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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Noteworthy people you haven't heard of... or, awkwardly gramatic... of whom you haven't heard.

So what's the big deal about Ray Townsend who died recently at 97? Ray did something hardly any one of us do... he invented the first practical mechanical hog-skinner! And that means...?

Well, it means hot dogs only cost a buck or so. His Frank-a-Matic, introduced in 1962, revolutionized the way skinless hot dogs were made. Left-over meat parts are ground and stuffed into temporary casings (the small intestines of sheep--really) to hold them together as they are cooked... then, Townsend's machine would remove the casing from the dog... so fast it would make your stomach swim--30,000 per hour! See? That's how hot dogs became, not only every-man's meat byproduct but 'production-line-manufactured' cheap.

Townsend was a busy guy. He also developed some flight instruments for the Learjet, adjustable weights to the golf putter so golfers have something more to tinker with and a fish skinner that would clean the fish, remove the head and fins, and tidily skin what's left.  He did exercise machines and treadmills too... in all, 127 different inventions. But the Frank-a-Matic remained his favorite. Or, as my mother-in-law would seriously say, "Who doesn't like weenies." Really, she said that.


Then there is Gil Meche.  Gil had a five-year, $55 million contract to play for the Kansas City Royals. As sports salaries go, he deserved it. He had a good arm, a good head and the prospect of becoming a pretty good pitcher. But--and isn't there always a BUT--he hurt his pitching shoulder.

He had every right to sit out the year and take home his guaranteed $12 million salary. Injuries are one of the risks that every major league ball club must take to sign the talent. Meche, however, lives by another credo. "I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn't feel like I deserved it." He would rather spend the time at home with his wife and kids. How archaic is that?

For every sports fan who has lived and died by the success of the 'star' on their favorite team... for every sports fan who has watched or been forced to root for a multi-million-dollar crybaby... or someone who gets in trouble with the law... or is involved in a scandal of one kind or another...or someone who insults fans, is on steroids and/or is a total jerk... or any combination of these and more... and still pulls down the big bucks without delivering or even showing gratitude to the fans or the people who pay his salary, I have one word for Meche:WOW! What a powerful reminder of happy endings. Thanks, Gil, for showing some old fashioned humility, moral balance and class. Nice to know there are those of you out there.

Two more class acts: Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg gave up $16 million when he retired in 1994, when 16 million was like... a billion today, saying he could no longer perform at peak level. He later returned to play two more (sub-peak) seasons.

Pat Tillman also turned down a $3.6 million offer to play pro football for the Arizona Cardinals after 9/11 and joined the Army to fight for his country instead. He was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

Then there is Jack LeLanne, exercise guru and fitness fanatic, who recently died at 96. When asked once if he ever thought about dying, he said, "No. Dying would be bad for my image."

LaLanne was an impressive pioneer of the physical health boom we enjoy today. He started the ball rolling on a national basis, comparing himself to Billy Graham by saying that diet and exercise were America's salvation. And he is probably more right than some think. Too bad more people don't listen. But then, like Billy Graham would likely admit, there is still work to be done.

Never a wallflower, LaLanne was more than happy to show the world what exercise and diet could do. His feats were impressive:

1954 Age 40: Swam the length of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge underwater with 140 pounds of equipment, including two air tanks… an undisputed world record.

1955 Age 41: Swam, handcuffed, from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf in
San Francisco, CA.

1956 Age 42: Set a world record of 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes on You Asked for It, an early TV Show.

1957 Age 43: Swam the treacherous Golden Gate Channel, towing a 2,500-pound cabin cruiser. This involved fighting the cold, swift ocean currents that made the 1 mile swim a 6 ½ mile test of strength and endurance.

1958 Age 44: Maneuvered a paddleboard 30 miles, 9-½ hours non-stop from Farallon Islands to the San Francisco shore.

1959 Age 45: Completed 1,000 pushups and 1,000 chin-ups in 1 hour and 22
minutes.

1974 Age 60: Swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf, for a second time handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

1975 Age 61: Swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, underwater, handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

1976 Age 62: Commemorating the “Spirit of ‘76”, swam 1 mile in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed, shackled and towing 13 boats (representing the 13 original colonies) containing 76 people.

1979 Age 65: Towed 65 boats filled with 6,500-pounds of Louisiana-Pacific wood pulp while handcuffed and shackled, in Lake Ashinoko, near Tokyo.

1980 Age 66: Towed 10 boats in North Miami, Florida filled with 77 people for over a mile... in less than 1 hour.

This man just loved to tow boats!

For 80-plus years, he exercised every day of his life and ate only fish and vegetables. What a guy!

Can't forget Milton Levine, the inventor of the Ant Farm, who died in January at 97. While on a picnic in 1956, he watched a mound of ants at work and thought they were so interesting that they belonged in an aunt aquarium for everyone to be amazed.. everyone except the ants, I guess. "I found out their most amazing feat yet," he confessed, "... they put three kids through college."

Dorothy Young disappeared for the last time this year, at age 103. She was magician Harry Houdini's longtime assistant who took his secrets to her grave.


Last but not least, Eunice G. Sanborn of Jacksonville, Texas died. She was born in 1896 and lived to become the oldest person in the United States at 114. What this means, I say excitedly, is that we have all moved up a notch. Fingers crossed!

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