Not the buried in the sand pirate-type I always dreamed of unearthing in the Southern California former orange-grove backyard where I grew up. My treasure hunting has been refined to a sharper focus that has proven no less fortunate to me than those who find spectacular Saxon hoards in Middlesex with a $60 metal detector. Possibly not as lucrative, but I’m just as happy since I don’t get taxed and I run the “museum” where the treasure comes to reside. I’m calling it a win for me.
In the present case, it’s a big win for the history of San Francisco fencing history. Great story. Let me tell it to you.
Marc LeRoux is a former Letterman fencer who knew Dr. William “Bill” O’Brien well.
“Mark LaRue” in 1986. His donation of this material is of tremendous value to The Archive and very much appreciated!
Dr. O’Brien was a fixture in San Francisco fencing from the mid-1930s, when he began under the tutelage of Maestro Erich Funke d’Egnuff, until his passing around the year 2000. (I don’t know the exact date, I’m afraid.) Dr.O passed on to Marc a stack of papers, a couple of folios of photographs and a scrapbook. Out of the sport and living up in Washington state, Marc recently began looking for a safe repository for the memorabilia that had been entrusted to him. Via Facebook, he contacted David Sinkkonen, who is the club Director at West Berkeley, wherein much of my Archive collection is housed. David, in turn, directed Marc my way with a, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I DO know a place where that material would be safe and appreciated.” Mere days after connecting us, a good-sized box arrived at my door, and lo! Another piece of the puzzle is filled in – and several new puzzles unlocked! Level achieved!
Allow me to describe the contents of the trove that I am fortunate to place in The Archive collection. There are nearly 100 loose photographs, ranging in date from the early ‘50s through the ‘80s. Many have names written on them – front or back – and can thus be easily identified. Others without written help are people I recognize, but there are quite a few where I’m at a loss. Some are of military personnel – the Letterman club was organized through the goodwill of the Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco – and some are of Letterman fencing teams filled with unfamiliar faces. Dr. O shows up pretty regularly, but he’s often surrounded by folks I can’t put a name to. Still, the ones I can recognize make up the bulk of the collection. Here are some highlights!
A night of fencing at Halberstadt in 1954. No names on the back to ID either the fencers or the audience.
The 1955 Letterman Army Hospital Invitational. 1955 was the first year of electric foil fencing at the World Championships. It seems San Francisco hadn’t caught up quite yet.
That’s Duris DeJong of the LAAC, John McDougall during his Stanford years, and Al Lambert of the Berkeley Fencers Club in an undated photo. Mid-50’s.
Dated 1964, Bill O’Brien shakes the hand of Alex Orban at a tournament in Mexico City. The tournament is either the IPN or the JPN tournament. Can’t be entirely sure.
That’s how they rolled in 1970. Left to right, we have Steve Clavere, Charles Spencer, John Nonomura, Charles Miller and Jose Leiva.
Hey, color! From 1973, Wayne Johnson takes a foil lesson from Dr. O at the Letterman gym.
A 1976 fencing exhibition at Dominican College in San Rafael, CA, featuring, from left to right: Gerard Esponda, George Nonomura, Heik Hambarzumian, Dr. O’Brien, Asbed Kalfayan and Stuart Kaufman.
Another portion of the collection is made up of Dr. O’Brien’s collection of records regarding the competitive results of all Letterman Fencers from seasons 1977-78 through 1986-87. Each season is stapled in a bundle that is topped with the Northern California Division schedule for the season and backed with hand-written pages. Each page has a fencer’s name at the top, three columns across for Foil/Sabre/Epee, and down each column the name of the tournament entered and the result. He included tournaments fenced outside of the NorCal division and National events, as well. Clearly, he was paying attention.
Letterman fencers from the late 70’s will no doubt recognize all of these names. I recognize a whole bunch of them, myself.
How well did he track people? As an example, in the 78-79 season, I’ve just flipped to the page for Wayne Johnson, Letterman fencer and 1980 Olympian in epee. I find that Wayne was not only an A in epee, but a B in both foil and sabre. He fenced in 7 foil events and won gold and bronze medals once each and silver twice. In epee, he fenced 10 events, taking 1st three times, 2nd once, 3rd twice – including a large event in San Antonio with 63 competitors – took 6th at a National Squad Trial (this was in the world before circuit events – or NAC’s as you kids call them today) and 7th at the US Nationals out of 203 fencers. One can only assume that the lack of entries in any sabre events for the season speaks to a possible lazy streak in Wayne. Here’s what the rundown looked like for another Letterman standout:
Also in the packet is a running list of all the fencers, again broken into columns by weapon. 23 foil fencers, 10 sabre and 16 epee – but some folks are counted more than once if they fenced multiple weapons. And all that is just for the ‘789-’79 season. Ten years of this info!
In a former career, I worked in production management for animated films. The creative side of the job, apart from managing artists which has often been likened to herding cats, revolved around the creation of spreadsheets – usually in Excel – that had two requirements: they had to actually help you keep your work organized, and they needed to be reasonably comprehensible to other people. (If you made them too crazy, other departments would convince themselves that you were hiding something from them. Think everybody working in animation is jolly and fun? Guess again and keep your guard up. I digress.) If the spreadsheet didn’t fulfill those two requirements, it usually meant you were better off with a clipboard. Getting a pile of data like this ten year run of names and results makes my Excel muscles tingle with anticipation. I may have to turn all this info into something for some fun data-mining. I’ll enjoy it, if no one else will.
The last item in the collection is off-topic from the Letterman material, but no less interesting and it is…
…yes, one of my favorite things….
An example page of the newly acquired scrapbook. Lots and lots of data to mine.
Not just any scrapbook, a solid, packed, 139 pages of news clippings and articles from the Funke Fencing Academy, 1725 Washington Street, San Francisco, California. The book ranges from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s. The history of how this book passed through hands to me is partly known and partly shrouded in mystery. Fortunately, there is a card from the early 1990s in book that gives me a clue. Apparently Heik Hambarzumian and a friend were shopping at an antique fair and came across this book and one other that were for sale. Needless to say, Heik snapped them up and – assumption – passed them along to Dr. O. The second book must have been (I have to ask Heik) the Funke Guestbook, which I have mentioned in previous posts, and have been fortunate to see and scan in its entirety.
I always find it interesting when articles I’m writing connect in some unexpected way from week to week. This time, the connective tissue is one Emily Romaine, mentioned several times in my most recent post. She and her husband had a photography studio in San Francisco, and I mentioned her as a teammate of Helene Mayer at Halberstadt. Well, it would seem that she began her fencing career with Erich Funke. Being both very photogenic and having a photographer for a husband, Emily is featured prominently in many of the newspaper articles that are pasted into the Funke Scrapbook.
A nice article from 1938 featuring Funke and Romaine, along with a claim of learning to fence in three easy lessons. How about that? I’m obviously over-thinking things.
For the Scrapbook itself, it’s a deep repository of information about San Francisco fencing in the late 30s and early 40s. Clearly, Maestro Funke, like Dr. O’Brien, kept excellent track of what was going on, particularly in regards to publicity, promotion and notice in the local newspapers.
A press release and invite to the 1938 Fencer’s Ball.
That’s Helene Mayer in silhouette and a news clipping of an exhibition advertisement.
All the main local papers of that period are represented. The San Francisco Chronicle, the Examiner and the Call all are mentioned in pencil notations as sources for articles and clippings. Sometimes it will be a notice of upcoming events – tournament, demonstrations and the like, or results from concluded competitions. There are several pages dedicated to the US Nationals when they were held on Treasure Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay in 1939, the home of the Golden Gate International Exhibition which ran from 1939 to 1940.
Treasure Island was a happening place in the late 1930’s, but most of the expo buildings have long since been torn down.
Poster for the 1939 Expo.
In addition to the pages and pages of news articles, there are also some loose pages that have been left into the front page of the book. A stapled set of papers contain a couple of different passes from different years of Dr. O’Brien’s fencing resumes – or professional resumes – it’s a bit hard to tell what the intention was for these pages, as they are hand written. There is also a very interesting printed sheet describing an attempt in 1993 to establish the Presidio International Fencing Center. These 6 pages also include a brief history of the Letterman club. I haven’t read the whole thing yet. I’m curious about the PIFC, which might have remade the face of fencing in the city. It never got off the ground, but it’s another topic among so many to explore when the moment arises.
I am so grateful to Marc LeRoux for entrusting this legacy to the West Coast Fencing Archive. I’ve got an acid-free box on order for the scrapbook and have already slipped the photos into poly bags for safe keeping. (I use the same techniques you might apply to your copy of Fantastic Four #1, only for fencing pictures.) Now… there’s another interesting piece of history that Marc has sent my way which I am very excited to share. It will take a little time to prep for inclusion in a story here on the Archive Website, so I’ll save that another day. All will become clear.