What a contrast. Instead of flying to New Delhi, India, which was an opportunity I rejected, we drove to Canton, a small farming and mining town in central Illinois. It had a population of roughly 12,000, and the YMCA had just opened a new facility. It wasn’t anything fancy – a gym, a pool, a couple of offices, locker rooms, and a large outdoor playing field. Whereas we’d had over a dozen on the staff of the Des Moines Y, there were just three of us at Canton.
Mike Chianakas, a gentleman of Greek ancestry, was the executive director. He had been a collegiate basketball star at nearby Bradley University. I was hired to be the youth program director, which included doing … everything. Ruth Slater was our all-around assistant. In those days, there were few women working at any YMCAs, but Ruth knew her stuff. Her dad had been a YMCA professional. Do you remember John Slater who was mentioned in a previous chapter, the fellow who had the industrial water polo league at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the 1920s? That was Ruth’s dad. He had moved from Fort Wayne to Canton, becoming exec, and teaching his daughter, Ruth, the tricks of the trade. John then retired, with Mike Chianakas coming to replace him and Ruth joining the small Y staff. Then I arrived.
Why was I there? I wanted the small-town experience as part of my climb up the YMCA ladder of success, and I believe it was God who led me to Canton. That’s the only explanation I can offer. As the youth program director, I supervised the elementary school flag football league, created and coached a girls basketball team, started a Hi-Y club for teen boys and a Tri-Hi-Y club for teen girls, arranged for separate sex education courses for the boys and girls, served as the on-site director of the summer day camp for younger children which was conducted out at Lake Canton, and was in charge of all the aquatic activities.
A few months previously, when I’d gone to Canton and interviewed for the job there, I had informed Mike Chianakas of my interest in water polo and my desire to remain involved. “That’s great,” he replied. “You can play water polo here in Canton. Why not?”
There were a couple of catches. No one in the small town had ever heard of the sport, much less played it, and the YMCA pool was just four lanes wide, 25 yards in length, and all-shallow, the worst possible scenario for playing polo, which at its highest level is contested in large, all-deep pools. Yet I was used to working with smaller pools in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Des Moines, so as Mike Chianakas said, “Why not?”
It was a slow process, though. As at the Minneapolis and Des Moines YMCAs, we built our own goals, and I spent my own money to purchase half-a-dozen balls and official caps. Canton had a junior college which was called Spoon River Community College, and I started my water polo efforts there, offering a 20-hour daytime physical education class in water polo to college students. A dozen young men signed up, and the best was Fred Smiser, who developed into an excellent player. Shortly thereafter, we initiated a Tuesday and Thursday night polo program for high school boys, which also attracted about a dozen.
Activities for women and girls were still a rarity at most YMCAs, but during the winter of 1966-67, I coached a girls basketball team that played and won several games against neighboring Ys, and when the spring of 1967 arrived, I talked several of the girls into joining us in the pool for water polo. But who would our boys and girls play? Hmmm. It seemed I’d faced the same situation before in Iowa. So we conducted a water polo clinic in nearby Kewanee, which was Canton’s primary rival in YMCA sports competition. Kewanee’s swimming coach was Rick Hoover, who became a good friend, and he helped me “sell” water polo to several other Ys, as well.
There was already a polo program at the Sheridan Swim Club in Quincy, in west central Illinois, where Dan Dittmer was the coach. In fact, his girls were in the process of becoming the No. 1 team nationally in AAU women’s and girls’ water polo, and his boys were very good, too.
Western Illinois University, where Paul Hutinger was the swimming coach, contacted me and expressed interest in adding men’s water polo to their agenda, so I drove 40 miles to Macomb, where WIU was located, and conducted a clinic there.
We were making good progress with water polo in central and western Illinois, and I was continuing my national involvement. In the summer of 1967, I hardly had time to catch my breath. First, I flew out to the East Coast and, as a leader of the AAU’s national women’s water polo program, I attended the Women’s Senior Championships being hosted by the Northern Virginia Aquatic Club. It was an exciting competition, with NVAC edging Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the title tilt. Other squads entered included Detroit and Flint from Michigan, the Knights of Columbus (yes, that’s correct) from Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware.
Second, after returning to Canton, I drove one weekend to Chicago’s Portage Park, where I participated myself as a player in the Midwest tryouts for our 1967 Pan-American Games water polo team. This was somewhat of a lark. I’d been invited, I guess, because of my previous successes as a player – a three-time YMCA All-American and AAU Honorable Mention All-American – but now, at the age of 34, I couldn’t keep up with the younger and much faster players at the tryouts. I was huffing and puffing after just two quarters. The director of the event, who if I remember correctly was Phil Stelnicki, took me aside and said, “Chuck, it’s obvious you’re not going to make it as a player, but aren’t you a member of our U.S. Olympic Water Polo Committee?”
“Yep,” I said. “I’m the YMCA’s rep on the Committee.”
“Well, why don’t you also represent us at the final Pan-Am Team Trials in California? You can help select the U.S. players.” And that’s what I did. I flew to San Jose, California, and from there went to the home of Art Lambert, who was the U.S. Team coach. I watched the Men’s Senior Championships at the Foothill College pool, where Art was the coach, and from this competition we selected the men who would be competing for the U.S. at the Pan-Am Games. Seeing the spacious Olympic-size 50-meter pool at Foothill College and thinking about our little four-lane, 25-yard, all-shallow Canton YMCA pool made me acutely aware of the difference between bona fide big-time water polo in California and our meager efforts back home.
Be that as it, I took off on yet another trip from Canton. With my wife Lee, I drove to the YMCA’s Lake Geneva Conference Center in Wisconsin to complete my training for the Senior Director’s certificate. In those days, we could enter YMCA employment with a college degree in almost any field. Mine was in Recreation Administration. Then we were expected to take 18 hours of “graduate studies” to attain the Senior Director’s certificate, which was similar to a Master’s degree. But instead of emphasizing one specialty, we took our grad courses in a variety of subjects such as Accounting, New Testament, Old Testament, Psychology, Philosophy, and YMCA History.
It was this last course in YMCA History that I took at Lake Geneva, a “crash course” with six hours of daily class work for a full week, plus evening studies. My instructor was Bill Rowe, who was the exec at the Brooklyn Central YMCA in New York City, which just happened to have one of the best boys water polo programs in the country, led by Coach Harry Benvenuto. When Mr. Rowe discovered that I, too, was a water polo enthusiast, my final grade of ‘A’ was assured!
To attain status as a Senior Director, I also had to write a paper – not exactly a thesis but something about the YMCA that was significant – and I entitled mine “Gird Up the Loins of Your Mind.” It was subsequently published in the YMCA’s Association Forum magazine, and it went like this: “The famous YMCA triangle stands for the threefold purpose of our program – development of body, spirit, and mind to create a complete human being in the truest Christian tradition.
“We develop the body through a variety of physical skills such as running, swimming, exercising, and numerous sports. This is the most popular and least controversial phase of our program. We develop the spirit by employing Christian leaders, incorporating devotionals and prayers into our meetings, stressing good sportsmanship, and maintaining a relationship with our churches and their ministers and priests. This is the most discussed, most controversial phase of our program.
“We develop the mind – how? This is the part of our program with which we seem to be least concerned. What is the mind, anyway? Once I thought that when we talked about developing the mind, we were concerned with intellectual improvement. I suppose this could be one explanation of what we’re striving to do. We want to teach our members and participants how to think. This can be done in many ways. The man enrolled in a scuba course must learn about physics and physiology. The girl attending a synchronized swimming class must learn about music and rhythm. The boy elected to the presidency of his Hi-Y club must learn the rules for conducting club meetings. This is using and improving the mind, but it’s not enough.
“The Apostle Peter, writing to Christians scattered throughout many lands, tells them to ‘gird up the loins of your mind.’ If we can understand what Peter was saying, then maybe we can better understand what we should be doing in the YMCA. In olden days, men often wore togas or long, full garments hanging down to their ankles. Around their waists, they wore belts, which were called girdles. When the men went off to war, their commanders ordered them to ‘gird up your loins,’ or pull up your toga and tuck it into your belt. This left their legs free, unhampered, and ready for fast action and movement.
“Peter, in a clever way, was urging the Christians of his day to free their minds for action and movement. ‘Gird up the loins of your MIND.’ This is what we should be doing in the YMCA – encouraging our members and participants to think expansively. We should stress the importance to them of opening up their minds and seeing beyond themselves, beyond their everyday activities.
“We should tell them that swimming fast may be important, but going on team trips to other cities and seeing new sights is just as important. We should remind them that Catholics and Jews and Negroes and Women are part of our YMCA Movement, along with us traditional White Protestant Males. We should point out the many YMCAs that are struggling to survive in poor countries around the planet and that need our assistance through World Service.
“In these three statements, we are urging people to look beyond the sweep hand of a stopwatch, beyond their own prejudices, beyond their own local environment. We are urging them to ‘gird up the loins of your mind.’
“So in my opinion, the mind isn’t just the intellect. At least not for our purposes. Our interest should be in the state of mind. We should show our members the joy of a free, open mind. We should lead them to new concepts and higher ideals. We should expand their vision. We should make them see beyond themselves. This is what Peter was trying to do. Can we do any less?”
Later that year, I received a package one day while sitting in my office at the Canton YMCA. In it was a beautifully-framed certificate stating that I had earned my Senior Director’s rating. I was now a true YMCA professional.
That’s not all. The book I’d written, entitled “How to Play and Teach Water Polo,” was published in 1967 by the YMCA’s Association Press of New York City. It was small in size, just 5” by 7½”, with 125 pages and a number of diagrams and illustrations. The foreward was written by Jay-Ehret Mahoney of the New York Athletic Club, one of the country’s foremost leaders in water polo who was serving as a mentor to me and Bob Helmick. Whenever we went to AAU conventions from Miami to Kansas City to New Orleans to San Francisco and even to Lake Placid, Jay and his wife Gay and “Shorty” provided us with good guidance, and I shall forever be appreciative of what they did to help me and Bob and our wives.
Over the next decade, my book sold 7,000 copies in the U.S., and a separate edition published in London sold 4,000 copies in the British Empire and around Europe. In Chapter One, I said, “For the athlete who enjoys swimming and wants to combine it with teamwork and team tactics, there’s only one sport: water polo. For the swimming coach who is seeking an off-season activity which will provide his swimmers with exercise and stimulation, water polo is the answer. At least six of Uncle Sam’s gold medal winners in men’s swimming competition at the 1964 Olympic Games are avid poloists, and four of them play well enough to be classified as All-Americans.
“For the physical educator looking for a low-cost program that will offer extra benefits to the participants, listen to what a Davenport, Iowa, coach and teacher (Ruth Johnson) has to say: ‘In all my years as a physical educator, I have not found any activity that compares with water polo in affording as many real opportunities to guide and counsel youth. The opportunities to develop good sportsmanship and sound, wholesome philosophies of life are the daily work of building a water polo team.’”
Ruth Johnson was the player-coach of the Davenport YMCA women’s and girls’ water polo team, and she brought her bunch to Canton to play our young girls, winning handily.
Meanwhile, our men and boys – those from Spoon River Community College and from Canton – were learning the ropes as they played against Kewanee and half-a-dozen other YMCAs. By the time 1968 rolled around, we were good enough to drive to Des Moines and take on my former players, who were now being coached by Bob Helmick and Tom Cady. The Des Moines men, with Bob playing a star role, again hosted the YMCA Men’s Championships. This time it was seven-per-side, using a larger pool, and Des Moines defeated St. Louis and Omaha and others to finish in first place. Bob was now the leader of the Des Moines polo program, but maybe I could claim half-credit for their winning the Y’s men’s title. Wha’dya think?
Author’s Note: This was an Olympic year, and once again I flew out to California and spent a week watching and grading the Men’s Senior Nationals, in which our best U.S. players were preparing for the Games at Mexico City. Some of us were housed in a nice motel, and my roommate was the famed Belgian referee, Abe Fuchs, who subsequently officiated the gold medal game between the USSR and Yugoslavia at the 1968 Olympics.
The U.S. Olympic Trials in water polo, or any sport, are something special. The Detroit ace, Tom Sullivan, recalls his participation in the ‘60s: “We had the Eastern swimming and water polo tryouts in New York City … and to be considered for water polo’s Olympic training camp that followed, you had to play two positions during the tournament. Though I usually did play two positions, I was an All-American as a goalie, and since I was on a relatively weak team, I never left the cage the whole tourney and thus was technically ineligible, even though I received two votes.
“We were out of the tournament so fast – three straight losses to the top three seeds – that we were kicked out of our hotel, and I spent the middle week of the Trials hanging around to catch the swimming competition. I slept in the Times Square movie houses, which stayed open until 4 a.m. I remember scalping tickets to the World’s Fair, also going on at that time, to get money to eat at delis.
“Two or three years later,” Tom has written, “the pattern of high hopes disintegrating into humiliation continued, as the euphoria of being picked for the Pan-American all-star water polo tour quickly fizzled into cancellations owing to politics between Brazil and Canada and the U.S.”
Tom Sullivan, known to everyone as Sully, is a very unique fellow, cerebral by nature, a writer by profession, with athletic and artistic and musical talents, and I’m still in touch with him today, 40 years later. He resides in a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul, not far from where Lee and I once lived. He recently had a photo of himself playing goalie in the 1960s on his personal web-site, and if you’d like to be added to the mailing list for his colorful mid-month newsletter that goes out all over the world, you can email him at [email protected].
Returning to water polo in the Midwest in the late ‘60s, both the Des Moines YMCA and Western Illinois University conducted Olympic Development Clinics. I cannot recall all the details, except that Pete Cutino from California was one of the guest coaches. Our Canton men and boys participated at both of these clinics. Western Illinois also hosted a NAIA (national small college) tournament. It was semi-official, with four teams entered. I remember refereeing several of the games.
We also conducted the first-ever YMCA Women’s National Championships, which I talked Jack Simon, the swimming coach at the Belleville, Illinois, Y into hosting. We played five-per-side in Belleville’s small indoor pool. Davenport took top honors, with Des Moines second, Canton third, and Belleville fourth. The results were less important to me than the fact that women’s water polo was showing a slow but steady growth nationally.
Ah, this was the year – 1969 – that our Canton water polo boys were ready to make their mark nationally. That’s the way I felt, anyway. While no longer remembering the exact score of every game, I know our Y team concluded the eight-month-long 1968-69 indoor season with a record of 21 victories and only two defeats. Or maybe it was three, depending on how you look at it.
Despite having just two seniors on the roster, our boys were becoming quite proficient, and I thought they needed to be challenged, so I invited the Ridge Park team from Chicago to come and play in our small, all-shallow pool. Jim Mulcrone was the Ridge Park coach. He was a good guy, but when he arrived in Canton with his team, I discovered that he’d brought a Chicago Park District all-star squad with players from several teams. When I raised my eyebrows, he smiled and said, “We heard your Canton boys are pretty good, Chuck, and we didn’t want to take any chances.”
To be blunt, the Chicagoans stuck it to us in our own pool by a score of 15-to-8. They were older, faster, bigger, better. When it was over, I gathered the Y boys around me and gave them an encouraging pep talk. Altogether, counting everyone, we had a group of about 15 or 16, most of whom had been involved since I’d arrived in late August of 1966. It was a very ordinary group, average-sized at best, and all of them mediocre swimmers. But they were a determined bunch. Senior Randy Bugos played hole forward. He was quick-handed and clever and possessed an amazing array of shots from close-in. Senior Dan Beadles, our strongest, swiftest swimmer who was called “a tiger in the tank” by one opposing coach, and junior Marty Brown played in mid-pool. They swam and passed well, covered on defense, and when the opportunity presented itself, could score from outside. Junior Curt Putman anchored our defense. He was stocky and tough to displace, and when the opposition was least expecting it, he’d sneak up-pool and hit his shots. Junior Terry Bohanan was our goalie. He was tall and pretty good at blocking opposing shots, after which he had a quick release to get our counterattacks started. The subs – Jerry Clark, Tim Jackson, Bud Lehnhausen, Mark Mellert, and Sam Neuschwanger – all young sophomores – were of about equal ability. Each of them practiced hard and gave it their all in the games.
Canton YMCA Boys Water Polo Team in 1969
Big Norm Eldridge, in his 20s, was my assistant coach. He stood 6-3 and weighed close to 300 pounds. A slow but steady swimmer, he nonetheless could play every position in the pool with skill, and we used him in most of our scrimmages. Dave Grigsby started out as our team manager, and he was a major asset. He helped me with all the little details, and he served as an extra goalie whenever we needed one. He then moved up to be an assistant coach, with Fred Duquesne coming on board as our new manager. We also had three young men from the community who would come to practice whenever I asked them. They were involved with other Y activities and were not very good at water polo, but their participation gave us enough to scrimmage if we were short-handed. Their names were Gene Beasley, Les Fulton, and Bill Waldorf. This then was the totality of our Canton YMCA boys team – 10 players, one coach, a couple of assistant coaches and managers, plus three others who came and helped out when needed. It was a dedicated and tightly-knit band of brothers.
We practiced for 90 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout the school year, and if we didn’t have a swim meet or water polo game scheduled for Saturday afternoon, we generally had a third weekly practice at that time, with our small group of water polo girls also attending. Our girls included Lin Carter as hole forward, Billie Fernetti and Libby Hensley in mid-pool, April Conner back on defense, and Dee Payne as goalie. Nancy Rist, an excellent basketball player but a slow swimmer, was our lone substitute.
After our loss to the visitors from Chicago, our boys needed to regroup quickly because the University of Illinois men’s water polo club was coming to town. As the game unfolded, I thought we had a better all-around team than the collegians, but they had a 22-year-old hole forward from Europe who’d enjoyed a lot of international success in the sport. He was very good. We slowed him down but couldn’t stop him completely, and he scored five goals in a 7-to-5 Illini victory.
Other than these two games, our boys were stellar. During the lengthy indoor season, they easily beat the other YMCA boys teams in Illinois – Belleville, Kewanee, Macomb, Monmouth, Sterling, Streator – and they won at Davenport and Muscatine in Iowa. We also took a long weekend trip to Des Moines, playing and winning four games there. Des Moines had an excellent Hi-Y league, dominated by Tech High School. We handed the Tech boys their first defeat in two or maybe three years.
This was followed by a week-long spring vacation trip to Winnipeg, Canada, where we again played and won four games.
Back home, we were invited to visit nearby Peoria and take on the Richwoods High School boys team. Richwoods was strong in swimming – a perennial state power, led by two state champions – and they were convinced that with just a few weeks of serious water polo practicing, they could sock it to the slower small-town kids from – where was it again? – oh, yes, little Canton. And where was that, exactly?
We drove to Peoria on a weekday night with a couple of our best players left behind to complete their homework assignments, leaving us with just eight players for the seven-per-side game in the fancy Richwoods High pool. In fact, their swift swimmers didn’t do badly at all, and they had a referee who was – well, you know how it goes – and we struggled somewhat to win, 8-to-5. Our boys felt good as we returned home because it was unusual for any sports team from “little Canton” to defeat a team from big-city Peoria.
Having held the annual YMCA Men’s National Championships since 1958 and having started the YMCA Women’s Championships in 1967, we figured it was time to conduct a separate YMCA Nationals just for high school boys ages 18-and-under. So we hosted such an event in Canton. It was very, Very low key. After all, we were playing five-per-side in our small, all-shallow pool. But at the time, water polo was such a minor and unknown sport everywhere in the country except for California and in a few mammoth metro communities that anything we did to promote it was a plus.
We had six teams entered from four states – Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Missouri. St. Louis Carondelet YMCA was favored. We knew we had to beat Des Moines in order to challenge St. Louis in the finals. While we had whipped four of their Hi-Y teams on our trip to Des Moines, we realized it would be tougher this time because their entry at the Nationals was comprised of the Best boys from ALL of their Hi-Y programs. We expected a close game, but our Canton boys blew it open in the second half and won with ease.
We weren’t as fortunate against St. Louis, as they beat us by a couple of goals. A few weeks later, we learned that they’d used two players who were high school grads and 19 or 20 years of age, including one who was their star player. This type of deviousness was uncommon in YMCA competition, and we didn’t want to raise a fuss that would make Y water polo look bad. But I shared the situation with a few others in the water polo world, and when the American Swimming Coaches Association announced its top collegiate, high school, and YMCA water polo teams for the 1968-69 school year in Swimming World magazine, Canton was ranked first, Des Moines second, Brooklyn Central third, and St. Louis Carondelet fourth among all Y boys teams in the U.S. We had a nice banquet and presented official ASCA certificates to the Canton boys for being the legal and legitimate YMCA national champions, and we also announced that Canton’s two seniors, Dan Beadles and Randy Bugos, had been selected for prep All-America honors.
The season wasn’t over. There was still the annual YMCA Men’s Championships, to be held at a Y pool in St. Louis. This was to be followed by the YMCA Women’s Championships, to be held at the Y pool in East St. Louis.
We now had a good men’s team because three of the star players from Western Illinois University had joined the Canton YMCA and were practicing with us one night weekly. They were Jim Runkle, a rough and tough hole forward; Mike Shanahan, a very fast and clever mid-pool player; and Dave Viar, an excellent goalie. Filling out our lineup for this five-per-side tournament were Fred Smiser, the strong player from Canton’s Spoon River Community College, and some old guy – yeah, it was yours truly, participating in my final tourney. Of interest is the fact that our substitute goalie was a black gentleman by the name of Del Patterson. He was in his 30s and wasn’t much of a swimmer, but he did an outstanding job of defending the cage, especially at the shallow end of the pool. Another sub was Big Norm Eldridge, whom I’ve mentioned previously as being my assistant coach for the boys team.
There were eight teams entered in the YMCA men’s competition from five states. St. Louis Downtown finished first, St. Louis Carondelet second, Canton third, and Des Moines, the defending champion, with Bob Helmick still in the mix as its player-coach, fourth. I remember guarding Bob a few times and poking him in the ribs whenever I could. Hey, that’s the way the game is played, right?
In the late ‘60s, we thought the best YMCA women’s and girls’ teams were in the Midwest, but we were wrong. Davenport was again favored to win the Y Nationals at East St. Louis, and we were all surprised when a very fast team of teenaged girls came from the Dad’s Club YMCA of Houston, Texas, and won in a breeze. Coached by Don Atwood, they were simply superb. Davenport was runner-up, followed by Belleville, Canton, and hosting East St. Louis.
I was proud of our Canton YMCA water polo girls. They were not swift competitive swimmers, and they practiced just once weekly, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with the boys, and they all participated in various other Y activities. I liked working with them, and they were always pleasant and cooperative, playing a role in the continuing expansion of the sport for members of the fairer sex. April Conner and Dee Payne both made the all-tournament team at the Y National Championships, which was a well-deserved honor.
An article I wrote appeared in the June, 1969, issue of the Journal of Physical Education, the Y’s national magazine. It was entitled “YMCA Water Poloists Visit Mexico, Canada,” and it went like this: “South to Mexico. North to Canada. Two energetic YMCA water polo clubs traveled in opposite directions this past spring to visit neighboring countries.
“The Des Moines, Iowa, Y poloists, under the supervision of volunteer coach Bob Helmick, filled a 40-passenger bus with 32 players, plus Helmick and several other adult leaders, and took off on a nine-day southern tour. Most of the players were high school boys from the six high schools that are involved in the Des Moines Hi-Y water polo program. While on this trip, the adventurers played a total of 13 games against AAU, YMCA, and college opponents from various Oklahoma and Texas communities. The Des Moines ‘A’ team won four games and lost just one, while the ‘B’ and ‘C’ units copped six victories while being beaten but twice. Highlight was the ‘A’ team’s 9-to-1 dunking of the Houston Water Polo Club, reputed to be the best in Southwest AAU circles.
“When not playing polo, the Des Moines group visited ranches, watched oil drills operating, enjoyed a lengthy tour of the Manned Flight Space Center in Houston, took a look inside the famed Astrodome, frolicked on the Gulf Coast beaches, and spent two days across the border in Mexico. For half of the travelers, it was their initial opportunity to set foot on foreign soil.
“Coach Helmick said there weren’t any problems except for a few cases of sunburn. He explained that the Y was using water polo not only to improve physical fitness and teach teamwork and good sportsmanship but also to educate the boys in the program. This was their fourth long trip, he added, with more scheduled in the future.
“While the Des Moines poloists were being sunburned, a team of youthful water polo players from the Canton, Illinois, YMCA, under the direction of this writer, was freezing in Canada. Our seven-day trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, via train put us into that beautiful city just as a cold spell brought chilling winds and a temperature of MINUS seven degrees.
“Within minutes of our arrival, however, we were warmed by the hospitality of the staff members and lay leaders from the St. James YMCA, who served as our hosts. These fine people stopped at nothing to make our visit a memorable success. We were able to watch a professional ice hockey game and some curling competition. We dined one night at the home of the St. James coach. We visited a high school and sat in on classes, went sight-seeing at the planetarium and zoo, and swam and played in the famed Pan-Am pool. We had a small party and dance thrown in our honor. And we met the mayor.
“As for the water polo competition, our team of teenaged boys, averaging 16 years of age, won all four games it played, including a smashing 10-to-0 triumph over the Winnipeg Central YMCA Dolphins, champions of the Manitoba Province Junior League.
“Back home, the Des Moines and Canton poloists met in a YMCA tourney, where they shared experiences and played each other. Result of the game was a Canton victory, 11-to-5.”
We played more in the summer of 1969 than in the previous two summers. This was because the AAU was in the process of introducing its new Junior Olympic water polo program. Dave Rivenes from Miles City, Montana, was heading up this effort, and Bob Helmick and I, as the respective chairs of the AAU’s Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Committees, were assisting. In fact, Bob and Co. were planning to conduct the first-ever JO Championships at the outdoor pool in West Des Moines in mid-August. There would be a single age category for boys and for girls, which was 15-and-under.
We didn’t have enough younger girls to field a JO team in Canton, but we did have a good group of up-and-coming boys. This included Jerry Clark, Mike Davidson, Bud Lehnhausen, Tom Jackson, Mark Mellert, and Sam Neuschwanger. We brought in a new goalie. He was Denny Brown, the younger brother of Marty, and he happened to be about 6-4 and a young basketball star. In the Junior Olympic games we played that summer – perhaps the first contested anywhere in the U.S. – no one could touch us. We won six in a row against the Sheridan Swim Club of Quincy, Galesburg, Kewanee, Macomb, and two others.
The inaugural Junior Olympic Championships were conducted as scheduled in West Des Moines with entries from coast to coast. Finishing first in the boys category was Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with Des Moines second and Chicago third. Taking top honors in the girls competition was Portland, Oregon, with Des Moines second, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, third.
Had we entered our Canton 15-and-unders in the JO Championships, we quite probably would have contended with our two Midwest rivals, Des Moines and Chicago, for a medal. But we’ll never know, because I was on my way out the door.
After three years in Canton, I figured it was time for me to move on. It had been a good experience. I had provided leadership for the Y boys flag football league each autumn and had started and coached a wintertime girls basketball team. Each summer I directed the youth day camp, which included canoeing instruction and racing. I had organized several boys and girls clubs and classes, and I’d supervised all of the aquatic activities – the learn-to-swim sessions, most of which I taught myself on a daily basis, plus the new synchronized swimming and scuba courses, with the former taught by Libby Hensley and the latter by Jim Watts, plus the water polo.
I’m sure my boss at Canton, Mike Chianakas, thought I was spending too much time with water polo, but I don’t think so. Of the 45 to 50 hours I generally worked each week for the YMCA, I suppose 10 hours were devoted to water polo. Was that too much ‘Y time’ to give to the men, boys, and girls who were playing polo?
Whenever I took off in the summer months for my national water polo obligations, I used my own vacation time and money. I figure I was spending another 10 hours weekly of ‘my time’ on the sport. I have no regrets for doing what I did.
I was an active member of Canton’s Presbyterian Church, where I taught Sunday School classes for youngsters and was elevated to the position of Elder, which meant I was part of the governing board. I was also a member of the Kiwanis Club, from which I received a small plaque proclaiming that I was a “Community Leader of America.” My wife Lee, while raising our infant daughter Heather and supporting me and my endeavors, started a women’s singing club in town that performed from time to time and drew great praise. We enjoyed our three years in Canton and feel that we contributed our share to the town and to the Y.
Nevertheless I could sense that it was time for me to move on after having gotten the “small town experience” I was seeking in order to further my YMCA career. I interviewed at two Ys that expressed an immediate interest in my dual capabilities in aquatics and youth programming. The first was at Alton, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis. This was attractive because I could become more directly involved with St. Louis water polo, which was outstanding. The second was at Monroe, Michigan, not far from Detroit. This too was attractive because it meant I could become more directly involved with Detroit water polo, which also was outstanding. But as much as I loved the sport of water polo, I was concerned primarily with pursuing my professional YMCA career. So I headed South.
Next Month: Chapter Four – YMCA Boys Water Polo in Asheville, NC, 1969-1978