Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 5, 2012

A story is where you find it

Occasionally people will ask where I get my inspirations for columns. It's really a matter of just being observant ... or in this case, not being observant!

Last weekend was husband Art's 50th high school class reunion. He has only attended one other, largely because making the 700-mile trip just did not work well into various family activities. But a bit more than a year ago, he was asked to work on a reminisce piece for this year's reunion and so he planned to attend. Since it is beautiful in Wisconsin this time of year, I decided I would go along.

He went up in early September so he could put finishing touches on his project, but because of my work at the university, I couldn't break away until a couple of days before the reunion. While not being quite sure what to expect, I was pretty certain it would be good fodder for a column.

The trees were beautiful and we also had a bear-just-outside-the-car-window experience that also stimulated some ideas for a column. But I remained convinced it was the reunion that would be the subject this week.

But now it appears it will be another week's column because something else happened and it is a good example of how a story can be right under your nose and you still look right past it.

Over the years, we have on any number of occasions welcomed some and said "goodbye" to others at the little Rhinelander airport near our place in Wisconsin. When our German exchange student and subsequently "adopted" daughter Nadja arrived for the 2005 school year, it was Rhinelander she flew into as we wanted her to spend her first two weeks with her American family at our cottage in northern Wisconsin.

Like most small airports, there isn't really much to look at. You would have thought over the years that we would have inspected every inch of the place. But between the single entrance and exit doors is a wooden bust that none of us had ever bothered to look at - until now.

And why would we? In the North Woods, such monuments are usually made to exciting events such as the invention of the snowmobile. While folks who live in the northern tier of states are intrigued by snowmobiles, they're not very high on the list of things most Kansans spend time thinking about.

But for some reason, this time the bust caught our eyes. It was not about the inventor of the snowmobile or any other somewhat obscure figure. The bust was of none other than John William Heisman. Even people who don't care about movies have heard of the Oscar. Non-music lovers know what a Grammy is. And most people know that the best player in all of college football is awarded the John William Heisman Trophy.

But who the heck was Heisman and why is his bust in a small town airport in northern Wisconsin?

Internet sources say John William Heisman was an American player and coach of football, basketball, and baseball. He was the head football coach at Oberlin College, the University of Akron, Auburn University, Clemson University, Georgia Tech, the University of Pennsylvania, Washington & Jefferson College and Rice University. His coaching record was 186 wins against 70 losses. His 1917 Georgia Tech football team was selected as the national champion. He also is credited with many of the game's innovations, such as dividing each contest into four quarters and promoting the selection through a voting process of the sport's outstanding player.

And his wife Ethel was from Rhinelander!

So when Heisman died from pneumonia in 1936 in his Manhattan, New York apartment, she wanted him buried in Rhinelander.

And so, that is how perhaps the most recognizable name in college football came to have a bust in a little airport in northern Wisconsin.

Top, left: Heisman, middle: Heisman bust in Rhinelander airport, right: Forest Home cemetery in Rhinelander; lower left: John Heisman's tombstone

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