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COLUMN: The Sports Legends of Woodland Cemetery | Through the Arch
 

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COLUMN: The Sports Legends of Woodland Cemetery

The horse was called Gentle Annie and if there ever was a case of false advertizing that was it.

Annie was a rank bucking bronc whom the cowboys in the Colorado Athletic Carnival at Denver’s Overland Park wanted no part of that August day in 1917.

Marquerite “Maggie” Doane — who usually competed under her married name, Mrs. Edward Wright — was entered in the rodeo, as well.

A pioneer in women’s sports. she was a 22-year-old cowgirl who rode the rough stock events. Just a week earlier, she had been named the Ladies Champion at the Cheyenne Frontier Days and now a movie crew was on hand to film her.

She debated getting on Gentle Annie and, legend has it, some of the cowboys began teasing her about being afraid. That got her into the saddle and rocketing into the arena aboard the snorting bronc, who bucked for several seconds, then suddenly bolted for the far end of the arena, crashing through a wire fence, stumbling and falling atop Maggie.

According to David Kingman, who researched the book “The Shrines of Woodland,” the horse got up, stepped on Maggie’s head and crushed her skull, though she remained conscious long enough to look up at the comforting cowboys and whisper “Well, I rode her.”

She died that day — August 4, 1917 — but rather than bury her near their Wyoming ranch, her new husband, also a rodeo cowboy, brought her body to Dayton, where her mother lived.

Maggie is now buried in the northern corner of Woodland Cemetery, Section 119, beneath a gray tombstone erected, it says, by “her Western friends” and forever proclaiming her the “Champion Lady Rough Rider of the World.”

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I saw the cowgirl’s tombstone by chance one day when I was walking my dog, Leo, through the cemetery. He and I go there regularly. It’s my favorite spot in Dayton — 200 acres of magnificent trees, hills, flowers, birds and a fascinating assortment of grave markers, several of which stand as totems to the colorful tales buried beneath.

Coming in the back gate off Waldo Ave., I usually park by the grave of legendary Dayton Flyers basketball coach Tom Blackburn.

For 40 years — after dying from cancer in 1964 — he lay beneath a flat military stone that identified him only as a lieutenant in the US Naval Reserve who served in World War II.

There was no mention of his coaching days and how — with 352 victories and the 1962 National Invitational Tournament title — he had launched UD onto the big-time stage of college basketball.

Flyers great Junior Norris, captain of the 1951-52 team, set out to change that and with the permission of Blackburn’s widow Libby, who lives in South Carolina, he got the ball rolling among other former players. In 2004, a new stone — with “I didn’t want anything but the best for you and of you,” engraved at the bottom — was dedicated.

Always stopping at the Blackburn’s marker — and then discovering the cowgirl’s resting place — I began to look for a few more sports graves to give me some interesting stopping points in my Woodland circuits.

I found some.

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Al Tucker Sr. and Al Jr. — whose basketball careers were as colorful as any father-and-son combo in this city — are buried in Section 111 near the front gate.

Al. Sr. — Slick Al as he was known on the court — was 82 and wrestling with the onset of Alzheimer’s when I visited he and his wife Geraldine in 1997. While he had trouble remembering what had happened an hour earlier, he lit up when he talked of the past.

And what a past it was.

Growing up poor along West Third at Conover Street, his first hoop was a bushel basket nailed to a pole in an alley, Because no one owned a basketball, he and his friends played with a tennis ball.

In 1932, he tried out for the Roosevelt High team, which to that point had had no blacks, he said. Although he was cut, he made the team the following year as a junior and led the Teddies to the state’s Class B. crown. He then played for Alabama State and later was signed off of a Dayton AAU team by Harlem Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein.

“Back then we took on all comers,” Slick Al said. “We played in straight until right at the end. That’s when we’d start jukin’.”

He and Geraldine married after his two Globetrotter seasons. Their son Gerald was a good basketball player and 6-foot-8 Al Jr. was great. He led Oklahoma Baptist to national ( NAIA) title and won first-team All-America honors alongside Lew Alcindor, Elvin Hayes, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Wes Unseld, and UD’s Donnie May.

A first-round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1967, he made the NBA All-Rookie team and played six seasons in the NBA and the old ABA. He was 58 when he died from an aneurysm in 2001. His dad died a year later.

While Al Jr.’s tombstone includes a basketball picture and mention of his NBA career, Al Sr.’s marker celebrates his long marriage to Geraldine, but makes no basketball reference.

For that, I remember the way his eyes had twinkled when I asked him how he got his nickname:

“I had a special basketball move. It was a little deal where I’d come down just beyond the foul line and when the defense moved in on me, I’d give a fake and kind of swing over and slip away from ‘em.

“It worked so much they tried to make a rule ‘round here. Said I was traveling. Truth is, I was just running in the air. It was something they weren’t used to seeing and they said ‘Al, you are pretty slick.’”

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Johnny Shackleford is buried in a clump of oak trees not far from Stewart Street. His flat stone bears the dates of his life — 1913-1948 — a picture of a sprint car and the epithet “Race on to rest forever won.”

Two weeks after being a relief driver in the 1948 Indianapolis 500, Shackleford — the AAA Midwestern sprint car champ the year before — was one of six Indy drivers in a race at Dayton Speedway that drew 11,000 spectators.

Driving the Iddings Offenhauser that had finished seventh in the 500, he was in second place, when his car skidded in the south turn, slammed through the wall and rolled down a 40-foot embankment. He died of internal injuries at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

“Johnny was real husky,” Clarence “Mutt” Anderson, the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame car owner, mechanic and official from Xenia once told me. “He had a set of shoulders on him, probably would have been a good prizefighter. He was rough and tumble — a little different than the average guy who goes to church on Sunday.”

And that’s when Anderson chuckled: “Wait a minute. I seem to remember he used to play the violin in church, so yeah, he was real different.”

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Earl H. Kiser — who is buried in Section 101 along with the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar — has two Dayton Streets named after him: Earl and Herbert.

Racing for the Dayton Bicycle Club and the Stearns Yellow Fellow team, the 5-foot-6 Kiser was known as “The Little Dayton Demon” and became a two-time world cycling champion competing all across Europe in the late 1890s.

By the turn of the century, he also was one of the world’s top race car drivers. He was driving a Winton Bullet No 3. at a race in Cleveland on Aug. 12, 1905 when his car crashed into a fence and caught on fire. Fans pulled him from the burning wreckage.

His badly mangled left leg was amputated at the hospital and the next day the New York Times ran a prominent headline: “Earl Kiser Loses A Leg.”

A Dayton Herald headline a couple of days later proclaimed “Earl Kiser desires severed member Interred in local cemetery where he himself will rest.”

Although he would go on to be a successful Dayton auto dealer and then develop real estate and own a Miami Beach hotel, Kiser and his “member” were finally reunited at Woodland in 1936.

While he spent much of his life with just one good leg, few Dayton athletes ever stood taller than Kiser when he gave vocal support of Major Taylor, the black cyclist who was barred from most national races because of his skin color.

Kiser petitioned to have him included and Taylor became the world sprint champ in 1899, just the second African American ever to win a world title in any sport.

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In the south part of Woodland Cemetery — across Stewart Street in Section 300 — Dave Albritton is buried beneath a small stone that tells you he won an Olympic silver medal in the high jump at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was a member of the Ohio General Assembly and was a coach and educator.

He was all that and so much more .

A lifetime friend of Jesse Owens — from their days as kids in Alabama, through Cleveland East Tech, Ohio State and the Olympics — he later coached Dunbar High to three state track titles.

When he died in 1994, he was laid out in the Dunbar auditorium in a flower-draped casket about the shade of his silver medal.

As the hundreds of people — many of them former athletes and students whose lives he had buoyed — paid their respects, I remember sitting with Albritton’s pal, Mal Whitfield, the great Olympic quarter and half miler, who had spent three decades working for the U.S. government.

“The guy had magic,” Whitfield said with a smile and then a story: “I was working with the U.S. State Department in Iran when the Shah was in power. He needed a sports and youth consultant and Dave came over and decided to get baseball going.

“But in Iran back then, baseball was meaningless so Dave just changed the name from baseball to Shah Ball and suddenly it was all the rage. Thousands of people showed up at the national stadium in Tehran. The game was a real hit and I remember thinking, ‘Old Dave has done it again.”

From that same memorial service, Tony Clay, a powerfully built guy from Akron who had cared for Albritton in the final months, pulled me aside.

“I’m a recovering addict, a real junkie,” he said. “Everyone who had cared about me, I had smoked up. And that’s when God gave me Mr. Albritton.

“My job was to take care of him, but instead he took care of me. He gave me my pride back and taught me to be a man again.

“But when he died, I got scared. All I could think of was ‘God don’t take him now. I need him.’ But now it’s become clear. I see all these people he’s touched and I know what he’s done for me and realize one thing. Mr. Albritton might be up there in the casket, but he’s not really gone. He’s in every heart, every mind and every backbone here. His spirit is alive across Dayton.”

And at Woodland Cemetery — if you know where to look — you’ll find a remembrance of that spirit and those of so many other legends from Dayton’s sports past.

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