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History Lesson: Chic Harley – the unsung hero of Columbus who had a hand in shaping OSU football

Doug Motz Doug Motz History Lesson: Chic Harley – the unsung hero of Columbus who had a hand in shaping OSU football
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A great deal of this current History Lesson can be attributed to my friend Jim Flynn. He sent me an e-mail on September 12 that in part reads:

Please do a piece on Columbus Underground that focuses on specifically Olde Towne East. The WOSU documentary airs on 11/12 – A piece on Olde Towne East is long overdue.

Chic Harley. Fraternity portrait from 1917. 1918 MAKIO courtesy CHS.

He gave me many leads and I am so very appreciative of his enthusiastic support for a fantastic neighborhood. I regularly give tours of the core city including Olde Towne East for the Columbus Historical Society and a particular favorite area for me is East High School and Woodland Park.

Woodland is a beautiful street where many of the Supreme Court Justices had homes at the turn of last century. (They wanted to be near the Governor’s residence at 1234 East Broad Street and consequently, lawyers wanted to be near them and they built many of the beautiful homes along Hawthorne Park)

Woodland also was home to two of my favorite Columbus artists: Billy Ireland cartoonist for The Columbus Dispatch and Emerson Burkhart famous for drawing more people to his home-grown art shows on the nights that the Columbus Gallery of Arts would hold its own gallery openings.

Then I thought about the decades long tradition of the East High School Tiger Marching Band. Every football Friday night, the band would parade from East High School on Broad Street to their gridiron – Harley Field – at 1810 Greenway off Woodland.

East High School, circa 1912. Courtesy CML.

With all of these ideas rolling around my brain, the idea for this history lesson occurred to me – to write about the East High School Alumnus that particular field was named after. There is likely no other person in Columbus history that had such a catalytic effect on the entire 20th century culture and economy of our town.

Charles William Harley was born on September 15, 1895 and is the East High School football player that Harley Field is named for. An import to Columbus from the Windy City of Chicago, “Chic” gained that nickname because of his hometown. According to Bob Hunter in his fantastic book Chic, some kids he played with near his family home at 689 South Champion called him “Noisy” because in fact “he was a quiet kid” This skinny 150 pound kid stood just 5 foot 7 inches tall – and didn’t really get much bigger – hardly an imposing build for a football hero.

He was pressured into trying out for the East High School team, but in 1912 as a sophomore, he soon earned the position of quarterback and The Columbus Dispatch called Harley “a youngster who seems to be the most promising quarterback.” Spectators soon found out he could punt for 50 yards and run opening kick-offs 90 yards for touchdowns. His speed was legend and he could apparently run with a sense of timing and power like no other before or since.

The 1913 East High School Football Team. Courtesy Chic Harley Memorial Garden.

The East High School team couldn’t lose with Harley playing and grew nervous when the family decided to move back to Chicago at the end of Chic’s junior year. Principal John Harlor actually persuaded the family to allow Chic to stay behind and live in his own house across the street from the High School with his family through the end of his senior year.

After two undefeated seasons, Chic played mightily his Senior year losing only one game and settling for a tie during his last as the quarterback for East High School on Thanksgiving weekend of 1914 against Bellaire.

During his senior year he was “quietly recruited” by Notre Dame and the University of Michigan according to Hunter. Ultimately, he decided to attend OSU. Chic missed the first week of school and enrolled in general education classes. During his first scrimmage as an OSU football freshman against the Varsity squad, he scored a touchdown on a 75 yard run.

It may be hard to believe, but in 1915, football at OSU was not what it is today. In fact, the crowds that came to see Harley play at East were larger than the ones who attended OSU games. Chic played well for the freshman team, but it wouldn’t be until his later OSU career that he truly blazed like the star he would become.

On October 7, 1916, Chic started in his first game for the Varsity Buckeyes. Ohio Field could hold close to 10,000 spectators and the crowd that day was less than half of that. Imagine that the Dispatch called it one of the biggest crowds ever for a season opener against Ohio Wesleyan. The folks who attended the next game got to see a record made as OSU beat the Oberlin team 128-0. That record still stand today in 2012.

The entrance at Ohio Field, circa 1908. Courtesy CML.

The next game would be against Illinois and would be on Illini turf. The Illinois team hadn’t lost a conference game since 1913 and the 175 fans that traveled to Illinois to cheer on the Buckeyes got a real show complete with a breath-taking final play. OSU was down 6-0. With a minute ten seconds left, Chic faked a pass and ran between 13-20 mud-soaked yards to make a touchdown – tying the game. The Buckeyes could go for the extra point, but the rules in those days were different than today. Suffice it to say that they earned the right to go for the extra point, but the kickers that could normally been called in were unavailable.

Harley looked at the muddy field and his own muddy show and sauntered towards OSU trainer Doc Gurney.

“Give me a shoe” he is said to have uttered, and while Chic took his time changing shoes, the anxiety of the Illini crowd grew and grew. After lacing up the “fresh” shoe, Chic kicked it through the uprights and scored the winning point, allowing the bucks to win 7-6.

This type of scene was replayed against foe after foe and the crowds started to grow to watch Chic play. And on November 26, 1916 after an undefeated season including a win over Wisconsin, the Dispatch declared “Ohio, Champs of the West”

Accolade after accolade rolled in concerning Chic and his star power gave the much needed impetus for OSU Athletics Director Lynn St John, President William Oxley Thompson and Thomas French to begin to dream of a day when OSU would have a mighty stadium to host the best of the best on the field. According to Dick Johnson in his book Columbus Discovers Football, as early as

1905, new President Thompson at OSU had expressed his opinion that the faculty not only had the right but the duty to lead in all forms of college sports.

His OSU schoolmate James Thurber wrote of Chic:

“If you never saw him run with a football, we can’t describe it to you. It wasn’t like Red Grange or Tom Harmon or anybody else. It was kind of a cross between music and cannon fire, and it brought your heart up under your ears.”

Chic Harley in 1919 (MAKIO courtesy CHS) and an OSU Football Program (courtesy the author).

To add to his growing legend, OSU remained undefeated his sophomore and junior year. He would have gone straight into his senior year during 1918, but World War I intervened and Chic enlisted.

He trained in Texas to become a pilot, but after “borrowing” an army plane to visit and impress a lady friend he was thrown into solitary confinement. It took no less than the President of OSU and the Governor of Ohio to plead his case to effect his release so he could play for the 1919 football Buckeyes.

The 1919 OSU team. Courtesy Dick Johnson.

During his final year as a Buckeye, Chic traveled to Ann Arbor with the team to play his only game against Michigan. The Bucks had suffered only defeat to the wolverines to that point. In fact, in 1902, we actually lost with a score of 86 – zero! To say that the rivalry did not even exist previous to 1919 is something of an understatement.

Harley’s coach John Wilce started drilling the team in secret and during practices the week before began a familiar OSU tradition – he started the first “countdown” to playing Michigan.

According to Hunter, a big pep rally was held at the old OSU armory on the site where the Wexner Center stands today. A huge crowd of 3,000 people came to cheer on the team before they left for the train ride to Ann Arbor. Amidst the roar of the crowd, Chic Harley got up to speak and everything went silent and then erupted again with new zeal!

Ohio Field 1917. From 1918 MAKIO courtesy CHS.

Afterwards he is reported to have said – “ I never realized what a Michigan game was before tonight. That is, I never thought it was more than a Wisconsin or Illinois game. This crowd sure made the team feel like fighting harder than ever.”

It is said that 5,000 fans followed the team to Michigan to see them play one of the most pre-eminent teams of the time. They all hoped for an OSU victory and the team did not disappoint. OSU beat Michigan for the first time with Harley on the team 13-3.

A cartoon by Billy Ireland. Courtesy OSU Cartoon Research Library.

Harley, the first 3 time OSU All-American and undefeated gridiron master finally felt the only pangs of loss on his last game at OSU. Against the Illini, OSU lost 9-7 and Chic who had always been humble about taking any credit for a win, took all the blame for defeat and didn’t come out of the OSU locker room until well after midnight.

Chic would go on to play some professional football, including the team that would eventually “morph” into the Chicago Bears, but began to display some strange behavior. He would seem to behave normally and just as quickly, swerve to odd uncharacteristically aggressive behavior.

He would play now and again at exhibition games at OSU, but had nothing resembling a normal life in the 1920s or 1930s. His OSU friends actually had what they called the “Harley Fund” to try and take care of him since with his odd behavior he couldn’t hold down a job.

He traveled from town to town spending nights on his former teammates sofas until in 1938, he entered the Danville Illinois Veterans’ Hospital where he would spend the rest of his life.

From his early days playing for East High School, through to his final days as a senior citizen, he was the toast of Columbus. Fellow East-sider and Woodland Avenue resident Billy Ireland who had developed a major case of football fever regularly paid homage to him in his passing show column.

His OSU Schoolmate and Dispatch Journalist James Thurber wrote of Harley after the construction of Ohio Stadium in his poem When Chic Harley Got Away:

The years of football playing reach back a long, long way,
And the heroes are a hundred who have worn the red and gray;
You can name the brilliant players from the year the game began,
You can say that someone’s plunging was the best you ever saw – 
You can claim the boys now playing stage a game without a flaw –
But admit there was no splendor in all the bright array
Like the glory of the going when Chic Harley got away.

Perhaps, the greatest tribute ever paid to Chic during his life, was when he had recovered enough of his former self to be able to travel back to Columbus and attend the homecoming OSU Michigan game of 1948.  Twenty-nine years after his final game, 75,000 people turned out to welcome him home during a ticker tape parade from Union Station to the Deshler Wallick Hotel at the corner of Broad and High where One Columbus now stands. That was the equivalent of nearly 25% of the population of the city at the time!

During that game, the OSU Marching Band got into paying tribute as well. According to the official OSU Athletics Website:

“On several occasions, including at halftime of the Michigan game that day with Harley was in attendance, the band would open up the right side of the O’s in script Ohio to spell Chic.”

The site goes on to say of his passing:

It was a warm, sunny day in the spring of 1974 when he was laid to rest in Union Cemetery. Pallbearers were the 1974 Ohio State football captains, Archie Griffin, Pete Cusick, Neal Colzie and Steve Myers along with Kurt Schumacher.

“It was really an honor to be a pallbearer for the greatest player in Ohio State history,” Griffin said, noting Chic’s name still comes up from time to time on Griffin’s trips as president of the OSU Alumni Association. “Chic put Ohio State football on the map.”

The final number he wore #47, was retired by the Buckeyes on October 30, 2004.

Without Chic and the fans he drew to OSU football, the builders of Ohio Stadium would likely have never realized their dream. And without Ohio Stadium and the hundreds of thousands of fans it allowed to see touchdown after touchdown, how would the dominant force of college football in “Dear Old Columbus Town” ever have been born?

For me, he is one of the greatest unsung or forgotten heroes of Columbus – specifically Olde Towne East – who truly shaped the culture of Columbus into what it is today. It is my sincere wish that one day the City of Columbus or the Ohio State University will honor him with a tribute befitting someone of his enormous stature.

For further information:

Chic – by Bob Hunter

Columbus Discovers Football – by Dick Johnson

Columbus Neighborhoods – Olde Towne East – airing November 12 on WOSU

The Columbus Historical Society will be having a book sale on Thursday, November 29th where you can get these books and others. Books make great gifts for the holidays! Details here.

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