Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How I spent my (fall) vacation

I used a couple of vacation days last week for yet another trip to Chicago. I spent most of it in this building -- the main library of the University of Chicago, which houses a massive newspaper microfilm collection.

I used the time to go through the Daily Maroon, the UC student newspaper, for the final two years of Jay Berwanger's undergraduate years. The Daily Maroon, by the way, printed three days a week.

Berwanger, a Dubuque native and UC '36, won the first Heisman Trophy.

About 150 microfilm copies later, I came home able to fill some gaps in my bid to capture a better feel of campus life (including athletics) in 1934-36, when Berwanger was literally the Big Man on Campus.

My thanks to Ray Gadke, microform manager, for his support and assistance during my "campout" in his department.

Last week's trip might be my last to UC for research -- but then again you never know.

After organizing articles and notes, I hope to start writing by Christmas.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Nugget found in the Stagg papers

On my most recent trip to Chicago, where I continued to research Jay Berwanger for the biography I will write, I went through more documents in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Papers stored in the University of Chicago Library.

I found a nugget that certainly will find its way into the book. It is a letter dated February 19, 1933. Stagg (pictured) was on his way out as University of Chicago football coach and athletic director. After four decades in the positions, Stagg was forced out by university officials, who invoked the rule requiring faculty members to retire at age 70.

Stagg's letter was to his successor as football coach, Clark Shaughnessy, then coach of Loyola (New Orleans). Stagg offered Shaughnessy his congratulations and best wishes, and then presented his analysis of what Shaughnessy would inherit in the way of a football team.

Berwanger was a freshman year at UC; at the time, players could not join the varsity until their sophomore seasons.

"If Berwanger is eligible," Stagg wrote, "you will inherit the fastest and the best set of backs that have ever represented the University of Chicago." Stagg, who was about to begin a 14-season stint as coach at the University of the Pacific, cited Berwanger, Pete Zimmer and Ed Cullen as being big (all over 180 pounds) and "exceptionally fast." He added that Zimmer and Berwanger were "exceptionally clever."

Apparently the only question in Stagg's mind was whether Berwanger would pass his UC comprehensive exams and stay eligible. No one, including Berwanger, ever claimed he was Rhodes Scholar material. Five months later, in mid-July, when Berwanger and most of his teammates passed their exams, the achievement made the Chicago papers.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Another research trip to Chicago

The first Heisman Trophy, on display in the Ratner athletic building.

Jay Berwanger's University of Chicago uniform and Hall of Fame certificate.

I used a couple of vacation days Tuesday and Wednesday to travel to Chicago for more research on Jay Berwanger, the subject of my next biography.

On Tuesday, after a 4 a.m. wake-up call, I was on the campus of Berwanger's alma mater, the University of Chicago by 9:30. I visited with Athletic Director Tom Weingartner and Sports Information Director Dave Hilbert, both of whom worked with Berwanger on special events. In the library, I found in the Special Collections research center an interesting letter from Amos Alonzo Stagg to his newly named successor Clark Shaughnessy in which Stagg describes some of the players Shaughnessy would inherit, including Berwanger. I also spent a couple of hours in the campus library, poring over newspaper microfilm. I then took the commuter train back north, to the Chicago Public Library, where I reviewed the Chicago Herald-Examiner's coverage of Berwanger's sophomore season (1933), until about 7 p.m. It was a full day, to say the least.

Wednesday morning found me back at the same microfilm reader-printer at the Chicago Public Library, where I reviewed the Herald-Examiner's coverage of the 1934 season, Berwanger's junior campaign. By 1:30, I had lunch and decided I had had enough for this trip. I have learned that when one gets too tired while reviewing microfilm, one (meaning me) tends to cut corners -- and that can be a problem later, when it's time to write. I walked back to Union Station, caught the commuter train back to Elgin, and drove back to Dubuque.

All in all, it was a productive trip. I got dozens of articles and verified certain facts (such as Philomela Baker Berwanger's graduation date). But more research treasures await my next excursion to the Windy City.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Alma mater plans Berwanger night

The late Jay Berwanger, Dubuque High School Class of 1932, will be honored at his alma mater's football game against Dubuque Hempstead on Friday, Oct. 2.

I'm not sure of the occasion, but it might be the 30th anniversary of his donation of a Heisman Trophy to Dubuque Senior High. The trophy is on display in the school's trophy case.

There is occasional discussion and debate whether the trophy is the one Berwanger accepted from the Downtown Athletic Club in New York in December 1935, but most indications are that the first trophy went to the University of Chicago and the duplicate Berwanger received later went to Senior High.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Meet the family

I had a great trip to the Chicago suburbs on Tuesday, when I met Jay Berwanger's two sons and daughters-in-law and (by conference call) daughter.

They were extremely generous with their time, their memories and family memorabilia that will help me in my project.

Just one story: When they were growing up as the children of the first Heisman recipient, their home displayed no football memorabilia. For decades, the famous trophy was tucked away in their basement or sitting in a relative's house.

I deeply appreciate the Berwanger family's assistance and hospitality!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Research trip - Chicago

Jay Berwanger, third from left, with fellow University of Chicago backs, in 1933, his sophomore season. From left are Vin Sahlin, Pete Zimmer, Berwanger and Ewald Nyquist. (Archival Photographic Files, apf4-00462, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.)

I spent two long days in Chicago on Berwanger research this week. Though I considered possibly hitting three locations this trip, it didn't work out that way. Aside for 90 minutes at the Chicago Public Library on Thursday evening, I spent all my time at the University of Chicago, where Berwanger gained his perpetual fame on the football field.

All my time was in the university library, and all but two hours of that was in the Special Collections Department, where the staff was incredibly patient, helpful and cooperative.

The university has incredible archives, including papers from the Department of Physical Education and Athletics and the AA Stagg Collection.

This was my first time on the UC campus since the summer of 1972 or 1973, when I ran in one of the University of Chicago Track Club's famed open track meets. It was the last (and perhaps only) time I ran a 3,000-meter steeplechase. This trip, I didn't come home sore and wet.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


I am researching Jay Berwanger, Dubuque native and winner of the first Heisman Trophy, for my next biography project.

Berwanger did not play professional football after graduating from the University of Chicago, and that has the publisher of my first two biographies questioning the marketability of a Berwanger book. However, based on my work thus far, I think that there is enough information about his prep and collegiate career, his life as a football coach and official, sportswriter, Navy pilot and successful businessman to make an interesting book.

From time to time, I'll post about my research into Berwanger's life.