Journal-News , Wednesday, June 5, 2002
Was John Theurer county's greatest athlete?
By Jim Blount
Who was Butler County's greatest athlete? That question would generate a healthy debate today. But about a century ago, there would have been little argument. It was John Theurer, a Hamilton man appreciated for his varied feats in Europe as well as the United States.
Theurer, who was five feet six inches tall, earned his reputation without playing an inning of baseball, a quarter of either football or basketball, a period of hockey or soccer, a set of tennis or a round of golf. Instead, he won acclaim for this strength, endurance, agility and daring.
At his peak in about 1890, Theurer was described as "undoubtedly one of the best specimens of physical manhood that the world has ever seen, weighing about 168 to 175 pounds and every muscle so developed that they stood out like whip cords."
He was born May 7, 1856, in Shelby County and, at the age of four, moved to Hamilton with his parents. Theurer attended school until he was 16. Then he took a job in a foundry. He also joined the German Turners, a gymnastic organization that met at the Cincinnati Brewing Co. on South Front Street (now the site of Hamilton police headquarters).
Soon he excelled in more than 20 events, ranging from tumbling, leaping, high wire and rope walking and weight lifting to boxing and wrestling. Word of his skills spread and Theurer was in demand for performances at the Butler County Fair and other public events.
For more than 20 years, from the 1870s into the 1890s, he toured the U. S. and Europe, usually performing in theaters. He rejected numerous offers from circuses -- including Robinson, Sells, Cole and Barnum -- to be able to control his own schedule.
A Cincinnati reporter recalled seeing Theurer at the Butler County Fair in about 1879. He "picked up a slab of stone four or five inches thick, such as is used for street curbing, laid it on top his head, and permitted a man to strike upon it blows with a sledge hammer hard enough to shatter the stone into fragments." Then he did the same thing with a bar of pig iron.
In 1882, more than 300 of his Hamilton fans cheered him as a wrestler at the Globe Opera House (southeast corner of High Street and Journal Square). That night he defeated a Canadian who claimed to be the reigning light weight champion of America.
In 1883, a Cincinnati newspaper said "the feature of the week at the Vine Street Opera House has been the marvelous feats performed by John Theurer." The writer said "Theurer has a set of muscles that are apparently made of steel, and his trapeze exploits are simply wonderful" and "some of his dangerous achievements . . . have never before seen equaled."
His most amazing act, according to those who witnessed it, was performed on a narrow trapeze bar several feet above the stage or ground.
Theurer would stand on his head on the bar, "and, while balancing in this difficult position, juggles balls, drinks water, fires pistols, decorates himself with bells and flags, and accomplishes the feat of swinging to and fro a distance of six feet from side to side" and "also the circle swing and all the different swings formerly done with the feet on a trapeze bar."
Theurer called the crowd-pleasing stunt "standing on your ear."
His career ended when he suffered a serious head injury in a fall from the trapeze while touring Europe. A Hamilton newspaper said he "had to be brought home by loving friends who tendered him a reception in the old Music Hall on South Second Street" (later Harrison Elementary School).
He received the medical attention he needed "through the great kindness" of Henry G. Sohn, Adam Rentschler and John D. Lotz. Then "he returned to his old profession as a molder, coremaker and machinist and was employed by the Niles Tool Company until taken with the illness which caused his death," the Republican-News reported.
The newspaper said the man "who was considered a few years ago one of America's greatest athletes" died in his South Front Street residence Aug. 26, 1917.
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Journal-News , Wednesday, June 12, 2002
John F. Neilan, father and son, served community
By Jim Blount
Neilan Boulevard, Hamilton's north-south riverside drive built in the 1950s, honors John F. Neilan, who contributed more than 40 years of service to the community before his death in 1945. It also could be a tribute to his father, also John F. Neilan, who died in 1907. Together, the Neilans served Mercy Hospital of Hamilton for more than 50 of its 109 years. The hospital closed in June 2001.
The father was born Nov. 18, 1845, in Roscommon County, Ireland. His parents came to the United States three years later, first to New Haven, Conn., then to Fayette, Madison and Clark counties in Ohio before moving to Butler County in 1865.
Starting in 1866, he was a teacher for seven years and studied law in the office of Stephen Crane. In 1874, he was admitted to the bar and became editor of the Hamilton Examiner, an independent Democratic paper, which his obituary said "was established for the purpose of purifying Butler County politics."
In 1877, Neilan was elected city solicitor and served two terms. In 1879, he was elected to the first of two terms as county prosecutor. In 1896, he was elected county common pleas judge.
A friend, Gov. George Hoadley, appointed Neilan to a nine-year term as a trustee of Miami University. He also was appointed a Miami trustee by another friend, Gov. James E. Campbell.
His community contributions were numerous. The elder Neilan was active in Hamilton's 1891 bicentennial celebration and a principal mover in bringing Mercy Hospital to Hamilton in 1892. Professionally, he was a leader in the Butler County Bar Association and establishment of its law library. He also was chairman of the Democratic party's county executive committee for several years. He died Oct. 8, 1907.
John F. Neilan Jr. was born Dec. 28, 1881, in Hamilton. He was educated in St. Mary's School in Hamilton before graduation from St. Xavier College (now Xavier University) and the University of Cincinnati law school.
He was admitted to bar in 1903 and entered practice with his father in Hamilton. In 1909 he was a founder of the Columbia Federal Savings and Loan Association.
He held public office only once -- in 1910 when elected to two-year term as city solicitor -- but had a lifetime of distinguished civic service.
When the March 1913 flood divided the city, Neilan was appointed to direct affairs on the West Side, serving as a military governor during the crisis. He supported formation of the Miami Conservancy District to protect the area from such disasters. As a lawyer, he worked on behalf of the conservancy in acquiring land for the district.
When the Depression struck, Neilan assumed direction of the program of relief in this community. He served as relief director and head of the Civil Works Administration from June 1933 until the end of that year. During those trying times, his responsibilities were equal to, if not greater, than elected local and county officeholders.
Neilan had extensive experience with charitable causes before the Depression. In 1920 he had been a founder of the Hamilton Welfare Federation and its president for five years, 1924-1929. He served the HWF for 24 years, until illness forced his retirement in 1944.
He also had been chairman of Community Chest campaigns in 1921, 1922 and 1923. (The Community Chest was a predecessor of the United Way.)
Neilan had continued the family tradition of volunteer service to Mercy Hospital and was active in the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce until his death June 23, 1945.
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Journal-News , Wednesday, June 19, 2002
Doug Herndon’s year in army extended over two wars
By Jim Blount
Hamilton’s multitude of factories meant decent paychecks for husky young men in 1941. But "at 130 pounds, my size made it hard to get a job in industry," recalls Doug Herndon, who was then 21 and residing on South Fifth Street. "So I enlisted because I thought I’d get my one year in the service over with." Instead, his soldiering extended over 12 years and two wars.
Between and after combat in World War II and the Korean War, Herndon drove a bakery truck before 17 years as a salesman with Sealtest Dairy, and another 17 years in the courthouse with Butler County juvenile court, ending as chief probation officer.
With the 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Fourth Armored Division, Third Army, he fought across France, Belgium and Germany into Czechoslovakia before the war ended.
Herndon earned a Silver Star "for gallantry in action" in August 1944; a second citation three months later, a bronze oak leaf cluster to the Silver Star medal, both "for gallantry in action" in France; and a Bronze Star "for heroic action" during the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium in December 1944.
Seven years later, as a member of the 70th Tank Battalion, First Cavalry Division, Herndon earned another Silver Star, this one for "gallantry in action" against Chinese forces in Korea.
Herndon didn’t seek the interview that led to this and subsequent columns. It was initiated by a mutual friend who insisted that "he has quite a story to tell," especially now, when patriotism and interest in military service is at a peak.
Herndon’s army career began with enlistment May 12, 1941, and basic training at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum), north of Watertown, N. Y. Then followed training and maneuvers at Camp Forrest near Tullahoma, Tenn., Camp Young in the Mohave Desert in California and Camp Bowie at Brownwood, Texas. Also, he and Gladys Baldwin had married July 4, 1942.
He left Philadelphia Jan. 1, 1943, crossing the Atlantic in a Liberty ship that developed engine trouble. "We were eventually left sitting for a day while the repairs were made," he said. "Fortunately, no U-boat found us sitting there."
Training continued in Wales and Trowbridge, England, before Herndon slept through his first war experience. On a pass to London, he lodged in a YMCA. He awoke one morning to find no one else in the building. "I walked outside and realized what had happened. While I was sound asleep a buzz bomb hit in the street nearby," he said.
It was one of several close calls for Herndon. The closest, he said, "was when a barrage of artillery came in, and I dove under my Jeep. A big piece of shrapnel hit the Jeep and fell right next to me. It was red hot. It would have cut you in two."
"We were under artillery fire so many times," he recalled, but not always from Germans.
"There were always mistakes and miscommunications. I was under [friendly] artillery fire several times -- once for a day and a half at a spot that our intelligence said was occupied by German units."
He also was strafed by an American plane during the Battle of the Bulge. "We saw a plane diving toward us," Herndon explained. "We jumped from our Jeep into a ditch. I remember the indentation in the snow made by the bullets. He thought we were Germans in U. S. uniforms." To create confusion, the Germans had placed English-speaking soldiers in American uniforms to disrupt communications. "He should have known who we were because we changed markings on our vehicles every day so the pilots could identify us," Herndon said.
Like many combat veterans, he has a nightmare. It involves a sergeant, a friend who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. "We were advancing on a road. I was in a Jeep off the road, on higher ground. He was walking close to the road, and we were talking by radio. A vehicle approached. I saw it as German; he thought it was ours. I yelled for him to fire, but he didn’t. He was killed by a single shot through the head. I used to wake at night yelling ‘Fire!’ "
"You just thank God you’re alive," said Herndon, when asked about enduring day after day in combat. "You wonder how you got there -- being in the point vehicle of a reconnaissance unit every other day. You just sweat it out. I had days I was so tired. I did a lot of running ahead of the vehicle. I was so tired," he said.
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Journal-News , Wednesday, June 26, 2002
Herndon ‘gathered eggs’ for Patton’s army in France
By Jim Blount
"You can never have too much reconnaissance," implored Gen. George S. Patton as he prepared officers for combat in Europe. Patton stressed that "information is like eggs: the fresher the better." As a part of the 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Sgt. Doug Herndon gathered his share of "fresh eggs" when Patton’s Third Army entered action in July 1944.
Patton’s reconnaissance troops -- although they hadn’t heard him say it in 1940 -- soon learned that the general also had preached that "war will be won by blood and guts alone."
"There was a favorite expression among the men -- his guts and our blood," Herndon said in describing the general’s image among the troops he commanded.
"The first time I ran into him we had run out of gas, and the Germans had shelled us," Herndon recalled. "A buddy was hit and we placed him on a jeep and sought help. We came across Patton in an armored car and he led us to a first-aid station."
"The Fourth Armored [Division] was considered his pet -- and that wasn’t good because he always called on us for the tough jobs," said Herndon, who served in the division from basic training in May 1941 until V-E Day in May 1945.
It had been activated April 15, 1941, at Pine Camp, N. Y., and became known as "the Name Enough Division." That unusual monicker is said to have originated in a statement by Major-Gen. John S. Wood, its commander for much of the war. When asked to give the Fourth Armored a name, he is reputed to have said: "They shall be known by their deeds alone."
By the end of World War II, men in the division had been awarded three Medals of Honor, 34 Distinguished Service Crosses, 802 Silver Stars, 3,031 Bronze Stars and 40 battlefield commissions. Sgt. Herndon, a 21-year-old Hamiltonian in 1941 when he entered the Fourth, contributed to that distinguished record.
He earned his first Silver Star "for gallantry in action" Aug. 24, 1944, near Montargis and Douchy, France. "While on a patrol mission," the citation said, "Sgt. Herndon, knowing there were only three friendly vehicles and nine other men within 10 miles of his position, stopped an enemy column fleeing from Montargis."
"After knocking out the first two vehicles with his own machine gun on his Jeep, Sgt. Herndon, with complete disregard for his own personal safety, stepped out in front of the column and told the commanding officer, a major, that he was surrounded and if he did not surrender, his column would be destroyed." His action caused eight enemy vehicles, including a small tank, "either to be captured or destroyed and 60 prisoners, including the major, to be taken," the citation explained.
A second honor, a bronze oak leaf cluster to the Silver Star, was awarded Herndon "for gallantry in action" Nov. 28, 1944, near Durstel, France. "Throughout the day, two tank companies and one infantry company attacked the town, but met stiff enemy resistance and failed to take the town. Much of the enemy was unlocated," the citation said.
Herndon "and a patrol of men volunteered to go behind the strongly held enemy lines to investigate the situation. Under cover of darkness the patrol went around the town and located four mortar positions and one artillery battery, thus making it possible for effective fire to be brought on these positions at daylight."
"Then the patrol, exercising every reconnaissance skill, entered the town, but promptly received small arms fire. They returned the fire with such effectiveness that the enemy, which was a rear guard, withdrew." The citation said "Herndon then organized his men in occupation of the town throughout the balance of the night. With the withdrawal of the enemy, Combat Command A was saved an attack on the town the following morning."
Despite those feats, in our interview, Herndon said one of his most vivid combat memories was of a dead cow near St. Lo, France, which "was the most devastated place I saw during the war. Most of the buildings were brick, but the only thing left of the walls was just about three feet high. It was unbelievable what had happened to the town. And, there were craters all over the fields," the result of massive Allied bombing and shelling.
"There was this cow in the fork of a tree," he said. Although memorable, it was difficult to describe. That was reinforced after he returned to Hamilton and, by coincidence, overheard another veteran trying to relate the same weird battlefield scene.