Kollen, Stan Urban, Billy Chapel, Tina Noyes, Christine Haigler (Krall), Louise Wakefield, Karen Howland (Jones), Cynthia and Ron Kauffman, Howard Taylor, Jan Serafine, and perhaps the celebrated of all, Peggy Fleming. Even though the depth was impressive, the period from 1961 – 1965 was extremely unstable. As Patty Bushman, author of the soon to be released book on the 1961 team, Indelible Tracings told me, only the pair team of Judianne and Jerry Fotheringill in 1964 and Peggy Fleming in 1965 were able to defend their US titles.
The only association move that I could personally confirm was that the association was pleading for skaters to come out of retirement. According to Barbara Roles, someone of authority from USFSA had called her mother and asked Barbara to come out of retirement. Honoring those friends she lost, Barbara did come back, placing 5th in the 1962 World Championships, securing a spot for three American skaters at the next World Championships. Patty Bushman confirmed for me that the USFSA did make contact with many former skaters, including Aileen Kahre who had been retired for 6 years! Patty wrote in her book, “… Kahre came back to support U.S. figure skating. Bill Kipp had coached her in Los Angeles when she won the 1956 U.S. silver dance title, and had since returned to her native San Francisco. The USFSA invited silver dance competitors Howard and Georgia Taylor, who had two sets of twins, ages ten and thirteen, to compete in gold dance. When Georgia declined, Howard approached Aileen.” Not much of a plan I’d say.
Ok, that’s not totally accurate or fair…Mr. Shumway did do something that impacted the sport more than bringing back retired skaters; he established the memorial fund. As Ritter said at the Ice Capades benefit performance, “We will take our Memorial Fund a giant skating stroke forward toward our goal of perpetuating the memory of our gallant 1961 World Team skaters, not so much by statuary and plaques, as by giving us the means to assist talented young skaters - many of them yet 'undiscovered' - to get started, to develop and advance, and eventually to represent our country in future years, and to be ranked at the top of the world in the art of figure skating."
My brother David and I, as well as my son Ryan, have all received financial assistance from the memorial fund. By this time, I’m sure the fund has touched the lives of thousands of skaters…it is a lasting memorial to those that died and an important legacy to support. Please ask your skating families to go and see “Rise” or read “Indelible Tracings”. Take the opportunity to discuss the past and the tradition of skating with them. This is a great opportunity to show them why skating is so special and why it’s the greatest sport on earth.