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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legacy

Published: Friday, July 4, 2014 10:38 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, July 4, 2014 10:47 a.m. CDT
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Princeton High School
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Richard Widmark
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Earl Slutz

How did Richard Widmark become the person he was? I have read that gender identity is usually formed by the age of 3, and by age 5 to 7, we have a rigid identity. Social interaction and environmental influence kind of does the detailing after that. Widmark basically was who he would always be as a person by the time he arrived in Princeton and started sixth grade at Lincoln School in 1925.

I have also read that during the middle school years, students are the most vulnerable. He was by no means a big fellow, but I think who he already was a tough young man, mentally and physically. He was quiet, even shy. His family had moved constantly, from one town to another during his early school years. He and his younger brother were always the new kids in school, which led to many schoolyard fights. They had to depend on each other. As Widmark tells it, “It was two against the mob,” and later three with Scrappy the dog. This kind of an environment has to make you kind of tough inside and out. I think this got him through those middle school years in Princeton. That’s how I see it.          

In Princeton, he would for the first time live in one town for longer than he had ever done before. He would have time to develop real friendships with those his own age; something he surely had not experienced before. The Widmark family did not change one thing, though, and that was that they moved, almost on a yearly basis in Princeton.  It was in school that there was a constant — the same peer group to have real social interaction with and in a constant environment that was nurturing. These interactions with teachers and classmates, some who would become good friends and confidants,  is where the detailing would take place.

Yes he had a family life too, with some great relationships. He and his grandmother, Mary Barr, had to have had a special bond — all those movie outings together. Mary lost her husband, Charles, in 1904 and lived with Carl and Ethel Mae when they moved to Princeton. Her grandchildren were a big part of her life. 

Richard and his younger brother, Donald, had to stand up against the world together every time they changed towns and schools — a bond of scrapes and black eyes earned on the playgrounds. His parents were hard working, though his father was gone a lot on the road. Maybe his mom had to be both parents much of the time, a special bond of its own with her sons. I don’t know how that was with his parents, only that they separated when he was a junior in high school; reconciled for a while when he was in college; and the marriage finally ended in 1941. I have never read of him speaking ill of either one.  He made the movie “When The Legends Die” in 1972 with a young Frederic Forrest as Tom Black Bull. Widmark played Red Dillon, a hard drinking  rodeo legend who mentors a young Ute Indian on the rodeo circuit.  Dillon does not have a lot of redeeming qualities, but it was one of the best roles of his career, an Oscar worthy performance. He said he  based the character on his father.

Widmark loved to work outdoors. He liked working on his ranch where he had cattle and horses, and loved the outside work on his Connecticut farm, where he cropped forage, corn and barley. He had a lot of classmates at Princeton High School who were farm kids. Growing up on the farm was night and day to growing up in town.

One of his classmates in high school was Earl Slutz. I knew Earl Slutz and his family when I was a boy. Earl and Mergie Slutz, along with their two sons, Gerry and Mike, moved to Granville in March 1960. They had a farm just on the edge of town. I was in the seventh grade at Granville Grade School. Gerry was in my younger brother Gary’s class, two years behind me, and Mike was in my sister Pat’s class, a few more back. (I’m one of nine, second from the top.) I knew the brothers and knew who their parents were. I think I might have had one or two short conversations with Earl or Mrs. Slutz. It would have been “Greek to me” to know Earl was in Richard Widmark’s class in high school. That was too many years ago and save for seeing Richard Widmark on the screen once at the Gran Theater, in “The Law and Jake Wade” (1958), it was another connection with the legend that passed me by like a summer breeze.

Young Earl’s father was Wayne Slutz and their 80-acre farm was just outside Princeton in “Little Denmark” on Backbone Road. Wayne was a dairy farmer. There were chickens and enough forage (corn, hay and oats) for the livestock on the farm. Richard Widmark and Earl Slutz were in many classes together in high school, but the only extra activity they had in common was assembly programs.

Looking from the outside and 80-some odd years later, it is hard to see a connection between Earl and Dick, but there was. Where they did connect was at their lockers. Lockers were always alphabetical. There was only one locker (Dean Townsend) separating Earl and Dick. They definitely had some conversations.

Widmark made trips to the Slutz farm. He visited Earl on several occasions and obviously liked seeing how rural life was, he made more than two trips. Widmark and Earl were not “do everything to together’’ pals, but Widmark saw something in the life of Earl he surely liked. Why go out to the farm on several occasions, if not?

When he was older and successful in his career as an actor, he lived and liked the rural life. He had a farm and more than one ranch. Maybe this was some of that social detailing he picked up at Princeton High School. Quite possibly this was one of those learned observations we all pick up along the way from those we have social interaction with. It was Widmark’s connection with Earl. Earl passed away in 1988. His wife, Mergie, and sons, Gerry and Mike, all still live in Bureau County.

Earl Slutz was just one of Richard Widmark’s 80 classmates. He had just passing relationships with some, very strong bonds with others, and some connections he may have never even realized. I’ll keep digging them out to write about, and if you have a story about Richard Widmark, told to you from a family member, give me a call at 815-872-7081. More tales and stories into the heart of Richard Widmark next time.  

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