A Moment in Time, “A Daughter’s Gift”

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    A year ago I was inspired to write this essay.
    It captures a magical window in time for my athlete father, Mario Trafeli. It also captures a moment in time for short track speed-skating in the first half of the 20th century and it captures a moment in time for Michigan speed-skating history as my father achieved national champion status. A time when speed-skating was dominated by New York, Chicago and Minneapolis. Trafeli was a self-taught Michigan skater who rapidly rose to the national spotlight behind Chicago’s Ken Henry in 1946, and then blast to national status as he won the coveted North American National Outdoor Championship in 1947 on Belle Isle, Michigan.
    A moment in time prior to televised baseball, basketball and football. A time when sports writers stood outside in frigid temperatures to crowds of 10,000 spectators to watch the exciting sport of short track speed-skating! A time which has folded into the chapters of history with little fanfare. Open the book with me and look back to a moment in time…..
    An edited version of this essay was printed December 2008 in the National Italian American Sport Hall of Fame quarterly magazine, called, “Red, White and Green”.
    I hope that you enjoy it! Thank you for reading!
    Barbara Trafeli Fenton




    It all started with a Google search. After working for the last 30 years I stepped off the corporate track. I decided to pursue the less developed parts of my life. Writing, cooking, tennis! I was free. I had time! Everyday a Saturday! A friend had told me to Google myself. Well I did. Hmm not so interesting. Where were all my accomplishments, my career? Oh well I had tried to maintain a low profile. Maybe I was little too successful! I then Googled my brothers, my sister. It was getting more interesting. Then I decided to Google my dad, Mario Trafeli. Surely there would be reams of entries for Dad. After all he was a sport superstar. He had been a famous record breaking North American ice speed skater in the 1940’s and 50’s. He was the 1947 National Outdoor Speed Skating Champion (and youngest at age 18), six-time State of Michigan Indoor Short Track Champion and he beat every American Olympic skater in the Race of Champions at Madison Square Garden in 1952 and 1954! He held over three national speed records and for many years held all 6 Michigan distance speed records.
    Years later in 1982 he was inducted into the Michigan Amateur Sport Hall of Fame!! A life of noteworthy athletic accomplishment. Surely Google would capture at least some of these accomplishments. Memories of my childhood filled my mind. Wasn’t my parent’s basement full of dusty trophies? Trophies of every size, big, small, and all with figures of speedskaters dull and dusty with neglect. Photos of Dad in his youthful, handsome, athletic heyday. A basement full of skates and medals and folders full of newspaper headlines proclaiming my dad a superstar and Olympic prospect. The basement is now an aging shrine. Artifacts that I had taken for granted. Artifacts of my Dad’s life that stood side by side our play toys. Artifacts that sat quietly by the now quiet upright piano and the pool table now used for wrapping gifts. The toys of our youth. The basement of our childhood. We are all grown up now and the basement is our history too.
    So I Googled my Dad’s name with confident expectation. There were two entries. Meals on Wheels and a listing of relatives from my Aunt Barbara’s obituary. What!!?? This is impossible. Now don’t get me wrong. Meals on Wheels is a wonderful philanthropic commitment (and one that my parent’s are passionate about!) But Mario was a North American Speedskating Champion. As I grew up people always asked me if my Dad was “The Mario Trafeli”?! Where was my Dad’s history? Was he to be remembered only by his one day a week Meals on Wheels stint?

    My curiosity was ignited. A few more Google searches. I Googled the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame located in Chicago on Taylor Street. How great if I could nominate my father for their Hall of Fame. Then I Googled the US National Speedskating Hall of Fame. That would be really awesome. Both websites identified the requirements for nominations. I got to work. First I called my Dad. (I did not mention that his Google bio listed only Meals on Wheels!). “Dad I want to nominate you for these two Halls of Fame. I will need some information, dates and newspaper articles.” Characteristically, my Dad responded that it was a nice thought on my part but that he did not stand a chance. Only professional athletes and entertainers would be inducted. Anyways that was all part of his past. Nonetheless I persisted. My Dad was a fierce competitor on the ice and now on the tennis court but for some reason when he walks off he is like Clark Kent, mild mannered and likely to take the quiet route.
    So last August I started my research. I thought I knew my Dad. I thought I knew the highlights of his sport history but what I knew was only the tip of the iceberg. Each newspaper article had to be closely read for dates, locations, records set. All had to be documented and cross-referenced. Was it a national record, a state record or a race record? (all different and carrying different weight) Was it an invitational or a national meet? Short track, long track, indoor, outdoor, American pack style skating, or Olympic style skating? I learned a lot about speed skating and along the way I learned a lot about my Dad. Young Mario emerged. Personality insight, decision making, choices made along the way. I became an investigative reporter. Why hadn’t my Dad competed in certain races during certain years? Why had he decided not to compete for the Olympics? Why had he declined the training invitation in Europe? Why? I searched national newspaper archives like The New York Times and Newspaperarchives.com for clues. As I immersed myself in the 1940’s those answers and a profile of a young man that I know as “Dad” eventually began to take shape.
    The Hall of Fame application also asked for evidence of a life dedicated to the promotion of or commitment to sports. Well we had plenty of that too. My Dad had been quarterback at Wayne State University. This is quite impressive because he is 5’7” and 155 lbs. We have a picture of him running the ball and 3 giant guys are protecting him. I love that picture. It should be a poster it is so inspiring. My Dad is a true athlete. He truly loves physical activity and competitive sports. He is always perfecting his game whatever that game might be. Natural raw talent plays a part here too because he is really, really good at everything he sets out to do. He is a dedicated fan of “practice makes perfect”. Even now while vacationing at my home he practices golf in my back yard and tennis off of my garage door!
    So I started a binder with the newspaper articles and photo’s of Dad’s Speedskating Career, Football Career, Horse Trainer Career, Tennis Career (currently #1Men’s MW Doubles for age group!) and then a section on Family. Did I mention that in his spare time he had a successful dental practice! (In 1971 I was a receptionist at that dental clinic playing Jimi Hendrix on the stereo system. While my Dad never said a stern word his partner asked that I be removed from my duties!)
    I kept working on that binder. For some reason it took me 9 months. I would find opportunities to enhance the visual appeal. I cross-referenced the sport resume to the corresponding newspaper articles. I proofed, I edited, I reorganized the binder and I always seemed to find more information to add and always more typos. It took me forever.
    I bought most of my supplies at Office Max and The Paper Source. I was such a frequent visitor that the Office Max rep started looking at all my pictures and asking about my family. People in line would ask what I was doing and long conversations would ensue. Who knew this would be such a social project!
    As time went by I would call my Dad daily. I would ask him to provide further detail, look for more articles, and tell me more about the speed skating press coverage. Press coverage that was frequent and lengthy during the 1940’s, diminished quickly to one or two paragraphs around 1955. What had influenced this? I learned that Football was nationally televised around 1955 and press coverage shifted significantly. I then asked my Dad to tell me more about his decision to pass on the Olympics. This was an intriguing decision and one I spent a lot of time understanding. I learned that “Pack Style” skating was not an officially sanctioned Olympic Sport until 1992. In the first half of the century American pack style skaters who qualified for the Olympics needed to train for well over a year in the “Olympic Style”. This was usually done in Europe. “Olympic Style/long track” speed skating is skated in pairs and held as time trials against a clock. “Pack Style” skating is conducted as a mass start on a smaller “short” rink. Races are typically held as “knockouts” with the best two skaters in heats of four or five qualifying for the final race. The skater who performs the best in all races wins the tournament. (Think Apolo Anton Ohno!) The tournament consists of five different distance races. I learned that my father had won over 40 tournaments during his skating career. My curiosity continued to grow and hence my research grew too.
    I called my Dad’s siblings. How had they perceived my Dad’s accomplishments? Had they been to the races? Had his Mom or his Dad? I learned that my grandfather rarely came to my Dad’s races. That several of my Italian great uncles, Uncle Gedio and Uncle Henry, helped my Dad train and accompanied him to most of the races. They supported him, trained him and cheered him on. I learned that prior to the 1947 North American Outdoor Championship, my father visited the outdoor latrine and inadvertently dropped a skate down that deep, dank hole! Italian uncles to the rescue! Uncle Gedio held Uncle Henry by the ankles and lowered him in until he found the skate. They rinsed it out and my Dad went on to win the tournament and the championship!!
    My father was also a Navy Dentist and was stationed at Great Lakes Navy Base, as well as on the USS Fulton in the Caribbean. He even skated while stationed at the Great Lakes Navy Base and managed to work in enough training to still win races including first place in the Chicago Silver Skates in 1955. That race was 25 days prior to his wedding and nine months prior to my arrival on the scene. The puzzle pieces of his life were slowly but surely falling into place for me.
    As my project progressed and expanded my Dad’s quiet demeanor progressed to restrained excitement. Collaboration ensued. In the end I had created a Family Heirloom. It hadn’t started out that way but that is what I now have. I have a resume of my Dad’s life complete with articles, pictures, names, dates and antidotal stories. Like any retrospective exhibit it is impactful in its robust, organized glory. When the final page is turned it is a “Wow” moment. No longer is Dad just a great, 80 year old guy. He is every one of those pictures and stories. They are one with who he is. They are the experiences that made him who he is today. That existence now lives vividly in my mind.
    So in early May I finally mailed two of three nominating packages. I held my breath and hoped for immediate response.
    Imagine my excitement when two days later I received a call from Mr. George Randazzo, Chairman and Founder of the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. The National Italian American Sport Hall of Fame is an impressive brand new world-class facility on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy. Multimedia exhibits, incredible sport artifacts and the history of outstanding Italian American success stories reside in this facility. The new facility also contains the Level Playing Field Exhibition Hall, which is dedicated to exploring the history of diversity in sports and the beautiful Grand Piazza Ballroom, complete with the roof top terrace that overlooks the Chicago skyline.
    Mr. Randazzo complimented me on the impressive presentation I had submitted. My submittal had been over 60 pages long. I was always a stickler for detail! He then told me that based on my father’s North American Outdoor Speed Skating Championship win in 1947 and his numerous national and state speedskating records they would like to include my father in their Italian American Pioneer in Sports Exhibit. Mario had been one of the first documented Italian Americans to achieve this level of national success in the sport of speed skating. OMG, my effort had paid off! My Dad would achieve national recognition! Move on over Meals on Wheels. Dad’s Google bio was about to represent the breath of his true-life accomplishments!
    My Dad, Mario Trafeli Jr. of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan turned 80 on June 6, 2008. He has lived a good life, far from over but so far pretty spectacular! He has lived a life that has shown commitment to excellence, persistence, accomplishment and the drive to win. He is easy-going, fun loving and always quick with a smile and supportive encouragement. He and my mother Marjorie have raised 5 children; two Flight Surgeon Navy doctors, Bob and John Paul, two lawyers, Mark and Janet and one marketing- sales manager, me. Like many families we now live in different far flung places from Mondovi, Italy to San Diego to Park City to Chicago to Royal Oak, Michigan. Although separated by distance our family bond is strong. In the words of singer songwriter, Dan Fogelberg; Dad is the Leader of our Band and “his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul”. This song is our family.
    On the occasion of my Dad’s birthday and for Father’s Day, I am proud to be able to give my Father the gift of Love, the gift of Legacy. It will be with immense pride that my children will take their friends to tour the National Italian American Sport Hall of Fame. I know that it will be with immense pride that my father accepts this recognition. He will be accepting however not only for his accomplishments but also in honor of his grand parents who came to the United States from Italy as brave young pioneers in 1900 and settled in Marble, Colorado. He will accept it for funny Uncle Gedio and colorful Uncle Henry and their encouragement of my Dad’s talent and confidence. He will accept it in honor of his mother, Louise Iacovacci Trafeli, who loved him dearly and encouraged his self-confidence, athletic, academic goals and life achievements.
    He will accept it knowing that each of our hearts beam with pride for him. He is a great dad, he was a great role model and his world-class success motivated each of us to push ourselves to our personal best. Thank you Dad for opening up and collaborating with me to provide you with the spotlight which you earned and which you deserve. I may not have been the super smart one, the super funny one, the athletic one or the musical one but I found my gift and this gift is for you.
    Happy Father’s Day Dad. I love you.

    Story written by

    Barbara Trafeli Fenton

    Post Script:
    December 2009 I received a call from the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame(NIASHF) that my father had been voted in! The gala banquet and induction was held in Chicago, February 2010. An amazing star studded evening that provided a spotlight on my father’s athletic career and the careers of several other Italian American sports legends. He was voted in with Dave Righetti, Linda Mastandrea, Gary Gaetti, and Rick Casares.
    Then in April 2010, my father received a call from Bonnie Blair-Cruikshank, the most decorated medalist in Olympic history. He had been voted into the United States Speedskating Hall of Fame! What an amazing year. My goals had been realized. Such an emotional moment for me.
    50 years after my father hung up his racing skates he has come full circle back to his skating roots! Congratulations Dad!! I am so glad that my persistent fact-finding skills and my dusty writing skills brought you the long awaited legacy and recognition that you deserve! The whole family has celebrated your honors, they have brought us all closer, and opened many, many more doors than we could ever have anticipated or dreamed. Toast to you!

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