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Amy Smith, who has a master's degree in mechanical engineering and teaches at MIT, isn't interested in building faster computers or bigger jetliners. She's thinking about how to cook dinner in a Haitian slum. Most of Haiti has been deforested, few people have electricity, and fossil fuels are prohibitively expensive. But there's something Haiti has a lot of: bagasse, or sugar-cane fibers left over after processing. Smith and her students have developed a way to turn this plentiful (and otherwise useless) material into clean-burning charcoal by carbonizing it in a covered oil drum. It's a simple solution to a simple problem, but—like many of Smith's projects—it makes a big difference in ordinary people's lives.
Smith, a practitioner of humanitarian engineering, wants to solve everyday problems for rural families in the developing world: where to find clean water, how to preserve vegetables for market, how to do laundry without electricity or plumbing. Smith's inventions include a hammer mill for grinding grain into flour—a task African women usually do by hand—and a portable kit to test drinking water for contaminating bacteria. Smith, who was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship in 2004, runs MIT's IDEAS Competition, for which teams of student engineers design projects to make life easier in the developing world.
What would you say was the coolest project that you've worked on?
Well, it's not very romantic, but I think our charcoal project is going to have a huge impact, because it allows you to have a clean-burning fuel without cutting down trees. We're planning large-scale dissemination in Haiti. There's no glitz factor to it, but it's probably going to make a huge amount of difference.
Have the inventions that come out of your class and out of the IDEAS competition proved successful in the field?
Some of the IDEAS competition winners have been very successful. The compound water filter, which removes arsenic and pathogens, is now deployed quite extensively in Nepal. The Kinkajou microfilm projector, used in nighttime literacy classes, is being deployed in Mali. We’re working to commercialize a system for testing water for potability. It's in the field in several countries, but not on a widespread basis. We're looking towards doing a trial of aerosol vaccines in Pakistan, so that's exciting.
What is the biggest problem facing rural communities in the developing world?
I don't think you can say there's a single one. Obviously access to safe drinking water is a huge problem, and lack of access to opportunities, and general poverty. But if you get people safe drinking water, and then they still have no way to earn any money to feed their families, you still have a problem. And if you give them better methods of agricultural processing or ways to create clean energy, but there's still drinking water that makes them sick, you still have a problem. There are too many interrelated issues, so solving one problem won't completely change the lives of millions.
You lived in India as a child and you were in the Peace Corps in Botswana in the 1980s. How did those experiences lead to what you're doing now?
As a very young child I was exposed to very severe poverty, so I always wanted to do something to help kids around the world. Living in India is something that stayed with me—I could put faces on the kids who had so little money. In Botswana, I was teaching and then working for the ministry of agriculture as a beekeeper, and I remember thinking to myself that I really liked doing development work, but I wished could do some engineering too, because I like creative problem solving. People in the developing world scrape every last ounce of life that they can out of objects, and my students used to bring me things to fix, and I always enjoyed being able to do that.
You’ve said that engineering schools focus too much on defense and consumer electronics—what changes would you like to see in the way engineering is taught?
It would be great if students recognized that engineering with a humanitarian focus is as legitimate as aerospace and automotive engineering. Service learning is actually a very good way to teach engineering, because it motivates students to continue, and it appeals especially to women and minorities.
You are a woman in what is still a male-dominated field. What can we do to encourage more women to become engineers?
Actually, because my class involves humanitarian engineering, I very rarely have more men than women. There have been times where there have been ten women and one man. This isn't surprising, given that women often want to see an application to what they're learning that they feel is worthwhile. But I'm not involved in any particular projects to encourage women engineers, because I dislike being referred to as a woman engineer. I don't like programs that single out woman engineers as particular achievers just for being women. I think that it should be coincidental. What we should be striving for is a world where when we see women or minorities who are high achievers, it isn't surprising. We shouldn't be thinking, "Good for them!" just because of their race or gender. I think we're a long, long way from that, but I don't think we should keep implying that there's something special about being a woman engineer. I want people who meet me to say, "I like the work that you're doing." I want to be known as an engineer who designs solutions for the developing world. After that people can notice that I'm a woman.
You mention Wahpeton as a place of extreme weather—floods, tornadoes, blizzards. Were there any particularly memorable moments?
Lots of them. Let’s see. The first I remember was watching the clouds just boil up over the horizon and getting everybody down to the basement in the house I lived in. On the Wahpeton Indian School campus at the time there was also a big potato cellar that was supposed to be the refuge for everybody. However, after a heavy rain, the whole refuge caved in, so we were just very happy no one was in that potato cellar. I remember the park being flooded and wading to my swimming lessons through knee-high, waist-high water even. Blizzards, I think, were my favorite because we would get off from school and I remember walking—having a drift be so high I could walk—from the drift onto the garage roof.
What are some of your sensory memories of your hometown? The sounds and smells?
The meadowlark—there is a poignancy about going back there and not hearing the meadowlarks anymore because of the lack of habitat. There are very few meadowlarks in that part of North Dakota, but I used to hear them right in the middle of town. I don’t hear meadowlarks anymore. It’s the most wonderful sound. Mourning doves in late afternoon, early evening…the lazy heat that would come down at dusk and, of course, the huge clouds of mosquitoes that would accompany that in the summer. For me, my childhood is mixed up with the sound of snow. Snow makes different kinds of sound. You go out, and it is very cold, and your boots squeak in the snow and you notice the type of snow that has fallen because of the sound your feet make.
How is development—I know Wal-Mart is coming in—changing the town?
I think it’s been a slow change. There’ve been business owners who’ve tried so hard to stick it out on the main street of town and those are the people I really admire. They care so much about Wahpeton. It’s tough to watch the main street go under. Wal-Mart means the end of a small town’s Main Street culture. That to me is very sad. I just remember such a thriving little set of shops and business and restaurants. That hurts to see. I hate to bash Wal-Mart but the idea that there is going to be one there just discourages me so much. I feel like it’s the end of Main Street.
You write that your family has been an integral part of the transformation of Wahpeton. How was it growing up rooted to a place? Did it give you a strong sense of identity?
Oh, absolutely. I think that’s why I became a writer. I left, I was educated elsewhere, but part of me never has left. And I am glad to be close enough now that I can still consider it my home. Wahpeton is also close to the Sisseton Reservation and my mother’s people, 300 miles north, that’s the Turtle Mountains. Part of what ties me there is my sister, Angela, who is an Indian health service doctor and so is her husband. And my brother, Ralph, is the director of nursing. And I have another sister in Wahpeton who works at the Circle of Nations school. I have a lot of family there and I am very proud that my family has worked so hard for Native health.
Home can be such a source of strength, but some people sneer at the idea of staying close to home. Not me, I still live at home.
I don’t know where it is coming from. I think it is part of our “get out of town” culture. In Europe and in many Native communities it is perfectly normal to stay home as long as you can and stay close to your parents, if you are fortunate to have wonderful parents, and I am. And my girls are in and out of the house now, they are college-age, and sometimes they are home for extended periods and it is a very good time for us.
Have your hometown memories inspired your writing?
I think my dad, especially, has always kept me laughing. We just have a lot of stories. He is a very good storyteller and I think that, before I ever even learned how to write, I would hear the sense of narrative through my dad.
Some people have preconceived notions of a small town. How was it growing up in a small town?
Well, the good part was the real freedom and safety I had. Except for the stupid things I would do, I was fairly safe. I could go anywhere in town. I had my own transportation even as a kid. I could walk or ride my bike. I didn’t have to rely on grown-ups as much as kids do now. I suppose the downside was that the intellectual opportunities are limited as you get older and you naturally hunger for the whole sense of cultural diversity in the world. When I left, I didn’t really know a lot about religious or cultural differences in people. And when I left and went to Dartmouth I was pretty astounded. I had to get a whole new read on people. It took me a long time to catch up with that.
So you sold popcorn at the theater and worked at the local diner? Were you a good waitress? Did you have any other interesting jobs?
Well I was a good waitress but I also became resentful. Sometimes I was the kind of waitress that would glare at you if you dropped a fork for the third time. I wasn’t always a great waitress. I got pretty impatient. I worked the graveyard shift at the local 24-hour restaurant. I worked in several restaurants in town. I was also a lifeguard. I came back from college and worked construction. I just worked at all sorts of jobs around Wahpeton.
Your parents were both teachers. How did that influence your childhood? Was it a really creative time?
My dad would make up stories and he mimeograph them for the kids to punctuate or read. One of my favorites of his lesson plans was this fantastic story about the Great Pencil Shortage. He also made a wonderful timeline that stretched all the way around the room that he kept adding to and we kept adding to. And he had a scroll that every student he ever had signed. In fact, Leonard Peltier signed that scroll.
You had a really active childhood—swimming, tennis, fishing, softball. But you also mention spending a lot of time at the library. What did you read when you were a kid?
I read Jack London. I loved Jack London’s White Fang. That was my first experience of, you know, real books. I remember reading “To Build a Fire,” the short story. He was the greatest. Jack London, George Orwell—I loved Animal Farm. And you know these were books I read as a little kid. I didn’t really understand quite what I was reading in some of them.
Did you write as a kid?
I kept diaries and both my father and mother encouraged me to write. I would write anything. With poetry, I tried things that rhymed mostly.
You mentioned that at one time you left Wahpeton? Why?
Well, my mother found me a place to go. She saw something about Dartmouth College and sent away for literature and found out that they were starting a Native American program and that they were also admitting women. So I entered Dartmouth the year they admitted women. I applied from out in Wahpeton, North Dakota. But I had never really left the Midwest before for an extended period. I had been to Tennessee once—that was my major trip. So I got on a plane and went out to New Hampshire and it was just extraordinary.
Is there anything you savor now about being near home?
Practically everything. I appreciated it as a kid but as a young adult I found I wanted to be in the big world as most people do. I wanted to travel and see what life was like elsewhere. I live in Minneapolis so I certainly haven’t gone back to live in Wahpeton, but I like being close and I love being near the Plains. I really need sky, horizon, and the Great Plains.
Eighty-four percent of Americans claim to be happy, a statistic that Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson finds "strange at best, troubling at worst." With a litany of self-help books, pills and plastic surgery to feed Americans' addiction to happiness, he says, "It's now easier than ever before to live a trouble-free life, to smooth out the rough edges, to hide the darkness." In his recent book Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, Wilson—a non-recovering melancholic by choice—praises sorrow as the muse of many writers and songwriters, warning that to rid life of it is to rid life of a vital source of creativity.
You compare the loss of melancholy to other apocalyptic concerns: global warming, rising oceans and nuclear war. What about happiness is life threatening?
Obviously that opening is a bit hyperbolic for rhetorical effect. I will admit that. But it is, at the same time, a kind of expression of real danger. I think that being melancholy is an essential part of being a human being. I think to be a fully expressed human being you must be willing to delve into melancholy as much as into joy. If we try too hard to get rid of that melancholy it's almost like we're settling for a half-life.
Why do you think people are aiming for a constant happy?
That is the question. My suspicion is that American culture has inculcated into most people that to be an American is to be happy. It's in our founding document, isn't it? We have the right to the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans think that America is a blessed nation. This grows out of 19th-century ideas like Manifest Destiny, the idea that America is a nation blessed by God that should spread its principles throughout the world. America is a fairly wealthy nation. America has a lot of military power. America has also kind of cast itself as the moral voice of the world. I think Americans growing up in that milieu tend to think, well, gosh, to be an American is really great, why shouldn't I be happy?
You're pretty harsh on the "happy type," making sweeping generalizations like happy types like the Lifetime channel and eat Jell-O with Cool Whip. What are you trying to get at in describing the happy type this way?
I am using a technique that one of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau, used in Walden, and that is hyperbole, satire, exaggeration, the idea being that if I kind of blow up large these behaviors of these happy types, I'm going to shock people into thinking about their lives. I'm trying to give people a kind of jolt. I guess I am a little bit angry at these happy types, such as I define them, and the anger does show through a bit. My book is a polemic. It is an attack on what I see as excessive in America's addictions to happiness. But ultimately I'm just trying to clear ground so that I can start making my more positive point, which is of course to embrace melancholy is ultimately to embrace joy.
You desire authenticity. But what is authentic?
Authenticity is embracing the fact that we're necessarily duplicitous beings. I think there's a tendency in our culture to use an either/or logic. One is either happy or sad. One is either liberal or conservative. One is either Republican or Democrat. One is either religious or secular. That's the kind of discourse that is used in our public arenas all the time. I think that leads people to jump on one side or the other. There are all sorts of oppositions that organize our being—reason/emotion, joy/sorrow, consciousness/unconsciousness, pessimism/optimism—and it seems to me that when we latch on to one of those polarities, at the expense of the other, that's an inauthentic life. An authentic life is an endless interplay between these oppositions in which one tries to put them in a creative conversation with one another, realizing that the light shines more brightly when compared to darkness and the darkness becomes richer and more interesting when compared to brightness. I'm just trying to call people to return to a balance, to consider that part of human experience that many people seem to be repressing, ignoring or flying from.
Is there always sadness on the road to joy?
Joy is the polar opposite of melancholy. You can't have one without the other. I think we can think about this when we put ourselves in memories of witnessing a birth or a wedding or a funeral, those times when we're so overwrought with emotion that we don't know whether to laugh or to cry. It's exactly those moments when we feel most alive, I would argue. Usually when we feel that way there's this strange mix of joy and sorrow at the same time. I'm trying to suggest ways to live that can cultivate as many minutes like that as possible.
So you're in praise of melancholy. Define melancholy.
It is best defined against depression. Depression is usually a passive state. It's not a creative state. It's a state of lethargy, paralysis, apathy, great pain, and therefore should be treated any way possible. Melancholy, in contrast, as I define it, and I'm drawing this definition out of a long philosophical and literary history of the term, is a very active state. When we're melancholy, we feel uneasy in relation to the way things are, the status quo, the conventions of our society. We yearn for a deeper, richer relationship to the world, and in yearning for that, we're forced to explore potentialities in ourselves that we would not have explored if we were simply content. We come up with new ways of seeing the world and new ways of being in the world. For this reason, I conclude that melancholy often fosters creativity.
You provide some examples of creative melancholics in the book: Keats, Crane, Woolf, Lennon, even Springsteen. Are you suggesting there may not be a Keats or Lennon of our day?
I wonder if we continue to try to get rid of melancholy entirely, will we eventually be a culture that can't create a Keats or a Melville? I don't really see right now our culture being such that we can't produce geniuses in art. I'm also not saying that all geniuses are melancholy. Obviously, there are a lot of artists who are very happy and created great works. I'm just trying to draw this connection between melancholy and creativity in certain cases.
Some of your melancholics really suffered for their work. Where do you draw the line between pain that should be suffered through and pain that deserves treatment?
I don't feel qualified to do that. I can say this though. I can distinguish it in myself. I know when I feel depressed. I don't want to get out of bed in the morning. I don't want to do anything. I just want to stay in this dark, safe womb. But when I feel sad, I want to do something. I want to play with my daughter and have a richer relationship with her. I want to be with my wife. I want to read. I want to write.
How do you suggest we reverse this trend of dealing with sadness as a sickness?
Slow down. I really think that American culture especially moves at a blinding rate. I think if we can find a way to carve out of any given day a time for quiet, for contemplation, for brooding, for solitude, when we turn the computer or cell phone off, then we might go within. Who knows, maybe we'd realize the value of that and the value of the brooding dark side. If that could happen, maybe we would be more willing to embrace natural sadness.
Do you think you'll forever be known as a grump?
Frankly, I worry about that. My colleagues called me the Melancholy Dane the other day, comparing me to Hamlet. I think I'm a cynical person. In my mind a cynic is someone who is suspicious, a little willing to question what most people believe. In questioning things, often I do find that there's a big gap between reality and appearance. I'm really trying to explore what a rich, deep, profound life would be, and, for me, to go through life expecting and wanting only happiness is not the way to achieve that. To me, cynicism falls in between optimism and pessimism. It's a golden mean.
Charles "Chuck" Harrison designed some 600 household products—everything from blenders to baby cribs, hair dryers to hedge clippers—over his 32-years as an industrial designer for Sears, Roebuck & Company. He spoke with the magazine's Megan Gambino.
How did your parents influence you in your pursuit of art and specifically industrial design?
I think my mother probably planted a seed aesthetically for me to recognize beauty in simple things like flowers, plants and colors. She would enlist me to help her with her making of the house, putting pictures up, selecting pictures and arranging furniture and stuff. I think from my father I gained quite an appetite for creativity, for building things. He was fundamentally a carpenter although he taught industrial arts at a university. I acquired quite a fascination from seeing things grow from nothing to something. We came from very, very modest means, so he built most of the things we had in our house, like our furniture. He built a lot of our toys, and I participated in all that kind of stuff. We built sheds, barns, coops and things, even houses.
I spent hours and hours building model airplanes and actually flying them. Then I had erector sets, where I would build different kind of structures and mechanisms and make powered things move and lift. I built a boat once—took it out to the pond, put it in there and it sank with me. That's how you learn [laughs].
You say you have always had trouble reading. Did you find that that steered you towards arts and working with images?
I'm certain that directed me to find another way of communicating. Instead of trying to read signs and things, which I couldn't do quickly, I'd look at locations or symbols, houses or buildings to find my way. I was almost completely through college before I really discovered the name for my problem. The issue I had was dyslexia. But I somehow made a way through it, just through pure determination and maybe fear of failure [laughs].
What skills did you learn at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?
I just had to really learn to draw and take a concept, something that didn't exist except in my mind, and communicate that to other people who would pick up this product along the production floor some place and make it a real product. It was sketching, 3-dimensional drawing like perspective drawing and rendering, which is shading and making images to show what a product will be one day. Then I had to learn to do detailed drawing, make blue prints of the drawings so it could be passed on to engineering and model makers.
Did you have to look around for a while after graduation before landing a job?
Boy, yes. When I returned from the military, I looked under every rock in Chicago for a job and nobody would hire me. But that was a time in America when they just didn't have a comfortable feeling about having minority people, black people around. We were very isolated in communities. We could only live in a certain part of the city. We could only travel in a certain part. That's a whole other story. But they wouldn't hire me any place. I went everywhere. My classmates, other people who had graduated with me, were all working. I was the only African American in the class. I was the only African American in most of my life after I left high school. In college, there were only a handful of us in San Francisco City College. In the School of the Art Institute, I was the only African American. In the military, I was the only African American in my unit. So I wasn't uncomfortable with it, but I did not enjoy the fruits of life that my associates and comrades and classmates did.
Before joining Sears' staff, you re-designed the popular View-Master. How did you better that product?
My job was to adapt it to another manufacturing process so that it could be made less expensive, made a lot faster, reduce the costs, put it into an updated form so that it would be more appealing, and essentially, that's what I contributed to it. As a consequence, it just happened to hit America at a time when it did a magical thing. It was low cost enough when I got done with it that they could buy it for children and let them play with it. They put these disks in with stories and they were attractive to children – fairy tales, comic and Disney characters.
Did the anonymity of making products with other companies names on them ever frustrate you?
No, never did. In fact, that's just par for the course. Besides, I needed a weekly paycheck before I needed recognition. Now some design people do have their names [on products], but they are high profile people, probably not even designers. That's a marketing technique used to get American people to buy products. They think if they buy a baseball bat that has Ted Williams on it, they're going to hit a home run. That's hocus, pocus kind of stuff. I really just wanted to do what I do, and do it as well as I could.
How would you say industrial design has changed in the some 50 years you've been involved with it?
The designer's point of view has changed; the proportion of interest in a product is less aesthetics than it was the years in the past and more marketing and perhaps technology driven than it used to be. If you think of things as a triangle and one leg of a triangle, it was not an equilateral triangle when I came in. The long side of the triangle was aesthetics, and then there were two short sides, which were business and science. That was the composition of a designer's approach in those days, but now it's more equilateral. His or her concern is as strong in the business and sciences as it is in the arts.
What advice do you have for industrial designers today?
That this is a much more serious profession than it looks like on the surface. What designers do will affect so many people, many more people than you can imagine during the lifetime of that product. They should take that charge very seriously, about what they are putting out there for other people to have in their possession and in their lives and may even be passed on down through generations. It should obviously be safe, do what it is supposed to do, be pleasing to have in your environment and certainly be of value.
Bestselling sportswriter Leigh Montville was researching Babe Ruth for his 2006 book, The Big Bam, when he came across an exhibition golf match Ruth played with a man named John Montague. The round attracted about 10,000 people, who became so rowdy that the match was called after nine holes, and Montville got the sense that it was the mysterious Montague, whose name didn't ring a bell, that drew the crowd, not the Bambino. "I started looking into it, and he had quite a story," says Montville of Montague, who, it turned out, was a fugitive taking cover as a golf stunt man of sorts in Hollywood. Montville tells the story of the golfing wonder in his new book, The Mysterious Montague, from which "Montague the Magnificent," a feature in Smithsonian's June issue, was adapted. We caught up with Montville to talk about Montague's fabled antics, how the man changed the sport and the state of Montville's own golf game.
It doesn't sound like Montague is a legend in the golf world, but more that he disappeared as fast as he appeared. Is that right?
Yeah. I hadn't heard of him and I've been a columnist at the [Boston] Globe and a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. I've been doing this all my life, and I had never heard of him. But he was quite well known during that time. He was a sensation. When he was arrested, it was in headlines around the country, and his trial was a big-time trial. All the New York newspapers sent all their best people, and the Associated Press. They pumped it out around the country. It was a big-time trial. I suppose there are people like that hidden away, but to me he's the biggest guy hidden away that I've ever found.
As a sports biographer, is there a type of person you gravitate towards writing about? What did Montague have that intrigued you?
With sports biographies—and any biographies today, I think—there's a big fight between the writer and the publisher. The writer wants to write the obscure story, the story that nobody knows about, which is the mysterious Montague. And the publisher wants you to write the book about Tiger Woods or some iconic big figure. I had done a bunch of iconic big figures, and that's what they liked, but I sold them on this. My thinking is that the story that nobody knows is far more entertaining than the biography of the big person. I can understand the big-person book sells immediately because you have a famous face on the cover and people gravitate towards that, whereas it's a harder sell with somebody that nobody's heard of. I just thought this guy's story was fascinating, that A) he had robbed a place in the Adirondacks, and B) he went out to Hollywood and reinvented himself and had become so close to so many famous people. There's a quality to this of, what if? If he had never had to operate under a false name and if everything had been on the up and up, could he have been the greatest golfer in the world? He clearly was a terrific golfer when he was younger and lean and mean. We'll never know. I think there are a bunch of people even now that we've all known in our own histories as the greatest athlete I've ever known and they never made it because of one thing or another. You always wonder how they would have done in the big time. And you kind of wonder about this guy.
How did you go about reporting the story?
It's a Google kind of world, isn't it? You start with that and you start looking in old newspapers. I went out to California and I was hoping I'd find more people out there who really remembered him. He died in 1972, and I thought there might have been some younger people who had known him then. I really didn't find that very much. I did talk to members of his family who had seen him when they were young, nieces and nephews. I did find one woman who was still alive who was one of the kids that was tied up in the armed robbery. But I was hoping that there were more people around who remembered him and there really weren't. But there had been an awful lot written about him and by great, colorful writers so there was a good record kept of him.
Any other complications?
I was hoping that there would be more records of the trial, police records, and I didn't come up with much at all. It turns out that there was a transcript kept of the trial, but when he was found not guilty they never printed it up. I guess that was the rule in New York. Maybe it still is today, that they would only print it up if they thought there would be an appeal. A lot of the transcript was in the papers. They had a lot of the questions and answers and dialogues in the papers. I was kind of looking to find the whole thing right there in a little pile for me.
How did Montague change the game of golf?
He was sort of a harbinger of what was going to come because he played with these unique golf clubs. He had a driver that was twice the size of the normal driver of the time. It was very heavy, about 19 ounces. The club head was very fat, like the Big Bertha of today – clubs that have helped the common man hit the ball a long way. But he was very strong and muscular and was able to use a heavy club. He played like Tiger Woods plays. He'd hit the ball 300 some odd yards, which not a lot of people did at that time, and then have easier wedge shots to go to the green than the other golfers would. That's what the great guys have done. That's what Nicklaus did, and that's what Tiger Woods does.
What surprised you the most about Montague's story?
I think what was pretty cool was that nobody really would have known about him if Grantland Rice, who was the most famous sportswriter of the day, hadn't been a member of the Lakeside Golf Club out in Hollywood. Grantland Rice was a very good golfer and had played with all the great golfers of the time, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan, and he got playing with this guy and he had the thought, Oh, my God. This is the best golfer I've ever played with and nobody knows his name. It was just Grantland Rice writing a few columns, and probably kind of throwaway columns in a way because he was half on vacation in California every year just looking for something to write about, and he started to write a couple things about Montague. Other people picked it up because Grantland Rice was everything in those days as a sportswriter. He was a sportscaster. He did books, magazine articles, and everybody kind of followed him. More and more people started writing about him, and bingo—Time magazine sends the guy out with the camera to take the secret pictures of him.
With all his stunts and bets, did other leading golfers take him seriously?
I think the guys who were professional golfers resented the idea that Grantland Rice and other people who had taken up the story would suggest that there was someone out there who was better than they were, because they were out on the road doing it all the time. But professional golf was a lot different then. There were people who didn't play professional golf who were very good golfers because professional golf didn't pay a lot of money at the time. You had to really grind it out and do exhibitions and all kinds of weird stuff to make a buck. That's why Bobby Jones was never really a professional golfer.
Was there a stunt of Montague's that intrigued you the most or really drew you into his story?
There was the great one where he supposedly killed the bird, where he just pointed out a bird on a wire 175 yards away, took out his three wood, smacked the ball, hit the bird and broke its neck and the bird fell down to the ground. That's like Annie Oakley or something, Hopalong Cassidy. Then, the famous story that everyone knew and he kind of lived on for the rest of his life was the bet with Bing Crosby where he said he could beat Bing Crosby using a shovel, a rake and a baseball bat while Crosby used the regular clubs. He clearly could do a lot of things. There are all those little stories about little bets he would have. He would open a window in the clubhouse no more than the size of a water glass and chip golf balls through the opening. He just had a bunch of trick shots that were kind of cool.
I liked how strong he was. Grantland Rice, before he died, said that Montague was probably the strongest guy he'd ever seen, which is saying a lot when you've covered all the great athletes of the day. He wasn't that big a guy. He was only about 5'10" or 5'11" but he was very wide, kind of a blacksmith's build. Picking up Oliver Hardy and placing him on a bar—I mean, we all have a vision of Oliver Hardy, and to do that with one arm is pretty good. The idea that he was always lifting up cars and moving them around is pretty good too.
Do you think anyone suspected at the time that he was a fugitive given his desire to remain anonymous?
It seems that people didn't know what to think about that. I suppose you would wonder a little bit why wouldn't this guy want his picture taken, but he always would say it was due to modesty. The sketchiness of where he came from and everything was kind of covered by [the fact that] Hollywood was filled with people who had come from all kinds of directions and changed their names for the movies and changed their histories. Hollywood is kind of an anonymous place when people come from all over to try to make a new life, a new career.
Any speculations about why he didn't go pro after the trial?
There were a couple of things. He was 34 years old at the end of the trial. He had put on a lot of weight, and he hadn't been playing a lot of golf while all that stuff was going on. He would have had to lose the weight and really thrown himself into golf to get back to what he was. He'd also gotten married to a widowed woman [after the trial] who had a lot of money. So between those two things, he didn't have the hunger and maybe physically he just wasn't up to it. He'd never had the competition. He'd never really gone out and had to play in a tournament for four and five straight days against a bunch of other good players. There was a combination of things, mostly his age and his weight, I think. He was on the decline.
Do you think there's room for someone like Montague—who adds an element of goofiness to the game—in today's golf scene?
Well, yeah. The guy you think of probably closest would be John Daly, who hits the ball and has very little self-control in his personal life. People are just fascinated by him. And I think this guy would wholly be as fascinating as that.
Are you a golfer yourself?
Bad. Although over the winter here [in New England], it might have all fallen into place. That's always the thinking with golfers in the North because you stop playing the first week in November, and I haven't played yet. I just think certain coordination and grace has come over me in the past four or five months, totally without doing anything.
The following account is from Micahel Hays one of the donors of this CD: February 3, 1989: breakfast with George Leichtweis and Bill Danforth to review and refine a list of twenty some questions we would ask numerous professional skateboarders and industry VIPs. The purpose of the interviews was to start forming the making of Street Survival II (Vertical and Advanced skating video). All interviews would be conducted by Leichtweis and Hays would work the audio. As the day progressed we amassed a large and vital collection of conversations. Later that evening, I found myself in possession of the audio equipment and roamed down the Hotel hall and ran into John Shulties. He invited me to come and do an interview with him and the H-Street crew. As I entered the room, I began to recognize who I would be interviewing... Art Godoy, Tony Magnusson, John Schulties, and the one and only Eddie “El Gato” Elguera. This turned into an epic group interview that has an impact that I had not heard before regarding the future of the sport with some really great insight.