ICYMI: The Tributes to Torrington Legend Owen Canfield. Ken Davis, Dan Lovallo and Emily Olsen with their takes.
Ken Davis-Former Hartford Courant Colleague
The newspaper clipping has yellowed a bit with age. In all honesty, it’s not as bad as you might expect after 22 years. That yellow tint is a natural occurrence in the life of old newspapers. This particular clip has been attached to the side of my home office filing cabinet, held up by a trusty refrigerator magnet, for all those years.
It’s not an entire column by Owen Canfield. It is a teaser box from the front page of a Hartford Courant sports page. The headline reads “Something To Show For It” and there is a color mug shot of Owen, looking rather solemn and wearing a paper cone cap with the word “Dunce” taped just above ear level.
For those of you born into a more politically correct world, a dunce was a person considered incapable of learning. Merriam-Webster defines a dunce cap as a “conical cap formerly used as punishment for slow learners at school.” The key words there might be “formerly used” because that teaching tool would not fly well in today’s world.
So why in the world would Owen Canfield, my esteemed colleague and columnist at The Courant, submit himself to such humiliation? Well, it was his way of coming clean and admitting guilt in his judgment of the University of Connecticut football team.
Why not laugh?
We lost Owen recently. He passed away Nov. 30 after 85 glorious years of life. But we should never lose touch with the rich qualities that defined Owen as a person. At the top of that list was his unique sense of humor. Owen may be gone but I still can hear that joyful belly laugh that was characteristic of the way he lived his life. That memory will stay with me forever.
And the dunce cap he placed on his head was proof that he could laugh at himself, point his finger, and admit he had been wrong. It is an important lesson, one that we all could remind ourselves of from time to time.
Back in 1998, UConn football existed in a different world. This was before the Huskies moved into the Big East, before the realignment that moved UConn in the American Athletic Conference, and long before Randy Edsall led the school to the Fiesta Bowl after the 2010 season. Back then, UConn fans were frustrated by the team’s inability to reach the Division I-AA playoffs.
Canfield unleashed his frustration in a column for the Nov. 10, 1998 edition of The Courant. He was “discouraged” by a loss to Delaware that saw the Blue Hens put 59 points on the scoreboard. UConn still had a chance to reach the playoffs as the season approached its conclusion. Tell it someone else, Canfield wrote.
“It’s time for me to come to grips with the reality that I will not see the UConn football team make it the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs in my lifetime. Nobody lives that long,” he wrote.
Powerful words. But not enough for a dude filled with way more optimism than the average sports columnist. Owen took another, uncharacteristic step in the final paragraph of this piece.
“If UConn should qualify some year, and I am still able to sit up, take nourishment and use a keyboard, I will copy the previous paragraph and publish it at the top of my column, with a picture of myself wearing a dunce cap. After all these years of abject disappointment, it would not be a penalty, it would be a pleasure.”
“Some year” ended up being that year. After that 59-17 loss to Delaware, coach Skip Holtz led the Huskies to three consecutive victories to reach the playoffs. They beat Hampton before a 52-30 loss to Georgia Southern ended their season in the quarterfinals on Dec. 5.
Not many writers have that ability to laugh at themselves. Most of us are too touchy. We’d rather crawl into a hole in the ground or climb into bed and pull the covers over our head. Owen had a different view of life. I’ve kept that picture of him with the dunce cap at the doorway of my home office all these years for a reason. I’m 61 now and I’ll admit I wish I could be more like Owen.
Our friend worked 59 years in the newspaper business. His final column appeared in the Torrington Register Citizen on March 30, 2019. He retired from the Courant in 1995 after 30 years at the state’s biggest newspaper. That means we had 10 years together, covering big events – especially UConn men’s basketball. I was hired as the UConn basketball beat writer in 1985, Jim Calhoun arrived in 1986, and suddenly hoops became a very big deal.
When the Huskies exploded into a national story in that epic dream season of 1989-90, it wasn’t unusual for The Courant to staff games with four writers or more. The normal crew was myself, Tom Yantz, columnist Alan Greenberg and Owen. That required teamwork and communication a lot of people wouldn’t understand. With four of us writing, we certainly didn’t want to overlap. Not once did I worry about Owen stepping on my feet. My job was to report the news and analyze the games. Owen always had a way of finding the silver lining in the basketball cloud, a unique perspective that could brighten even the cloudiest day after.
What do I remember most? Just having Owen at my side, being part of our team and sharing so many courtside laughs. He was the father of our huge sports staff, the guy everyone could turn to for help or advice. He knew when you needed him most. If you were down or he knew you had been scooped by a writer from another paper, he was there to say, “Keep your head up. You’re doing just fine.” I don’t know how many times he told me or wrote me a note saying, “You’re a fantastic writer.” It was a huge lift when we sat down together for a pregame meal and he would say, “I loved reading your story this morning. It was terrific.” Owen did that for all of us and his encouragement was always appreciated. It’s a very special thing to work with someone like that. It keeps you positive. And in the high-stress world of beat reporting, that can be a lifesaver.
More important than his newspaper career was Owen’s magnificent family story. He and his wife Ethel had 10 remarkable children. He had 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. At the reception that followed Mass for Owen on Dec. 7, they all piled together for a photo that resembled a high school class reunion shot. I could hear Owen’s belly laugh as he looked down from above at that moment.
I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Owen Canfield III soon after moving to The Courant. At that time Owen III was working for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City. When I went to cover the 1986 Orange Bowl, where No. 3 Oklahoma defeated No. 1 Penn State 25-10, Owen told me his son would be there and to look him up. Owen III and I shared dinner and drinks. And from time to time we bumped into each other covering NCAA tournament games. The experience was always like being with his father and I treasure those moments.
When Owen passed away, his son told Lori Riley of The Courant that his father “wasn’t Red Smith” but he always said he wrote for the readers. “I don’t know if you could find anybody to say anything bad about my dad,” Owen, the son, said. When Owen became ill with colon cancer in August, he rejected treatment. He knew the end was near. Owen III told me that his father simply said, “It’s time to go see Ethel.”
I can’t remember Owen arriving at a game in a bad mood. The rest of us would have our funks, but not him. Perhaps the most vivid memory I have is sharing the experience of covering Tate George’s historic shot that beat Clemson in the 1990 NCAA Tournament. UConn had blown a big lead but the Huskies had one final chance with one second left. Scott Burrell threw the unimaginable, perfect pass the length of the court. George caught the ball and turned to shoot in one motion. The Huskies won. The Courant headline the next morning read: “It’s Late, It’s Tate, It’s Great.”
I wish there was video of Team Courant working the locker room and writing our stories that night. It was the special type of moment that becomes a significant chapter in your career story. No one had more fun getting the job done that night than Owen. And he never forgot it.
For Canfield, George’s buzzer beater was right up there with covering Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters, Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, and Reggie Jackson hitting three home runs in the 1979 World Series at Yankee Stadium. On March 21, 2001, in the Torrington Register Citizen, Canfield reflected on that moment in UConn history and bragged about sitting at courtside.
He wrote: “But never argue that any moment in UConn basketball history since this hombre started paying attention over 50 years ago provided a more electrifying tingle than Tate George’s winning jumper in the NCAA Tournament at the Meadowlands against Clemson in 1990. . . . It’s been a while but I’ll always remember as significant that experience mixed in and churned up with countless others. To me it was a milestone – the Coach Calhoun era coming of age.”
Owen was all about people. Athletes and coaches came to life in his columns as he typed their special stories. More importantly, the members of his family gathered over the years on Woodbine Street in Torrington to script the best stories of Canfield’s life.
He wrote Christmas Day columns for The Courant, starting in 1965. From 1971 to 1994 they were pretty much an annual standard in the newspaper. I can’t tell you how much my wife Nancy and I looked forward to those Christmas stories. We laughed. We cried. We felt like extended members of the Canfield clan.
If you never read those Christmas columns, do yourself a favor. Head to Amazon and search for Owen’s book Thanks Santa, but who’s gonna put it together? It is a timeless treasure. The day Owen passed away I went to our bookshelf and found our copy at the very top – a prime spot for something so special. A common theme throughout the book is the Christmas tree falling over. It will make you laugh every time.
From Christmas 1981:
“Hello. Hello Dad? Hi. Guess what? The tree fell down.”
“Where is your mother?”
“She’s trying to get Steven out from under the tree.”
“Are there any injuries?”
“Yes, the tree is hurt bad.”
“How did it fall?”
“It just fell.”
“I see. The tree was standing firm this morning. It was fine. Am I to understand that it just fainted?”
“I guess so. Anyway, can you come home early? Mom wants you to.”
Owen’s beloved Ethel died from cancer in 1988. She was way too young to be taken away then. Attending her funeral gave me my first look into Owen’s incredible family. There was a small Canfield army at the reception on Woodbine Street. Owen and Ethel were the same age as my parents. My father died in 1990 at the age of 57. I tried to be there for Owen. He certainly was there for me two years later when my dad passed away. It was a shared relationship.
On Christmas 1990, Owen wrote a letter to Ethel. It included my favorite passage in the book, one that tells you everything you need to know about the man.”
“Tonight, when all have gone and the singing and carrying on has stopped, and the trumpets of the angels are playing, I’ll sit on the couch and sip my coffee, as the two of us did each Christmas Eve for 33 years after our work was done.
“I’ll see you there, and I promise I’ll not be sad or feel sorry for myself. Rather, my heart will be happy on this, my third Christmas without you, for each one reaffirms more deeply my everlasting love for you. The memory of you is to me that which is Christmas.
“Thank you for that. Owen”
Thank you, Owen. We will never forget you.
Dan Lovallo-Broadcaster, Radio Personality.
Owen Canfield died over Thanksgiving Day weekend; three months shy of his 86th birthday. I lost a dear friend. He and his late wife Ethel and their 10 children took me into their family, always making me feel welcome in their home on Woodbine St. in Torrington. In his obituary, it was mentioned how many major sporting events Owen - a seven-time recipient of the Connecticut Sportswriter of the Year - covered. He was at Augusta to write about the Masters, at Yankee Stadium for Reggie Jackson’s three home run World Series game and in Atlanta for Hank Aaron’s home run to break Babe Ruth’s record. In reading about those events, I was reminded how many times his sons and I took trips to Yankee Stadium. Those were in the days, when you could hop in the car and go to the Stadium and buy good seats at the ticket booth to watch a game, without breaking the bank; the days of Reggie, Catfish, Goose, Thurman and Billy. On many of those trips, Owen would tag along with his portable typewriter - they didn’t have laptops back then - and cover the game for the Hartford Courant. How cool it was to be driving Owen to the ballpark and then reading this award-winning writer’s column the next day in the paper. In 1976, Owen’s sons Owen and Kevin and I planned an eight-day trip to eight major league ballparks. We traveled by train, plane and bus to Chicago’s two ballparks, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh - where I botched a picture with legendary Pirates’ broadcaster Bob Prince - Philadelphia and of course, Yankee Stadium. Owen turned our journey into a big feature in the Courant. How many people remember that it was Owen who was the voice who pushed for Hartford to get a professional baseball club, preferably in the Eastern League? “It was always my dream to have the Eastern League made up of as many teams as possible from state capitals,” he once told me. Owen wrote a cover feature in the Courant’s then-Sunday magazine “Northeast,” devoted entirely to why Hartford should land a pro baseball team. Sadly, he never made it to Dunkin’ Donuts Park, but the success of the Hartford Yard Goats came as no surprise to him. He knew 30 years before that baseball would work in Hartford. Owen even made me a part of the book he wrote about the New England Blizzard, the most successful franchise in the American Basketball League, the forerunner to the WNBA. That first year in the ABL, the Blizzard, which included UConn icons Jennifer Rizzotti, Kara Wolters and Carla Berube, had a difficult time winning games. While broadcasting their games, I promised the team, if they won five straight, I would shave my mustache. Wouldn’t you know, they won their final five games of the season. Owen included a picture of me getting my mustache removed at center court at the Springfield Civic Center. I loved to talk sports writing and broadcasting with Owen. He was always supportive of my broadcasting and writing career, whether it be in our conversations or in one of his columns in either the Courant or the Register-Citizen. He told me it was easy to be a columnist who ripped a subject, but the true mark of a good columnist was to talk to your subject with respect; be thoughtful and try to consider the entire person. He also told me that a good columnist gave the reader some insight they weren’t expecting, when they read the paper. The outpouring of grief and love, since his death, is evidence he followed his own advice. Owen and I last talked before the final two games of the World Series. After updating me on his health and reminding me, as he had reminded me in our previous conversation, that he was not afraid of death, we talked about how we were both rooting for the Washington Nationals to comeback and win the Series. We wanted the Nats to win, mostly because of Stephen Strasburg, who had pitched for the Torrington Twisters in the NECBL. As usual, Owen made me feel better, than before we had talked. I will miss our conversations and that resonant voice of his on the voicemail: “Dan. Owen. Call me back.” I will miss his wonderful sense of humor and that great laugh that seemed to erupt from deep in his stomach. I will miss our talks that extended beyond sports and revolved so much around family and how proud he was of his children, their spouses, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. I will miss our talks that were always uplifting, particularly if I was going through a down period. But as I shed yet another tear over his passing, I will thank God how lucky I was to know Owen and call him a dear friend.
Emily M Olson
Community Editor The Register Citizen, The Middletown Press, The New Haven Register
I worked with Owen from 2009 to 2019, reading his Sunday column and putting it into the Register Citizen. We became fast friends as fellow journalists, as well as two people who knew the importance of family and memories, and storytelling. No matter what the topic of his column, Owen always put his special stamp of tenderness and care into every word. He told stories about meeting his wife, Ethel, about his time in the service, the many people he met during his younger years and as a writer for the Courant, and his time as a father with a house full of kids. He always wanted to know what I thought, which was flattering to me, since I considered myself an underling to Owen's vast experience as a writer. I rarely changed a word, and if I did, we had to have a discussion about it. That's how we got to know each other. He always would say, "You're a great gal, Em. I appreciate you."
My favorite columns were his family ones, and also the stories about his lunches with his high school friends, and the reunions that were faithfully planned and attended. I hope his Torrington High School classmates know how much those gatherings meant to him. Every once a while Owen would come to the Register Citizen office, usually unannounced, with a question, or a need for a few extra reporter's notebooks, or maybe just to be in a busy newsroom once more. He often wore a fisherman's hat and cocked his head to the side when he talked. I always felt a little excitement when he came in wondering what he'd have to say.
He didn't spare words when he was upset about something, either. Every once in a while, his column wouldn't post properly on the website, and I would get that call, "Emily, I need a big favor," as if it was a huge task to get his writings online in the proper place. I always told him it was no problem. He was always so grateful.
Owen watched the world of newspapers change dramatically over the years, and I know he was dismayed to see people who had dedicated their lives to reporting sports and news be brushed aside to save money. But he rarely complained about it, because he was still writing himself. He was frustrated by the corporate world running the presses, and always said he was lucky to have been able to work as a writer before it all happened.
He regarded the younger journalists as friends, colleagues and companions, and treated everyone with respect and a bit of admiration.
That's how I regarded him; and with love, because he was a dear and treasured friend.