This is a tribute to my father who was born 100 years ago today. Some of the notes in this post are from a tape my mother made when she was 72 years old in 1989.
John Alonzo Applegate was born on May 19, 1912, in Lerado, Jackson Twp., Brown County, Ohio. His mother was Lillian Frances Illie Applegate and his father was John Black Applegate. The place of birth on his certificate is Lerado, but there’s a little discrepancy here because family legend is that he was born on the kitchen table in his Uncle Jim Applegate’s home – the old Applegate homestead – and that house is not located in Lerado, but nearby. According to my mother’s account, possibly John B. and Lillian were visiting Uncle Jim at the time:
On her tape, Mother said, “If it wouldn’t be for Uncle Jim, none of you children, great-grandchildren or any of you would be here today. He saved Johnny’s life when Grandma was about to have him. Two of the Applegate brothers got into a fight and she got in the middle of them and she got pushed out a window backwards and she came near losing the baby. They called Dr. Forman in and he said, ‘Oh, the baby’s breech – he’s going to be a breech birth’, he said, ‘I’m going to have to cut the baby in two to save the mother’ and Uncle Jim said, ‘No baby gets cut in two in my house’ and with that she went ahead and had him and that’s the only reason any of you are here today. Johnny always had a very bad temper and his brother, Frank, told him the reason he had a bad temper was because he came in back side first and from that time on he always had his backside up in the air over something.”
Uncle Jim – a very pleasant man unless he was riled.
John Alonzo was always small, serious, intelligent, with a fiery temper. He used to tell stories of moving around so much and changing schools so often as a boy and how he would have to fight his way into each of the schools, He also had the job of fighting the boys his younger brother, Frank, would antagonize with threats of “I’ll tell my big brother!“
Frank and Johnny, ca. 1917. Johnny always had a firm grip on Frank.
Mother said, “One day Johnny was playing in the sand and he didn’t have too many toys back in those days and he was playing in the sand and he had a big chain and he was pulling it around through the sand in the road like a big train – playing like it was a train – and two boys from the city, Cincinnati, came up and they said, ‘Oh, look at the little boy playing choo-choo in the sand’ and he just kept on playing, never paid any attention, and they just kept that up – ‘Aw, look at the little boy’ and finally he got up and he took that chain and he beat them over the head and like to killed them.”
When I was transcribing Mother’s tape and listening to her telling about the boys continuing to aggravate my father, I actually felt a chill going up the back of my neck, knowing too well what he would do in such a circumstance.
The family never had an easy life – John B. was a blacksmith and traveled around the fair circuit to make a living.
John B. and Johnny at their shop in Marathon, Ohio, ca. 1914
The family traveled along with him and we can get a good picture of life on the fairground from this picture of Lillian at the washboard and little son, Frank, in the foreground, ca. 1916.
My father’s major passion all his life was harness horses. Mother said, “Johnny started driving horses when he was real young. He and Frank (his younger brother) both took care of horses from the time they could remember. They’d each have to stand on a chair to harness them – they were that little – but one day up at Owensville (Ohio) they were making a big deal out of a boy that was 16 years old that was driving and they were just carrying on how big he was and how great he was and Doc Parsons was sitting on the fence alongside of Johnny and he turned to him and said, “How old were you when you started driving horses?” And Johnny said, “Twelve” and Doc said, “Yeah, I thought so.”
In 1931, while the Applegates were at the fairgrounds in Lebanon, Ohio, brother Frank visited a small diner owned by my Grandma Helen and my mother who was 15 years old at the time. Frank was a great talker and would go on and on about his big brother, Johnny – how good he was with horses, how good looking he was, how smart he was – and finally one day he brought along his big brother to the restaurant. Mother used to laugh when she told the story, thinking she was going to see this big, rough guy from the fairgrounds and in walked this young dark haired boy who was about 5’7” tall – not nearly as big as Frank described, but just as handsome.
Photo booth picture of Johnny and his mother, 1932. When Grandma saw this picture, she said, “Oh, he looks just like a movie actress!”
Mother fell for him immediately and they were married in 1932.
I always thought my parents were the most handsome couple and so young compared to the parents of my friends. I considered my father particularly good-looking, probably accentuated by his brooding, quiet manner. He spoke little but his words were absolute law not only in our house but with anybody he came in contact with. He started out as a laborer on the WPA but quickly was made a timekeeper and then moved on to other jobs where he always wound up in a position of authority. After World War II and the advent of television, he did television repair for several shops and for a time had his own shop in the front room of our little red brick house. He built our first television set and we were one of the first families in Cincinnati to own one.
Snapshot of Johnny, Martha, Lillian and Shirley, 1941
My father had dark, wavy hair and deep brown eyes. I loved it when people said I looked just like him. He was a very small man but had tremendous strength in the shoulders and arms from handling horses. On one arm was a small tattoo of a horse head which fascinated me. He was a chain smoker and seemed to always have a cigarette in his hand. He also loved baseball and was a very good softball pitcher and manager.
When I was very young, people would ask me what I was going to do when I grew up. I always said I was going to get a job and help Daddy buy a horse. Within months after graduation and getting my first job @ $30.00/week, my father told me he had a horse in mind and was ready for my contribution. This is one of our early horses winning a race in 1955. I made the jacket and cap my father is wearing.
I owned shares of my father’s horses off and on for many years until he was better established and my own expenses with four children didn’t leave enough to support a horse. My father continued to be a top driver/trainer in the southwestern Ohio area for over 25 years. In 1978, at age 66, he was driving a horse called Peter Horn at a track in northern Kentucky. Just after finishing second in a photo finish, he died on the track of a heart attack. Our family said they knew if he died on a track, he died happy except that he would have wanted to be the winner. This is a winning photo of my father and Peter Horn in 1975.
The following notes are from my journal dated August 20, 1957, when I was 25 years old. We had just gotten word that my father had been in a serious accident in a race and were waiting on word from the hospital.
“I’m thinking of Daddy when we were both 20 years younger and he was the very ultimate in my life – always right, always strong and unemotional, very intelligent and very strict. He was the supreme authority in all things and the one I strove hardest to please. I liked pancakes and chili because Daddy did; I love peanuts and chocolate drops because he did; I was thrilled at harness races and baseball games because they were thrilling to him. I tried to emulate him, too. He was quiet and sober so I thought it giddy to talk or laugh too much. He was always tops in school so I tried to make perfect grades because less was unacceptable.”
Today – 100 years after he was born – I remember my father, the most influential person in my life.
Johnny and Lillian, 1933