CHAPTER XIV: Gymnastics
From the year 1903 until 1920 one of the most favored sports reported upon in the Record was gymnastics. Sometime during the nineteenth century, physical culture, combined with gymnastics, had become a popular activity among the followers of all those who were interested in maintaining their physical well-being. For the growing youths in private schools and in many public high schools it had been made an obligatory subject almost indispensable for the development of a balanced, well-coordinated body. St. John's was not an exception. As an early writer in the Record put it, ". . . the progress of physiology and psychology have brought this dependence (of mind on the well-being of the body) into stronger light and induced us to do more for the development of the body than was done some centuries ago."
That St. John's, when it was decided to build a new gymnasium, had this in mind becomes apparent when we learn that the gymnasium planners saw to it, first of all, that among its furnishings were all the items necessary for gymnastics according to the current conception of physical culture.
Moreover, when in 1903 the authorities secured the services of its first St. John's coach, he was not a baseball, football or basketball specialist but a physical culture expert, one whose qualifications included excellence in gymnastic exercises. Peter Boquel, the first coach and physical culture instructor, was primarily interested in gymnastics and only reluctantly assumed the task of coaching football. In carrying out his duties he acted almost entirely as a physical trainer and left to student managers the teaching of football techniques and strategy. Peter Boquel was succeeded in 1905 by Harry Comeau, a highly qualified gymnast, fencer, and all-around physical culture expert from Connecticut. Over and above his classes in physical culture he coached fencing, boxing and wrestling and at intervals arranged meets to show the results of proficiency and skill in training. One of the first things he did when he came to St. John's was to write an article on physical training, published in the Record. An expert performer himself, he capitalized on the opportunity to turn out excellent gymnastic teams that distinguished St. John's above the other Minnesota colleges in this particular art.
Frank Cassidy, another Easterner, this time from New York, continued the work of Comeau in 1907-09.He, in turn, was succeeded by Edward Flynn who for the next ten years, from 1910 to 1920, guided the athletic destinies of St. John's in all sports.
During the first nine years, from 1903 to 1911, gymnastic teams had no other objectives than the physical development of its members and, more or less as a by-product, the entertainment of the student body and the faculty. The exhibitions, some of them strikingly good, were the result of long practice and native skill polished off for beauty of form and action by the instructors. Events were equally divided between work on the flying rings, the parallel and horizontal bars, the side horse and the long horse, wrestling and boxing matches of £.ve or six minutes, fencing, Indian club swinging, etc. The top teams put on exhibitions, sometimes before basketball games, sometimes during the halves. They were particularly appreciated on the major feast days such as Thanksgiving Day or Washington's birthday. Occasionally they worked with the university orchestra. Select accompaniments on the piano were given to each event, thereby adding a special attraction to the performance. Comeau several times fenced with crack swordsmen from the Minneapolis-St. Paul areas. Once during his first year at St. John's Coach Flynn gave a solo exhibition with Indian clubs and balancing exercises.
Attendance at the physical culture classes was compulsory for the first three academic years. For those who loved the exercise the classes were a delight; for those who did not they were a special form of torture. There was no exemption from the "torture" class, however. One irate parent who listened to the complaints of his son wrote to the rector of the college, Fr. Alcuin Deutsch, O.S.B., that he had no money to squander on the gymnastic pants that students were required to wear for the exercises. He received a cool reply from the rector stating that "we have our good reasons for making any study or exercise a part of our course. . . and the necessity of preserving discipline makes it very disagreeable for us to have parents ask that an exception be made in favor of their sons. But if you feel that you cannot provide your son with gymnasium pants-they cost $1.75 a pair-why, I will permit him to take the exercises without them, but in tennis shoes." There was no further correspondence on this point.
Coach Flynn was very proud of his gymnasts and in 1912 secured administrative approval of his request to bring the team to the Northwestern Gymnastic Society meet in the University of Minnesota armory in March, 1912. The competition in the Northwestern Society was not intercollegiate, but it was the only thing of its kind in the. state. The only other college competing was St. Olaf, which in later years was outstanding in the quality of its gymnastic teams.
- 1912 -
It was only in 1912, therefore, that St. John's entered into formal competition with other gymnastic groups. Coach Flynn was acquainted with the officials of the Northwestern Gymnastic Society in Minneapolis, and in 1912 took his team to Minneapolis to participate in the gymnastic meet of the society. The Northwestern Gymnastic Society was then in its fourth year of existence. It had been organized in 1909 with the objective of stimulating interest in gymnastics at all levels, and therefore divided contestants into three groups, A, B, C, according to the varying abilities of the gymnasts.
At the 1912 gymnastic meeting, which was more an introduction of St. John's to the society than anything else, Coach Flynn's athletes failed to place in any of the events. They distinguished themselves as a coming organization, however, and in the 1913 meet they were awarded fourth place among the fifteen teams that had entered. Bronze medal winners in Class B were two St. John's contestants: Arthur Long, who won first place in the parallel bars and side horse events for a total ranking in Class B; James Stroeder won seventh place for "all-around" proficiency in Class B. The other members of the team who competed in Class C were John Sinner, eleventh place; Anthony Froehlingsdorf, fourteenth place; and Alphonse Borgerding, seventeenth place. Bernard Karels, the future basketball star who was still a student in the Prep School, tied for first place in club swinging.
- 1914 -
The 1914 gymnastic team ranked as one of the best teams in the state, taking fifth place among the sixteen teams that contested. James Stroeder moved from Class B to Class A and was awarded a bronze medal for fourth place. Anthony "Tony" Froehlingsdorf advanced into Class B and won the seventh place bronze medal for all-around proficiency. In club swinging he took fourth place. Alphonse Borgerding placed number 13 in all-around Class B work and won third place in club swinging. Most remarkable at this meet was the work of Thomas Lindsay, who in Class C was awarded second place in a field of more than 100 contestants.
- 1915 -
The team of 1915 has gone down in the history of St. John's gymnastics as winners of the highest grand average award for the meet. The award was a fine brass shield that the reporter predicted would decorate the gymnasium and perpetuate the memory of their achievement forever. It is a fine award, it is true, but for many years it was lost sight of until, in 1976, Bro. David Manahan, O.S.B., while rummaging around in the attic of the carpenter shop, found it, neglected and dust-covered, but still intact. "Thus passes the glory of the world," the old Romans used to say.
The award of highest grand average represents the individual merits of each of the contestants and, as such, was virtually the premier honor, for the team also brought back their individual laurels. Five of the seven gymnasts who entered the meet-Anthony Froehlingsdorf, Alphonse Borgerding, Julius Johnson, Edward Borgerding and Roman Schaefer-won bronze medals for places among the first ten competitors in Classes A, B, and C.
- 1916 -
Outstanding as was the achievement of the 1915 gymnastic team, that of the year following was even more remarkable. It was a team that achieved its objectives despite the hand injury incurred by team captain James Stroeder and the illness of two other top performers, none of whom could take part in the gymnastic exercises. Several had suggested that the team should not enter the meet, since the best they could do would be far below the level St. John's had maintained in the past. The team, Coach Flynn and the authorities thought otherwise, however. "And did they succeed!" was the rhetorical question of the Record reporter. "Here are the results. Judge for yourselves. "I. Among nineteen competing teams our boys captured second place and, with it, a brass shield two times as large as any so far won by any of our teams.
When Coach Flynn returned to St. John's in the fall of 1924, he resumed his old position as coach of gymnastics. A first plan to organize two gymnastic teams, one in the college and one in the Prep School, was discarded in favor of one college team.
In this, his second term of duty as coach of gymnastics, he soon discovered that the glory days of the past 1910-20 era were no more. Nevertheless, in 1925 he brought a team to the Northwestern Gymnastic Society Meet at the University of Minnesota Armory. The newly developed gymnasts made a respectable showing but without gaining any points. His second venture in 1926 was likewise unsuccessful from the medal-winning standpoint, though several of the contestants succeeded in obtaining certificates of merit.
Progress began to become more evident when Clarence Froehle, '27, won first place in Indian club swinging in the 1927 meet.
In 1928, with interest in gymnastics beginning to develop in some of the MIAC colleges, especially at St. Olaf and St. John's, the conference began to consider making gymnastics a conference sport for intercollegiate competition-not independently, but in conjunction with the Northwestern Gymnastic Society. There was an immediate resurgence of incentive at St. John's, and in the 1929meet St. John's made its best showing since 1920. The holdovers, from 1928 especially, made a notable effort to improve their performance. Edward Wirtz, '28, took third place in individual performance, and both the Band C teams took second place behind St. Olaf, the champion college team of the meet.
As for individual events, Roman Niedzielski, '31, won the gold medal in Class B, netting the highest number of points of any contestant in his class. John Lukan finished in seventh place in Class C, and Alois Gruenes tenth in Class C. Andrew Huhne (now Fr. Aldrich, O.S.B.), as a specialist, presented "The Landscape Paradise" in an Indian Club swinging exhibition. St. John's finished in second place in the conference behind St. Olaf.
The departure of Coach Flynn in 1929 to enter business marks the end of competitive gymnastics at St. John's. Coach Flynn left an indelible mark on St. John's, not only by bequeathing his name on Flynnville but mainly by leaving the memory of solid character, loyalty, and personal integrity. To use a catch-phrase, he was for years "Mister Athletics" at St. John's. If his career in gymnastics was less spectacular in his second tour of duty, it was because student interest had shifted from individual sports to team sports. At present, the place once occupied by gymnastics has been swallowed up by a host of newer sport activities such as wrestling, hockey, tennis, swimming and golf.