Originally published in The Rock River Times.
In the 1920s, if you were to ask anyone who the best coach in Rockford was, chances are they would say “Honk Garrett.” Honk was born in Pennsylvania in May 1881. Prior to moving to Rockford, Honk was a coach at Hyde Park High School in Chicago. Garrett was hired by the Rockford High School Association to coach all of the athletes in football, basketball, baseball and track. Some of the best athletes in the Midwest were fortunate enough to be coached by this very talented African-American man. He would lead his football team to the state championship in 1909 and 1910.
After he retired from coaching at the high school level, he opened up a gymnasium for amateur boxers in the 300 block of East State Street. He also managed the Olympic Athletic Club (O.A.R.), one of the first of its kind. The newspapers from the 1920s talk about the events he arranged; one mentioned that there was a crowd of 400 spectators at the Pioneer Hall for a boxing competition.
Honk was a man of many talents who was known all over the Midwest for the athletes he helped train and mold into exceptional young men. The achievement he was most proud of, however, was his own son, William. William was born to Honk and his wife, Annabelle, on Feb. 5, 1903, while they still lived in Chicago.
William went to Rockford schools, enrolling at Highland School, where he attracted attention for his skills on the football field. He attended Rockford High School and was as skilled on both the track and the basketball court as he had been on the football field. Everyone who watched this extraordinary young man was in awe of his speed and great athletic ability, and he “won the respect of every man and boy who were his team-mates, companions, and every spectator who ever watched him play.”
But what made William even more unusual and why he really inspired so many people was the way he handled himself. As an African-American, Bill, as he was called by his teammates, was often the target of insults and foul tactics from players on the opposing team. In fact, there were times when the opposing team refused to play against him. Bill never let this break his determination to give his very best, and he always returned the sneers with his amazing smile.
William followed in his father’s footsteps when he became the new manager of the Olympic Athletic Club. He also joined the Illinois National Guard. Captain Fairley was the head of the unit, which was originally formed to be machine gunners. The 61 men who enlisted in the 8th Infantry Unit had such impressive credentials that the decision was made to form them into an administration team instead.
Both Garrett men were talented athletes and respected leaders in the community during the 1920s and 1930s. It must be realized how unusual it was for African-Americans to gain such acceptance in those times, and just what exceptional people Honk and William were to earn that.
When Bill died of a sudden illness in 1924, he was only 20 years old. His untimely death shocked and saddened many. His funeral was attended by an astonishing 1,200 people. The newspapers stated that the crowd was made up of people of all races and walks of life. People who knew or were trained by Honk, those who loved to watch William play sports, young men who had been motivated by him or his father, friends, and complete strangers all gathered to pay their respects for the humble, gifted young man.
It was said that watching William play was so thrilling that everyone who saw him admired and respected him. Maybe that was his real talent, to play sports so well and with such humility and dignity that it made all who watched him focus on his talent and not his color.
Copyright © 2014 Kathi Kresol, Haunted Rockford Events