Bud Wilkinson: To a Very Rare Man

Topeka Capital-Journal
February 14, 1994

Last Wednesday night Jay Wilkinson called to say his dad, Bud, who made history as football coach at Oklahoma, was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the night. He didn’t. Next morning we heard on the radio he had died.

Later in the morning I tried to call Charlie Hoag to tell him about Bud, but I couldn’t reach him. It wasn’t until the five o’clock TV news that we heard there had been a wreck on the Turnpike and that Charlie’s wife, Salli, was killed and he was seriously injured. The day had provided a double dose of bad news.

Wilkinson and Hoag had closer ties than you might think. In the early 1950s, Bud was one of the best coaches in the country and Charlie was a superb running back at KU , as well as being a key member of a national championship basketball squad. Continue reading

Averting a National Fitness Crisis: A Story of Pluck on the Front Lines

Topeka Capital-Journal
Jan. 9, 1991

There is more bad news for would be war correspondents. It wasn’t enough that the prospective war zone bans booze and wanton women, so now the Pentagon says journalists must pass a physical fitness test before they will be accredited to cover the troops in Operation Desert Shield.

Several men and women already have been tested, and only a few men have failed. This is not surprising, since men are less inclined to take this sort of thing seriously. Those found wanting probably went to the test directly from a wholesome lunch of spicy chili, barbecued ribs, cheesecake and a few beers.

Some men aren’t meant to pass physical fitness tests, and this simple fact calls to mind the greatest fitness crisis in the country’s history. It occurred in February 1963, and I am proud to say I played a major role in resolving it.

The White House was occupied at the time by John F. Kennedy, and it probably was his Irish humor and his bent for playing a dirty trick on his portly press secretary, Pierre Salinger, that started the whole thing. Robert F Kennedy, the attorney general, got into it, and in the end it turned out to be funny to everybody but Salinger.

The story goes that President Kennedy somehow learned that Teddy Roosevelt, when he was president, had sent a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps saying every Marine should be able to walk 50 miles amd that White House personnel probably should be able to do it, too. You can smell a plot being hatched here.

Continue reading

On Assignment from the President

Topeka Capital-Journal
June 1, 1992

I ended the month of May with a blooper, and probably I’m starting June with another one, but some of us never learn. Last week I wrote that State Senator Frank Gaines of Augusta, who has announced his retirement, was a good man. It turns out he was a better man than I gave him credit for being. I should have known .

He was in the Legislature 24 years, and I noted that if he signed up for the plush pension plan legislators voted for themselves, he would qualify for about $25,000 per year. I added there was no reason to believe he hadn’t signed.

Since then I have been informed by a good friend of his, who would know, that Gaines didn’t take advantage of the souped-up pension. He deserves this apology and the respect of all of us.

I also have sentenced myself to do severe penance for this mistake, but not before I start June on the wrong foot by giving in to the irresistible urge to drop big names. It comes over me occasionally, and I am a pushover.

Maybe this one was caused by the recent new evidence from the two doctors that president John F. Kennedy was killed by two shots, fired by one man. Maybe it started me thinking about him and about my days as a dedicated public servant in Washington.

The story goes back 30 years, to the days when all public servants were dedicated and all Kansas State football fans were long-suffering. The story doesn’t have anything to do with K-State, but it does have a little to do with football. Continue reading

Fitness for the Rest of Us

Metro News
March 19, 2004

Lee Iacocca was an automobile executive who at one time was better known than Henry or Edsel Ford, Orville Olds, Burl Buick, Chief Pontiac, Carl Cadillac, Abe Lincoln, Harry Honda, Tom Toyota, Ed Bozarth or Laird Noller. Iacocca created the Ford Mustang and got that auto empire out of a rut, and then literally saved Chrysler’s rear end, not to mention it’s flywheel.

He was Mister Detroit in 1962 when he had one of his underlings called the national Physical Fitness and Sports office in Washington. Iacocca had a hot idea, and wanted to present it to Bud Wilkinson, who was football coach at Oklahoma, but also President Kennedy’s consultant on such matters, and the boss of the office.

Wilkinson actually spent only the summer months in Washington, so the Iacocca call came to yours truly, the administrator of the operation. The auto magnate wanted an appointment with Wilkinson, so I set it up for a date a couple of weeks later, when Bud would be there. Continue reading

Chicken Fat: A Hit in Schools, Though JFK Hated the Title

Topeka Capital-Journal – August 25, 2000

There’s a connection between Bud Wilkinson and a song called “Chicken Fat,” but I never expected to be reminded of it this week when I was in Oklahoma being interviewed for a TV biography of the late Sooner football coach. But it was there, in the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman, on the same morning I faced the camera.

Some background is in order. In 1961, soon after President John F. Kennedy took office, he asked one of his aides, Ted Reardon, to figure out what he should do with the fitness program inherited from the Eisenhower administration.

Eisenhower was concerned because American children lagged far behind Europeans in strength and fitness tests, so he created the President’s Council on Youth Fitness.

To lead it, he named an orator, Shane McCarthy, who went around the country extolling the merits of a strong mind in a strong body, and attending a lot of meetings and seminars on what should be done to get American youngsters leaner and tougher.

Reardon studied the problem, then wrote a memo to the president, saying what the program needed first was a sports personality who presented an image of both physical fitness and personal integrity.

Reardon would tell me later that as he dictated the memo, the next sentence just rolled off his tongue without him having to even think about it. “What the program needs,” he said, “is someone like Bud Wilkinson.” Continue reading