By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Jan. 14, 2015 – Late last spring, an ugly story that had been hiding for 45 years erupted in front of me, and I barely knew what to think. It involves a black basketball player beating up a white sportswriter in our student years back at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper for part of that racially tense time, and thought I knew most of what was happening in black-white relations on our campus. But until the spring of 2014, I did not know a thing about the beating, which happened in early 1969. And frankly, it scares me now to think about what might have happened back in ’69 had the beating been made public then.
The way all this came up last May was innocent enough.
Rod Williamson, communications director in the athletics department at Vanderbilt, writes an occasional column “Quick Slant” on the department’s website vucommodores.com. On May 22, he posted this small item: “Godfrey Dillard, who was a basketball trailblazer here with Perry Wallace in the late 1960s, is a civil rights attorney in Detroit and recently announced he would run in the state’s upcoming primary for Michigan’s Attorney General.”
I was intrigued and shared that column item in an email exchange I’m part of, one that includes a lot of my Class of ’69 friends, a few Vandy officials and others we call our “groupies.” I didn’t say it right away, but one thought I had was that it might be fun for some of us to go to Michigan to volunteer in Dillard’s campaign, even though I hadn’t seen him since 1968 and most of the other folks on the email exchange haven’t either. Those kinds of impulsive things are fun to do in retirement.
But before I could even propose that half-serious idea, my classmate, friend and fellow journalist Henry Hecht, who now lives in New York City, blew up.
In an email back to me, Hecht raged how in late February or possibly early March of 1969, Dillard showed up at Hecht’s fraternity house on a Sunday morning. Dillard was extremely upset about a sports column Hecht had recently written about him in our student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler. Hecht told me that Dillard was carrying a handgun, showed it in a menacing way, tucked it away and then used his fists to beat up Hecht with repeated blows to the face.
Last spring, newly aroused, Hecht said he was going to call a political reporter in Michigan to talk about this incident in the past of the man then running for attorney general in that state. (Hecht subsequently did make that call, to the Detroit News, but the reporter did not call him back.)
Never having heard any of this before, I was absolutely stunned.
Henry Hecht, a native of New Haven, was already an excellent sports reporter at Vanderbilt. After graduation, he went almost directly to a top sportswriting position with the New York Post, where he covered the New York Yankees in the wild “Bronx Zoo” years that featured the battles among owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and super star Reggie Jackson. He also worked for Sports Illustrated, the short-lived “The National” sports newspaper, Newsday and has written for other publications. He now is a professional writing coach, tutor and corporate editor. You can read more about him here: www.stepwriteup.com.
Considering how well they landed in their later lives, how could that awful scene have happened back at the frat house in 1969?
I checked with a couple of our other friends, two who are closer to Hecht than I have been in recent years. They’d never heard of this incident, either. Frankly, I started to wonder whether this could be some horrible nightmare Hecht had dreamed or, even worse, as old as we’re getting, could my friend be losing his mind?
I finally emailed him back and asked him why I had never heard about this. His answer was that he did not go to the police, nor did he tell any of us at the newspaper or his fraternity brothers, because he was worried about what would happen. No, he did not fear further violence from Dillard. Rather, “if I’d gone to the police, they would’ve arrested him,” Hecht said. “It would have destroyed a lot of the good Vanderbilt had done. It would have killed recruiting of black players at Vanderbilt for years to come. I just wasn’t going to do something that would hurt Vanderbilt and the basketball program.”
Only in a recent conversation did he tell me that there were actually two people he told about the beating right after it happened — head basketball coach Roy Skinner and the other African American basketball player, Perry Wallace. Hecht, who in ’69 was in his fourth year covering the basketball team, had become very close with the coach and most of the players, especially Wallace. How did they react? “They were horrified,” Hecht said.
I was horrified, too, 45 years later. But it was so long ago that this all had apparently happened, I was also bewildered thinking about it last May. Ultimately, my attention got tugged back to matters of current life, and I let it go for then.
COMPLETE CORROBORATION. This comes up again now because the incident is described in detail in Chapter 24 of a terrific new book “Strong Inside – Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” by Andrew Maraniss. This week it landed on the New York Times best-sellers list. You can read my review of the book by clicking here.
–In 1966, Vanderbilt was about two years into integrating its undergraduate student body with African American students, which was a big deal in the South. That fall, the university enrolled its first two black athletes on full scholarships, Wallace from Nashville and Dillard from Detroit, both of them tremendous players and excellent students. They played the ’66-’67 season on the freshman team, since first-year students were not eligible for varsity competition back then. The threats and racial taunting they had to put up with during some road games was as bad as you are probably imagining.
–By the start of their first varsity season, ’67-’68, Wallace was in the starting line-up, but Dillard had a knee injury that knocked him off the squad for the year. Thus, Wallace became the first black player to “break the color line” in the Southeastern Conference, of which Vandy is a member.
–In the spring of 1968, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, and racial strife was burgeoning throughout the South and across America including on the Vanderbilt campus. Dillard and Wallace, commendably, both spoke out against the oppression of black people in general, and specifically the challenges that black students faced at Vanderbilt. Dillard, a fun, confident and even gregarious young guy, was very outgoing, even cocky in his public persona, in contrast to the somewhat reserved Wallace. While Dillard became the leader of the new Afro-American Association of students, Wallace was more a quiet leader, but a leader just the same.
–In November of 1968, as another basketball season was about to start, Hecht reported in the Hustler that the young team was taking shape in what was expected to be a rebuilding season. Wallace would again be a starter. But he noted that Dillard, trying to return to action after the knee injury, might be assigned to the “B squad,” at least to start the season, along with several other players who weren’t expected to be on the traveling squad. By Nov. 26, Coach Skinner made that decision, confirming that Dillard would be a B-teamer. Dillard then quit the squad and quit school, too, telling the Hustler he hoped to attend the University of Michigan or Detroit University and play basketball there. The paper reported: “Dillard, who was out all last year after a knee operation, found the going rough trying to come back this year. ‘I don’t think I got a fair shake,’ he said. ‘I do want to play basketball and I felt I never would here.’ ” He left campus about Thanksgiving, returning home to Detroit.
–Two-plus months later, by February 1969, some students and fans on campus were arguing that Dillard had been unfairly bounced from the Commodores basketball team, that it amounted to racial discrimination. Some of Dillard’s defenders began venting their complaints and suspicions in letters-to-the-editor in the Hustler.
MAKING IT PLAIN ABOUT YOUNG GODFREY DILLARD. That prompted Hecht to write a column in the Feb. 21, 1969, edition of the newspaper, addressing the controversy.
Hecht, by the way, had credibility for writing about racial matters. “Henry was always a very strong advocate for civil rights,” recalls Jeff Davis, who succeeded me as editor-in-chief of the Hustler. “He had really helped the cause.”
Hecht began this particular column by taking note of all the recent letters-to-the-editor alleging that Dillard’s basketball career at Vandy ended because of racial discrimination. He then strongly defended Coach Skinner’s decision. He wrote that “first and foremost about Skinner is that he’s about as color blind a person as you’re going to find. He has one object – win basketball games – and he does not consider race, color, nose shape or any such other criteria to decide who plays for him. If you can put the ball in the hole and play the game you get a uniform…”
Then he went on about Dillard, saying that he “was the third guard on the squad” a year earlier when he hurt his knee and required surgery. “After a knee operation, the chances of coming back 100 percent are two – slim and none,” Hecht continued. “A player in any sport will lose some mobility and speed after such an operation. This was Godfrey’s big problem, as he relied on his speed to be effective. He had to, for he was a poor defensive player and a weak outside shot. When he lost that little bit from the operation, he was in trouble. So he came back this year and in pre-season practice did not decide to go all out until he realized that he was in danger of not making the varsity. So the last week and a half of practice he played as hard as he could. But it wasn’t enough and he was put on the B team – not dropped from the team. He just didn’t hustle all the time.”
And about Dillard having left the team and school, Hecht wrote: “He quit because he could not face the fact that he had not shown enough, and he was enough of a spoiled kid to react by running away. Godfrey was a friend of mine, but as I think back on the whole situation I realize that he did have an attitude problem beside the fact that what he showed wasn’t good enough. I saw more than three fourths of the pre-season practice sessions and I knew Godfrey was on the borderline, and I knew Skinner, being the man he is, would decide on talent…”
It was a good, tough column, written by a fellow who knew basketball, had been closely watching the team for four years and knew all the personnel and dynamics involved.
“No sooner had Hecht’s article appeared in the paper than Dillard’s phone began to ring off the hook in Detroit,” author Maraniss writes in the book, “his old buddies at Vanderbilt calling to tell him what Hecht had written. Dillard was both incensed and embarrassed.”
The former player “saw only one way to deal with the situation: to confront Hecht directly,” Maraniss continues. “Consumed with frustration and anger, he drove all the way from Detroit to Nashville, a trip of more than 500 miles. Arriving on campus, friends showed him the article. When he held the paper in his hands and read words he felt were untrue Dillard ‘blew (his) top. I was determined to slap him around to make him understand that I’m a human being and you just can’t write lies and not have any consequences for it.’ ”
THE OUTRAGEOUS ASSAULT. Dillard was a 6 ft.-tall, 175-pound intercollegiate athlete. Hecht was a 5 ft. 4 in., 150-pound student sportswriter.
I should explain here that Maraniss told me that he first heard about this incident from “someone associated with the basketball team – can’t remember if it was Coach Skinner or a player, but I think it was Coach Skinner,” who died in 2010. “My memory is that I knew about it before I interviewed Henry and Godfrey,” Maraniss continued. Those interviews were done “sometime in the 2006-2009 timeframe.”
In the book, here’s how he describes what happened in the TV room:
“Hecht recalled Dillard making a threatening gesture and telling Hecht not to leave. ‘You’re a journalist, and every journalist has to experience something like this,’ Dillard recalled saying. ‘You’re never going to be an experienced journalist until one of the athletes that you write an article about kicks your ass. You’re never going to be a good journalist until this happens, because then you’ll be able to respect and understand athletes, and you’ll be more conscious about what you’re doing.’ The next thing Hecht knew, Dillard was punching him in the face, five or six times, and eventually blood began to run out of the corners of his mouth… After dispatching with Hecht, he climbed in his car and drove back to Detroit…”
Maraniss does not mention a handgun, which Hecht had told me about. So this week, I asked Hecht again about that. “He threatened me with the gun, not pointing it at me, but showing it to me and threatening me,” he responded.
Dillard went on to tell Maraniss that “there’s no question that I took my frustrations out on Henry, that he bore the brunt of it.” But he felt he’d been unfairly treated, both in Vanderbilt basketball and in the Hustler column.
Moraniss writes of Hecht that, “though friends noticed his bruised face in the days after the incident, he never wrote about the assault in the Hustler, never pressed charges against Dillard. ‘I did not write anything about it, because that would have meant getting him arrested,’ Hecht says. ‘I just thought that would be horrible for the whole state of the university, the black athlete, and the black student. Which Godfrey Dillard probably doesn’t understand to this day. He owes me an apology on so many different levels.’ ”
There has been no such apology.
I have left phone messages, sent a text message and sent a Twitter message to Dillard, asking for comment, and he has not responded.
MIS-DIRECTED ANGER. Initially, I was angry at Henry Hecht that he did not come directly from the assault to the newspaper to tell us what happened. In fact, I’m still a little hot about that.
I’d worked my way up through news reporting and editing positions at the Hustler to become editor-in-chief by late spring of 1968. I continued as editor until January of 1969, when I was removed after failing to make the required grade point average. I was a full-time newspaper guy who had foolishly decided to quit going to class. So I was happily spending the spring semester of ’69 learning how to be a student again, going to lots of make-up classes and covering Vanderbilt baseball. As I said above, Jeff Davis, a junior from Georgia, succeeded me as Hustler editor that spring semester.
I’ve talked to Davis recently, after the Dillard beating of Hecht has been revealed. First I wanted to confirm with him that back in ’69, he didn’t know anything about the incident, either. “This is all new to me,” he said.
He did recall that the controversy over the letters-to-the-editor, the Hecht column and subsequently more letters-to-the-editor, was still hot in early March, which was probably after the assault had happened. So in the March 4 edition of the Hustler, Davis wrote an editorial headlined “Racism Issue Boils.”
He took note of all the arguing about the Dillard case and wrote: “The Hustler essentially supports its sports editor – not because he is a member of the staff, but because we believe he is right. Having considered all the facts of the case, it is our judgment that Dillard was not allowed to play because of his inadequate performance, and not because of a racist attitude on the part of Skinner and the athletic department.”
The editorial went on to call for all at the university to be vigilant. “We must continually analyze and review the actions and policies of the athletic department and every other department of this university to insure that racism does not infest them.”
It was a calm and reasonable editorial.
I told Davis that if I had known that spring about the beating of Hecht, I probably would not have been calm and reasonable. I’m sure I would have been ranting and raving for the Hustler to go bombs-away on the assault, and demand Dillard’s arrest and prosecution. Doing so would have been the right thing to do journalistically, but I think it probably would have made the racial climate on campus much more difficult and tense.
“I agree, if we’d known about it, we certainly would have printed it,” said Davis, now a retired attorney in Atlanta. “I don’t know how we couldn’t have printed it, even though it might have had a lot of consequences. It’s a great First Amendment question now, huh?”
After some additional thinking — “maybe some of it naïve, maybe this is a rose-colored view” – Davis says the consequences might not have been as severe as we first thought.
“I think there would’ve been an uproar, and some alumni probably would have gotten bent out of shape about it,” Davis continued. “But I think Chancellor (Alexander) Heard would’ve let it simmer down and then maybe even reinforced the direction we were moving” – toward more diversity among our students, athletes, faculty and staff.
“But when you think back on it, it was an amazing decision that Henry Hecht made, deciding not to tell anybody because he was worried about what it might do to the university,” Davis said, “especially for somebody as young as he was back then, and with what had just happened to him. It’s a little bit heroic – really.”
Actually, I had expressed that same thought to Hecht himself.
“Let’s don’t jump to some ridiculous position,” he said.
Here is a position that I don’t think is ridiculous: Godfrey Dillard risked the futures of a whole lot of eventual Vanderbilt students when he beat up Henry Hecht so long ago. Hecht took a courageous stand for them.
“SOME ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, SOME ACCEPTANCE – SOME JUSTICE – FOR GODFREY”? On Feb. 21, 2004, it was declared “Perry Wallace Day” in Nashville, and as author Maraniss describes it in the book, Memorial Gymnasium was packed for a Commodores game that would feature the formal retirement of Wallace’s jersey No. 25. His old friend Dillard came back to campus to help honor him, the first time Dillard had been at Vandy since the assault on Hecht.
Wallace told Maraniss he hoped that all the good feeling that day might have a positive impact “on Godfrey Dillard’s relationship and legacy with Vanderbilt.”
He says in the book “it still amazes me that Godfrey was so often characterized – actually demonized – as being excessive, or arrogant, or threatening, or something extreme. The problem was the environment. It was ignorant and unexposed to a personality like his and it was instinctively intolerant of him because he was black.” Wallace goes on to say that it was similar to the way some white Americans reacted to Muhammad Ali.
“I had never really been able to do something that might really help create some justice for him,” Wallace continues in the book, referring to Dillard. “Then it occurred to me that if people can be made comfortable with me, maybe that will provide an opportunity for some acknowledgement, some acceptance – some justice – for Godfrey.”
That makes some sense to me. Godfrey Dillard is an interesting person who holds an interesting place in Vanderbilt history, even though he is not a graduate. He probably has a lot to say, even teach.
But first he needs to say he’s sorry to Henry Hecht.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.