HARTFORD, Connecticut – When I heard Owen Canfield had died Saturday morning after a lengthy bout with colon cancer, an expected sadness filled my heart. Then me and my heart broke into a smile.
Why? I figured Owen had already reunited with his beloved wife Ethel, probably the only couple whom I’ve known who could handle raising 10 kids, and was belting out a few bars of “Candy Man” with the late great Sammy Davis Jr., who befriended Owen when he was the host of the Greater Hartford Open golf tournament for two decades. Owen often followed Sammy during his pro-am ventures, which rarely lasted more than a few holes in large part because of a drinking problem. But once Sammy became sober, he made a bet with Owen: if he finished 18 holes, he would give Owen $100. A man of his word, as Sammy walked onto the 18th tee at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell one year, he took out a $100 bill, put his tee through it, hit his drive and handed the 100 bucks to Owen. Later that week, Owen made one of his frequent appearances in the CBS-TV booth behind the 18th green with Sammy and longtime legendary announcer Jim Nantz, who lived in Darien at the time.
That Owen became close with Sammy was hardly surprising since he loved singing, whether it was over breakfast at the assisted living locale that he resided before he died or at our “old farts” luncheons with fellow retired Hartford Courant buddies – and some wives – who had worked together for decades on Broad Street in Hartford. In fact, my wife, Nancy, fit both categories as she became the first female in The Courant sports department in 1974 and someone whom I married a year to the day after our first date.
Owen was one of the first people that I met at The Courant after I was hired in 1970 by longtime legendary columnist Bill Lee, whom I had known for four years as he was part of the committee that selected youngsters for Widdy Neale Scholarships from the Connecticut State Golf Association. He actually hired me part-time with three months to go in my senior year at the University of Connecticut, and I started full-time the night that I graduated. I also continue to be indebted to the CSGA and have been happy to serve on the CSGA’s Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame selection committee for 20 years.
I knew of Owen at The Courant because he had written a few stories on me when he was at the Torrington Register and I was playing four sports at Litchfield High School, winning state titles in basketball and soccer. My first assignment at The Courant was to cover the Midway Open at Keney Park Golf Club in Hartford, a spot on the Negro League Tour. The unforgettable winner was Psalm Johnson, who had a sizable star in one of his front teeth. That was the only year that I didn’t cover the PGA Tour’s annual stop in Connecticut, but I’ll celebrate my 50th go-around at the biggest sporting event in the state in June, 2020. Golf became major duty for me, so I was often with Owen, who was The Courant golf writer at the time. As fate would have it, I succeeded him in that capacity, a position I proudly held and worked hard at fulfilling until I retired in 2008.
I often closed the press tent (at Wethersfield Country Club) or room (in Cromwell) with Owen and my best friend, Bo Kolinsky, who tragically and unexpectedly died in 2003 at the age of 49. That was an utter shock to the entire sports staff, family and friends, and ironically, Owen died one day after what would have been Bo’s 65th birthday. The only saving grace of Bo’s passing is it resulted from a massive heart attack, so there was no pain involved. Sadly, Owen had some tough sledding in his final few months, so it had to a blessing when the end came after 85 wonderful years, the last 31 without Ethel, who died in 1988.
But Owen’s death will never deter my multitude of lasting memories of his tunes, humor, smile and counseling. One of the most amazing occurrences that I witnessed in more than 38 years on Broad Street was the day that Owen and Ethel walked into the sports department on the third floor with their 10 kids. But neither Owen nor Ethel held any of the youngsters as the older kids were tending to their younger siblings. Ethel and those 10 kids were the most important things in Owen’s life to the end, and they often came from all over the country to show and assure dad just how much he meant to them. After all, Owen’s annual Christmas columns about his family were among the most touching that he ever wrote.
Owen became sports editor after Lee and Bill Newell died, but that job didn’t last long because it wasn’t for him. He was a columnist who loved seeking out and writing about all of the fascinating people whom he met in so many different fields. At one point, The Courant had two sports columnists, and I loved to joke that if each wrote 100 columns, 99 of Owen’s would be positive and one negative, and vice versa for the other. When there was a break in the office – a rarity in the early days when everyone had to do just about everything as far as covering events, writing, editing and answering the phones – everyone loved to chat and bust ’em on each other, no one more than Owen and his frequent sidekick Woody Anderson. After work, we often adjourned to Kenney’s Restaurant, the nearby watering hole, and told even taller tales. Colleague Bob Clancy loves to relate the story about how Owen once asked, “You know the problem guys like you and I have?” Say what, Ozie? “We’re just so damn good lookin’.” In a similar vein, Tom Condon liked to tell how Owen would walk into the newsroom with his customary smile and declare, “I’ve just been voted the best-looking in the sports department – again.”
I was fortunate to have countless times and assignments with Owen, mostly on the golf beat but also the Hartford Whalers, UConn men’s and women’s basketball, Yale football, Aetna World Cup tennis and the United States and World Figure Skating Championships. But we had a special attachment in golf walking courses together or sitting side-by-side in a press room. Our most memorable assignment was in 1986, when Owen made a return to Augusta National Golf Club for the first time in years. He had covered the Masters many times with Lee, but I assumed the plum (and long daily) duty in 1977, when my wife and I walked several rounds with Wethersfield native Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson’s caddie who wasn’t allowed inside the ropes in those days because only local caddies carried for the players. When Watson outlasted Jack Nicklaus to win his first green jacket, it gave me quite a “scoop” to write about how Edwards felt watching his boss notch such a huge win. Nine years later, Owen and I got to witness arguably the best Masters in history as a 46-year-old Nicklaus shot a 3-under-par 30 on the back nine to overtake many of the best players in the game such as Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite to become the oldest winner in tournament history and notch his 18th and final major title. Owen considered that one of the best events he ever covered in his career.
The only golf event that approached that year in Georgia was when Owen and I were fortunate to be at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., for the 1999 Ryder Cup between the United States and Europe. The U.S. trailed by four points after the four best-ball and foursomes sessions, but as U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw ended his press conference Saturday night, he pointed the index finger on his right hand at the assembled Fourth Estate and declared, “I believe in fate. That’s all I’m going to say.” Crenshaw front-loaded his team for the 12 singles matches with his six best players, all of whom won to push the U.S. into a lead that it never relinquished. Fittingly, the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history was clinched when Justin Leonard, ridiculed on many fronts, including on NBC-TV by analyst Johnny Miller, for poor play the first two days, slam-dunked a 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to beat Jose Maria Olazabal.
That piece of sports history was as memorable as most of Owen’s prose, which focused on understanding people and what made them tick, whether it was laughing, crying or playing to succeed. With or without his trademark straw hat, he brought his downhome humor, warmth and generosity to everything he did, whether it was writing or acting as a mentor to those young and old. Owen retired from The Courant in 1995 but continued in the world’s consciousness with monthly columns and more frequent contributions to the Torrington Register. Owen was a seven-time Connecticut Sports Writer of the Year and is in the Torrington High School and Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fames. Fittingly, two of his six sons went into the newspaper business – Owen as an editorial writer at the Oklahoman and Kevin covers city hall and government for the Tulsa World.
Owen’s contributions to humanity from behind and in front of his typewriter and laptop may have ended but never the memory of his aw-shucks folksiness and self-deprecating sarcasm. He brought so much happiness to so many locally, regionally and worldwide for 59 years, from his first Christmas column in 1960 to his swansong on March 30, which explains the outpouring of support that left him in awe after he was critically injured in a car accident in 2012. Personally, he often told me that he thought I knew more about more different sports than anyone that he had ever known, which was appreciated to the ultimate considering how many people that Owen knew and how many loved, admired and respected him. He was also so kind to my wife, who etched her niche in the business in between becoming one of the best and most respected teachers in history.
So, Ozie, you may be gone from this life but certainly not in the mind of this fellow Northwest Connecticut Boy. RIP, my friend!!!!!