A lot of dailies not only showcased the new adolescent champ but featured pictures of the wacky celebrities engaging in their Oil Can Trophy Race high jinks. For example, in 1958 madcap Eddie Bracken stole the Oil Can trophy from the victorious Pat Boone and dashed off with it, while a flabbergasted Guy Madison gaped. Dinah Shore held the crowd enthralled in song for an hour and a half in 1953, waiting for the summer thunderheads to clear Akron...(drum roll)...and to this day the All-American has never been rained out. In 1951, a relatively humdrum crop of celebrities turned up—Paul Winchell, Ronald Reagan and Andy Devine—and a dummy won the Oil Can: Jerry Mahoney, accompanying ventriloquist Winchell. Jimmy Stewart came to the All-American half a dozen times, Lorne Greene five...but then, Bonanza was sponsored by Chevy.
Chevrolet held Akron in its benevolent thrall. It owned both the trademarks and the copyrights to the All-American, and every year the Beacon Journal had not one, but two Derby Day stories to breathlessly report: 1) who won, and 2) the news that Chevy had given the thumbs-up once again and the All-American would return to the Rubber City next August. Hooray! Apart from tires and Quaker Oats, Akron was pretty desperate for the Derby, because it wasn't yet Golf Capital of the World.
Then, in 1971, Chevy brought in America's Junior Miss to greet the winner at the finish line. This seemed like one more bounty from the generous Detroit benefactors, but, in fact, it was the handwriting on the wall.
The boys who won the Derby back in Boydom were as American as Chevrolet. The first champion, Bob Turner, actually came from the very town, Muncie, that was the site of Robert Staughton Lynd's sociological classic,
Middletown: A Study In Contemporary American Culture. Turner himself grew up all-American, too: sentimental, overweight and the owner of an auto repair shop right there in Muncie. The Lord made me do it. Surely, he was ordained to win.
Bob Gravett, the builder of Old Number 7, became the president of a metal-stamping company and is now retired in Florida. Bob Ballard, champ of '37, became the president of an engineering firm (nine winners have become engineers). Claude Smith. '41, Akron's own first champion, grew up to be a salesman. Harold Williamson, '50, had to overcome rheumatic fever to triumph. The Townsend brothers, Terry and Barney, from Anderson, won in '57 and '59, respectively, and when Richard Kemp won in '54 nobody paid much attention to his brother, Jack. Richard was declared the "calmest" winner ever. The year before, another Muncie boy, Fred Mohler, won the National Championship, but he was so nervous he was known as Frettin' Freddy. He grew up to be a custodian at Ball State University, just like Dad Mohler had been.
In '52, Joey Lund, who lived in Georgia in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing, competed in a car made from a converted goat cart. He made a career out of the U.S. Navy. The '55 winner, Richard Rohrer, from Rochester, N.Y., already stood 6'1" at age 14. The son of a dentist and brother of an army officer, Rohrer was decreed to hail from the All-American Family, and we were even assured that his grandmother was "stylishly dressed." Moreover, the Beacon Journal suddenly decided for just this one year not to refer to the champion's parents as Mom and Dad, but as Mother and Father. Mother and Father Rohrer actually "vacationed in Florida," we were told.
Ken Cline, the '67 winner, also became a champ in amateur boxing. Gilbert Klecan, the first western winner—San Diego, 1946—now owns his own real estate company. And, you never know. After Darwin Cooper won in '51, to be congratulated by Winchell and Mahoney, Reagan and Devine, Mom Cooper said, "I wanted Darwin to be a doctor, but now he has his heart set on going to the General Motors school and becoming an auto mechanic." Close enough, he became a sales manager of recreational vehicles.
All-American boys have always been builders, not racers. Kick the tires, peer under the hood, twist this, tinker with that. By 1972 Chevrolet had doled out $1,750,000 in scholarships to builder boys, but then, that September, it cut the cord with the All-American. It wasn't a nasty break; General Motors handed over the trademarks and the copyrights to the Akron Chamber of Commerce. No, Chevrolet said something or other about "today's changing life-style." Things were different, families were different, fathers were different. Fathers didn't have so much time anymore, or, even, fathers weren't around at all. And boys were different. It wasn't anybody's fault. It was just, well...they just don't build 'em like they used to.
After Chevy got out of the All-American, the company increased its support of America's Junior Miss (remember that time when she came to the Rubber City?) and the Junior Olympics. The prettiest and flashiest girls; the fastest and strongest boys and girls. Glamour kids. Upfront types. Stars.
The All-American now means something else altogether. The victors are happy with modest spoils. In the junior division, the major prize the national champion gets is a bunch of power tools. The reward is in the building more than in the winning. Indeed, all the contestants are known as Champ in Akron. "Champ 137 report Topside," you hear over the P.A. system. "Champ 23 and Champ 66 ready for alignment." It's not like beauty pageants and Junior Olympics at all. There are no college scouts, no agents. On the other hand, at last year's All-American, Miss Teen USA was on hand, a declared "celebrity" right along with Connie Needham and Kevin Wixted.