The grisly Rule of Three recently pervaded the Kansas University athletic family and claimed a trio of stalwarts — Bob Frederick, Martha Sue Harp and Jack Mitchell. If you’re in the dark, legend has it that The Reaper grabs notables in threes.
• First to go was Bob Frederick, the former athlete, coach, athletic director and sterling citizen. A bicycling accident did it; at only 69 Bob had a lot more years to give an appreciative society.
You lose people you’ve written about and admire and there’s a tendency to sift through notes and quotes that make you laugh and cry at the same time. Freddy always chuckled when reminded he was, indeed, a White Shadow as a 1960-61 KU junior.
Texas Western gets undue credit for establishing the black athlete in college basketball in 1966. Kansas with Maurice King and Wilt Chamberlain (1957) were far in the forefront along with San Francisco (1955-56). Consider the all-black All-America team in 1958. Then in ’60-61, KU’s nine-deep had only one white kid, Jerry Gardner.
The African Americans were Bill Bridges, Al Correll, Wayne Hightower, Nolen and Butch Ellison, Jim Dumas, Ralph Heyward; Dee Ketchum, a Delaware Indian, was a captain. Coach Dick Harp had to go 10-deep before another white guy like Frederick could see action.
Freddy often joked about his White Shadow status. “All those fellows were better and deserved to play ahead of me,” he said, never mentioning that he also had a serious knee problem. “I felt privileged to be on the same squad and to get to know them as friends. No resentment about my lack of playing time.”
Frederick, as usual, was eager to do anything for the good of the Jayhawk order. We need a lot more of the lilt and selflessness he brought to the picnic.
• Martha Sue Harp died recenty at age 90. What a truly remarkable, witty, accomplished lady who helped so many of us, husband Dick included, experience joys and satisfactions nobody else could have created and enhanced. Too few realized her fabulous sense of humor that got her, Dick and son Rich through a lot of challenging times. Susie was long the power behind any basketball throne Dick might have occupied. The Harps with their many interests and abilities wove some important pieces into the KU fabric. Dick died in 2000 at age 80.
First time Martha Sue saw Wilt Chamberlain was when somebody brought him by their house in a Volkswagen Beetle. “When he got out, I thought he would NEVER stop unfolding,” Susie joked about Uncle Dippy.
She tutored scores of athletes, and one of her students took a test asking for the identity of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He wrote: “Falstaff was a big fat guy that fought in the Civil War.” Quipped Martha Sue, the super-intellect: “If I told him once I told him a thousand times it was the War of 1812!”
Martha Sue was a great wife, mother, student, teacher, hostess and anything else complimentary you can add. Oh, and include patriot. As a youngster in Oklahoma she was part of a family where no males were able to serve in World War II. Eager to do her part, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps and wound up at nearby Fort Riley. She met a fellow soldier named Harp and in 1944 they began a 56-year marriage.
Martha Sue and Dick deserved better health than they were dealt their final years. In their prime they made an immeasurable beneficial impact on the Jayhawk Nation.
• Jack Mitchell: The last football coach to leave KU with a winning record (44-42-5). God made only one Jack and never will repeat such a masterpiece. Jack was as charismatic as anyone I ever met; funny, fierce, inventive and a master salesman. He could sell cold chili to Antarcticans on the coldest day of the year. He died this week at 85 after cancer had hit him the way it did his son Jackson earlier.
Typical of Jack’s ability to grab a moment and turn it in his direction was an incident when he was playing golf at Lawrence Country Club. Sons Jack and Jud were at the tyke stage, tagged along and had found a gopher and its hole just off one of the fairways. Perpetual Motion Jack wanted to move on, but the kids wanted to go for the gopher.
“Come on, guys, there’s an even bigger gopher on the next hole!” shouted Jack, ever the con artist. Jackson and Jud bought it but often complained about the lack of another rodent down the line.
Mitchell had just arrived in town from his Arkansas job in late 1957, and there was a get-together to welcome the new KU coach and staff. I asked if he thought he could get the best out of favored Chuck Mather holdovers such as Homer Floyd. He took a chew on his cigar, looked dead-serious for a second, then blurted: “A really good football player’d play for Hitler!” Then his eyes sparkled, making sure people got his drift, and added: “I can get kids to play for me, more importantly for Kansas.”
Great all-around athlete at Arkansas City High, All-America quarterback at Oklahoma, headline-grabbing head coach at Wichita, Arkansas and Kansas, and never at a loss for words or a good story, even if it included a little fabrication and alteration of hard facts.
Satchel Paige was right: something’s always gaining on all of us, so be furtive when you look back. Yet the losses of people such as Freddy, Martha Sue and Genial Jack aren’t quite as painful when there are so many fond memories to ease the sting. Just think — and be delighted — about the many people of that caliber Kansas University has given us to enrich our existence.