Henry Littlefield- Scholar, Soldier, Coach and Educator
Richard J. Garfunkel
January 15, 2015
I met Henry in 1961, as a 16 year old, high school student, at AB Davis High School in Mount Vernon, NY. Henry was an exceptional history teacher and history was one of my intellectual interests then, and now. (By the way, he was always voted as the best teacher in the high school.) But, I was also an athlete and Henry was emerging as one of the finest scholastic wrestling coaches in America. He had been a great competitor at Columbia University, was a Lieutenant in the US Marine Corp, where he wrestled and earned a black belt in Judo
fter his discharge from the service, he competed in the American amateur wrestling world of Olympic freestyle, Greco-Roman, and Partire. Henry competed for the NY Athletic Club and was a member of a number of National AAU winning teams. At 6’5″ and 250 lbs he was quite a mountain of a man. John Irving, the novelist and a enthusiastic amateur wrestler and coach described Henry in his memoir “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed” affectionately and he stated in an interview with “Salon” magazine, that he had two sets of friends, the literary types and the athletes- and they were mutually exclusive. Littlefield would have been one of the few friends of his that bridged the gap between his literary and athletic sides.
Henry grew up without a father, went to Trinity Prep, lived in Manhasset, LI, taught the legendary football great, Jimmy Brown how to wrestle in the “Y” pool, went to Columbia University, wrestled and played football for the class of 1954. He met Madeline Smith from Long Island, on a blind date, fell in love, and they were married in 1956. Madeline grew up in Baldwin, Long Island. She attended the Grier School for girls in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, then earned her BA at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, majoring in music. She studied organ and sacred music at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and then earned her MA in Education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. By the way, Henry later earned his MA and PhD from his alma mater, Columbia University.
When Henry went into the Marine Corps, he met the legendary General Lewis “Chesty” Puller at Camp Lejeune, was part of the 10th anniversary, re-enactment of the famous Marine landings on Okinawa, that last great and brutal battle of 1945. After his discharge, he started to teach in Mount Vernon in 1958. He founded a wrestling club in 1960 with Mount Vernon teachers and coaches; Sully Mott and the great Bill Sywetz, He became the coach of Mount Vernon’s first official team in 1961.
When we first met, in the fall of 1961, I told Henry that I had spent one year at Horace Mann and came in contact with Gus Petersen, who was the trainer there. Petersen was a famous “turn of the century” wrestler, and an equally famous coach at Columbia where Henry met him as Petersen’s coaching career was winding down. We both liked history and Henry asked me to help him with the wrestling team. From that day on we were rarely out of communication with each other for almost 40 years. Henry loved science fiction, baseball, mysticism (especially Edgar Cayce) and the ironies of history. When I met him, in my junior year at Davis, I was already regarded as one of the top history students. I had read practically every book on WWII in the MV public library by the time I was twelve, and Henry and I talked WWII history constantly. We hardly talked about wrestling and I rarely gave him my opinion on the sport until years later. I helped him run the practices at Edison Tech, and he turned over almost everything to me that involved management. I handled the ordering of the uniforms, the wrestling shoes, not sneakers, the headpieces, the kneepads and even the tape. I organized everything with complete fiat from the Coach. We had huge teams and he had to make order out of the chaos that could have developed. The high point of the practices was the wrestle-offs. I would time and score the wrestle offs. Quite often I would let the clock run and run to make sure a real decision was rendered. But no one ever questioned me. In fact, over those five years and the ensuing 10 or so, no one ever questioned me about anything. Just the fact that I had a “special” relationship with the “Man” gave me a lifetime pass. Both Randy and Jimmy always treated me like a “brother” and we got along famously until the end of the run in 1977. I was 32 years old and had seen hundreds of matches, scores of tournaments, and G-d knows how many matches. I knew almost all the Section I greats from 1961 until 1977. Who I did not know, Randy or Henry told me about. But after Jimmy Lee’s departure, I never saw Mount Vernon wrestle again.
I always regarded Henry’s record as second to none in Section I and maybe anywhere else. He had no worlds left to conquer. In six regular seasons he coached, his teams won five straight Section I titles 1963-4-5-6-7, three Division titles and a second. MV won two holiday titles along with two 3rds in the prestigious Calhoun HS tournament. (I shall take credit for one of those Division titles. The official scorers didn’t count one of our high placing’s, a 2nd or 3rd , in one of the weight classes, and just before the trophy was about to be given over to another coach and school, I ran over to Coach Littlefield, whispered in his ear, and gave him the new count. He went to Bob Litchard the Coach of Henry Hudson HS and it was resolved. It was our closest call.) MVHS was undefeated in Section I competition for those five years, won the unofficial State Section title in 1966-7 and produced in five years over 25 Section I Champions. In fact, in two back-to-back years, MVHS had eighteen wrestlers in the finals and came away with nine champions. Counting the holiday tournament, the division, Sections and the States, Henry produced over 60 champions. Henry accomplished this unparalleled record without the benefit of a junior high school program and with the limitation of a three-year high school. Many of his great champions; Jimmy Lee, Howie Wilson, Ricky O’Daniel, Alex Cunningham, Doug Garr, Jim Hardy, Mitchell Gurdus, John Carlucci, Mike Viggiano, Ray Johnson, Mario Criscione and Bob Panoff had barely two or three years of competitive wrestling. He was a master of drilling, isometrics, technique, and adaptability. He was always the great teacher. After our only loss in the 1962-3, season to Freeport, he realized that his team had been beaten by the up-to-that date, un-experienced chicken-wing/ half-nelson hold. No one had ever been taught the counter to that move! No MVHS team ever suffered from that hold again. Those years were truly marvelous and never to be forgotten. He was able to turn a group of poor kids from the two high schools, Davis and Edison, into a cohesive and caring group. Never once in the years that I witnessed his coaching, did I ever see him lose his temper, raise his voice or experience back talk or grousing from his men. Never once, did I see him lose his “cool” around the mat. Never once, did I ever see him “bait” a referee. The officials loved and respected him and his judgment. They all knew that he was the “master”. His opponents, coaches and wrestlers flocked to him for guidance and words of wisdom. Our wrestling room was always open to alumni from MVHS and the rest of Section I.
I saw many, many former opponents listening with rapt attention at the foot of the “master”. He treated them as men, as competitors and as worthy foe. It wasn’t long before they became his “grapplers”.
When I flew up to Niagara University for the State Championships of 1967, I experienced a similar type of comradery. Here I was included as almost a member of that great team. Here was Jimmy Davis, on top of the wrestling world (he’s still talked about today), the late great Alex Cunningham, Doug Garr and Mario Criscione all winners, and scoring members of that championship team. Here is the great Henry Littlefield in the center of the action and adulation, along with Randy Forrest one of the greatest competitors of our time and me! Here I come along from Boston University, flying in from Providence, Hartford and Syracuse and landing in a snowstorm. Here I am with not a bed to sleep in, nor literally a “pot to piss in,” and Henry says, “Richie get in the picture, you belong as much as anyone!” Wow! Top of the scholastic wrestling world, and even I did not know that this was his last match. The saga ended there and that night.
I was there with him when we walked out of the door of the White Plains HS on that cool March night of 1962, and he put his big arm around my shoulder. In our first official year as a team, Henry was telling me how he had made the mistake of wrestling Bobby Danetz at 183 instead of Howie Wilson, who wrestled up at heavyweight. He told me that he would never again let his heart outweigh his brain when it came to who should wrestle where. I was always at his side during the Divisions and Sections the next five championship years. In fact, at age 18 he had me run the Sections at MVHS and I ran it the next two years. What a great five years they were. We were undefeated in Section I dual meets, won some of the Holiday tourneys and four of five of the Divisions and all of the Sections. We broke all the scoring records, and re-wrote the history book of Section I!
When Mount Vernon won its State Section title in 1967, I witnessed a rare event in sports. Virtually all of the other champions and near champions flocked to his side. They wanted to be in the pictures with the great Littlefield and his team of stars; including the great and unparalleled Jimmy Davis and the lightweights; Alex Cunningham, Doug Garr, and Mario Criscione. To me it was a magic moment burned in my mind’s eye. Who knew that that night would be the end of his fabulous run? Of course, the dynasty continued for a number of years with the successes of his marvelous protégés Randy Forrest and Jimmy Lee. As much as I admired them both, it was never quite the same. Henry’s big shadow always remained omnipresent and his twelve league boots could never really be filled. Thankfully, Henry ran wrestling clinics in Westchester for a number of years while he was at Amherst. He always brought in some of the finest coaches on the East Coast and the clinics were always fully attended with hundreds of “grapplers” from all over Section I, which in those days was made up of schools from Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess Counties.
I knew and loved that great man for 40 years until his untimely death at age 66. He left Mount Vernon High School for Northampton, Ma, and eventually Amherst College in 1967 as I had graduated college. He came to my wedding; my wife Linda and I visited him and his wife and daughters in his home on Massasoit Street in Northampton Ma. He taught history at Amherst, was Dean of Men, was their outstanding wrestling coach, and by the way, he lived in Calvin Coolidge’s old home! Henry wrote some great pieces on Cool Cal as our 30th president was known. During those years, I raised a family, ran a business, and we both talked on the phone and wrote often to each other. In fact, I estimate about 5000 letters, emails and calls were exchanged from September 1963 when I left for college and the spring of 2000 when he left us.
Henry went out to Monterrey, California after nine years at Amherst. He was such a great legendary figure in the Amherst wrestling room, that when he left, the team refused to have another coach. Henry settled eventually in Pacific Grove, ran the York School as Headmaster, taught and lectured at the Stevenson School on the Monterrey Peninsular and created a whole new world for himself. He acted, he preached Church sermons, wrote poetry and was a counselor to many. When Henry died of colon cancer, I traveled out there with of Henry’s protégé, a wonderful former wrestler and his successor, Coach Randy Forrest. Even though we flew to San Francisco together and drove down and back to Monterrey it was a lonely journey. Neither of us, both married with grown children and at ages 55 and 61, had ever been to California. It was a brave, sad, new world for both of us. Randy, a giant of a black man from neighboring New Rochelle, was a legendary figure to a nicely well-off Jewish kid from Mount Vernon. We came from two different worlds when we met in 1961. We were two different and distinct types of worshippers at the feet of this great and wonderful man. Even though he was only 11 years older than me and 5 years older than Randy, Henry was our leader bar none. We talked all the way to Monterrey and back. Once there, we were part of an incredible throng of 1000 or more people that came to his memorial service. Of those people, few even knew he had wrestled or had been one of the great coaches in America. If he had lived in the East for that extra 24 years, maybe 10,000 would have come out! It really closed a great and marvelous chapter of my life. It was a tearful farewell to his wonderful wife Madeline and their now grown children. I remembered when their second child Mary was born when I was a sophomore in high school. Now both little girls were grown women. So Randy and I traveled back after three long days together. We had not talked much in the last number of years, but we were totally immersed with each other. Can you imagine two men married about 70 years combined, traveling without our wives for the first time, and re-hashing wrestling bouts competed 35 years earlier? Strange! That was the last time I saw Randy. He moved to Virginia to be near his wife’s family and left New York, Westchester County and New Rochelle behind after 60 years. It was fitting. I met him because of Henry, and over the intervening 40 years we always talked about Henry, and now that Henry was gone maybe our time was gone too.
I remember so well Henry’s constant interest in the “Wizard of Oz.” He loved that story, and he loved mysticism. He always talked about Baum and what he was trying to say. In fact, one of Henry’s great legacies is his famous “Oz” 1964 parable, http://thewizardofoz.info/faq02.html, on the historical meanings of that legendary story. Henry always was searching for the real meaning of life. He was always wondering about those elusive answers. There was no one like him, and all who knew him will miss him forever.
Here are some thoughts on Henry by some who knew him best!
Doug Garr, one of Mount Vernon’s top wrestler, a close friend of Henry’s told of their meeting!
When my older brother Andy was a freshman at Lehigh he became hooked on amateur wrestling. He took me to the NYAC to watch Henry wrestle, and encouraged me to write him a letter. I was in 8th grade. I asked Henry for “tips on training” because I wanted to become a wrestler. He never replied. But after watching one Lehigh match in the Snake Pit (Grace Hall), packed to the rafters, I was hooked, too.
My career speaks for itself: I was probably in the top 10 or at least 15 of MVHS grapplers based on my second place finish in the states in 1967, capping a 20-2-1 senior year. My 73-win career total is probably in the top five or so. Section I champion, three-time All-County, three-time division (or league) champion and Outstanding Wrestler in 1967. As a D-1 scholarship athlete at Syracuse, I fell short. Life got in the way.
Much of my success was due to Henry’s coaching and leadership. I had a mediocre talent at best, and because of my dedication and sacrifice, it was left to the coach to mold me into something resembling a champion.
Henry himself was humble about all this, I’m sure. He always felt that the better athletes needed little input from people like him. This is one of the few things he was wrong about. I’ve always felt that leadership qualities are largely unquantifiable. You either have it or you don’t. Henry, of course, had it. And one indication is that he had to coach an incredibly heterogeneous group of athletes, racially and demographically. North side of town, south side. Well off and poor, black and white. I was always proud of the fact that we had Jews, Italians, and you name it on the varsity, unlike most successful teams we competed with.
That Henry saved that first letter I wrote to him and sent it back to me when I was 24 years old and on my own speaks volumes. To this day, I wonder, how did he know…..?
Mitchell Gurdus, a Section I Champion in 1965, and a collegiate wrestler at Toledo University, wrote the following: It seems to me that anyone who’s known Henry Littlefield has been impressed by the experience. Among other things, a Littlefield image that’s been permanently etched into my memory is his squint.
HML’s non-verbal messaging: I never was lucky enough to have Henry Littlefield as a classroom teacher. I did, though, have a morning, cafeteria study-hall hour that he monitored. He’d usually be busy, head down, correcting or reading papers. Whenever there was a table of kids getting too noisy, HML would only have to look over with a certain look that could correct the situation. It was not an angry or threatening look, but more a look of measured disappointment. He’d show an exaggerated squinting of his eyes, mouth closed with a wide grimace-like expression. It’s amazing how much was communicated without his saying a word.
Early one morning during school time, Dr Panitz, who was then an Assistant Principal, while showing some visitors the school, popped into the wrestling room. I was in the wrestling room, in full sweat gear, trying to sweat off a number of pounds. It was obviously clear to him that I was skipping class.
A short while later, Panitz marched me tin to see Henry who was in his classroom with class. Henry was not happy to see me. Without saying a single word, he unleashed what may have been the full power of that Littlefield squint. It was a You-know-that-I-know-that you-know look of disappointed irritation. I got the message, and so did Dr. Panitz. It was a wordless 4 or 5 second Littlefield squint, after which, Dr. Panitz said, “Go to class.”
Mount Vernon vs its two arch rivalries:
White Plains New Rochelle
1962-3 36-6 28-17
1963-4 36-16 42-5
1964-5 43-2 51-2
1965-6 36-13 50-0
1966-7 23-22 44-5
Totals 174-59 215-29