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Saturday, December 1, 2007

Bill Hartack: Salt of the Earth

Much has already been written this week regarding the passing of jockey Bill Hartack, about both his intensively competitive nature in the stirrups—his 4,272 wins on 21,535 mounts (19.8%) and his five Kentucky Derby wins (Iron Liege, Venetian Way, Decidedly, Northern Dancer, and Majestic Prince)—and his equally arrogant, egocentric behavior off the track. Some excellent accounts and recollections of his life are found here, here, here, here, and especially here, Time magazine’s February 10, 1958 article titled “Bully & the Beasts.”

Admittedly, Hartack was before my time, and as such I only knew his name and accomplishments, not the more colorful aspects of his life. However, the more I read about him, the more familiar he sounded to me. Why? He reeked western Pennsylvania, and, more specifically, Cambria County, where he was, in fact, born. Son of a coal-miner, he grew up in Colver, and then Belsano, where he graduated from Blacklick Township High School in 1949. When he was eight year old, his mother died in an automobile accident—on Christmas morning. He had to be tough—circumstances and his environment demanded it.

Have you seen the archetypal hockey film “Slapshot”? You might think it presents a caricature of Johnstown and its inhabitants, but, believe me, after living here for the past eight years, I can categorically affirm that blue-collar, rough-around-the-edges mentality is very much a part of who these people are. I see it in their faces when walking downtown, at the market and gas station, and in my students whose parents and grandparents worked in the coal mines and steel mills before they closed in the 1970s and 1980s. I half-jokingly ask my students in History of Western Art 1 if they recognize anyone they know in this Roman Republican-era portrait of an old man:

They should. Look at other famous natives of the Johnstown region.

There’s Charles Bronson, who was born and raised in Ehrenfeld, and worked in the mines himself until drafted by the Army Air Force in World War II.

Former Denver Bronco and member of the 1966 national championship Notre Dame team Pete Duranko played football at Johnstown’s Bishop McCort High School (who, by the way, lost 35-24 in the PIAA Class AA quarterfinal game on Friday night).

Other McCort alums include former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Jack Ham and former Cincinnati Bengal (and New England Patriot) free safety Artrell Hawkins.

Don’t forget the hyper-competitive major league pitcher Pete Vuckovich who’s also a Johnstowner!

Finally, although he wasn’t born in the city, our region’s most famous son is now Congressman John Murtha.

Look at those faces, and then look at Bill Hartack’ him or hate him, he was “salt of the earth”—unpretentious and raw, unwilling to live his life on other people’s terms, cantankerous and difficult, pursuing his own rational self-interest and happiness (whether it was “dames” or hunting). In the most fundamental sense, Ayn Rand would have loved him.


Anonymous said...

Should James Traficant belong on the list?

Valerie Grash said...

Man, there's a name (and face) I haven't thought of in a long time! Is he still in prison? Technically, he doesn't belong here since he was born in raised in Youngstown, Ohio--although it is much the same type of place, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...


I knew Hartack when he rode his first mount at Waterford. I was 8 yrs. old the first time he rode a horse for my dad. You are so right. He was one of us.

I followed his career, but lost track of him when he went to Hong Kong. It has been a long, long time since I thought of him, but I will always fondly remember a young man who treated a serious little girl with a life long love of TB's with kindness and respect.