Hardesty: So long and save me a seat

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I never got to say goodbye to my friend and colleague, Chuck Condley.

Chuck died at age 73 on Nov. 5, 2018, a year and a half after my position as assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier had been eliminated. Chuck, a graduate of Kent Roosevelt High School and Kent State, worked at the R-C as a sports writer for the better part of 50 years, and he and I worked together my entire time there from 1994 to 2017. Night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, Chuck was there in his familiar seat in the Sports Department, first in the R-C‘s Ravenna office and then in the “new” Kent building. He was a constant, someone you could count on to be there, do his job right, serve as a wealth of information due to his longevity at the paper and his standing in the community, and, most of all, be a friend (and a comedian — more on that in a moment).

So when I received the news that day in November 2018 that Chuck had passed away, it cut deep. We hadn’t worked together since June 2017, and we didn’t get to say goodbye then, either. Someone I sat next to several nights a week, gone from my life in an instant.

And then gone forever.

I wanted to thank him for all his hard work at the paper, all the help he gave me from the day I first walked into the office in March 1994 until the day I walked out of it for good 23 years later, all the effort he put forth to help give the good people of Portage County as much information on their schools and teams as he possibly could each and every night.

Chuck Condley

And, believe me, it wasn’t easy. Chuck handled a very high volume of phone calls, faxes and emails each night — which often required the patience of Job on his part. Before Chuck could do anything with game information provided to us in a fax or email, he first had to make sense of it. One of his stock sayings went something like this: “It would have been easier to decipher the Rosetta Stone than make heads or tails out of this box score.” If he said it once, he said it hundreds of times. And he was only partially kidding in every instance.

Since Chuck was the primary person answering phones in the Sports Department at night, he unfortunately was thrust into the front lines of customer service, trying to talk miffed readers off the ledge who took issue with something we allegedly had done, had not done, should have done, should have done better, should have done more of, shouldn’t have done at all… the list was endless. Chuck taught special education for Waterloo Schools for 35 years and therefore worked in the R-C Sports Department as a true labor of love. So after a long day of teaching, Chuck would drive home to Ravenna, eat dinner, then spend his evenings at the R-C hurriedly assembling volumes of information for publication in the next day’s paper.

The last thing he wanted to do after working since about 8 in the morning was handle irate callers at night who: A. Took up valuable time he needed to get everything done by deadline; B. He couldn’t help anyway because he wasn’t in a decision-making capacity, and those who were often weren’t in at that time; and C. Many times were upset about issues that had absolutely nothing to do with the Sports Department, Chuck just happened to be the unfortunate soul who answered the phone.

But Chuck could take anything thrown at him, which isn’t surprising considering he spent a year in Vietnam as an Army infantryman. When you’re trying to stay alive in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia, an upset parent or coach doesn’t look so tough. Chuck’s war experience as a college-age kid gave him a perspective on, and an appreciation of, life most of us will never have. It made him very matter-of-fact about things, including his time in Vietnam. Whereas many military veterans are understandably unable or unwilling to talk about the horrors they witnessed, Chuck had no problem telling of his time on the front lines in Vietnam.

Two of his war stories in particular I will never forget:

— One day when Chuck’s unit was pinned down by sniper fire in a rice paddy, the best he and his fellow soldiers could do was hunker down behind a small knoll in the paddy, just enough to cover their upper body while standing waist deep in the water. With bullets spraying all around them, nobody dared raise their head to see where exactly the fire was coming from. While they pondered their next move, Chuck heard a noise behind him in the water. He turned to look just in time to see a large snake gliding by on the surface just a few feet away. Shooting it wasn’t an option, because doing so would give away the precise location of the unit and, most of all, Chuck.

So he had to choose: Sniper, or snake?

“If I didn’t move, there was a chance the snake would just slither away,” Chuck told me. “If I ran to get away from it, I would have probably been killed by the sniper. So I took my chances with the snake.”

— In another instance, Chuck’s unit was tasked with going deep into the jungle to carve out a firebase to help support further infantry operations. They met little resistance along the way and were able to establish the firebase fairly easily, if not with some trepidation — after all, the Viet Cong were masters of unconventional warfare and often would lay in wait in the jungle before springing their attack. The “invisible enemy,” the American soldiers knew, was never far away.

Chuck’s unit set up the makeshift base and, its mission complete, was due to be relieved by another unit the next day. Because of the speed of the operation, the relieving unit arrived a day early, allowing Chuck’s unit to leave the firebase and head back to safer areas in the American zone.

The next day, word came back that during the night, the relief unit had been attacked and overrun by the Viet Cong. The firebase had been a trap.

“They were wiped out,” Chuck told me. “If that unit hadn’t gotten there a day early, that would have been us.”

I asked Chuck if, over the years, he ever thought about how close he had come to death that day in the rice paddy or at the firebase.

“Not really,” he had said in his typical matter-of-fact fashion. “You’re just trying to survive. If you think about it, you’ll go crazy.”

The horrors of war certainly didn’t affect Chuck’s sense of humor. He was one of the funniest human beings I’ve ever been around, routinely injecting some much-needed laughter into our stressful nights in the office that often frayed nerves down to the nub.

At the top of that humor list were the Jack Link’s Jerky “Messin’ With Sasquatch” commercials, which could bring the Sports Department to a screeching halt any time they appeared on our office television. They were hilarious, and Chuck’s reaction to them was even more hilarious. It didn’t matter if we’d seen the same skit 50 times, we would watch and howl with laughter from our desks the 51st time. Chuck especially liked the one where the guy thought he had made a clean escape and was running down the road to what he thought was safety, only to have Sasquatch come out of nowhere and hit him across the face with a fish. I’m laughing about it right now just thinking about it.

Chuck also had an uncanny knack for predicting how the Browns, Indians or Cavaliers were going to blow a game at the end — and then you would watch in amazement as it unfolded exactly as he said it would. It was like the man was a prophet. I would ask Chuck how he could do this with such accuracy, and he would say, “I’ve been watching these teams a lot longer than you have.” Again, I’m laughing just thinking about it.

But that was the impact Chuck had on everyone: You wanted to be there, because he was there. He was a friendly face, a port in the storm, someone whose opinion you valued because he had seen a lot and done a lot — including having played high school football against Larry Csonka when the future Pro Football Hall of Famer was a star at Stow High School. At the time, Chuck was a senior for the Rough Riders and Csonka a junior for the Bulldogs.

I needled Chuck, saying, “Well, Chuck, since you were a senior and Csonka just a junior, did you put him on roller skates and push him all over the field?” Chuck grinned and replied, “No, I stayed out of his way. You didn’t want to get hit by Csonka. That was like messin’ with Sasquatch.”

We attended rival universities — Chuck was a KSU alum, I’m a graduate of the University of Akron — but when it came time for the big Flashes-Zips showdowns in football or basketball each year, neither of us had much faith in our alma maters. Chuck always put $5 on the table that the Zips would win, and I would plunk down five bucks on the Flashes. And yes, the loser always paid up unless we went double or nothing the next game.

Those golden moments are over now, but they will live forever in the memories of those whose lives he touched — which for me actually dates back nearly 50 years, to the time I was barely old enough to read and would hang on every word of Chuck’s sports articles in the Record-Courier (he even mentioned my name a few times in his stories during my own playing days in high school in the mid-1980s). I was privileged to eventually get to work alongside him as a colleague and honored to call him my friend.

He was a man of integrity and character. He did things the right way, and he did right by people. It was unfortunate that, due to circumstances, everything ended so abruptly that we never got to properly say goodbye after all those years.

But I’m saying it now. And, in my heart of hearts, hoping that somewhere, Chuck is sitting at a desk roaring with laughter at a Messin’ With Sasquatch commercial.

Just save me a seat, old friend.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.

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