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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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When Norma Smallwood of Tulsa went on tour as Miss America in the fall of 1926, the only man she kissed while in Pittsburgh was a young speed skater, flagpole sitter and uphill ski jumper named Joseph Harold Ake. Everybody called her beautiful. Everybody called him Chick.

Even for a Casanova like Ake, embracing Miss America was a step up in class. (Ake was also dating Miss Metropolitan Pittsburgh, Miss Northside Pittsburgh and Miss Greater Pittsburgh.) But his evening at the Schenley Hotel with the ravishing young beauty queen was less pulse-quickening than one might imagine.

"Her mother," Ake says, wincing. It seems Mrs. Smallwood was right next to her daughter all the time.

Seventy years later Ake isn't kissing anyone—and he's not likely to, unless he gets rid of the Havana Blossom chewing tobacco that he uses to lubricate his epiglottis whenever he finds himself dry from overtalking, which is more often than not. Ake is 96, and his stride has a hazardous list, but considering that he was bludgeoned by a mugger and left for dead at 84, that he survived prostate cancer when he was 89 and that he set himself on fire (accidentally) when he was 93, he's not doing badly at all.

There was an era when Ake was one of the most illustrious athletes in western Pennsylvania. The reward (or the penalty) for his longevity is that just about the only person who can remember that era is Ake himself. But he is not stingy with the gift of his history. On a stifling August day in Wilkinsburg, Pa., just over the Pittsburgh city line, the old man in the gray Stetson sits in the airless little room that is his Louvre, and he takes a visitor beyond the walls of time.

Ake talks about the week in November 1933 when, representing Pittsburgh with a partner from Syracuse named Cleveland, he took part in the Seven-Day World's Championship Ice Skating Race at the Duquesne Garden, missing first place by the length of his arm after finishing 9,000 laps.

Seven-day speed skating, in which at least one member of a two-man team had to be on the ice at all times, day and night, was the logical offspring of six-day bicycle racing, which had sprung from the dance marathons of the Roaring Twenties—a panoply of exhausting exhibitionism. The speed skating "race" was a somnolent stagger enlivened by regular sprints for cash bonuses. Ake and Leonard Cleveland led the standings until the close of the sixth day, when Cleveland begged for euthanasia. "Everybody was so beat, I thought they'd call the whole thing off," Ake recalls, fingering ancient clippings from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. " Cleveland was coughing and saying, 'I'm in a hell of a shape, Chick. I've got a hell of a pain in my chest, and my legs are awful sore.' He went home. So what else could I do? I skated the last 24 hours myself."

Ake had just turned 34. He was the oldest man in the race. His parents predicted that marathon skating would prove more debilitating than a soiree with Miss Greater Pittsburgh. "They were madder than a wet hen," Ake says. "They said, 'You'll break your health. You'll never skate again.' I didn't die, but Cleveland did. Two years later. Tuberculosis."

What else does Ake remember? He tells how he played indoor softball on ice ("not as funny as it looks") and served as an occasional practice goalie for the woebegone Pittsburgh Pirates, who lasted from 1925 until 1930 in the National Hockey League; how he rode racehorses; stood on his head on the cliffside railing at Niagara Falls; had a friend rev the engine of a ski-slope towrope so that it would pull him uphill at 70 miles an hour. Also, how he skated with and dated Sonja Henie in 1936 ("She was a picnic, but this you can't print").

Ake's most celebrated incarnation was as half of the skating duo that delighted crowds at Madison Square Garden between periods of New York American and Ranger hockey games in 1927 and '28. The two entertainers were paid $950 a week—a good wage now, a treasury then. They called themselves Ake and Pane. (Pane was a Pittsburgh Italian named Jimmy Colaianni, who also went by Jimmy [sometimes Johnny] Colean, but none of those names would have fit on the Eighth Avenue marquee.)

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