Memories of Woody: The Ambassador
By Tony Gerdeman
There has probably never been a person who loved The Ohio State University more than Woody Hayes, even after his beloved university fired him.
That love was apparent to just about anybody who spent any amount of time with him, be it a student on campus, or an audience member at a speaking engagement two states away. Everybody left the encounter with a better idea of what Ohio State stood for. There was a lot of good going on at Ohio State, and that was the OSU that Woody always wanted to talk about.
Ironically, one of the great things about Ohio State was Woody Hayes himself, and yet to those who met him, he was the one thing about Ohio State that he didn't need to talk about. Fortunately for us, however, there have always been so many people willing to do it for him.
My Woody story - freshman orientation version. During the first few days of freshmanhood, back in 1970, the freshmen got to campus a couple of days before the upperclassmen, and there was a social at the Union that me and some of my Van Wert homeboys attended.
Lo and behold, Woody came over to talk to some of the freshmen one on one, and he brought the likes of Jim Stillwagon and Rex Kern with him. (Smith dorm was, I think, the athletic dorm, and just down the street).
He asked me what I was going to study, about my scholarships (one involving Walt Seifert, a PR guy in the journalism department, who he really liked), and was most pleased that I was going to ROTC. When he found out we were from VW, he asked about Gil Smith, who had won 47 games in a row in high school.
All in all, he spent about 15 minutes talking to the four of us, although he made it seem he was talking just to me. All to make some freshmen feel "at home" when we were away from home for the first time. I can imagine his sales pitch to recruits and their parents was also quite charming. Just a really nice memory.
Woody once was the featured speaker for the Benton Harbor (MI) Economics Club in the late 1970s. I was invited by a friend to attend. Usually they drew 25 people, but this night there were over 250 attendees. Because of the location, most were Notre Dame, Michigan or Michigan State fans, with lots of cynics in the house.
Woody's topic was "the Great Ones at Ohio State". At the beginning I looked around and many were sitting with crossed arms as they listened. As he spoke, arms started to uncross and people started leaning forward in their seats.
After speaking fondly about Archie, Hop, and others, Woody said, "But the greatest of these, ladies and gentlemen, was without a doubt Jesse Owens. He went into Nazi Germany at a time when our national pride was on the line, looked the Führer
in the eye and won four gold medals." (I still get goose bumps thinking about the moment.)
He elaborated on Jesse and then opened it up for questions. He answered every question head on and then thanked the audience, who gave him a STANDING OVATION.
He signed every autograph requested afterward and I still have the signature he gave me that evening. Talk about paying forward... Thank you Woody, Happy Birthday, and may you rest in peace...!
I became really good friends with one of my track teammates back when I was at OSU. He was the best man at my wedding. He had me over to his house often...we had a close knit group and his Mom always took care of us.
Anyway, his mother got divorced and had to go back to work and she got a job as an administrator at the OSU medical center. Woody went in for a procedure...not sure of the date, it must have been around 1980. The operation was a success except the doctors left a sponge in the old man. They had to go back in a few days later and remove it.
The doctors were embarrassed. The insurance guys feared a lawsuit. The PR department worried about the publicity of having this happen to such a high profile patient. But Woody would have nothing of it. He didn't want this information getting out because he didn't want the University to be cast in any sort of negative light. He preferred the entire affair be kept as quiet as possible.
My one meeting with Woody was in August 1965 with my girlfriend. We drove down from Toledo. I was showing her around campus. Our last stop was St. John Arena. We walked up to the SW corner, and the doors were locked.
As we turned to go back to car, a white Buick Riviera pulled in, and a big white haired man got and walked toward us.
"Do you want to go in the arena?"
"Yes, Coach, I want to show my girlfriend the pictures and Jesse Owens' track shoes."
"Sure, here you go. Just make sure it's locked on the way out."
And, with that, he unlocked one of the doors, then he headed toward a door to the right to go to his office.
We walk inside, and I turn to my girlfriend, "WOW! THAT WAS WOODY HAYES!"
"Who's Woody Hayes?"
"Follow me, we got a lot of ground to cover."
Great moments in relationship history. My girlfriend is now my wife of 44 years. She soon knew who Woody Hayes was. We still laugh about this.
Well, since everyone is sharing, here is my Woody story.
1983, first few days on campus, my roommate and I decided that we would try to meet Coach Hayes. We went to his office, met his secretary, and said something dumb like, "We just wanted to say hello to Coach Hayes".
To our surprise, she went in and told Woody that a couple of new freshmen would like to meet him. To even greater surprise, she ushered us right into his office.
He spent a few minutes with us, told us not not to fall into the trap of drinking and partying - that we had a great opportunity, and make sure we do the right things to take full advantage of that opportunity.
I'm sure it was a nothing moment to him, but it was something I have never forgotten.
In April 1979, I was finishing up my sophomore year at Ohio State, and living in a bottom-room at Scott Hall. I was writing out my Fortran program (yes, back in the days of pencils and punchcards) for an engineering class when Woody walked by the window headed towards High Street.
I dropped everything, grabbed my jacket and headed for the east exit of the dorm in hopes of catching him. I emerged from the tunnel just as Woody was passing. I bode him a good evening, and introduced myself. He asked if I wanted to walk with him, and I willingly obliged.
We talked for about 10 minutes, and he asked me what I was studying (Ag Engineering), how I liked tOSU, what year I was, etc. Just a seemingly insignificant general conversation. We parted ways at High Street, as I needed to get that program done, and Woody reenforced how important school work was, and wished me well.
One year later, and I was walking across the Oval between classes on a beautiful May afternoon. I was going north and Woody was headed south. I was soundly greeted with "Good Afternoon Mr. Brusky! Isn't it a beautiful day?" I almost fell over! Here, I had met Woody for only a mere 10 minutes, and a year later he remembers who I am, by name even.
I answered "Yes it is, coach." He inquired about my Ag engineering studies (not just generally, but speciffically). He then begged to go because he didn't want to be late for a Faculty meeting. He left me with a resounding Good Day, and drilled in to never be late for anything.
Here is this man who met me for the briefest moments, and remembered everything about me. Wow!
Last time I saw Coach was my senior year - the next year in late May. It was evening, and I was running to Peppe Aquatic Center for work - I was a lifeguard there for three years. I was headed down the hill behind the power plant, and Woody was on his way up.
As I approached I said "Good evening Coach." He responded with "How are you Mr. Brusky?" Again I was dumbfounded. I was running tight to my start time, so I couldn't stay to talk, and imparted this information to Coach.
He responded with, "You go on. Remember, the most important thiing is to never be late - always be early." We passed and I never got another chance to see him again. I openly wept the day he passed away.
Those three meetings are still some of my fondest college memories. It is so sad that so many people outside of the Buckeye community have no knowledge of this side of Woody. A great man who was undone by his ultra-competetive spirit, but who was one of the truly great people of this world. You are missed Woody!
Part II of this series
Part I of this series
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