His name was Joseph Donoghue, and he was a huge deal in his day, decades before it was commonplace for athletes to slap their names on food and clothing and everything else in brand-name America. I have a pair of his official skates, his racing skates, made in Torrington, Conn., in the years not long after the speedy Yank from Newburgh, N.Y., was crowned the planet’s fastest skater at the 1891 world championship in Amsterdam.
They’re not truly Donoghue’s skates, they carry his name, etched in both steel blades. The skates were made by the Union Hardware Company, a Torrington sporting goods manufacturer founded in 1864 that became a mainstay in town for nearly 100 years. The Donoghues are nothing like the super-sleek speedskates you’ll see tearing around the track these next couple of weeks at the Sochi Olympics.
The boot of the Donoghue Racing Skate was simple, crude by today’s standards, a foot-long slab of hardwood, usually maple, that could attach to the bottom of any shoe. A large screw jutted straight up from the back end of the slab, fixed in place by a secure brass plate, to anchor a half-inch deep into a shoe’s heel. The hardwood base typically included three holes, allowing the skater to lace leather straps through the base and wrap around the shoe for a snug, secure fit.
The prep time required to get out on the ice in those days must have been akin to fixing a boat to leave dock, what with the heel screw, the leather straps, and a pair of tiny, thorn-like spikes at the front end of the slab that anchored the ball of the foot. Donoghue must have been a whiz at strapping them on, otherwise his races would have been over before he scrambled to the start line.
My Donoghues were originally my grandfather’s skates. Born in 1887, Emery Dupont lived his whole life in and around Worcester, and I only knew him in his dotage, the years just before he died in 1964. I have no idea about his skating ability. He once may have zipped around ponds and rivers on his Donoghue Racing Skates, imagining himself to be the next world champ. He may have used them once, tripped, fell, yanked them angrily from his shoes, and bolted for hot chocolate. I’m betting on the hot chocolate.
I only knew my grandfather as the kind, gentle old man who sat quietly on his couch, enjoying his pipe, during our customary Sunday visits to his home along Main Street in Rutland. The world thought differently of tobacco in the late 19th century, but I’ll bet Joe Donoghue wasn’t a smoker.
Barely a month after his big win in Amsterdam at the age of 19, Donoghue was here in Boston in February 1891, for a race on Spy Pond in Arlington. The Globe, not even 20 years in business, carried an account of the event, under a multidecked headline that read: “JUST HOW HE GOES. Champion Joe Donoghue Described. World Beater as He Appears in His Big Skating Contests.”
Donoghue coming to Boston was a cause celebre. It was 1891, decades before the Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots came into existence. It would be another 10 years before the Red Sox took the field for the first time. Little wonder Union Hardware, known in Torrington as “The Skate Shop,’’ wanted the world champ’s name etched into their 14-inch steel blades.
“With head bent way down,’’ read the Globe account, “and hands clasped behind and limbs sweeping out enormous strides over the surface of Spy Pond, Joe Donoghue, champion amateur skater of the world, sped on and won the 5-mile championship of New England and the massive Barney and Berry silver cup.’’
The report did not include Donoghue’s time for the 5-miler, but in Amsterdam he aced the field in nearly 16 minutes flat. Today, Sven Kramer is the world record-holder for 10,000 meters (just over 6 miles) at 12:41.69.
“His action is almost that of a hunchback in walking,’’ the Globe story noted of Donoghue’s style, “only that the grace of the skater makes the comparison feeble.’’
I first saw my grandfather’s skates in the days right after his funeral. Emery had his Donoghues tossed in among a jumble of tools he kept in an old hutch in his basement, and I remember my father, a truly splendid and effortless skater throughout his lifetime, showing me how they were designed to attach to any pair of street shoes. Cool. Nearly as cool as the Beatles. The skates fascinated me because of their age, their design, and mostly because of their connection to the old, kind man on the couch now gone.
Twenty-five years later, when my father died, the Donoghues were passed on to me. I had asked about the skates many times through the years. But for reasons I’ll never know, my father always said he didn’t know what happened to them. Then when it came time to clear out my father’s tools, I found each of the old racing skates slipped into a pair of his thick woolen skating socks. No note. No words of wisdom. Just my grandfather’s skates, tucked in my father’s socks, left tidily, as if gift-wrapped, next to a toolbox.
“You should have them,’’ said my mother, handing the skates to me as she sorted through the goods and memories she shared with my father for nearly a half-century. “I’m not sure, but I think your dad must have worn them as a kid.’’
They are an official pair of Joe Donoghues, primitive racing skates of wood and steel and brass, their leather straps long gone. Once an American legend, he is now an all but forgotten footnote in a grueling, intense, high-speed, high-tech sport.
But Donoghue’s name or what he accomplished has never mattered to me. All that counts is that I have his skates, and when I hold them I think of quiet Sunday afternoons in my grandfather’s house, the smell of Prince Albert pipe tobacco in the air, a bowl of beer nuts near his couch, my father in an adjacent chair paging through the Sunday Telegram, only the near-silent hum of an electronic clock as testimony that time had not stopped.
It’s not about the speed of these skates, but the distance they’ve carried me.