Henry Littlefield and John Irving 7-11-10

Henry Littlefield and John Irving

July 11, 2010

Richard J. Garfunkel



Henry Littlefield died 10 years ago, and in a sense it was just like yesterday. Today I was looking over author John Irving’s memoir “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed,” to look at the description of Henry on page 118.


I was teaching at Mount Holyoke  – an all women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts – and I was working out in the wrestling room at Amherst College. Henry Littlefield was the coach at Amherst then; Henry was a heavyweight – everything about him was grand. He was more expansive, he was eloquent; he was very rare, a kind of Renaissance man among wrestling coaches, and the atmosphere in the Amherst wrestling room was, to Henry’s credit, both aggressive and good-natured – a difficult combination to achieve.”




A Sentimental Journey of Closure


Richard J. Garfunkel



Not long ago I ventured westward for the first time in my life. Though into middle age and decently secure with my own sophistication, I had never crossed the continent, no less the Appalachians except for one round trip flight thirty years ago to Saint Louis. At that time, I was young, feckless and working as a junior analyst for Bache & Co., a long absorbed brokerage house, now an unknown part of the Prudential Empire. Part of my responsibilities, of that long ago forgotten mission, was to visit General Steel Industries, a company devoted to the manufacture of railroad cars. Not long after lunch, and without much of a hurried glance at the famous Arch on the bank of the Mississippi, I was back on a silver bird destined for LaGuardia and Wall Street.


Strangely, I had meticulously planned to visit our left coast sometime this coming summer. It would be a long delayed visit to see my friend, mentor and loyal correspondent of 37 years. Henry M. Littlefield, a towering physical and intellectual specimen, had spent the last 24 years administrating and teaching young minds on the Monterey Peninsular. Somehow my inner vision of Monterey reminded me of the drawings that illustrated an old Modern Library edition of a Steinbeck novel, probably about the sardine industry of Cannery Row. But, the fates being the way they are, strange un-chartered winds blow across the careful plans we mortals conceive. Old, big, and reliable Henry, a towering 6’ 5” 250+ pounder, was in the midst of a three-year struggle against the ravages of colon cancer. Even though we had a guarded view of his long-term future, we never expected such a quick and negative turn in his prognosis. Within a short period of time, his health went from bad to worse. This precipitated a call from wife Madeline, and before very long the valiant struggle was over. There is never real honor in death, but though inevitable to us all, I later learned Henry did it his way.


So those fates again came into play, and I made arrangements, via the computer, for two tickets to San Francisco. My traveling companion was a colleague and protégé of Henry’s, one Randy Forrest, a legendary black man who is five years my senior and from New Rochelle, a neighboring town to my home of Mount Vernon. In his own way, Randy was as remarkable a story as Henry, or anyone else mind you. The fact that these two accomplished men, from my youth, still were part of my life in middle age remains a story to itself. After decades apart, except for a few isolated, but happy occasions, Randy and I found ourselves linked together on a journey we never imagined, to a place where nothing would have attracted us, except our common love and respect for a friend. Randy is a very wide and muscular fellow. He reminds one of a shorter, more chiseled, version of Harry Carson, the NY Giant football Hall of Famer. But Randy, reacting like any other mortal, beneath that bronze armor that masqueraded as skin, was just as leery of flying as yours truly. I just faked it better. So here we were, the Mutt and Jeff of Eastern mourners. And as we made our journey from one venue to the next, our visage caught stares of quixotic curiosity. Both of us being outgoing personages, we told all who could hear, and patient enough to listen, that we were going on a 3000 mile condolence call. Our fleeting public’s sense of sadness and respect seemed to make us feel better.


Not to bore anyone with the dynamics of a hotel stay and a car rental, we arrived at night, hit the head, watched the boob tube and drifted off to sleep. The next morning, after rising and staring out at the haze, we moved out quickly, looked at a map, jumped into our car and headed south towards Monterey. We never looked back. Never saw the legendary city by the bay never saw the cable cars or Fisherman’s Wharf never saw anything! We just headed south. We just talked and talked. It wasn’t hard to talk, because we had known each other for forty years. But, ironically it was Henry who brought us together, initially in the dingy dank wrestling room of ancient Edison Tech, where our wrestling team worked out, and now for probably a last time on a journey of farewell to that same man. Its a hundred or so miles to Monterey and frankly we got a bit lost. The Californian topography along that route south was surprisingly dull. There were few trees, rolling un-pretty mowed green hills, plenty of cars and urban sprawl. It certainly did not impress me. But, we weren’t tourists with time to burn, and the memorial was at 12 noon, and our margin of error was narrow. Thankfully, with all equanimity and the familiarity of an old married couple we sort of engineered a course correction and found our way onto the peninsula. I remember seeing the welcome sight of the Pacific and a fleet of fishing boats tied up along the piers of a small town as we coasted down a long sloping grade. I knew we couldn’t be too far away then. Eventually, with out much more skill, we entered Carmel, looked for directions to Lighthouse Avenue, and remarkably found ourselves in the midst of street fair that shut off most of the town from vehicular traffic. What a mess! After traveling 3000+ miles across the continent, after a 3-hour confused and meandering trip southward from San Francisco, we found ourselves lost in Carmel, and wondering whether we would ever find Henry’s home. Wandering through and around all the food bourses and souvenir booths, one with a small imagination could easily think they were lost in a Hitchcock film, maybe the carnival scene in Strangers on a Train.  Enough furtive questions led us in the right direction, and with a turn here and there, up ahead was 765 Lighthouse. We had arrived finally in the important and aimed for part of Carmel, and this part of our journey had ended. We had more things of course to do; more people to see, more words to say, more tears to shed, but we both realized without speaking or looking at each other, that a crucial chapter in our lives was about to be closed forever.


A Trip to Carmel for the memorial service given for Dr. Henry M. Littlefield, coach, sportsman, teacher, Dean, Headmaster, writer, historian, poet, actor, mentor and friend for 40 years. There were over 1000 people at the Memorial Service, and Madeline stood, greeted and spoke to almost every one for over five hours. The great irony of it all is that only a handful of us even knew Henry was a famous wrestling coach from the East! The rest came out to honor the great man for his other locally famous virtues. 



How We Met!


Regarding my relationship with Henry, I was much more of a roughhouse type and after a rough year at Horace Mann I was a bit more dysfunctional. I related to Henry quite quickly as a friend and outsider. To a degree I was always an “outsider.” In the fall of 1961, after Vinnie Olson cut me from the BB team, (he regretted it later and told me, and Gene Ridenour the new coach the next year, in 1962-3, was my gym teacher and saw me play each day in phys-ed. He asked me to play on the varsity. I told him that I didn't want to sit as a senior, and I had tossed in my hat with HML and was totally committed to what he wanted. Gene and I remained friends for many, many years after that!


Meanwhile the year before, and right after being cut, I wandered around a bit and even though I had never met HML I decided it was time. Tony Taddey, who was a neighbor and a year younger, had joined the football team and raved about Henry. So I went up to him, told I knew Gus Petersen, the famous trainer, former star wrestler from the turn of the century and long-time coach at Columbia U, at Horace Mann and we clicked. On a long 3-hour bus ride to Cheshire Academy, in the fall of 1961, we talked about history (WWII), a common interest for both of us and we became quite close. Over the years I always worked for him and had the pleasure of running the NY State Section I Wrestling Tournament held in MV for three years in a row 1964-5-6. I came in from college for the event and did all of the coordinating. I wound up being his closest friend and acquaintance from MV. We exchanged 5000 letter, post cards, and e-mails from 1963 until his death in 2000. Randy Forrest and I went to his funeral in Monterrey, which was attended by over 1000 people! 



6 thoughts on “Henry Littlefield and John Irving 7-11-10


  2. On NPR, this morning, here in San Francisco, they asked the following question. “Who was the most influential person in your life?”

    I immediately thought of coach, Mr.(Dr.) Littlefield, the first to teach me the value of hard work during my brief one year stay at AB Davis HS.
    Before coach Littlefield I played football, but never really worked at it. He taught me that hard work was the answer, the only answer to success in footbal and in life. He taught me to love hard work.

    Years after leaving Mt. Vernon, my wife and I were invited to a wedding in Marin. Dr.Littlefield was there, we sat together, we reminisced. I had told my wife on the way to that wedding that he probably would not even remember me. I told her about the lessons I learned from coach Littlefield.

    He not only remembered me, he remembered some of my finer moments on the field and some of my blunders.

    Today I learned of his passing more thn a decade ago. I wanted to call him, and to see him, after that NPR question.

    I remember him as a mountain of a man, I remember eye contact and the ability to make me see myself as I was and as I could be.

    Thank you Richard for this page.

    Jim Stark, (James B. Stark,MD) San Francisco

  3. Greetings, I’ve been reading some of your postings about Henry Littlefield. I’m working on a presentation about his Wizard of Oz/ Election of 1896 parable theory. I find him mentioned quite frequently on the internet but have yet to find a photo of him. Do you know of one that is available, perhaps a yearbook picture that could be scanned? Thanks.
    Don Flick, Indianapolis, IN

  4. Henry was my best friend for 17 years before his death. (I know for a fact that numerous people would call him ‘best friend’). I did his eulogy and sang one of his favorite Irish tunes, ‘Innisfree’, at his memorial. When he became ill, I subbed for him, teaching history at a retirement community in Monterey. I inherited that gig from Henry and am doing it to this day. I performed the same service for his sweet wife, Madeleine, years later. Near the end, I asked Henry what he thought would happen when he died. He said: “I am hoping that I will be met by Jesus and everyone I’ve ever loved in my life” . I told him: “If you are met by everyone who ever loved YOU…It will be a multitude”.

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