When Norma Smallwood of Tulsa went on tour as Miss America in
the fall of 1926, the only man she kissed while in Pittsburgh
was a young speed skater, flagpole sitter and uphill ski jumper
named Joseph Harold Ake. Everybody called her beautiful.
Everybody called him Chick.
Even for a Casanova like Ake, embracing Miss America was a step
up in class. (Ake was also dating Miss Metropolitan Pittsburgh,
Miss Northside Pittsburgh and Miss Greater Pittsburgh.) But his
evening at the Schenley Hotel with the ravishing young beauty
queen was less pulse-quickening than one might imagine.
"Her mother," Ake says, wincing. It seems Mrs. Smallwood was
right next to her daughter all the time.
Seventy years later Ake isn't kissing anyone--and he's not likely
to, unless he gets rid of the Havana Blossom chewing tobacco
that he uses to lubricate his epiglottis whenever he finds
himself dry from overtalking, which is more often than not. Ake
is 96, and his stride has a hazardous list, but considering that
he was bludgeoned by a mugger and left for dead at 84, that he
survived prostate cancer when he was 89 and that he set himself
on fire (accidentally) when he was 93, he's not doing badly at
There was an era when Ake was one of the most illustrious
athletes in western Pennsylvania. The reward (or the penalty)
for his longevity is that just about the only person who can
remember that era is Ake himself. But he is not stingy with the
gift of his history. On a stifling August day in Wilkinsburg,
Pa., just over the Pittsburgh city line, the old man in the gray
Stetson sits in the airless little room that is his Louvre, and
he takes a visitor beyond the walls of time.
Ake talks about the week in November 1933 when, representing
Pittsburgh with a partner from Syracuse named Cleveland, he took
part in the Seven-Day World's Championship Ice Skating Race at
the Duquesne Garden, missing first place by the length of his
arm after finishing 9,000 laps.
Seven-day speed skating, in which at least one member of a
two-man team had to be on the ice at all times, day and night,
was the logical offspring of six-day bicycle racing, which had
sprung from the dance marathons of the Roaring Twenties--a
panoply of exhausting exhibitionism. The speed skating "race"
was a somnolent stagger enlivened by regular sprints for cash
bonuses. Ake and Leonard Cleveland led the standings until the
close of the sixth day, when Cleveland begged for euthanasia.
"Everybody was so beat, I thought they'd call the whole thing
off," Ake recalls, fingering ancient clippings from the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Cleveland was coughing and saying,
'I'm in a hell of a shape, Chick. I've got a hell of a pain in
my chest, and my legs are awful sore.' He went home. So what
else could I do? I skated the last 24 hours myself."
Ake had just turned 34. He was the oldest man in the race. His
parents predicted that marathon skating would prove more
debilitating than a soiree with Miss Greater Pittsburgh. "They
were madder than a wet hen," Ake says. "They said, 'You'll break
your health. You'll never skate again.' I didn't die, but
Cleveland did. Two years later. Tuberculosis."
What else does Ake remember? He tells how he played indoor
softball on ice ("not as funny as it looks") and served as an
occasional practice goalie for the woebegone Pittsburgh Pirates,
who lasted from 1925 until 1930 in the National Hockey League;
how he rode racehorses; stood on his head on the cliffside
railing at Niagara Falls; had a friend rev the engine of a
ski-slope towrope so that it would pull him uphill at 70 miles
an hour. Also, how he skated with and dated Sonja Henie in 1936
("She was a picnic, but this you can't print").
Ake's most celebrated incarnation was as half of the skating duo
that delighted crowds at Madison Square Garden between periods
of New York American and Ranger hockey games in 1927 and '28.
The two entertainers were paid $950 a week--a good wage now, a
treasury then. They called themselves Ake and Pane. (Pane was a
Pittsburgh Italian named Jimmy Colaianni, who also went by Jimmy
[sometimes Johnny] Colean, but none of those names would have
fit on the Eighth Avenue marquee.)
Ake was, in the words of the newspaper clips in his scrapbook,
"the best figure man that has ever appeared--the Charlie Chaplin
of the steel blades." Ake and Pane's "clever antics and
nonsensical twists," as one reviewer put it, occupied the
audience while stagehands pushing barrows of water flooded the
artificial pond for the labors of [the] Rangers. Ake dressed as
Chaplin's Tramp, twirled a cane, mugged and hammed and
pantomimed. "If I fall down," he proclaimed, "it could be
intentional." Somehow he performed fancy figures on 16-inch
"The hockey teams wouldn't even go back to their dressing
rooms," Ake brags in his breathless soprano bark. "They wanted
to see my act. It was the greatest thing in my life. Meeting
people. Famous people. You couldn't get in my dressing room.
Rap! Rap! Rap! on the door all the time. They'd say, 'When are
you coming back to town?' I loved that. Whoever I shook hands
with was the president of something."
Until a decade ago Ake was merely a former railroad
stationmaster, chamber of commerce secretary and automobile
salesman who long, long ago had been one of the fastest,
funniest skaters in the world. But then came 1987. Wilkinsburg
was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its
founding. In 1962 a time capsule had been interred somewhere in
the borough, to be dug up for the centennial. The four members
of the borough council who had selected the burial site had
sworn each other to secrecy. They had told no one else the
And then all four men died.
The ubiquitous Ake had seen the doomed mayor carry the capsule
out of the municipal hall, around a corner and out of sight. Now
Ake led a frenetic, fruitless search that was turned into a
television documentary. It was broadcast almost everywhere from
Pittsburgh to Perth, and the old bowlegged speed skater began
getting mail from the ends of the earth. Chick Ake, nearly 90,
Honors were bestowed, testimonials held. Correspondents wrote to
say that they remembered the delights of Ake and Pane. The
prominent sociologist Albert Bergesen discussed Ake in the
Atlantic Monthly. "At some level, whether it's conscious or not,
time capsules are intended less as messages from ourselves to
the future than as messages from ourselves to ourselves,"
Ake replied, "Huh?"
Eight years later the capsule has not been found. But Ake, who
was born in 1899, who never married any of his Miss Anythings,
who lived with his mother until she expired--still dark-haired--at
the age of 101, is preparing his own gift to posterity. He wants
a container of his memorabilia to be deposited in the
Wilkinsburg branch of the Mellon Bank, not to be opened until
2012, when Wilkinsburg will be 125. For himself, Ake hopes only
to reach 100 years and 100 days, which will have permitted him
to breathe the air of three centuries.
But these are perilous times for Ake and the satchels of
photographs and diaries that certify his exploits back to 1915,
when he was nearly decapitated by a piece of the drill rig with
which his father had brought in the most powerful natural gas
well in U.S. history. (The well soon dried up.) Ake's prostate
cancer has reappeared. He fractured two ribs earlier this year,
one when he stumbled down some steps and the other when his TV
fell on him. He can't chew very well, so he eats primarily
bananas, apricots and oatmeal. When he was in the hospital three
years ago with severe burns (his suit coat had been ignited by
a gas heater in his antediluvian bathroom), somebody stole his
diamond collar studs. All this he can endure.
What paralyzes him now is the fear that a new landlord will
evict him and his living room museum, with its teddy bears,
Indian headdresses, baby shoes, porcelain angels, flash cameras,
straw hats, racing skates, walking sticks and cassette tapes of
Ake at the piano, making melodies for seniors 30 years his
junior Friday nights at the Wilkinsburg Rotary.
Ake has outlived Cleveland and Colean, Henie and the Duquesne
Garden, whose site now contains a condominium tower and a fancy
restaurant. He inhabits a country that will accept any of us as
citizens if only we live to reach its shores.
"I can be walking down the street and forget where I'm going,"
Ake says, the sunlight on his birch-bark skin. "But if I keep
walking, it'll come back to me. I don't know why that is."
"It's because you're 96 years old," I tell him.
"That," yelps Ake, laughing, "is a hell of a reason."
Allen Abel's latest book is "Flatbush Odyssey--A Journey Through
the Heart of Brooklyn."