My dad was a brainiac. He didn't finish high school. Instead he took the entrance exams for the University of Chicago after his junior year and scored in the top ten of the eight hundred or so entering freshmen. You could do that back in the day. So he never had to bother with a high school diploma. He went straight to college at sixteen, graduated, then got an M.D. In fact, he got his M.D. in only two years. Later he joined a group of doctors who only talked among themselves, the Freudian psychoanalysts. I think they're nearly extinct, but during their heyday, there were only about 2000 of them. If you've ever tried to read any psychoanalytic literature you know they had their own secret language. Probably some secret handshakes too. Dad used to tell us that he had lettered in chess in college, probably so we could be proud of something that we could relate to. An "athletic" achievement of sorts.
Later, as an adult, he became a pretty good tennis player. He even won a tournament at 79. But as a kid he had his nose in a book most of the time, I'm sure. My mom was the parental unit with athletic skills. Basketball and tennis mostly. There weren't health clubs on the farm roads of southern Delaware during the depression, so she had to make do with shooting hoops on the side of a barn and learning to play tennis after she left the farm to attend nursing school.
As the sixteen-year-old valedictorian of her class, I'm sure she wanted to go to college -- anything to escape her hardscrabble life. But her family could only afford nursing school, so, after her mother lied about her age on the application [you had to be 18], she headed for the big city, Philadelphia, to get her R.N. If all went according to plan, she'd graduate with an MRS.
Nursing was one of the few professions, besides teaching and typing, that reputable young ladies with limited resources could count on for a legitimate source of income, while they auditioned to be someone's wife. Unfortunately, she was jilted by her doctor fiance, heartlessly, over the phone. Losing out to a very rich bitch, she decided to head for Chicago.
Fast forward a few years and she had hooked up with my dad, also a doctor, married him, and made three babies. During her two minutes of free time, she used to take me with her to a practice gym while she shot baskets. I tried to shoot baskets too, but the backboard looks like the top of the Empire State Building when you're four. She also let me chase tennis balls during her lessons on the portable wood courts under the stands of Stagg Fieldhouse on the U of C campus. A family tradition, I also took my kids with me to dozens of tennis, softball and volleyball tournaments. It's what every jock mom with little kids does. Oh wait, they've got nannies now.
By now you're wondering where is this ramble headed? That makes two of us. Let's see if I can segue into the reason for all this blah blah blah.
When I was sixteen I wasn't the valedictorian of my class. I didn't score off the charts on my SATs either. I was lucky to pass my driver's license test. While my mother and I were close, my father and I were on different planets. I spent a lifetime butting heads with him, even the month before he died. At sixteen I was tall and pretty enough to be a model, but, for some reason I had a shorter, nerdy guy with black rimmed glasses for a father. And this really bothered me. If there was anything I wished for, it was to have a cool dad. At least one who was taller than I was.
Then I found him. He was someone else's dad, but I remember thinking, I wish that was my pop. His name was Jack Riley, my girlfriend's giant, athletic father. For a six foot girl who was taller than her own dad, Jack Riley was a revelation to me. Part Scandanavian, he was six-three, at least, with a big shock of wavy, blond hair. He made my dad look like Arnold Stang. Jack Riley was a high school, college, and Olympic athlete who had married the Northwestern Homecoming Queen. He was the NCAA heaveyweight wrestling champion two years in a row. An All-American in football twice on Big Ten championship teams. A silver medalist at the Olympics. He was a cool guy. And he had stories to tell. Dozens of them. Cool guys always have stories. My dad didn't seem to have any.
Hanging around the Riley house I got to hear lots of stories, sometimes more than once. My fondest memory is of Friday nights, watching Mr. Riley make himself a "highball," settle into his easy chair, take a few sips of his drink, and then proceed to regale me with tales from his glorious past. I soaked it all up for as long as I could.
Over the years I've stayed in touch and become friends with my girlfriend's little brother. She moved out of state and I only see her at reunions. He lives here and we've even done business together. He also knows how much I liked his dad, so he recently sent me something he found about his father, knowing I'd get a kick out of it.
What's most amusing is that this cartoonish rendition of Jack Riley looks nothing like him. Interestingly, I had no idea he had invented some kind of wrestling move that was so successful it was banned from competition.
Now that's wa-a-a-ay cool.
Jack Riley was inducted into the college football Hall of Fame in 1988. Here's his picture and bio:
John Horn [Jack] Riley, one of four brothers to play football for Northwestern University, was a key man in the school's glory years. Northwestern had a 20-5-1 record and won two Big Ten championships in his time. By later standards, Jack Riley would be considered a small tackle, at 6-2 and 218-pounds. But in 1931 he was the biggest man named to the All-America team. Riley wrestled at Northwestern and was the national collegiate heavyweight champion in 1931 and 1932. He also won a silver medal in wrestling in the 1932 Olympics. His third sport was rowing, and he captained a championship crew for St. John's Military Academy in 1927. Riley played pro football two years with the Boston Redskins and was a professional wrestler two years. He retired undefeated after 132 pro bouts. He entered the U.S. Marines in World War II and rose to the rank of major. After the war he worked as a manufacturer's representative, living in Kenilworth, Illinois, and for ten years, 1948-1957, was the Northwestern University wrestling coach.