Chris Schenkel · 1999
By Bill Benner
Over a cup of coffee in a downtown hotel Thursday morning, Chris Schenkel’s unmistakable golden voice massaged the ears and his timeless memory caressed the mind.
Listening to him was to be at once in the presence of a true Indiana legend and taken back through the past of a remarkable career, though the praise will most assuredly come from your lips and not his.
“Preface anything by saying my timing was just right and I was lucky because God blessed me with a voice,” Schenkel said.
Which might be like saying Michael Jordan made it big in basketball because he could jump a little bit.
Understand, Chris Schenkel, the one-time farm boy from Bippus, Ind., didn’t make it through 52 years in the often ruthless world of sports broadcasting merely by coincidence of good timing and good fortune.
Ultimately, he had to deliver.
And he did.
That career – and Schenkel’s 70th birthday — will be feted Saturday night in “A Salute to Chris Schenkel,” with a reception at the Eiteljorg Museum and a dinner at the Indiana Roof Ballroom .
Schenkel would only agree to the shindig on the condition that proceeds go to the Haskell (Kan.) Indian Junior College Foundation.
Growing up on his father’s Huntington County farm, Schenkel witnessed first-hand the bigotry shown to descendants of the Miami Indian tribes. His father, who confronted such prejudice against both Native Americans and blacks, challenged his son to learn more and “champion their cause.”
“And the more I learned,” said Schenkel, “the more I realized things weren’t right.”
It’s been a life-long goal to correct some of the injustices.
Schenkel’s career has taken him around the world, to nine Olympics and virtually every major sporting event in America.
John DeCamp, long-time voice of Purdue athletics, urged the then Purdue student “to get his feet wet” in the business and before long, Schenkel had dived in all the way, working his way up through the ranks and getting his break when he landed the job as voice of the New York football Giants.
That led him to work with all three networks, the last of which has been ABC, where Schenkel is best known as host for the pro bowlers’ tour, at 32 years the longest running program in sports television.
But as soon as he could, he left New York and re-established his residence on the shores of Lake Tippecanoe in northern Indiana.
“Oh those trees in October,” he says, wistfully, as if that reason alone is enough to come home.
As cliche as it is, home always has been where Chris Schenkel’s heart is.
And the wonderful thing about him is that he has remained the quintessential Hoosier, ever the farm boy from Bippus … polite, humble, self-effacing, never given to taking himself too seriously.
“Even when things were at their best for me, I always kept it in perspective by coming back to Indiana,” Schenkel said. “You sit on that farm tractor for a while and you realize you’re nothing special.”
Schenkel comes from an era of sports broadcasters who, sadly, are being replaced by young pups who believe their mission is to be the story, rather than help tell the story.
But Schenkel and his peers — men such as Curt Gowdy, Mel Allen and Lindsey Nelson – never needed shtick . They were pros with prose, men whose voices and observations enhanced the action, but never overwhelmed it.
And so he talked Thursday and I listened as one memory triggered another. Schenkel didn’t drop names, he illuminated them with anecdotes and tidbits about the likes of Rocky Marciano, Joe DiMaggio, Byron Nelson, Mickey Mantle, Bud Wilkinson, Darrell Royal, Frank Broyles, Bill France, Tony Hulman, Frank McKinney and, of course, his all-time favorites, Arnold Palmer and Peggy Fleming.
Of the last two he says, “I never, ever, saw them turn down an autograph request.”
He related how, after his nephew had been killed in an auto accident, Palmer had flown from Memphis to Fort Wayne. Severe thunderstorms dotted the route and Schenkel said Palmer, the multimillionaire, never should have risked the flight. “But that was Arnie,” Schenkel said.
He talked about his love for “muscle cars,” and the fact that he still has two, a Shelby Mustang and a Sunbeam Tiger, and that every now and then, he gets out on those country roads of northern Indiana “and drives the hell out of them.”
He talked about his wife, Fran, and his three children, and the pride he has in all was obvious.
I marveled at his memory for faces and facts but Schenkel had a ready explanation for that.
It was honed by calling horse races at Providence, R.I., in his early days as a broadcaster. “You had to memorize 10, 12 horses and riders for a race,” he said. “And soon as it was over, you had to forget it and memorize the 10 or 12 horses and riders for the next race.”
And so the memories rolled on, delivered with that unmistakable voice. No put-ons, no pomposity, no pizazz. Just Chris Schenkel, the boy from Bippus, with a half-century of stories to tell.
A brief resume:
-Voice, New York (football) Giants, NCAA college football, professional bowlers tour, professional boxing, horse racing, professional golf, NBA basketball
-Member, National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame, National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, Indiana Football Hall of Fame, American Bowling Congress Hall of Fame, PBA Hall of Fame
-Recipient, National Sportscaster of the Year Award, 1963, 1964, 1967 and 1970
-Recipient, Lifetime Achievement Emmy, 1993
-Olympic Games broadcaster (including anchorman), Squaw Valley, Grenoble, Mexico City, Munich, Montreal, Lake Placid, Los Angeles and Calgary
Board member and benefactor, Haskell Indian University, Lawrence, Kan.
-Honorary chieftain, Miami Indian Council of Indiana and honorary chief, Sac and Fox Tribe, Stroud, Okla.
-Father, three children: Christina, Ted and John
-Husband of Fran Paige Schenkel