Pawtucket to Celebrate its Own

Published October 11, 2012, Pawtucket Times  

            Making a difference in your community can be as simple as helping a family member, neighbor or friend who are in need of a little assistance.  Those simple acts of kindness can have far reaching effects that are not always obvious  – whether it be shoveling a side walk for a neighbor, donating canned goods to feed the needy, or volunteering for a nonprofit or civic group, are some examples of giving of ones self.     

             But some Pawtucket residents (or even former one’s, too) excel in their motivation to “go the extra mile” to making a positive impact on their beloved Pawtucket community. Enhancing their home town to strengthen its social fabric becomes their life’s mission.   Founded in 1986 to commemorate the City of Pawtucket’s 100th Anniversary, today the Pawtucket Hall of Fame has recognized 98 inductees, that include 18 historical figures, who have made an extremely positive impact in the Birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution.  In two weeks, the following five inductees will join their ranks, to be recognized by the City’s Pawtucket Hall of Committee for 2012:

 A Voice for the Voiceless

             Semi-retired businessman and philanthropist Paul Audette brings his love for the City of Pawtucket with his detailed historical knowledge of the community, combined with 50 years of work experience. “He comes to the aide of those in need”, notes Patty Zacks, who nominated this 83 year old inductee.  “He never wants or expects to be recognized for his help,” Zacks adds. 

             “His actions [to help] are led by his heart and done for the right reasons,” says Zacks,  who believes that he has oftentimes been the ‘glue” that help keeps this community working together.

             Mayor Donald R. Grebien, notes “He is a self-described ombudsman for the City and has worked in many instances to insure that a potential new business can navigate its way through the “red tape” to become a successful Pawtucket business.

             Former President of the Pawtucket Rotary Club, Colin Murray, also recognized Audette’s efforts to help others.  “Because of his determination for making Pawtucket a better place to live and work, the Pawtucket Rotary Club awarded him the prestigious Paul Harris Fellow Award, the highest civic recognition that the civic group bestows upon a individual,” he said.

              According to Murray, Audette has been an advocate for the “voiceless” and has served as a volunteer ombudsman for the Alliance for Better Long-Term Care, was Chair of the City’s Affirmative Action Committee, and worked for decades assisting the down and out in the community, providing financial assistance and helping them navigate the State’s regulatory process.  Audette, a Pawtucket Rotarian, exemplifies the Rotary International’s motto, “Service Above Self,” Murray says.

         Murray adds that since 2006, as co-founder of a nonprofit group, Helping Hands, Audette has continued assistance to local organizations that help at-risk Pawtucket youth, the homeless, and the helpless.  Organizations receiving assistance include Cross Roads, Pawtucket Boys and Girls Club, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Pawtucket Salvation Army and the American Cancer Society.

Bringing Winter Wonders to Pawtucket

            Janice McHale and her good friend, Jean Stipek, of Pawtucket, will also become 2012 inductees into the Pawtucket Hall of Fame.

            Pawtucket resident Dawn P. Goff, who chairs the Winter Wonderland Committee, recognizes McHale and Stipek, for creating Pawtucket’s premier winter event. After experiencing a winter festival in California, McHale and Stipek presented their idea to Mayor James E. Doyle, who gave them the “green light” to organize a “Winter Wonderland” in Pawtucket. 

            For over a decade these two Pawtucket residents directed the efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers.  Goff noted that last year, Winter Wonderland turned 13-years-old, showcasing 425 lighted Christmas trees, along with 20 Victorian Houses sponsored by local businesses along with a number of lighted displays.  The two December weekends were jam-packed with festive holiday entertainment, Goff says.

            Winter Wonderland, drawing thousands of Rhode Islanders into Slater Park each December,  began with “two people who had a vision in 1999”,  Goff adds.

            Besides her activities with Winter Wonderland, McHale has served on the Pawtucket Riverfront Commission, the City’s Parks and Recreation Commission, in addition to the Grand Marshall of the St. Patrick Day Parade in 2000.    

America’s Legendary Jockey

            John “Red” Pollard rode into American history while overcoming physical disabilities, such as partial blindness in one eye and worked with intense physical pain caused by severe riding injuries that fractured his bones.  The man who rode Seabiscuit, humbly accepted his role in racing history.   As noted by local horse trainer, Nino Calabro “Red had a way with the horses..”. And Seabiscut was considered to be one of  America’s most recognized thoroughbred racehorses in the nation’s history.

             Attorney John J. Partridge who nominated the late Pollard, says “It is not often we can honor someone who lived a relatively quiet life while as a resident of Pawtucket, but was internationally acclaimed and twice memorialized in motion pictures, and more recently in a best-selling book [on the Times bestsellers list for a total of 42 weeks].”  Pollard, who in his later years resided at 249 Vine Street in Darlington with his wife Agnes, raised their two children, Norah and John in Pawtucket and worked at the Narragansett Race Track.  Today, Red and his wife Agnes’ final resting place is in the City’s Notre DameCemetery.

             Supporting this nomination, Mayor Grebien noted, “Between August 1936 and March 1940, Pollard rode Seabiscuit 30 times, winning 18 races including his final start in March 1940, the year the horse and rider won the San Anita Handicap and Seabiscuit was the nation’s top money-winning thoroughbred.”

             According to Mayor Grebien, Pollard was “an outstanding athlete himself in a very demanding sport, and mentored countless young jockeys who rode at Narragansett Race Track.”  He often provided shelter and a hot meal to many of the young jockey’s who needed a hand as they aspired to what Pollard had achieved as one of horse racing’s all-time best jockeys.”

          A  native of Alberta, Canada, Pollard was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 1982, says Tom Cosgrove, Archivist. “His name will be forever linked to the days when thoroughbred racing, boxing, and baseball were the only sports in America that truly mattered,” states Cosgrove.  

             Terence J. Meyocks, of the Nicholasville, Kentucky-based Jockeys Guild, says that Pollard “holds a special place in Jockey’s Guild history because he was one of the founding fathers of the Guild in 1940.  He joined other leading jockey’s at the time including Eddie Arcaro, John Longden and Charles Kurtsinger, to create the Guild, which represents the health and safety interests of jockeys everywhere.”

 Unsung Civil War Hero

             Finally, Pawtucket resident, Dale Rogers, nominated Lt. Colonel Henry Harrison Young, who becomes this years’ Historical Inductee.  “Young distinguished himself and his unit throughout the war by furnishing excellent intelligence on Confederate troop movements and by oftentimes even donning Confederate uniforms to either kidnap southern soldiers or gather valuable information for General Sheridan. 

             According to Roger’s,  the Civil War veteran was dispatched at the war’s end to the Texas border to round up Confederate renegades who were making raids, where he lost his life in an ambush while crossing the Rio Grande River.  A statute was dedicated to this Pawtucket resident at BurnsidePark in Providence, (across from the Biltmore, near the skating rink), for his heroics.

             The Pawtucket Hall of Fame Dinner and Induction Ceremony will take place on Friday, October 26th at 7:00pm. at the LeFoyer Club on 151 Fountain Street.  To purchase tickets ($30 each)  please call Rick Goldstein, at (401) 728-0500, Ext. 348. 

             Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

 

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Rediscovering Pawtucket’s Red Pollard

            Published June 22, 2012, Pawtucket Times

             In 2003 a dramatic movie about a Depression-era race horse and his oversized jockey became a top box office film hit.  This story of hope and perseverance was woven into a story about a down and out jockey, a heartbroken horse owner, a drifter horse trainer, and the eventual rise of a champion horse.  It is no coincidence that near the former Narragansett Race Track inPawtucket– now a Building 19 retail store – you will discover city streets named “War Admiral” and “Seabiscuit Place, for surprisingly manyPawtucketresidents do not know that the real-life jockey whose story was told in this film lived out his middle years in their community.  “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” was based loosely on the critically-acclaimed, non-fiction book penned by Washington, DC writer Laura Hillenbrand in 2001, whose key figure resided in Pawtucket. 

           America’s iconic jockey, John Pollard, whose moniker “Red” Pollard was known for his flaming red hair and was taller than most jockeys.  At 5’ 7”, Red and his wife Agnes called 249Vine Street located inPawtucket’sDarlingtonneighborhood, their ‘home’.  Their two children, Norah and John would grow up and receive their formal education in the City’s schools.  At the end of their lives, Red and Agnes would be buried a stone’s throw from their modest Vine St. home  in Norte Dame Cemetery on Daggett Avenue.  Pollard died in 1981, and two weeks later Agnes would follow.

            Pollard became a household name to tens of millions of aging baby boomer who either read Hillenbrand’s book, ranked No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list for a total of 42 weeks or watched the 140 minute “Seabiscut” film, which was nominated for an Academy Award

            According to Jockey’s Guild, Inc., the book-loving, jockey, blind in his right eye, whose luck would lead to ridingAmerica’s most beloved thoroughbred racehorse 30 times,  accumulated 18 wins.   Two films and a book would capture his great ride, winning $100,000 in 1940 at the Santa Anita Handicap.  Over his 30 year career, fame and fortune would evade Pollard, who would suffer a lifetime of severe injuries from serious spills to being hospitalized numerous times for a broken hip, ribs, arm, and a leg.  One spill kept him bedridden for months before he could ride again.

            For Pollard, “you just made your own luck and certain things that happen to you”.  Life to him was a crap shoot.

Coming to Pawtucket

            The accident-prone Pollard was severely injured by the weight of a fallen horse in February 1938 at the San Carlos Handicap.  Nine months later, back in the saddle, this unlucky jockey would shatter the bone in his leg during a workout from riding a runaway horse.  This would ultimately keep him from riding in that legendary race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral.  However, this severe leg injury would lead him to the love of his life, Agnes Conlon. 

             According to Norah Christianson, the jockey’s daughter who now lives inStratford,Connecticut, marriage would putPawtucketon Pollard’s radar screen.  Recovering from his compound facture in his leg atBoston’sWinthropHospital, by reciting poetry, the jockey would capture the attention of a certain nurse,  fall in love and ultimately marry Agnes Conlon, his registered nurse, in 1936.   The couple would have two children during their 40 year marriage.  

             Christianson, now age 72, noted that it was easy for her mother to drive an hour fromPawtucketto visit her parents and ten siblings who lived inBrookline,Massachusetts.   

            Pawtucketwas also an ideal place for Pollard to live because the City was centrally located toNew England’s racing circuit, adds Christianson.  Her father could easily get to the Narragansett Race Track and Lincoln Downs inRhode Island, and Suffolk Downs inMassachusetts, and Scarborough Downs Race Track inMaine. Moreover, in the winter season he could easily travel toFloridaand hit that state’s race track circuit.  Just five minutes from their home, Agnes took a job atPawtucket’sMemorialHospital, working as a registered nursing in the emergency room.

         Those riding injuries would keep Pollard from serving in the military during World War II, says Christianson, noting that  he worked as a foreman and would oversee the building of Liberty Ships at the Walsh-Kaiser shipyard inProvidence.  With the War’s end, he continued to ride horses until the age of 46, when in 1955 he was just physically unable to do so.    For a time, her father “worked at Narragansett , mentored young jockeys, and then worked as a mail sorter at the track.  After that, he worked as a valet for other jockeys until he finally retired for good. The track was always my dad’s “community” until it closed in 1978.” \

Sipping Whisky, Reading Great Poetry

            Pollard, whose education ended at 4th grade, had a love for poetry and the classics, recalls Christianson.   Always on the move between race tracks, he could easily carry his favorite pocket volumes of Shakespeare, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Service’s   “Songs of the Sourdough” and Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat”.  Being a poetry lover, frequent stays at the hospital would “allow my father to read a lot and memorize,” she noted.

            She also remembers her father sipping a little bit of whiskey as he would recite poetry for the family after dinner. “We just absorbed the experience, not realizing we were learning.” 

             Pollard traveled the race track circuit for months at a time, states Christianson.  When in town, her father would take her and her brother, John to Pinault’s Drug Store onNewport Avenue, enjoy a movie at the Darlton Theater, or visit Kip’s Restaurant.  “I remember Pinault’s had a soda fountain that ”made the best home-made honey dew melon ice cream.”  Many a day Pollard would stop at the Texaco Gas Station, located atArmistice Blvd.andYork Avenue, to sit and talk for hours with his friends.   

             “Dad was a loner, a desperado, an extreme free spirit, a man obsessed with racing,” recalls Christianson.  Before he retired,  Pollards’ typical day started at 4:30 a.m. by heading to the track to exercise horses, later returning home with a few of his jockey friends in their work clothes, ready to eat a hearty breakfast cooked by Agnes and to “tell jokes and talk shop.” His physically active and obsessive lifestyle in racing allowed him to enjoy “puttering around his basement workshop, mow the lawn or even put up the storm windows.”

           When Christianson was 17 years old she had an inkling of her father’s fame. Mr. Winters, her Tolman High math teacher, once asked her “is your father the jockey, Red Pollard ?”  Looking back she would realize that “her father did not make a fuss about his fame.  “He realized that when you stop being on the top,  you are going to be forgotten –  so winning that race was far more important than fame and recognition.”   

           Being involved in local organized groups such as church, the Boy Scouts and business clubs were alien to him, Christianson adds.  “As my brother once said to me when we were talking about our parents,” ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ they were not.”

 Protecting the Jockey Community

             But Pawtucket’s jockey was tapped to be on the first Board of Directors of the newly established national organization, Jockey’s Guild in 1940 -an enormously important guild for riders – this group being a nationwide organized union.  Jockeys who were hurt had no financial recourse, nor did the families of jockeys who were killed, for they did not get any benefits before the Jockeys’ Guild was created. 

           “In the early days of the Guild, [the Nicholasville, Kentucky-based] Guild was able to introduce safety measures such as better racing environments, monitor legislation concerning racing, and providing insurance for jockeys as well as decent wages.  “The great achievements of the Jockeys’ Guild would be what you might call ‘my father’s community service’, adds Christianson.  .

          Red Pollard rode into American history, overcoming a physical disability of partial blindness, accepting intense physical pain caused by severe riding injuries that fractured his bones, while humbly accepting his role in racing history, as the man who rode Seabiscuit.

             Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  This article was published in two Rhode Island daily’s The Pawtucket Times and Woonsocket Call.