“There’s no tick tock on your electric clock,
But still your life runs down.”
from “Halfway to Heaven”
— composed and sung by Harry Chapin
I don’t exactly read a lot of biographies. I do stumble across interesting life stories from time to time, and often feel compelled to dig deeper – when time permits. Occasionally, I’ll get the book. More often I turn to the internet.
The Internet has made such research endeavors extraordinarily easy, especially for one who grew up seeking information with only one option: going the library and fumbling through frayed catalog cards and struggling with the Dewey Decimal system.
A recurrent observation from curious reading and research is that so many people have achieved impressively at young ages.
Ron Chernow’s excellent biography on Alexander Hamilton attests to this on nearly every one of the 800+ pages. As a teen he was clearly a genius, running a merchant’s trade company and its shipping contracts in the West Indies. This despite being a fatherless bastard. Among many other achievements, by age 24 he had served in the Revolutionary War as Washington’s aide-de-camp and led an assault on the British at the decisive Battle of Yorktown. He was
a successful lawyer and serving in the Continental Congress. And that’s really just the beginning. For the full story in just under three hours, watch the rap-musical, Hamilton, based directly from Chernow’s work. It’s an expensive ducat, but if you can also get it on video (Disney-plus has it). I strongly recommend subtitles.
Isaac Newton was 22 years old when the plague hit England, 1665-66. His school, Trinity College, in Cambridge closed to control the contagion. So, he retreated home to the small hamlet of Woolsthorpe. There he whiled his time musing about sundry things, like gravity, light, many aspects of mathematics, like how to compute Pi to many digits quickly. He came up with a fundamentally sound theories for the first two, and, in order to prove one, he invented Calculus (although much of this work was not published until later). He expanded upon the binomial theorem, to the most generalized form possible, which he then used to speed up the calculation of Pi’s digits by many, many orders of magnitude. After about a year later the plague abated in Cambridge… and so, when Newton got the news, he sallied back to his masters studies at Trinity, some 60 miles north of London, where he made no further breakthroughs.
My dad was born and raised in Chicago; I was born there. Although we moved to near Milwaukee when I was but an innocent lad of 6 years old, we remained loyal to “Da Bears
” and the Cubs for decades, despite all my new friends’ allegiance to the Braves (who dumped Milwaukee for Atlanta), later the Brewers, and of course, the Pack.
I remember trying to watch televised games from Chicago, some 90 miles away. We’d string wire through the trees in the back yard, or sometimes I’d stand beside the TV, holding the rabbit-ear antennae just right, usually with aluminum foil wrapped around them in odd shapes (most called it “tin foil”).
“Got it! Don’t move Joe!”
Usually we failed, or the blurry images were barely visible through the “snow”; then we’d give up and listen to a Chicago radio station – that would be WGN, at 720 kHz on AM. As a historic Clear Channel, and at 50 kilowatts, a good reception was a high likelihood.
In 1965 a rookie arrived on the scene for our beloved Bears: Gale Sayers. An exciting running back, fast, shifty and elusive, who could also return kicks. Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, he attended and played football for Kansas University. There he was a two time All-American, carrying the nickname “Kansas Comet.” Of course, as a youngster I didn’t know any of that; I learned that years later by reading his autobiography.
But I did know he was very, very exciting… and annoying to Packers’ fans. I was into my teens before I stopped drawing his number, 40, on my shirts to wear during pick-up football games.
During a game against San Francisco, in his rookie season of 1965, my dad and I followed probably the most remarkable game a rookie ever had, or ever will have. Sayers scored six touchdowns, 4 by rushing, 1 on a pass (80 yards), and another on a punt return (85 yards). It was a late season game, so Sayers’ skills were now well-known, and the 49ers had redesigned their defense and kick coverage specifically to stop Sayers. To no avail. [video highlights here]
We were of course aware the mighty Packers were playing an important game across the country, in Baltimore, that same day. Their most glamorous player, Paul Hornung, had been struggling for quite some time with injuries; most notably a neck injury that caused a pinched nerve, accompanied by numbness and “stingers” running down his arms. He was having a mediocre season and had been forced to sit out a few games. That he was playing at all is testament to his toughness and the stupidity of American Football.
That day Paul Hornung scored five touchdowns, a Packer single-game record that still stands. The next few days all my excited Milwaukee friends wanted to tell me all about those five touchdowns. In a voice that probably failed to conceal my satisfaction, despite its soft tone (I had a bad stammer, and it was not cool to be a Bears fan in Wisconsin, even way back then) I replied: you know, Sayers scored six.
In 1965, Sayers set the NFL single season record of 22 touchdowns, coincidently at age 22. It’s been surpassed eleven times now, but he did that in only 14 games. The rest, except OJ Simpson in 1975, had the benefit of 16 game seasons. (Last year, ridiculously, and inviting further brain damage to players, they expanded to 17 games).
The next season Sayers led the league in rushing. Then disaster. He suffered repeated knee injuries, the first while playing against, ironically, the same San Francisco 49ers against whom he set the touchdown record. He gamely came back after each knee injury and surgery (remember, this is way before arthroscopic surgery … the rehab was just brutal) and an ankle injury as well. He still showed flashes of brilliance, but he’d never be the same Gale Sayers, again.
Comets light up our skies and provide us with something to marvel at, but they come and go quickly. The same with Gale Sayers, the Kansas Comet. He retired at age 28, leaving fans with great memories that spanned just a few years.
So phenomenal were those few years, that Sayers was named to 4 Pro Bowl games (the NFL All-Star game), twice earning Game MVP [link]. Remarkable: he only played four full seasons. In a fifth partial season, he was limited to only 9 games after two more knee injures — he still rushed for 856 yards with an astounding average of 6.2 yards per carry. He was inducted into the NFL Football Hall of Fame at the age of just 34 years old, the youngest ever to be so honored.
Sayers used his injury down time to get additional education, as well as get rehab after surgery. After retirement he first moved into sports management, picking up duties as Athletic Director at Kansas University — completing a master’s degree while at that job — and then AD over at Southern Illinois University. Thereafter, he started his own very successful computer company, which he then ran until retirement.
We can’t talk about Sayers without at least briefly mentioning Brian Piccolo, and the friendship they shared. Piccolo and Sayers came up together, both finishing their college football careers in 1964. Piccolo, playing for Wake Forest led the NCAA in rushing that year; he actually out nudged Sayers in the Heisman Trophy voting. (10th and 11th).
A tough hard running back, Piccolo was not as speedy or flashy as Sayers. He went undrafted. Signing a free agent deal with the Bears, Piccolo eventually worked his way up from the Practice Squad to regular roster player, often teamed up alongside Sayers in the backfield.
Coach George Halas decided it was a good idea to have teammates who played similar positions room together when the team traveled. A budding friendship now bloomed: the black Gale Sayers roomed with the lily-white Brian Piccolo. The first such pairing in NFL history. They even had sequential numbers: Sayers #40, Piccolo #41.
As anyone who’s seen the gut-wrenching movie “Brian’s Song” knows, Piccolo soon contracted a rare form of cancer and passed away, aged only 26.
Final link: Sayers and Hornung. Probably not coincidentally, except perhaps the timing, these stars passed away recently, in the autumn of 2020. Both struggled mightily with cognitive decline, then dementia, in their later years. Although no investigations were performed, it’s highly likely each suffered from CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the worst curse of American football.
Sweet Georgian: Bobby
I also enjoy the sport of golf. Not playing so much as just hitting balls in a contemplative state. It’s relaxing and wonderfully distracting. The exercise and fresh air one gets from playing are healthy, and so are the companionships that develop.
Bobby Jones, born in 1902 in Atlanta, was blessed in many ways: coordinated, intelligent, self-driven and well-reared in a well-off family. But as a youth he had severe health problems. For example, he was unable to eat solid food until age 5, which probably stunted his growth in these important years.
Doctors prescribed golf to young Bobby. He lived across the street from a golf course (now the famous East Lake) which provided plenty of opportunity to play and learn. He took well to the game, and by age 14 was playing – and doing well – in national tournaments.
While playing golf competitively at the highest levels, Jones attended nearby Georgia Tech, earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Then, he went off to Harvard University, earning another degree, this in English Literature. [during his most competitive golf years, Jones would relax in the clubhouse before matches by reading Milton, Shakespeare or Chaucer]. Then, back home to Atlanta-based Emory University to study law. Jones never fully completed his law studies at Emory, as he passed the Georgia Bar exam after his third semester, aged only 25. He immediately began practicing law.
Along the way, he married his high school sweetheart and fathered three children.
One can only marvel that through all this Bobby Jones compiled one of the most extraordinary golf careers in all of history, and certainly by far the greatest of any amateur golfer.
At age 21, Jones won the US Open. Over the next 7 years he’d win another 12 major tournaments, culminating with the Grand Slam – all four majors – in 1930.
After the Grand Slam (also called “The Impregnable Quadrilateral” at the time) Jones promptly retired, without warning — shocking the sports world. Like Sayers, he was only 28 years old. He had proved what he needed to. He reached heights golfers and fans today still marvel at.
Was he the greatest, the so-called GOAT? It’s so hard to compare eras. For example, Jones accomplished all this with hickory shafted clubs and golf balls that couldn’t be trusted to behave the same from one to another – even from the same box! Greens weren’t smooth. He did all this while studying Engineering, Literature and then Law – and then practicing Law and raising a family.
Although his career as golf competitor was over after 1930, Jones’ involvement with golf continued. Working with the Spalding Company he helped design and promote the first matched steel-shafted clubs. He founded the Augusta Golf Club, which hosted the tournament he founded, now called The Masters. He made a series of golf instructional videos – lost for decades – which are now probably the most famous ever, using high speed cameras and special lighting. Ironic, but it was for these financial and technical ventures that he gave up his golf amateur status; Jones never accepted a dime for any of his golf playing achievements.
In the 1940s Jones was still a vibrant and intellectual man. But something was wrong. He was weakening too fast, and in pain. In 1948 he was diagnosed with a rare condition called Syringomyelia, in which cysts form and grow in the spinal cord, impinging the nerve channels. It had probably been developing for decades, maybe even since birth.
Jones’ life on earth lasted until 1971. Those final decades were marked by extreme pain and progressing paralysis. Starting in the ‘40s he became acquaintances with a man who would become President: Dwight D Eisenhower. Theirs would grow to a great friendship of mutual admiration. “Ike” was like many other world leaders, from Churchill, to Prince Charles, to Franco and even George W Bush — he enjoyed painting . Ike, also like many of us, really enjoyed golf. He fell in love with Jones’ Augusta Golf Club and Course. In 1953 Ike presented Jones with a painting of his good friend: a younger and healthier Bobby Jones. 
Paderewski of Ragtime 
This final tale of Ticks and Tocks is the story that started the germination of this entire essay. I learned about it in a newsletter of the 1904 World’s Fair Society, of which my wife and I are members.
For much material I must give credit to newsletter contributor Jim Wiemers, the society’s Music Collector.
Ragtime music is certainly a historic throwback; its golden era was around the last turn of the century, from the late 1890s to the mid-1910s. But it’s certainly still enjoyed today. It’s cheery. It’s jaunty. Its syncopated rhythms are catchy. Personally, I’ve enjoyed it since watching the 1973 film “The Sting,” which featured Scott Joplin’s ragtime classic The Entertainer throughout the movie. [Confession: The Entertainer is the only specific Rag tune I can confidently identify].
Rag was not considered respectable music from its beginning, for at least 10-15 years. No doubt that’s because its roots lie in the African-American communities of that era, most notably in Saint Louis.
In 1904, during the Saint Louis World’s Fair (officially “The Louisiana Purchase Exposition”) leadership of the Fair denigrated the music form and wouldn’t permit it to be played on the main Fair Grounds, although some Rag was played along The Pike, which in many ways was sort of a “side show” to the Fair.
This was a great loss to anyone seeking a combination of contemporary culture and art. Most unfortunate, since the acclaimed all-time king of Rag and Rag Composition, Scott Joplin, lived in Saint Louis at the time. You can still visit the house he lived in, on the edge of downtown Saint Louis, just a few miles from Forrest Park, site of the Fair.
Although most of us today are hard-pressed to name Rag stars of that era besides Joplin, there certainly were many.
According to Fair and music historians, at least three contemporary stars of Rag played on the Fair’s Pike: Louis Chauvin, Sam Patterson, and Arthur Marshall.
Marshall played at the Spanish Café, in the Streets of Seville exhibit, for $12/week (he could’ve made $25 over at the Rosebud Bar, but not on the Fairgrounds). The job lasted less than a month, as his music was too often drowned out by the bands playing at Hagenbeck’s Animal Show (well, the Pike was sort of a collection of sideshows and odd exhibits, displays and experiences). Marshall was replaced by an Iberian Orchestra.  He outlived most the era’s Ragtimers, and was able to provide firsthand testimony on many of the personalities and events to historians decades later.
Sam Patterson and Louis Chauvin played two-piano Rag at the Old St Louis Restaurant and Bar on the Pike [for a great map of the Pike at the 1904 World’s Fair, go to bottom of this page: click here. For a great interactive zoomable map of the entire Fair, here]. 
Patterson and Chauvin grew up together in Saint Louis, which was rather a Rag hotbed. They dropped out of school at 15 and 13, respectively, formed a musical touring group, and traveled the country. Later, they returned to Saint Louis, studying and performing – including at the 1904 Fair – before setting off again.
Patterson held various musical jobs and even joined Joplin in New York City for a while, helping him complete the ragtime opera “Treemonisha” before Joplin’s untimely death in 1917, aged 58.
And then there was the prodigy, Louis Chauvin, often called “Paderewski of Ragtime.” A true superstar of the original Ragtime era. He was a regular performer at Tom Turpin’s Ruby Bar in Saint Louis, a nexus for Ragtime talent. [Quick aside: we note that Turpin himself was an early Ragtime leader, not only through his bar as a performance venue, but through his talent: his works include the very first published ragtime piece: Harlem Rag.]
Chauvin played only by ear and could re-create any piece he heard; if it wasn’t Rag, he put his own rag-spin on it. He could adapt any melody to Rag, including a Sousa march. Contemporaries pretty much agreed: he was the best. But none of his creations were ever written down. His only published work was a team effort with Scott Joplin: Heliotrope Bouquet.
Sadly for him and the music world, Chauvin’s lifestyle was terrible for his health. According to Patterson “He stayed up, drank, and made lots of love … he only seemed to be living when he was at the piano. It’s authentic that he smoked opium at the last.” Chauvin passed away at age 27. Various causes were listed, but modern assessments would largely pin it on neurosyphilis … that’s a long term case of the STD syphilis, resulting in coma and, ultimately, starvation.
Sayer’s career was over at 28. Jones also at 28, although his by choice, not injuries. Piccolo gone at 26.
Louis Chauvin was among the first in the unusually long roster of people who accomplished much, grew famous, and passed away at age 27. What a list!
- Janis Joplin – ranked 46th on the list of top music performers of all time – OD’d on heroine.
- Jim Morrison of the Doors, heart attack, likely cause: heroine.
- Jimi Hendrix of, well, Jimi Hendrix fame, choked to death, probably due to sleeping pill overdose.
- And clean living is no guarantee either: JP Richardson, The Big Bopper, made it to 28. He went down in a Beech Bonanza, in a foggy snowstorm in a cornfield in Iowa – “the day the music died.”
Tick Tock, tick tock. Our clocks are running, always running, always ticking.
“Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.”
Let’s not be depressed but active. Do what we can while we can.
“Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
— scattered verses from “Psalm of Life”
I really wanted this to be upbeat. A tribute to so many who accomplished so much, and so young. Alexander Hamilton setting up a new nation’s finances and banking system at age 32. Just … wow. Leading a charge at the battle that cinched American independence at 24. Dead in a duel at 47.
Sorry that it took such a dour turn. That’s why it took me so long to finish and publish. Had to find a cheerful way out.
Hey, it’s never too late to do something! Harland Sanders founded Kentucky Fried Chicken at age 62, after already (1) having made and lost a fortune, (2) bounced around the country losing jobs as varied and crazy as kaleidoscope patterns, and (3) also having survived a genuine shoot out. 
The priest who married us is 103, and still says Sunday Mass, preaching inspirationally as he’s done for 80 years, on love, humanity, brotherhood, peace and acceptance. 
Me? I’ll just keep observing and writing.
Joe Girard © 2022
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 This famous painting hangs on the wall of the Chairman’s office at Augusta National. Reprints are available, but good ones are not cheap. Ike presented it to Jones shortly after taking the oath of office, 1953. He had been working on it for some time, including through the presidential campaign season.
 Ignacy Pedrewski, a Pole, was widely regarded as the best pianist in Europe at the time. As his name shows up in Saint Louis, obviously he was world renowned. An animated performer, he largely played classical music from the likes of Bach, Beethoven, & Chopin (of course) to large audiences. Known for reworking pieces to his own style (as did Chauvin), he went on to become Poland’s Prime Minister when it won its Independence as a favorable outcome of WWI.
 They All Played Ragtime, by Rudi Bush
 At nearly two square miles (1,270 acres) the 1904 LPE Saint Louis Fair was the world’s largest until the 2010 Shanghai Fair, which nudged ahead at 1,292 acres. Close behind are the Chicago Fair of 1939, at 1,202 acres and the current 2020-22 Dubai World’s Fair, which has been cursed by Covid, at 1,100 acres.
 The Harland Sanders Shoot-out story, https://gizmodo.com/no-colonel-sanders-never-killed-a-man-in-a-shootout-1651797965; and in the book, Colonel Sanders and “The American Dream”, by Josh Ozersky.
 Father William Treacy. We watch his masses by Zoom, or on recording when we’re busy.
Biographic sources for Louis Chavin:
[d] And Jim Wiemer’s column on Chauvin the 1904WF newsletter.