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A Polo Powerhouse of the Past

James R. Spurrier '40 was an Osage Indian recruited from Oklahoma to play polo for PMC. He later founded the U.S. Cavalry Association. 

By Sam Starnes

If you walk out onto Memorial Field behind Old Main and press your ear to the grass and listen hard enough, you might hear the sounds of pounding hooves and a mallet smacking a white ball.

Those thundering sounds would be the ghosts of the polo team of Pennsylvania Military College (PMC), as Widener University was then known, that rated as a national powerhouse more than 70 years ago.

“PMC won two national titles, in 1928 and 1943,” said Ronald Romanowicz ’68, chair of the PMC Museum. The team competed regularly against the other top-ranked polo teams at the highest level of the sport.

The PMC Museum is opening a new exhibit this fall, The Mounted Cadet, which features the stories of the polo team, as well as the history of the cavalry and horsemanship that played a part in the life of campus for more than 80 years. The first shipment of horses for cadets to learn cavalry skills arrived in 1888, Romanowicz said, and horses were still on campus until the early 1970s with a small student cavalry group known as the Marauders. “That’s quite a chunk of history as far as the school is concerned,” he said.

Polo started on campus in 1921, and PMC was one of eight charter members when the Intercollegiate Polo Association was formed in 1925, said Gwen D. Rizzo, editor and publisher of Polo Players Edition, the magazine of the United States Polo Association. “The growth of intercollegiate polo at the time was in large part due to the participation of military colleges,” she said.

The polo program ended in 1943, but it left behind a vast collection of compelling stories about dynamic figures: a cadet who had a long career in film and television for Walt Disney; an alumnus turned coach who made national headlines when he married a former Miss America; a Native American war hero from Oklahoma who founded the U.S. Cavalry Association; and two cadets who were inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame.

A polo match behind Old Main

POLO LAUNCHES A CAREER AT DISNEY

Harry Tytle, who attended as a freshman and sophomore from 1929-1931, was known at PMC as H.H. Teitel, and is referred to as Hendershot Teitel in the 1931 Sabre & Sash yearbook. When the iconic film director Cecil B. DeMille, a former PMC student, visited campus to see a game in 1931, Tytle was on the field.

Tytle went on to work 40 years for Disney Productions, landing his first job in 1936 because Walt Disney asked Tytle to join his polo team. Tytle started as an artist for Disney, ultimately working on many feature films, TV productions, and more than 200 cartoons in various capacities. He served as studio production manager during World War II, managed the music department for nine years, served as production supervisor of the Walt Disney Presents TV show, and was Disney’s personal representative in Europe for four years. He retired from Disney in 1976, and died in Rancho Bernardo, California, in 2004 at the age of 95.

A POLO STORY SENSATION THAT WASN’T TRUE

Carl A.“Jim” Schaubel, a 1930 PMC alumnus and polo player who later coached the team through most of its final 13 years, was sometimes referred to as “Mr. Polo of PMC.” Schaubel’s accomplishments included winning a national indoor championship in 1943, the program’s last season.

In 1931, he married 1924 Miss America Ruth Malcomson. A press announcement issued by PMC about their engagement headlined “Cupid Rides Polo Ball” claimed that Schaubel met his bride-to-be when he knocked a ball out of bounds at a game against Princeton and it landed in her lap. The story and a photo of Schaubel in a polo jersey holding a mallet and Malcomson holding a polo ball was reprinted worldwide. “The only truth in the story was the engagement announcement,” Schaubel wrote in his 1980 memoir that is stored in the Digital Collection of the Widener University Archives. The college’s publicity man, Schaubel said, concocted the story to put PMC and the polo team in the news.

Schaubel in the 1960s returned to PMC, serving as vice president of administration and playing a key role in helping it make the transition from Pennsylvania Military College to Widener. He retired in 1973 and was given the university’s outstanding alumnus award in 1974.

Even though the story of how they met was false, his marriage to the former Miss America lasted long. Ruth Malcomson Schaubel died in 1988, and he died two years later at the age of 82.

AN OSAGE INDIAN POLO STAR

After a spectacular polo season playing for Oklahoma Military Academy, James R. Spurrier and his friend Emery “Bud” Hickman were recruited east to play for PMC. “Bud and I were just a couple of old country boys,” Spurrier said in an interview in 2001, three years before his death. “We hadn’t been across the Mississippi before.”

Spurrier’s mother was an Osage Indian whose father had been chief of the Osage Tribe, and his father was a buffalo and cattle rancher. Upon arriving in Chester, he and Hickman were surprised to learn that PMC played polo indoors in addition to outdoors.

But with the help of Schaubel, they adapted and put together a very strong season in 1940, the year he graduated. “We beat every intercollegiate team in the circuit,” Spurrier said. “That’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton, West Point, Norwich, and we got to the finals of the intercollegiates.”

After graduation, Spurrier served in the Army in the South Pacific and earned a silver star award for gallantry while leading his troops in an attack of a strongly entrenched Japanese position. He ultimately retired as a colonel. In 1976, he started the U.S. Calvary Association, and served as its first chairman of the board and the organization’s president for more than 20 years.

HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES

Two PMC polo players—Dr. Clarence C. “Buddy” Combs Jr. ’37 and Delmar Carroll ’43—went on to receive the ultimate honor bestowed on polo players: induction into the Polo Hall of Fame.

Combs Jr., inducted in 1992, learned polo from his father at his father’s riding academy. “He honed his polo skills while at the Pennsylvania Military College, and went on to win the 1937 Intercollegiate Championship while attending veterinary school at Cornell,” Rizzo said. Combs was amongst the very best in the sport, continuing to play competitive polo until the 1960s while working as a veterinarian in Shrewsbury, N.J. His 1996 obituary in The New York Times said, “In a sport long associated with the leisured scions of oldmoney families…Dr. Combs was something of an anomaly, a working professional who managed to play at the highest levels of the game while maintaining a full-time veterinary practice.”

Carroll, inducted in 2003, was a star on PMC’s final polo team, in 1943, which won the national indoor championship. He went on to play competitive polo for 44 years and played in nearly every major tournament, winning U.S. Open titles in three different decades: 1959, 1967, and 1974. “Carroll was well known for his horsemanship and for his fearlessness,” Rizzo said. “He was an outstanding offensive player, often running full tilt to goal, earning him the nickname ‘Mr. Speed’.”

WORLD WAR II HEARKENS PMC POLO’S END

Two key factors that led to the end of polo at PMC were World War II and the mechanization of the Army that led to the diminishment of the cavalry. “That was a tough time for polo nationally,” Romanowicz said.

Art Ryan III, whose father, Arthur Ryan Jr. ’37, played polo at PMC and worked for the college as an admissions recruiter until the mid-1950s, grew up around the stables. He remembers seeing his father play in games as an adult,    and he heard many stories about injuries in the games. “It was a rough game,” he said. “There were broken legs and all sorts of injuries.”

Ryan, who attended Pennsylvania Military Prep School (PMPS) until 1956 when it closed, graduated from West Point in 1963 and retired from the Army in 1984. As a child, he witnessed the decline of the polo and cavalry programs at PMC, mainly because of the Army’s shrinking need for soldiers on horseback. The end of polo on campus was an unhappy event for his father. “It was sad as the polo and the riding faded into the background,” Ryan said.

Even though the swinging polo mallets and pounding of hoof beats are long gone from Memorial Field, Romanowicz hopes that students and younger alumni will visit the exhibit in the PMC Museum to learn about this fascinating chapter of the university’s past. “All of this is part of who we are,” Romanowicz said. “PMC is the DNA of Widener. We want the Widener family to be familiar with its history.”