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A Spry Old Chick
Allen Abel
October 16, 1995
Joseph Harold Ake, 96, was once one of Pennsylvania's most illustrious athletes
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October 16, 1995

A Spry Old Chick

Joseph Harold Ake, 96, was once one of Pennsylvania's most illustrious athletes

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Ake was, in the words of the newspaper clips in his scrapbook, "the best figure man that has ever appeared—the Charlie Chaplin of the steel blades." Ake and Pane's "clever antics and nonsensical twists," as one reviewer put it, occupied the audience while stagehands pushing barrows of water flooded the artificial pond for the labors of [the] Rangers. Ake dressed as Chaplin's Tramp, twirled a cane, mugged and hammed and pantomimed. "If I fall down." he proclaimed, "it could be intentional." Somehow he performed fancy figures on 16-inch speed skates.

"The hockey teams wouldn't even go back to their dressing rooms," Ake brags in his breathless soprano bark. "They wanted to see my act. It was the greatest thing in my life. Meeting people. Famous people. You couldn't get in my dressing room. Rap! Rap! Rap! on the door all the time. They'd say, 'When are you coming back to town?' I loved that. Whoever I shook hands with was the president of something."

Until a decade ago Ake was merely a former railroad stationmaster, chamber of commerce secretary and automobile salesman who long, long ago had been one of the fastest, funniest skaters in the world. But then came 1987. Wilkinsburg was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. In 1962 a time capsule had been interred somewhere in the borough, to be dug up for the centennial. The four members of the borough council who had selected the burial site had sworn each other to secrecy. They had told no one else the location.

And then all four men died.

The ubiquitous Ake had seen the doomed mayor carry the capsule out of the municipal hall, around a corner and out of sight. Now Ake led a frenetic, fruitless search that was turned into a television documentary. It was broadcast almost everywhere from Pittsburgh to Perth, and the old bowlegged speed skater began getting mail from the ends of the earth. Chick Ake, nearly 90, was reborn.

Honors were bestowed, testimonials held. Correspondents wrote to say that they remembered the delights of Ake and Pane. The prominent sociologist Albert Bergesen discussed Ake in the Atlantic Monthly. "At some level, whether it's conscious or not, time capsules are intended less as messages from ourselves to the future than as messages from ourselves to ourselves," Bergesen wrote.

Ake replied, "Huh?"

Eight years later the capsule has not been found. But Ake, who was born in 1899, who never married any of his Miss Any-things, who lived with his nun her until she expired—still dark-haired—at the age of 101, is preparing his own gift to posterity. He wants a container of his memorabilia to be deposited in the Wilkinsburg branch of the Mellon Bank, not to be opened until 2012, when Wilkinsburg will be 125. For himself, Ake hopes only to reach 100 years and 100 days, which will have permitted him to breathe the air of three centuries.

But these are perilous times for Ake and the satchels of photographs and diaries that certify his exploits back to 1915, when he was nearly decapitated by a piece of the drill rig with which his father had brought in the most powerful natural gas well in U.S. history. (The well soon dried up.) Ake's prostate cancer has reappeared. He fractured two ribs earlier this year, one when he stumbled down some steps and the other when his TV fell on him. He can't chew very well, so he eats primarily bananas, apricots and oatmeal. When he was in the hospital three years ago with severe burns (his suit coat had been ignited by a gas heater in his antediluvian bathroom), somebody stole his diamond collar studs. All this he can endure.

What paralyzes him now is the fear that a new landlord will evict him and his living room museum, with its teddy bears, Indian headdresses, baby shoes, porcelain angels, flash cameras, straw hats, racing skates, walking sticks and cassette tapes of Ake at the piano, making melodies for seniors 30 years his junior Friday nights at the Wilkinsburg Rotary.

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