How & Why?
How did a black man born in Texas find his way to North Western Canada?
How is it that an “all-around” athlete, who may well have had professional careers in boxing and baseball, chooses instead to devote his life to coaching and training kids - often without remuneration while living from hand-to-mouth?
How is it that decision makers in Grande Prairie overlooked Tommy as the town’s Athletic Director when all along he had been filling that role as a volunteer?
Why is it that so many of Tommy’s contributions to young people in Grande Prairie and Dawson Creek were taken for granted and unrecognized?
Why is it that we know so little about Tommy’s family life – his early years – his wife Ollie and his six boys?
Tommy’s story as it relates to his remarkable contributions to young people has to do with his nature. Tommy gave unstintingly of his time and considerable abilities to others. He was a glowing example of altruism. Those who knew him well – his family – the kids he worked with and his colleagues spoke of his humility – he never sought the lime light or applause. His name- sake – Tommy Jr. suggests that perhaps he lacked a measure of self-confidence. To the extent this is true one might wonder if it related to negative social attitudes and prejudice toward and the status of people of colour that were more pronounced in his youth and in the US than they were in Canada. However, Tommy was not one to dwell on negative issues or the empty half of a cup. The people who were well acquainted and worked with him spoke of a man who was regularly seen in sports venues and always – always wore a smile. In his interactions with others he consistently had words of support and encouragement.
However, we are left with haunting question. Were Tommy’s wife and six boys an example of “the cobbler’s children have no shoes?” After all one’s capacity for giving surely has limits – the capacity for giving is not a bottomless cup. But again – it was not in Tommy’s nature to dwell on the down side of life or consider that there may have been legitimate limits to “giving”. He gave and he gave – smiling all the while.
A Rolling Stone
Now - to the question, “How did a black man born in Texas find his way to Northern Alberta?
Elsewhere in the web site we have made reference to an element of restless men who came to the Canadian High North as “rolling stones”. That is how the poet Robert Service portrayed many of the “Restless Ones” who were drawn to the northwestern gold fields. He concluded that it was not gold that attracted many of the men who joined the gold rush but a sense of adventure. Tommy most certainly did not move north to make a fortune. In fact there is every reason to believe that Tommy was anything but materialistic. He was above all altruistic. Perhaps, like Robert Service’s “gold seekers” Tommy was endowed with a sense of adventure - coupled with a drive a to do what excited him most – work with kids.
A snapshot of the various locations in which Tommy lived indicates that he was born in Texas – moved to Kansas City Missouri (the city he called home in the US), California – High Prairie in Northern Alberta, then Grande Prairie and finally Dawson Creek, B.C. where he passed away – too young at the age of 66. His skills as a boxer and baseball player and later as a coach and sports executive enabled him to travel widely throughout North America.
John Lynn, a reporter for the Grande Prairie Herald Tribune (GPHT) admired Tommy and made it a point to familiarize himself with the man and his history. In an article of the April 7th issue of the (GPHT) John Lynn commemorates Tommy’s 45th Birthday and summarizes his early history.
Tommy Hamilton was a regular subject for Herald Tribune sports writer John Lynn
I was born in Montgomery, Texas, Tommy says," However, I like to call Kansas City, Missouri, my home - that is where I was raised". In baseball and boxing, Tommy hit the top mark in both sports while still in the States. In Kansas City, Tommy took up boxing, and it wasn't long until he was rated as the amateur welterweight champion of that center.
To illustrate Tommy’s humility and lack of ego Tommy told John, "I never fought pro. I would like that known.” Then he joked, “You see, someday I just might want to get in the ring and give an exhibition or something, so I want it known that I am an amateur.” It was John Lynn’s opinion that, “Tommy the catcher was among the best in baseball.” Tommy did acknowledge he had played some “pretty good ball for some mighty big teams. I banged around with both Los Angeles and San Francisco for a few years," he recalls. “At that time neither the Dodgers nor the Giants had invaded the West Coast cities, but both teams were in" Triple A" ball, next thing to the majors.” Concerning Tommy’s interest in Canada, he reported to John Lynn. “I started to see the country, playing ball for different teams all over Canada right from Ontario to Southern British Columbia.” During an exhibition series while playing in Alliance Southern Alberta with the Oakland Beavers he expressed a liking for Canada. Upon learning of Tommy’s interest in Canada the Manager of the Alliance Team approached him with an invitation. Without hesitation, Tommy decided that although Kansas City had always been home, “Canada would be the next thing to it from that time on.”
Our records fail to indicate the substance of the Alliance Team Manager’s invitation. According to John Lynn (Herald Tribune, July 26, 1957) Tommy coached hockey, baseball and trained fighters in Alliance and Wetaskawin before making a move to High Prairie – his first home in Canada. Tommy reported that not long after arriving in Canada to stay, he got an offer from Edmonton, then the powerhouse of the Canadian pro leagues. "I never went." said Tommy. It would be interesting to know more about Tommy’s activities upon leaving the U.S. and before moving to High Prairie. Was it an arrangement made by the Alliance Ball Team’s Manager? During that period - how did he make a living and support his family?
CANADA: HERE I COME
High Prairie Chapter
We have a limited amount of information concerning Tommy’s activities while he was in High Prairie. It is a short chapter - two years, 1952 – 1954 according to John Lynn. In High Prairie he set the tone for his life in Canada. He coached kids in his favourite sports pursuits of baseball and boxing and although he had never played hockey he became a student of the game and for the remainder of his life added Canada’s National sport to his repertoire. In boxing, Lynn states that two of his champions came from High Prairie. Under Tommy’s tutelage Tony Sukelich won the Dominion Championship in his weight class and Sidney Gates won Alberta’s Golden Gloves Championship. (John Lynn, GPH, July 26, 1957).
Grande Prairie Chapter
In 1957 the GPHT announced “Good news for hopeful boxers in Grande Prairie these days. Tommy Hamilton of High Prairie, who has coached one Provincial champion and one Dominion champion in recent years, has moved to Grande Prairie and is looking for a place to train youngsters.” (John Adams, GPHT, July 26, 1957.)
It is a long step from Texas and Missouri, to Grande Prairie and when Tommy was asked by a Grande Prairie reporter why he came to Canada he replied, " I guess it was a just a case of luck”. Tommy was then thirty-one. “He was beginning to slow down by the time he arrived in the Peace Country city. A couple of years later, he decided that he was too old to carry on in the active participation of sports.” While talking with a GPHT sports reporter regarding his decision to retire from the ring Tommy chuckled, “When you get to my age, you just don't go climbing into a ring with some young guy, because you just might not be able to get back out.” He retired from the front lines and moved to the instructing side of the game.” All around athlete that he was he had studied Canada’s game of hockey. By the time he arrived in Grande Prairie he had already coached two juvenile teams to Provincial finals.” (John Lynn, GPHT, April 7, 1959).
How is it that an “all-around” athlete who might well have had professional careers in both or either boxing and baseball instead devoted his life to coaching and training kids often without remuneration while living from hand-to-mouth?
For information concerning Tommy’s Grande Prairie chapter we rely principally on three sources: John Lynn, Sports Reporter for GPHT, and two local kids that Tommy coached in minor hockey - Dave Emerson and me (Stan Neufeld) and his son, Tommy Hamilton Jr. We have the impression that Tommy’s experience in Grande Prairie was generally a continuation of his life in High Prairie i.e. work to support his family was an extra-curriculum activity to support his family. His major passion was working with kids through sports – boxing, baseball and hockey. In Grande Prairie he was operating on a larger stage than High Prairie. At that time Grande Prairie’s population of 7,600 was approximately three times the size of High Prairie. The “day jobs” he held in Grande Prairie included working for Parks and Recreation( volunteer only) , the Department of Highways and Maintenance Man for the Park Hotel.
On moving to Grande Prairie Tommy assembled, “a few of the young lads in the city and started a boxing club. Youngsters with no previous training were coached by Tommy and several of his protégés competed for the Golden Gloves championship including
Greg Oatway who brought home a championship. John Lynn predicted “A lot of other boxers should go a long way under the future guidance of a trainer with the ability Tommy has. Tommy informed Lynn, “I like to see young kids with talent get the chance they need to show themselves." I moved behind the scenes and tried to do something for the youngsters in the area. The club, started with about 15 members and remained about the same size every year, but a lot of different faces have passed through over the season.” (John Lynn).
Tommy and his GP boxers (names unknown) Submitted photo
The Baseball Catcher
There was also a great deal of excitement among ball players and fans in Grande Prairie when they learned that Tommy Hamilton was coming to town. Although he had retired his boxing gloves the local men’s baseball team convinced him that he should take his familiar post behind the plate and play for the local team. According to Lynn he did so for a year or so but, “the old bones were getting a little stiff so he decided to concentrate on training - knocking the kinks out of sore arms for the ballplayers and sore muscles for hockey players as well to coach, train, manage and served as father and mother to about a dozen peewee hockey teams.”
Tommy let it be known that he was eager to help Grande Prairie develop a baseball program for local kids and advertised for support.
He would like to have half a dozen adults with each team in various capacities, and for the kids who, cannot play due to health, disabilities or what have you. There are jobs with the team such as scorekeeper, umpires or base coach. The work Tommy is doing especially with the kids is very commendable, and Grande Prairie is fortunate to have such a man living in the city. Tommy and his wife, Ollie, have six boys, all husky lads, and all prospective athletes for the Grande Prairie teams.” (John Lynn).
Interestingly, Tommy not only coached baseball teams in Grande Prairie he also coached the Sexsmith Rainers; their senior baseball team. Tommy Jr. comments that he remembers Rainer players Chuck Stojan and Jerry Pittman.
Tommy coached many minor and senior baseball teams including the Sexsmith Rainers. Players from 1964 include:
Back from from left: Tommy Hamilton, coach, Wayne Lock, Bob Zaichkowsky, Chuck Stojan, Ray Gilkyson, Greg Chrenek, Allan Moe, Willy Jackson, Harry ?, manager.
Front row from left: Jim Bellamy, Mel Wold, Lenny Zaichkowsky, Jerry Pitman, David Leonard 4
It is clear from John Lynn’s writing that he was a huge Tommy Hamilton fan and regularly reported his activities and recognized his contributions to the community. For example, shortly after his arrival in Grande Prairie John reported,
A new sports club for boys from age 14 to 20 was organized last week in a meeting at the arena. The new club called the “House of Athletics” is sponsored by Tom Hamilton – popular and well-known city sports figure. The executive for the new club is as follows: Pres. Galen Head, VP Lindsay Minto, sec. Ron Carnahan and treasurer John Neil. The club is planning to sponsor hockey and baseball tournaments, as well as other sporting activities. All new members will be welcome, said Lindsay Minto. Anyone interested the call him at 532-3605.
Always willing, always present, and always smiling; these seem to be the trademarks of this devoted man present at almost any sporting event in Grande Prairie. In the words of a well-known local baseball player," Tommy has done a lot for the youth in the city. He's a wonderful guy. He has done wonders with his boxing club and he is done it all by himself. Tommy is a great guy, always willing and always ready to help to any organization in need of trainers or guidance. Ask Tommy and he just shrugs and replies, "I like kids.” Somebody has to help them and I liked it, so why not me?” Then, with a smile and a cheery wave he is off down the street to the nearest rink, baseball field or boxing ring, to help some new group of kids.
In the eyes of half the peewee players he coaches, Tommy rates second only to Santa Claus. The other half, give him an edge over Santa. Tommy has done a terrific job with the small boys and they are definitely showing the results of his handling. If a kid won't work up a sweat Tommy doesn't want him, but if he tries, he gets lots of help know matter how good are no good he is as a player and it was not long before Tommy was producing pretty good teams. Last year the Grand Prairie’s sixteen and under team, under his leadership, captured the South Peace Championship. " Man, I'm proud of that." Tom smiled. "Proud of all the boys on the team and just as proud of that trophy”. (John Lynn).
Lynn went on to note that as a coach, Tommy stressed good sportsmanship above all.
Tommy Jr. pointed out that his Dad was not only involved in coaching, he helped out in other ways such working to construct the hockey rinks in the flats, a winter recreation area that was so popular and well used in that era. Tommy Jr. recalls sliding down the banks of Bear Creek to get to the rinks.
As it relates to hockey Tommy was also involved with the local senior hockey team, the GP Athletics as the team’s Trainer.
Tommy was trainer for Grande Prairie Athletics in 1958. Stan Neufeld photo collection
Tommy served as trainer for Grande Prairie Athletics in 1961. Stan Neufeld photo collection
Tommy also served as trainer with the Grande Prairie Athletics in 1964. I (Stan Neufeld) was on this team but not in the photo. Submitted photo
Dave Emerson was among the young hockey players who competed on Two Rinks and reports that he played on midget and juvenile teams coached by Tommy. Dave left his imprint on Grande Prairie in a number of areas: Vice president of the Grande Prairie High School (GPHS) Student Council in the early 60’s – a high performing athlete in several areas i.e. won a 13 mile bike race, finished top 10 in GP’s annual Cross-Country Race – played on a GPHS Championship hockey team and made the news at age 16 in 1962 by scoring a hat trick and obtaining an assist for Grande Prairie’s senior team, the Athletics his debut with the team.
Dave Emerson played for a number of hockey teams at the same time while attending the Grande Prairie Public High School including high school hockey, juvenile and with the senior Athletics. Submitted photo
I (Stan Neufeld) reached Dave and interviewed him regarding his recollections of Tommy. In our conversation with he commented,
Tommy’s activities and the example he set “Kept us off the streets. He was one of those few community minded people who gave freely of his time on evenings and weekends coaching, caring for and organizing sports for kids. Tommy Hamilton was that person. He was all heart and he gave so much for so many of us young kids in that era. He’s an example of someone I’ve never been able to thank and recognize adequately for all he did for me and for many others. He kept us focused on athletics and out of trouble. Without his constant presence I would have foundered and perhaps never amounted to anything more than a teenaged brat. Tommy encouraged and fostered our teams, improving our individual skills and always making it fun. And I would bet that he did more for race relations than anyone in Grande Prairie, although it was not recognized at the time and he may have actually paid a price for it because it made ‘officialdom’ uncomfortable. I have always felt Tommy should have received more recognition, formal recognition, for his contribution to the young people in the community and the community at large. He coached and trained young people in boxing, baseball and hockey and candidly, kept them off the street.
Tommy organized Grande Prairie Minor Hockey programs for years. There are too many youngsters to identify here. I(Stan Neufeld) was among a second group with the same number of players but no photo available. Photo courtesy of Dan Zeyha
Tommy spent twelve years in Grande Prairie where he gave unstintingly of his time and considerable abilities to the youth of our town. The reason for his departure from Grande Prairie will forever leave a black mark on Grande Prairie’s failure to adequately recognize him. He was tailor made and the obvious choice to become the Athletic Director in Grande Prairie and when that position became open Tommy should have been the only person considered for the job. “After all”, as John Lynn pointed out, “he was doing the job anyway – as a volunteer – without pay.”
Tommy played an important role in minor hockey as a volunteer with the GP Recreation department. Photo courtesy of David Eagar
Emerson commented further, “He never received any formal recognition from his time in Grande Prairie and it wasn’t until he moved to Dawson Creek that he was finally acknowledged for his years of volunteer service.” Given the opportunity, countless kids, parents and other volunteers who knew Tommy and with whom he worked would have rallied in support of Tommy for the position of Athletic director. He was well known and enormously popular. Whatever the reason for being overlooked for the position of Athletic Director – Tommy was crushed. However, his qualities and abilities were widely known in the Peace River country and when the role of Athletic Director opened in Dawson Creek and Tommy was offered the job he was quick to make another move. Grande Prairie’s loss was Dawson Creek’s gain.
Dawson Creek Chapter
For the first 12 of their 14 years in Northern BC the Hamilton’s made Pouce Coupe their home while Tommy served as Dawson Creek’s Athletic Director. We don’t know the exact location of Tommy’s office but it was a pleasant six-mile drive from Pouce Coupe through rolling agricultural land to the Alaska Highway Mile Zero marker in the town centre. Although the names differ and details of Tommy’s activities changed, the essence of Tommy’s story in Dawson Creek was the same as it was in Grande Prairie - unswerving dedication to support the development of young people relying on his interest and ability in boxing, baseball and hockey but more importantly, his ability to connect emotionally with Kids. In Dawson Creek Tommy was able to devote all of his time and energy to work with the boys and girls of his new home.
Marg Forbes a reporter with the Peace River Block News (PRBN) wrote, “He founded the Pouce Coupe Legion Boxing Club that produced many fine fighters. In Dawson Creek “He was active in senior and minor baseball, hockey and softball as a participant, coach, organizer and umpire.” Day Roberts covered sports for the PRBN and was a referee in the SPHL for more than a decade during the time when I (Stan Neufeld) played hockey with the Grande Prairie Athletics. As an aside, I acknowledge that reflecting on my performance as a player in the rugged SPHL – Alberta’s “Outlaw League” and Day’s performance as a referee, - he overlooked more than one infraction for which he might have penalized me.” Back to Day’s observations concerning Tommy he noted, “He always had words of encouragement and wise council when it was most needed. His cheerful outlook never failed to lift up the spirits of those around him and for these fine qualities he will be best remembered. Tommy Hamilton was in every sense a true sportsman and a gentleman, and was highly respected by young and old alike throughout the Peace River Country.” Tommy Jr. states that he was eleven and going into the eighth grade when they arrived in Dawson Creek. According to the record, when Dawson Creek hired Tommy they received a seven for one bargain. It is reported that in Dawson Creek Tommy’s sons were often involved in helping out with young boys and girls.
In 1973 Tommy was named winner of the" Earl Johnson Memorial award" as Dawson Creek's sportsman of the year – an indication of the high regard he earned in Dawson Creek – the kind of recognition that was missing during his sojourn in Grande Prairie. His sons, Harry and Herb accepted the award for their Father at an Awards Banquet. Tommy Sr. was in Quesnel attending a meeting in his new capacity as Regional Recreation Director for the BC Association of Non-Status Indians. That is “Typical Tommy” – service first – recognition and applause second.
Tommy was featured in the Dawson Creek Peace Block News in 1973. Photo Courtesy of Marg Forbes, Dawson Creek
A Son’s Recollections: Tommy Hamilton Jr.
During the process of gathering information for Tommy’s story I (Stan) had the privilege of connecting with Tommy Hamilton Jr. Tommy who is co-owner of Eso Won Books located in Inglewood, California. Below is a summary of my conversations with Tommy Jr.
Following graduation from High School Tommy Jr. travelled to Los Angles to visit his Grandfather and Los Angeles became home. It was a pleasure to hear him reminisce about his childhood and growing up in the Peace River country along with five brothers. In Grande Prairie he often hung out at the Memorial arena. Walter Head ran the arena and he remembers Walter’s children, Gerald and Marilyn and recalls watching GP Hockey Legends Galen Head, Pete Wright, Leo Auger and others play hockey. His Dad was the A’s Trainer at that time. He remembers GP Hockey Legend Bob Neufeld (Ron and Stan’s older brother) for the “snazzy” track outfits he wore. As noted earlier Tommy Jr. would slide down the hill to the rinks on the Bear Creek Flats where he played hockey – the rinks his Dad helped to build and where he coached. We wonder if Tommy Jr. or his brothers were on any teams coached by his Dad. Tommy and his brother Al attended the McLaurin Baptist Church and either Tommy or Al was in Mrs. Neufeld’s (Ron & Stan’s Mother) Sunday-School class.
Tommy Jr. reports he was eleven years old and going into the eighth grade when the family moved to Dawson Creek. In Dawson Creek Tommy Jr. played hockey as far as the midget level. Again, we wonder if any of the “brothers seven” were on teams coached by Tommy Sr.
Based on Stan’s interview with Tommy Jr. I (Ron) gather that he is entertained by what I refer to as “small world stories” that I define as “the accidental meeting of friends in unexpected places at unexpected times”. For example, Tommy Jr. told Stan that on one occasion by sheer coincidence two lawyers from London who knew each other showed up in his store. More germane to this article Tommy mentioned that on one occasion a girl that was his classmate in the eighth grade in Dawson Creek came to his store. We would have enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversation.
I Ron) left Grande Prairie in 1958 to study at UBC and play hockey for the Thunderbirds. That was the year the Hamilton’s moved to Grande Prairie. Therefore I was unfamiliar with Tommy’s activities in my hometown. I Iearned of the Hamiltons in an unusual manner. It is another “small world” story. As a high school student in Delta B.C. Tim Lorenz played football and baseball with my (Ron’s) son Paul. Tim was a frequent visitor at our home and still keeps in touch with us. He is a close friend. Tim knew that Grande Prairie was my hometown and had visited Grande Prairie. Tim played junior hockey with the Portland Winter Hawks and later football at the university of Hawaii. After college he played professionally for the Hamilton Tiger Cats. While playing football he completed a degree in education and following his retirement from pro football he spent time as a teacher in Compton High School in South-Central LA - one of America’s most challenging school districts. During that time he frequented Tommy Hamilton’s book store - Eso Won Books. One day while browsing in the bookstore Tim overheard Tommy Jr. make reference to Grande Prairie. Tim rushed to the desk and asked Tommy what he knew about Grande Prairie and if he knew anyone from Grande Prairie. Tommy informed Tim that he spent twelve of his childhood years in Grande Prairie and, if my (Ron) memory he informed Tim that Mrs. Neufeld (Stan and Ron’s Mother) was his Sunday School Teacher.” Tim could not wait to tell me (Ron) about this “small world” encounter.
Public Service: The Cost/Benefits
Tommy was an elite athlete. Given the right breaks he might well have made a comfortable living as a professional boxer or ball player. We wonder – would he have traded his years of service to kids for a jewel studded championship belt? Would GP Hockey Legends Marv Bird, Roy Peterson or Marj McAusland have traded their years of rewarding volunteer service in Grande Prairie for a Stanley Cup ring?
Tommy’s story of service and sacrifice is exemplary and deserves to be told. However, it should not stop with him. No one has told us Ollie’s story. What was she doing while Tommy was at the rink or at the ball field? What happened to her following Tommy’s death? During his short life Tommy would not have been able to reach out as he did to so many and spent the time he did supporting kids without his own support structure - especially Ollie. That is often the case with dedicated volunteers and people who work in social service and recreational domains. Picture this – a gaggle of kids – half frozen – arriving at the door of a Mother to one of them – they dump their skates and shed their snow covered boots at the entrance where water pools on the floor and they head for a spot in front of the fireplace where they sit – cross legged around a coffee table that holds a steaming pot of hot chocolate and review the events of their day. The Mother stands quietly behind – a solid caring presence.
In Tommy’s case we are left with a haunting question. For almost half of his life in the north Tommy was unpaid for his public service. Furthermore he was often denied proper recognition for his service. There are only so many hours in a day and Tommy had a wife and seven boys to feed and nurture. So – one might ask – how much altruism is too much? Unfortunately there is no objective formula to answer that question.
Tommy. Submitted photo
Grande Prairie Hockey Legends is researched, written and presented by Stan and Ron Neufeld