Yesterday's News

In spirit only: Illness forced Handy to miss pool dedication

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

W.C. Handy wasn't physically here in 1956 to dedicate the municipal swimming pool named in his honor, but his spirit and voice were present.

His voice, however, was too weak to be heard.

Handy Pool was the first public improvement for recreation built on the site that now includes Handy Park and the John F. Kennedy Community Center. It took a while to come to fruition; the first public mention of the pool project appeared in The Gleaner in the fall of 1950. In the fall of 1953 Handy himself returned to Henderson for three days of music and fun to help raise money for the project.

He was pretty frail in 1953, at age 79, and by 1956 his condition had worsened. "The aging composer's health makes it impossible for him to attend the services in person," The Gleaner noted beforehand.

Francele Armstrong, publisher of The Gleaner and one of the movers behind the project, had intended to play a tape recording of Handy's remarks for the pool's dedication, but that didn't happen. "She said she would not play a recording of the composer's voice because of a weak signal," The Gleaner reported. "Instead, she read his message," which was later printed in The Gleaner.

That message conveys Handy's "precious and unforgettable memories" of Henderson.

"It was in Henderson that I began to understand the importance of the music we call the blues," he said.

"It is a pleasure for me to sit at my window in New York and see the swimming pool that bears my name though miles separate us. If you knew that this week has been the hottest summer weather here in 63 years you would understand why I should like to be there to take a plunge in that pool.

"But that is impossible because during the past two years I have been confined to a wheelchair."

Handy then went on to recount his memories of people who spoke at the black independence day celebrations back when he lived in Henderson between 1893 and 1903. They included people like William Langley "whom we called Lunch," abolitionist Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston and D.K. Bruce, who used to come to Henderson "to keep alive this freedom newly won" by a stroke of Abraham Lincoln's pen.

(I was not aware that such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and John M. Langston -- who was America's first elected black politician and one of the founders of the Republican Party -- had ever visited Henderson, but I suppose it's barely possible. Handy got here in 1893; Douglass died in 1895 and Langston in 1897.)

Handy also credited local people who nurtured him both musically and physically.

"I was then inspired by a white boy, Carl Lindstrom, one of the greatest cornetists of his time; inspired by the people of Henderson who, when I was a stranger, took me in, and when I was a-hungered, fed me.

"I owe something to past generations, and especially to the importance of preserving the music which we call folk music.

"I hope to recover from this illness which has kept me confined to a wheelchair so that I can return and do something more to inspire those who come after me.

"It is my hope that little things that inspire us to do noble things will be stamped on the children who enjoy this swimming pool so that they will take advantage of their opportunities and do bigger work in music because there has never been a better time than now for the development of ideas."

About 250 people attended the pool's dedication, and the swimming pool had paid admissions of 345 the first day, according to Pierre Jackson, the assistant manager of the pool.

The pool was built by Reelhow Inc. of Evansville at a cost of $104,000, and lasted 25 years. It was closed in 1981 and demolished in 1986, after much agonizing on the part of city government over possible renovations.

Mayor Hecht Lackey noted during the dedication that the pool had been "a political football for years."

The Gleaner's editorial page said Handy's absence was felt. "He will never see the pool which rightfully bears his name, but in his mind's eye and in his memories it comes into being as a symbol not only of his joys in Henderson during his younger days, but also as a goal for which he has striven -- the broadening of opportunities for his people."

100 years ago

The Henderson City School Board determined that it needed to build a manual training high school -- but didn't have the money to accomplish that goal, The Gleaner reported in 1906.

The very next evening, at a special called meeting, James R. Barret came before the board and offered to donate his mansion at Adams and Washington streets, which had been built by Joseph Adams. The building was converted into Barret Manual Training High School, which operated from 1910 to 1955.

75 years ago

Sheriff R.C. Soaper announced that his office was beginning "an intensive drive to rid the city and county of slot machines," The Gleaner reported in 1931.

Three machines were confiscated from three different establishments on Second Street, but by the next day all local slot machines had been put out of sight.

25 years ago

Clarence Wood, the former kingpin of local gambling interests, died at age 74, The Gleaner reported in 1981.

Wood originally operated The Dells on Waterworks Road, and later built The Trocadero in 1939, which was the centerpiece of this area's nightlife until it was closed in 1951.

After the end of commercialized local gambling in 1951, Wood concentrated on his extensive farming and oil interests, and quietly engaged in helping others.



Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS