Otto Graham was not the flashiest of NFL quarterbacks. There are probably football fans today who have never heard of him. But from 1946 to 1955, he took his Cleveland Browns to the league’s title game every single year – 10 seasons, 10 title games. And the Browns won the title in seven of those games, at first in the All-America Football Conference and then in the NFL.
Graham was not glamorous; you may look at his picture wearing high top sneakers on a frozen field and chuckle. But he won that game. In fact, Graham never missed a game as a pro, and he finished his career with an amazing 105-17-4 regular-season record. In 1954, the Browns met the Lions for the title; Graham ran for three scores, threw for three more, for a 56-10 win.
The following summer, in August of 1955, Otto Graham was the guest of Tom Rich at the member-guest tournament at the Skaneateles Country Club. The men were old friends; they had played basketball together for the Rochester Royals in 1945-46. Yes, the Royals team that won the NBL championship in 1946, the year before the league reformed as the NBA. (Which makes Graham the only athlete to win national championships in both basketball and football.)
Graham and Rich, however, did not work their accustomed magic on the golf course, and lost in the first flight to the duo of Cliff Turner and John McDonald.
The following autumn, Graham was coaxed back to Cleveland for one more year and led the franchise to another championship, throwing for two scores and running for two more in a 38-14 win over the Rams in his final game. Named the NFL MVP for the second time, Graham retired from football at age 33, a champion, and surely the greatest gridiron hero to ever grace the links at the Skaneateles Country Club.
“The seeker for summer rest and recuperation will find the Utopia of his dreams in the lake region of central New York. Among these delightful ‘inland seas’ are seven beautiful lakes, ranging from ten to forty miles in length, with innumerable smaller, though no less attractive, bodies where boating, fishing and, in many cases, hunting, invite the summer sojourner.
“Among these lakes none is more beautiful than Skaneateles, which lies southwest of Syracuse, on the Auburn road. Its hilly, wooded banks are wonderfully picturesque and there is not a foot of its sixteen miles that is not beautiful and enchanting. It is an ideal spot for boating, and its dancing waters are dotted with countless white sails during the season, and until long after the appearance of ‘the orange tints that gild the greenest boughs.'”
— Photograph and text from “Woodland Paths and Waterways” in The Four-Track News, July 1902
In 1845, Charles Tallman married Elizabeth Peck in Skaneateles. He was 46, a businessman from Syracuse; she was 27, the daughter of Noah Peck. Her sister, Caroline, was married to Daniel Earll of Skaneateles, and eventually the two men went into business together, investing in a distillery. At the time, anyone with money could make more money by investing in a distillery; it was akin to printing your own currency. Tallman kept up his investments in Syracuse as well, including the Syracuse & Geddes Railway, a street-car company.
Later in life, as a man of wealth and position, Tallman sat for a bust of himself. The sculptor was Richard Henry Park (1832–1902), best known today for his monument to Edgar Allan Poe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Drake Fountain in Chicago. Park usually worked in New York City and Florence, Italy, but in 1877, he spent the summer at 59 South Salina Street in Syracuse. In a temporary studio, he accepted commissions, sculpted the local worthies and entertained “prominent citizens” who came to see the artist at work. After being sculpted in clay, the busts were sent to Park’s studio in Florence to be finished in marble by stone cutters.
Charles Tallman died in 1880, and somehow his bust made its way to the Onondaga Historical Society. I believe it led a quiet life until it was kidnapped in 1950, and, like the garden gnome in Amélie, began to see the world.
Reported stolen on April 14th, 1950, the errant statue was first turned up, literally, by Frank Still, who was operating a bulldozer on the property of Edgar Snitchler in Hamilton, N.Y. A helpful fellow, Mr. Still moved the statue, said to weigh between two and three hundred pounds, to his employer’s front porch. Mr. Snitchler suspected the statue had come to his farm as the result of a college prank, with the culprits burying the evidence when it became too hot to handle, or too heavy. He picked up the phone and called nearby Colgate University.
A Colgate art professor and the school’s archivist came out to have a look, but they were baffled. And before anyone could do more detective work, the statue vanished again.
Two days later, Charles Tallman’s likeness turned up at Harvard, apparently conveyed there by some exceptionally brawny Colgate students. It was offered to officials at Harvard’s Fogg Museum, but they would not accept the purloined bust. Snubbed, the bust was moved to M.I.T. and the steps of Walker Memorial Hall, where it was abandoned. There, the Harvard Crimson reported, “an art-loving janitor took it in tow, and presented it to puzzled M.I.T. officials, who had absolutely no idea where Charles Tallman came from, who he was, or what to do with him.”
The Cambridge police stepped in, carried the bust to the station house on a canvas stretcher, and after reviewing a New York State Police report, called the Syracuse Police and told them to come and retrieve their statue, which they did. Today the bust rests again at the Onondaga Historical Society in the company of a dozen other elderly members of the marble brethren, not on display, but safe from unscheduled overnights.
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“A Work of Art,” Syracuse Daily Courier, August 19, 1877; “Statue from Syracuse Receives Snub Here,” Harvard Crimson, May 22, 1950; “Case of Stolen Bust Cloaked in Mystery,” Binghamton Press, May 22, 1950; “Stolen Syracuse Bust Is Found on MIT Campus,” The (Gloversville) Morning Herald, May 23, 1950.
I’m always interested in visits to Skaneateles by well known people, but this one caught me by surprise. Who would have thought the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale would appear at the Skaneateles Country Club? His July 7, 1986, visit was prompted by Ken Blanchard, who graces the lake’s shore during the summer months. Blanchard, the hyper-prolific co-author of The One Minute Manager, et al, was working with Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, on a book called The Power of Ethical Management. As a part of the process, Blanchard shared drafts of the book with 75 interested parties and invited them all to the Country Club to share their thoughts with the authors. The 87-year-old Peale, who usually wrote alone and ended his book projects with a simple prayer, found the mid-stream input of 75 would-be editors to be something out of the ordinary, but apparently took it all in stride.
During World War II, Dr. Sydney Stringer, a Syracuse surgeon, was called up for duty in the U.S. Army. In 1944, he went overseas, arriving in North Africa in May. Back in the States, his wife and four children waited for his return. Also considered a member of the family was Eula Mae Jordan, who Helen Stringer described as “my faithful friend and first assistant in the unpredictable care of our fast-growing family.” The correspondence between Sydney Stringer and Helen Dann Stringer was collected in 1997 in a volume entitled Letters of Love and War: A World War II Correspondence, edited by Mrs. Stringer.
It is an extraordinary collection; I was drawn to it because of the stateside family’s rental of a cottage on West Lake Road in the summer of 1944, a time when Dr. Springer had followed the battle lines to Italy. Here are a few excerpts:
Skaneateles Lake, July 2, 1944, V-Mail
We are here at last! … after the children were tucked in I made up the bed on the sleeping porch, hopped into it between our very own sheets and went to sleep hours before dark. The cottage is quite isolated, seems more so since the leaves have come out.
1 a.m., July 3, 1944
Nancy started to bleed from the tonsillar bed about seven o’clock tonight. I called Dr. Dolan in Skaneateles who said he had nothing here to work with and that I should get her into the hospital in Syracuse. We have no telephone here so old Mr. Bentley who lives next door in a ramshackled cottage helped me literally break into a cottage where I could see there was a phone. Called Dr. O’Connor who told me to bring her right away… She seemed fine as I left her sleeping on the children’s ward again. I drove back about 4 a.m. with the moon shining on the road all the way.
“Skanny” as Dann says, July 5, 1944
The lake is beautiful. This side has high cliffs. Down at the shore the children have found an old flat-bottomed boat. They had a fine time rocking in it as they ‘sailed to Italy’ to see you.
Sunday morning, July 9, 1944
I’m down on the stones by the lake in the sunshine with the children this morning. David is perched on the prow of the beached boat swishing an oar in the water and having a wonderful time. He’s getting husky and tanned and big. Looks much older than a year and a half…
And later–once again it is night. The children have been asleep since seven o’clock. The storm threatened so I put all the lawn chairs on the porch and piled up the pillows. So far a good stiff wind has cooled us without a drop of rain. White caps suddenly appeared on the lake. And now thunder, as the lights go off. Not even a flicker. In spite of everything I treasure this comparative solitude. Besides catching up on my own equanimity, it is giving me a perfect setting for being close to the children again as I want to.
July 18, 1944
Good morning. The morning sun is shimmering in a pathway across the lake. It’s seven o’clock and cool. And now down to breakfast of pancakes and bacon while the children toast their toes in front of the fire.
Dann and Dick have figured out a way to play basketball by throwing a big rubber ball into the wood basket. It is so good to have imaginations take over and to let them run more or less loose.
I took Danny out alone in the rowboat for his first lesson. He did very well–fine coordination. Very proud of himself. All the youngsters are re-tanning, look marvelous.
We are off for a walk up to the main road by the lane to the cow pasture. Stopped yesterday to watch the sheep. Danny thought the brown hens were white hens which had gotten sunburned!
July 26, 1944
I drove the car down close to the cottage tonight to unload the ice. You should see me heave a 50-pound block into the ancient ice box. Afterward I found David on top of the kitchen table on all fours with the cookie jar open and his mouth filled.
July 29, 1944
The children have been in the water twice daily–loving it. After the morning dip we all walked up to the farm to buy two chickens and a dozen eggs. Down into the cellar we went to watch the farm hand clean the birds. Dick looked at the pail of entrails and whispered he never knew chickens had so many worms. Life is a constant revelation to him.
July 31, 1944
The month here has been healthy for all of us. I am on an evener keel. The children sleep soundly, look tanned and beautiful, eat heartily and are even learning to do a few chores.
August 8, 1944
Yesterday did you hear us all singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to you as we rode along the West Lake road to town?
August 18, 1944, One a.m.
The Hand family heard about my broken foot. Stopped in with their children. Invited me to see a movie in Auburn on the Life of Mark Twain. It was raining hard when we returned. You should have seen me sliding down the muddy hill. Even my crutch skidded! We had a good laugh.
August 21, 1944
Wish you could see the baby toad Danny captured in a jar this morning. Name is John. And the bugs he catches to feed him! Tonight they are all up in the field catching grasshoppers. They don’t need toys.
August 23, 1944, Skaneateles at night
We all went into town yesterday–to the library. It was good to see the four of them sitting at a little table looking at picture books. And David was as gentle as he turned the pages as the rest. Dick kept trying to whisper because he was in the ‘Liberry.’ Then to the drugstore for ice cream cones.
August 31, 1944
This note comes from a ‘Jitter Bug Joint’ outside the village. After seeing a mediocre movie, Fran McC. and I are watching a bunch of local youngsters and their sailor partners sway to music without taking a step. One of the aspects of this behavior is to look as bored as possible.
September 10, 1944
From now on I know what mopping-up operations entail. Yesterday when I came back from town the entire interior of this house and everything in it was covered with a heavy layer of SOOT–black, oily, sticky, smearing. Something went flooey with the kerosene water heating system while we were gone and it simply vomited black evil all over the place. Oily soot filtered into drawers upstairs leaving a layer of the stuff on all the clean clothes. What with three babies with diarrhea–and me too–and no Eula Mae. I have scrubbed and mopped and mopped and scrubbed today until I broke the mop! The worst moment was when we first came into the house. I sat down on the sooty couch with my white cast suddenly black and began to cry. All four of our children stood in front of me–laughing. Nancy, bless her, said quietly, “Mother, you look so funny when you cry.”
September 15, 1944
I never realized until today, when I took a car full of duffle into the house, how very glad I am to be actually going home and that we have a home to go to rather than an apartment or a room with kitchen privileges! The children are all better today and eager to see home again.
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On September 16, 1944, the family returned to their house in Syracuse, which had been rented to other tenants. Sydney Stringer returned to the United States and was reunited with his family in Syracuse on August 5, 1945.
I can’t say enough about this book. It’s a remarkable collection of letters, a wonderful story.