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Richard Widmark: A Princeton legend

Classmates — Becoming Richard Widmark

In a phone interview of Aug. 13, 1990, with a young intern reporter for the News Tribune, Spencer Hunt, Richard Widmark had this to say of Princeton.

“It was a great place to grow up” and had a “kind of Huckleberry Finn atmosphere.” 

He went on to talk about “swimming in the Hennepin Canal, losing a high school football game 65-0 to LaSalle, and working at the Apollo Theater. The football game was the low point of a season that had no high points that year, 1931. Nine games; two ties and seven losses — all something to zero. The newspaper accounts were creative in not making it sound as bad as it was.”

For one player it was as low as it gets. If you are human you feel something when a friend is really hurting. Aldean Duffield and Richard Widmark were classmates and friends. Aldean was Theodore “Ted” Aldean Duffield. Aldean and Dick were on the football team together. Widmark’s friends called him Dick, even “Wid,” though later in his acting career he wanted to be known only as Richard.

They were in many activities together besides playing football. They were both on the 1932 Tiger yearbook staff, were members of the National Athletic Scholarship Society, and sang together in Boys Chorus. Aldean was an imaginative writer and like every young man, he had his heroes. His story, “Folly of a Fly,” in the 1932 Princeton yearbook is just a glimmer of things to come. He dreamed of a newspaper career. John T. O’Donnell was the city editor of the BCR at the time, and O’Donnell was Aldean’s idol. He was a writer — a hero for a this aspiring boy.

The Princeton game with LaSalle fell on the same day as Hall against Mooseheart, Oct. 31, 1931. LaSalle was a lopsided favorite; they outweighed the Princeton boys by 30 pounds a player. No doubt how the Princeton game would end, but the Hall contest was the game of the season.

O’Donnell had a choice to make, and he decided he would go to the Hall game in Spring Valley. He always attended the Princeton games for the hometown boys but not this time. Richard was nursing a leg injury and would not start that day. Aldean would play his position at left end with Tom Best at right end. As stated, the score was 65-0. It was a long ride home. It was in private cars then, no buses.

Richard and Aldean were in the same car. They came upon an automobile accident just after it happened. It was brutal. O’Donnell was killed in the crash on his way home from Spring Valley. It was on the DePue Road (old Route 7) on Brush Creek Bridge.  Richard could only have felt bad for his teammate, let alone for the crushing loss to LaSalle. He had to sit and watch a friend take a beating on and off the field. This was more of that detailing that shapes us all. Those growing pains. Aldean went on to write a column called “Ted Bits” for the BCR. He died Aug. 23, 1990.  

Dorothy Simon was another one of Widmark’s 80 classmates. She had a farm-fresh, sun-washed look and a quiet smile. She, her younger brother Bill, and parents, Henry and Sadie Simon, lived north of Princeton where Gary and Janet Swanson now own the few acres with the house and buildings. Dorothy and her brother, Bill, still own the farmed acres. This is just up the road from the Red Covered Bridge where the Matson Boulder is.  

Henry had hogs, some cattle, horses and chickens on his 80-acre farm. The Simons had corn and beans too, and Dorothy did the same chores any boy would do. If you lived on a farm, there was plenty of work for all, all the time. Dorothy had to harness up the horses to plow and pull whatever needed pulling. She didn’t mind any of it except getting them ready to do what needed doing. Dorothy was very small next to the field horses, and she worried about getting in the wrong place at the wrong time when getting them harnessed up. Driving the horses was not a problem though; she could handle that. Driving a car ... now that was another thing entirely. 

Dorothy had to drive her father’s old Dodge to school every day. There were no school buses like there are today. Driving the old Dodge was a great challenge for her. She didn’t do it very well. This was an old manual transmission with a clutch; you had to muscle it into gear on the floor; there was no power steering, no radial tires, no air conditioning, and no anything we take for granted today. As much inner strength as she had, it was still a wrestling match for Dorothy.

Dorothy Simon and Richard Widmark were just classmates. They had some classes together but weren’t in any of the same extra activities. Dorothy knew Widmark to be a very quiet and polite young man. She said he had a sporty look and was popular through his high school years. Widmark would never know it, but he did have a connection with Dorothy ... only Dorothy would ever know that.

Dorothy had to drive the old family Dodge from the farm, through the covered bridge, up the hill to get to Route 26, then south into town, and on to school. The roads were not what we are accustomed to today, and the driving was a task for Dorothy. Carl Widmark had his car parked on the west side of the street pointed south in front of the high school. Dorothy was heading south, trying to handle the old Dodge and looking for a spot to park. Carl had his car parked where only Dorothy would find it in the way.  The old Dodge scraped the Widmark car along the driver’s side. Dorothy definitely heard the sound, but she continued on and parked. No one saw a thing but Dorothy. She thought it wasn’t that bad. She knew it happened, but it wasn’t enough to get too excited about.  Heck, the old Dodge had a lot more scrapes on it and much worse than that, so not to worry. 

Dorothy Simon married Bill Dabler and they had two children Jeanne and Jack. Dorothy’s husband, Bill, passed away in 1987. Dorothy lived on her own in Manlius until she was in her late 90s. A gopher hole got in her way doing yard work, and she suffered a little more than a scrape along the side.  Thanks to a neighbor’s dog, that did hear the sound of her calls, she got help. A broken shoulder. Dorothy (Simon) Dabler is 100 years of age and working on her next century at Colonial Hall. 

I think I was the first person to hear her tale from some 80 years ago — a little secret of Richard Widmark known only by Dorothy.  I had a little help from daughter Jeanne Roberts of Buda and great-niece Deb Roush at the Princeton Public Library. More classmates, stories and Richard Widmark on down the road.  Just keep it between the lines.

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