It’s a phone call I’ll never forget.
Skip Ordeman was dying. He was in hospice care at home and was on oxygen, which meant every couple of sentences were followed by little gasp of new breath for an old set of lungs.
He said he wanted to thank me for the work I’d done with him the past two decades and for our friendship.
Eight days later – on April 24 — he died at his home on Oakwood Avenue. He was 95.
He had made similar phone calls to several other people who were part of Dayton Area Sports History (DASH,) the group he started some 18 years ago not only to pay homage to the Dayton Triangles, who had played the NFL’s first-ever game here in Dayton 100 years ago, but to celebrate many of the other wondrous sports stories and athletes from the area’s past.
Along with his heartbreaking goodbye, he wanted to deliver a fortifying message for the future:
DASH was going nowhere.
He said he was handing over its directorship to Barbara O’Hara, a longtime member of the group who’s best known for her community activism, her philanthropy and an enthusiasm for sports that once took her from Oakwood High School and Northwestern University, where she played three sports, back here to Dayton, where she was a tennis standout for decades.
Along with the job, he was passing along a standard to live up to.
•Thanks, in part, to Skip’s efforts, the dressing room used so long ago by the Triangles had been saved from the ravages of time and vandals – who had burned down the other dressing quarters – and moved from Triangle Park to Carillon Park in 2012.
•The DASH efforts also helped bolster the plan by Dayton History to launch a new project featuring the Triangles and the region’s other historic sports contributions. The dressing room would serve as a centerpiece of that new exhibit.
•And, at the very time Skip was making his farewell calls, the NFL-funded football field meant to honor the game’s historic roots in Dayton was being built unbeknownst to almost everyone on the site of the old Park Side Homes housing project off Keowee Street just north of the city core.
Initially the NFL, in partnership with the City of Dayton, had planned to spend $440,000 to put in a new turf field at Triangle Park. But just before groundbreaking last May, evidence was discovered of possible American Indian remains buried there and the project was halted.
Now relocated, the base of the field already is being put down and an adjoining cement pad has been poured. A worker said the project would be complete in three months.
As Mark Katz, the retired Dayton Daily News sportswriter and DASH stalwart put it: “If it hadn’t been for Skip’s efforts over the years, the NFL would have forgotten about Dayton”… just as many folks here had for decades.
That the NFL now has quietly come back to town – even as pro football and all other sports around the nation are shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic – surprised many DASH members, though not nearly the way Skip had done so with his final phone calls.
“Did you ever know anybody to do that?” O’Hara asked the other day. “I found it admirable. That was very humble…That was Skip.”
Mark Fenner, an original DASH member who works at Miller Brewing, had a close bond with Skip and a unique link to the Triangles. His great grandfather, Lee Fenner, is thought be the only player to suit up for the Triangles through their entire 14-year existence in Dayton, right up to when the franchise moved to Brooklyn in 1929.
When he got Skip’s call, he was shaken: “I really felt uneasy.”
Mary Mathews, who served as the executive director of Carillon Historical Park for 18 years, got a call from Skip, as well, and she wrote him a moving note afterward that said:
“Working with you on the Dayton Area Sports History will always be one of the best memories of my time at Carillon.
“Watching you put together such a splendid, diverse group of sports historians was a great learning lesson…With every opportunity you expanded the vision and enlarged the circle. You have set a high standard for Barb and those who follow in what you so ably began and patiently nurtured
“The region and the stories will always be in your debt.”
‘Heart and soul’
After growing up in Huntington, Long Island and Westport Connecticut, Richard “Skip” Ordeman went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He was drafted in September of 1942 and the following year, he was sent to Bates College in Maine to join the Navy’s V-12 officer candidate program. While there, he played college football for the Bobcats.
By the time he’d finished his training and was sent to the light cruiser, the USS Oklahoma City, World War II had ended. He went to Japan as part of the occupational force and visited Hiroshima which had just been levelled by the A bomb.
As horrific as that was, he eventually found a symbol of beauty when he flew to Shanghai and bought silk he thought his girlfriend back home, Martha Baldwin, could use for her wedding dress…even though he hadn’t yet asked her for her hand.
His eventual proposal must have been as silky as the exotic fabric.
He and Martha would have been married 73 years this coming June 14.
A year after their wedding, he began working for Mead Paper in New York City and in 1963 the company brought him to Dayton.
He and Martha had five children and that has now expanded to 11 grandchildren and eight great grandkids.
After moving here, Skip was surprised to discover the Dayton Triangles had been one of the inaugural teams in what became the NFL and had played the league’s first-ever game here October 3, 1920, against the Columbus Panhandles at Triangle Park.
He eventually showed up at a brown bag luncheon at Carillon Park to hear a visiting author talk about the early days of pro football. Among the half dozen people in attendance was Fenner, who was 40 years his junior, but was drawn to the Triangles because of his great grandad.
“Skip told me, “I just can’t believe people in town don’t know what was here and how much it meant,’” Fenner said.
Skip set out to change that and enlisted Fenner. Eventually Steve Presar, another Triangle aficionado joined in, as did Municipal Judge Dan Gehres, a history buff, collector and lover of sports.
In 2001, Gehres and his bailiff Chuck Taylor had put on a Triangles’ commemorative game at Triangle Park that featured flag football teams from Dayton and Columbus.
Soon Skip sought people connected to other sports and his new group’s first meeting drew 45 people.
“Skip is the Founding Father of the organization,” Gehres said. “He’s its heart and soul.”
From the collection of former athletes, coaches, sportswriters, historians and others from every sport imaginable, he broadened the scope of the venture.
“He realized here were a lot of wonderful, untold sports history stories in our community,” O’Hara said.
As Katz explained: “He always saw it as a museum, not a hall of fame. UD, Wright State, the Reds, they all have halls of fame. He wanted this to be like ‘Wow! They had that in Dayton? This happened there?’
“Everybody knows Edwin Moses was the Olympic champ and Mike Schmidt is in the Hall of Fame, but he wanted people to know things like Keith Byars and Ron Harper are from here and Red Blaik coached here.”
The group began to trumpet some of Dayton’s most unique contributions to the sports world, things like MacGregor golf clubs, Huffy Olympic team trial bikes and Stoddard-Dayton race cars. There was also the Dayton Marcos Negro League team, several other Olympic medal winners and the international Soap Box Derby started here – not Akron – in 1933.
In 2004 the group sponsored a salute to local Olympians and a year later it put on the aforementioned “Wow!” exhibit at Carillon Park. Eventually a website — daytonareasportshistory.org — was launched and recently it was modified by Skip’s daughter-in-law, Constance.
Over the years though – as progress on a museum launch slowed, some members’ interest waned and others died, the driving force continued to be Skip.
“He was relentless,” Katz said.
Moving a piece of the Triangles
Fenner was one of the first to push to save the Triangle Park dressing room and Skip helped him harness the attempt.
And Gehres was the real key. He got the City of Dayton on board. Dayton History’s Brady Kress played a big part, some backers were found to help finance the move and finally on July 27, 2012, the old building was trucked to safety.
But in the eight years since, the pieces of the puzzle needed to get the exhibit open at Carillon Park are still being put together.
It’s to be housed in the building that held Culp’s Café before the restaurant recently was moved to a newly-constructed complex at Carillon.
Funds must now be raised to renovate the old building, tie in the dressing room and formulate the permanent and revolving exhibits.
Although in recent years Skip has dealt with declining health – he had surgery to repair a leaky heart valve and showed up at our last meeting in a wheelchair – he remained unbowed.
“All I can say now is that we’re going to make sure this comes to fruition,” O’Hara said. “We’re going to do it in honor of Skip.”
At the end of our phone call a couple of weeks ago, I told Skip: “I’ll call you next week. I want to ask you a few things.”
His end of the line was silent for a few seconds and then he said quietly: “I don’t think I’ll be too talkative.”
We never spoke again.
But as I pulled my car over to the edge of Brennan Drive to watch the construction work being done Friday afternoon, I heard something familiar in the rattle of the bobcat loader that was slowly turning an empty lot into an NFL dream.
It sounded like Skip.
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