History passing through a tent

Gary Huffenberger - Staff columnist

Running across a stack of companion readers for the 2015 Ohio Chautauqua (pronounced shuh-taw-kwa) brought to mind the summer of 2000 when the Ohio Humanities’ living history presentations came to Wilmington. In fact, 2000 was the first year Ohio Chautauqua toured the state. In 1999, the Ohio Humanities Council presented a week-long program in Columbus in order to figure out the nuts-and-bolts of the program before presenting Ohio Chautauqua in host communities across the state, according to Fran Tiburzio with Ohio Humanities.

The programming revived the traveling tent chautauquas of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. The 2000s Ohio Chautauqua features scholars assuming the costume and character of a historical person and giving a living history performance. Under a tent, audience members learn from and talk with famous figures from Ohio’s and America’s past.

A preview article here in 2000 stated chautauquas were held each summer at Wilmington College from 1910 to 1932. In 2000, Ohio Chautauqua was again on the Wilmington College campus, for five presentations from July 4 through 8. The historical characters for the inaugural revival tour included an African-American poet from Dayton, an inventor, a wealthy industrialist, a women’s rights activist and the man who integrated major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract.

The Wilmington News Journal covered all five presentations. My favorite among the ones I saw was baseball executive Branch Rickey who shattered the color barrier in the national pastime in 1947, two years after the end of World War II.

Historian-actor John Chalberg, who had published a book about Rickey and Robinson, portrayed Rickey. On a humid July 4, he wore a big bow tie and suspenders, had a kerchief sticking out from a breast suit pocket and kept a cigar in hand.

After the performance, there was time for a question-and-answer period. Wilmington College then-president Dan DiBiasio asked about Rickey’s undergraduate days at Ohio Wesleyan University. As a college student, Rickey coached the baseball team there which had one black player.

During the portrayal, Chalberg interacted with the audience which numbered about 150 people of all ages, according to the News Journal report. The article stated one of the younger audience members, when asked by Rickey if he played baseball, replied he had to quit because of swimming.

Rickey responded that swimming was fine for learning individualistic virtues but, unlike the team sport of baseball, “It doesn’t teach you to be part of something bigger.”

It was touching to hear Chalberg-as-Rickey tell about the time Dodger shortstop and Kentucky native Harold “Pee Wee” Reese publicly signal how he felt about having the major leagues’ first black player as a teammate. It was at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati, after “racial epithets” came from fans in the stands.

Reese, said Chalberg, put his arm around Robinson.

Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768 or on Twitter @GHuffenberger.


Gary Huffenberger

Staff columnist