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The Joseph Chapman Story, Part Two

Ruth and Joseph Chapman

"The sport and art of skating rises ever superior to the enthusiasts who practice it. Yet no one, however small, can fail to add something to it if he so desires." - Joseph Chapman, "Fifty Years Of Skating"

In the first part of this two-parter, we explored the early skating days of Philadelphia's Joseph Chapman. Today, we're going to dive right into the meat and potatoes. In 1921, the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society hired its first professional skating instructor, Kunzie de Bergen, and Chapman skated the Lancers (an early form of fours/combined figure skating) in the club's first true carnival. He explained, "At this time also, Mrs. Chapman and I began to skate a pair together, and it was at this carnival we first exhibited ourselves. The arena was crowded to the door-knobs with spectators, and I will never forget our feelings of grateful relief at the very generous (and probably over-sympathetic) applause which burst out at the end of our performance." Praise from professional pairs skaters George Muller and his sister Elsbeth, who had joined the club's coaching staff after de Bergen, bolstered Chapman's confidence and he became the club's first secretary under its role as a USFSA recognized club.

In 1921, he competed in the senior men's event at the U.S. Championships in Philadelphia. He finished an unfortunate last behind Sherwin Badger, his brother-in-law Nathaniel Niles, Eddie Howland and Chris Christensen. He recalled that when his friend, Stanley Rogers, withdrew to judge "he thereby practically precluded any chance I had of winning anything, except last place - even though I think he did his secret best for me in his capacity as a judge." It was also during this period that he was part of the first 'Philadelphia Four' (fours team) with his wife, Charley Myers and Margaretta Dixon. They gave exhibitions for three years in Philadelphia carnivals and once in Boston, although Margaretta was replaced twice. He also gave exhibitions with his wife in pairs skating at the old Iceland Rink in Broadway in New York.

In 1923, he won the U.S. junior pairs title with his wife in New Haven, Connecticut. It would be his first and last competition in pairs skating. That year's event was actually the first U.S. junior pairs event and was only added after Martha Niles, his sister-in-law, petitioned the USFSA for its inclusion. He stated that "Ruth and I... were distinctly a dignified 'lady and gentleman pair,' - having no jumps or spins lifts - or anything, in fact, but several fair-enough spirals and a few dance steps. Although we had not skated very much together in our pair for some time immediately preceding the Championships in New Haven, I crowded her into entering the Junior Pair event. It was slightly chilly that day in the New Haven rink, exactly thirty-two degrees below zero, Centigrade, I mean - and her favorite cousins were interested and anxiously sympathetic spectators. We went through our program without a fall, which is saying a good deal, and succeeded in defeating the only other couple entered, composed of Heaton Robertson and (I think) Dorothy Dieffendorfer. Our victory was due not so much to our ability as to the fact that Heaton and Dorothy had only been skating together about a week." The rules at the time indicated that if you won junior pairs, you couldn't enter again. The couple refrained from moving up to the senior ranks and remained undefeated, but inspired seven teams to enter the junior pairs competition at the U.S. Championships the next year.

While in Lake Placid that same winter, Chapman was invited to Ottawa to judge the first North American Championships in Ottawa. Fiercely patriotic, let it suffice to say that he didn't have very complimentary things to say about the Canadian skaters competing that year. He returned to the U.S. Championships as a senior men's competitor in 1924, but again finished off the podium behind Badger, Niles and Christensen. It would be his final competition. You'll remember in the cliffhanger of part one of the blog that Chapman suffered heart problems regularly during his career. Although this didn't keep him off the ice, they did play a role in his decision to slow down on the free skating to some degree so it was perhaps his health and not his disappointing results that kept him from continuing to pursue a national medal in the men's senior ranks at that time.

He focused his attention on furthering the development of skating in Philadelphia, spearheading a committee that organized a joint USFSA/Philadelphia club carnival called "Allies Of The Ice" in 1925. Unfortunately, his heart problems kept him from taking on the active role in the organization of this event. As his health improved, he remained extremely active in organizing skating carnivals in Philadelphia and as he called an 'ice-contact man', using his connections in the skating world to book skaters for shows, drive them around and arrange for their music when they arrived from abroad. He was in many ways a booking agent before such a thing really existed in modern terms. He also was instrumental in pioneering skating carnivals in Hershey, Pennsylvania and in fact, choreographed the first two. He also did a little skating briefly in the thirties, forming the short lived Philadelphia Trio, a "three member fours act", with Christine Hamilton and Rosemond Robert and skating in carnivals.

It was however in his capacity as an 'ice-contact man' that he first became acquainted with Sonja Henie during her amateur days when she was in America giving an exhibition in Atlantic City. After lunch with Sonja, Mama and Papa Henie, he offered Sonja and Hedy Stenuf a drive in his Buick Coupe. Henie, in awe of a car with a radio, hopped in. Their conversation went like this:

"You know, Sonja, sometimes I feel really sorry for you. You have to devote yourself exclusively to skating. You must have been thrown constantly with older people. At the dances after the carnivals you are always dancing with us old fellows because there are so few charming young men as yet engaged in our sport. That is one reason why I never ask you to dance - even though on taking the famous Binet Test recently, my own mental age was pronounced to be of fourteen years. Have you had any boyfriends?"

"But yes! Of course I have! Many boys come to see me in my home at Oslo. You should see my room. It is full of gifts and presents. Not only from boys, but it is full of beautiful gold-mesh bags, cups and gifts of all kinds I have received from all over Europe when I have skated. These Americans do not seem so generous in their presents as the Europeans. They do not give me as nice presents as I get abroad when I skate. When Maribel Vinson came into my room in my home in Oslo, she could not believe her eyes when she saw my presents from Europe."

"I am amazed. Perhaps the Americans think more of a dollar than they do of your skating. I will tell you what I am going to do, Sonja. We will be in Atlantic City for the carnival on Saturday, three days from now. I am directing that carnival and skating in it also. You are going to be one of our star exhibitors there. [Her eyes narrowed slightly] I mean, you are going to be our STAR exhibitor. I intend to spring into the breach as the defender of American generosity. I am going to give you a present when you skate at Atlantic City."

"Oh no - I did not mean that. You must not do that. You must think me terrible!"

Although he could have certainly afforded a more luxurious gift - if you take his income from 1930 U.S. Census, by today's standards, he would have been a millionaire - Chapman gave Sonja Henie a thirty five cent box of salt water taffy. He said, "I wrote a hurried little note and sent it with the gift via bell-boy to Sonja's room. I saw Sonja only at a distance from a corner of the rink other than the one where I stood in front of the orchestra. But at the dance afterwards I passed close to Sonja as she gracefully drifted by to the strains of a waltz, clasped in the arms of [Willy Böckl]. Leaning close she murmured to me in dulcet tones, 'Thank you for the candy.' For you see, Sonja really is a good kid." Now if that isn't a good Sonja Henie story, I don't know what is!

Despite this, he ushered the Henie's and Karl Schäfer to Washington, D.C. to meet President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the 1930 World Figure Skating Championships. When they arrived, they found out that the President was engaged speaking to coal miners, and were met by Eleanor Roosevelt instead. She was, according to Chapman, more interested in his jokes than the skating royalty he accompanied.

Invoice from Roman Bronze Works Foundry describing skating statues and trophies designed by Joseph Chapman. Courtesy The Portal To Texas History.

In 1936, Philadelphia established its own pairs championship and Ruth, who had by this time taken up a keen interest in sculpting skating figurines, designed The Chapman Trophy for the winners. Although Chapman remained active in the organization of the club carnivals in Philadelphia during this period, the couple started wintering in Florida so took on less of a 'hands on' role. In 1939, both Joseph and Ruth were made members of the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society for life with full skating privileges. However, the following year the couple opted to retire to a warmer clime, becoming legal residents of Coconut Grove, Florida. Although Ruth had stopped skating by this point, Chapman remained active in the skating community as the USFSA's Southern representative and skated recreationally at an indoor rink in Florida until it was taken over by the military and used to train army airforce personnel during World War II.

You'd think retirement and the lack of a skating rink would stop most people, but not the Chapman's. Their last major contribution to skating came in 1942 and was Ruth's brainchild. They organized a committee at the Venetian Roller Skating Rink in Coconut Grove with the idea of bringing military members to the ice for skating parties. These affairs, catered with food and drink, brought at least fifty uniformed sailors to the ice every week. "The Miami News", on March 3, 1942 reported, "Last year we kept hearing of Joseph Chapman as an ice skater, for he was one of the 'constants' at the Coliseum Ice Palace and his figure skating was something to brag about. With no facilities for ice skating available in Miami this year, Mr. Chapman has turned his attention to roller skating, and because skating is his hobby, he knows there must be boys in military service in Miami who also love to skate. That's why he and Mrs. Chapman decided to arrange a skating party and invite some of our military visitors." He composed the lyrics and music for "Rolling To Victory", a patriotic war tune about roller skating, especially for these parties.

Whatever impression you may glean of him from this biography, you have to admire Chapman's dedication to skating and sense of humour. In an epilogue in his 1944 memoir, he wrote, "I never expected this skating history would see the light. That it now appears in modest form is due to a temptation, for which I fell... Some skaters may feel slighted because they are not mentioned; some because they may think themselves too lightly mentioned. All I can say is: 'I apologize'. That ought to fix 'em!" Another quote which stood out poignantly were his words, "While I respect death, I do not much 'fear' it." After years of battling with heart problems, he finally succumbed in January 1952 in Coconut Grove. He is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Few have worn so many hats: competitor, coach, judge, agent, choreographer, event organizer, writer, historian... If anyone loved figure skating, it was this man that time has forgotten.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":