2008 Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: Booker Taliaferro Fowlkes loved athletics, education

kprice@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 17, 2014 

Because the late Booker Taliaferro Fowlkes accumulated so many interests and accomplished so much in his life as an athlete, a coach and a teacher, he couldn't be defined by one nickname.

Those who saw him as a high school football player in Tennessee referred to him as the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo.''

Those who eventually played for him during his segregation era high school coaching days at Spencer, Radcliff and Carver came to regard him as the "Father of Black Football'' in Columbus.

More than a few knew him as a second father figure who pushed them even harder in the classroom than he did on the football field.

Mary Currie knew him simply as "Pop,'' but came up with a more appropriate description of her father as she grew into an adult.

"I called him my Renaissance Man,'' said Currie, a retired teacher who now lives in Atlanta. ''He was always involved in anything that was going to make the lives of anybody around him better. He had a very wide reach.''

Through it all, Fowlkes, who will be inducted posthumously into the Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame tonight, walked a line as straight as his ever-present necktie.

As a chemistry teacher, Fowlkes knew the value of precision and demanded it of himself, whether he happened to be drawing up football plays, working in his garden or giving a lesson to his students.

"If he happened to be dressed in a tuxedo and crossed his lawn and saw a weed, he'd stop and pull it out,'' Currie said.

Retired Carver High School football coach Wallace Davis remembers his early impressions of Fowlkes. Davis played on Fowlkes' first team at Carver shortly after the school opened its doors in 1956. The new team was stocked with junior high students at the time, but Fowlkes held them to a high standard.

"He was a perfectionist,'' Davis said. "He was a gentleman. He wore a shirt and tie or suit to work every day, shoes shined. He was just a cut above the rest.''

Fowlkes died in 1966 at 64 after serving as Marshall Junior High School's principal, but the lessons he imparted to his former athletes and students remain fresh. One of his favorite sayings bears repeating.

"If you stand up straight, nobody can get on your back.''

Page 1 presence

The gentleman coach holds a place of honor on Page 1 of a local sports history book Davis edited in 1989. There's Fowlkes, sitting up straight and looking distinguished in a dark suit jacket, white shirt and striped tie.

The book, "A Pictorial History of Twentieth Century Sports in Columbus, Georgia, Phenix City, Alabama and the Surrounding Area,'' begins with Fowlkes because football at predominately black high schools in the city began with him.

Fowlkes started the football program at Spencer High School in 1930 and went 32-9-8 in seven seasons. Building the program required vision and imagination. The name he gave the athletic teams --- "Greenwaves'' --- remains in use today, but some of his achievements have perhaps been forgotten.

Did you know, for instance, that Fowlkes coached Spencer to a mythical black high school national championship? It happened against Knoxville's Austin High School at Memorial Stadium in 1933, capping off a 7-0-1 season. The game ball from that occasion, once thought by his daughter to be lost, holds a place of honor in the home of his granddaughter, Susan.

The excitement surrounding Spencer football during Fowlkes' tenure was summed up by a Columbus Sun newspaper story that documented a 13-0 victory over Macon's Ballard High School in 1931:

"With the edge in their favor the entire game, the Spencerians thrilled the 1,200 spectators who occupied the west stands of the stadium with a brilliant exhibition of football.''

Fowlkes, whose combined 15-year football coaching record of 64-26-8 also reflected stints at Radcliff and Carver, left Spencer after the 1937 season with a well-defined love for coaching and the love of the home economics teacher he married. The man who set such demanding standards for himself in coaching and teaching did the same when it came to the courtship of his eventual wife, the former Alice Ingersoll.

Currie still has the love letters Fowlkes wrote to her mother. They are housed in an old Whitman's Sampler Valentine's Day candy box. More than a few of the notes, written with a careful hand and folded with razor-sharp creases, include original poetry.

"The night we were in Columbus before my mother's funeral, my three girls got into my mom's bed and they sat there and read them,'' Currie said. "My youngest (Anne) didn't get to meet her grandfather. After they read them, she said, 'Now I know who my grandfather was.' "

Love of education

It's entirely possible that Fowlkes' professional identity was shaped by his childhood in Chattanooga, Tenn. As one of eight sons born to William Thomas and Sallie Sale Fowlkes, he had enough siblings to form athletic teams in a handful of sports.

As much as he loved football, track and basketball, Fowlkes cared more about books. He never took education for granted because he walked several miles to his high school, passing others he couldn't attend for the simple fact that he was black.

"Being a black man back then had to be difficult, but there was never any bitterness,'' Currie said. "He was determined to have an education. He believed that was your way out of any place --- knowledge.''

Fowlkes shared that message at Radcliff and Carver as well. Radcliff, where Fowlkes started a football program in 1943, no longer exists. A church parking lot sits atop the site of the old school building, but Fowlkes' belief in knowledge as a vehicle to a better place remains ingrained in so many of his former players and students.

"I often told him I wanted to play pro football,'' Davis said. "He told he this in return: 'Never pick a sport to set a goal for. You should set a goal to get an education.' He wanted me to go to college and get an education.''

Fowlkes wanted it for his students because of his belief that education held the key to self-sufficiency.

As an example of this, consider what Fowlkes did when his first Carver team received gold, hand-me-down football pants from Fort Benning. Since the pants weren't Carver colors, Fowlkes went into the school's chemistry lab and created his own dye to remedy the problem.

Not that anything less would have been expected of a Renaissance Man.

BOOKER T. FOWLKES

Sport(s): Coached football, basketball and track

High school: Attended high school in Chattanooga, Tenn.

College : Bachelor's degree from Atlanta University, master's degree from New York University.

Ties to Columbus: Started football program at Spencer High School in 1930 and coached the Greenwaves for seven seasons. . . . After briefly leaving coaching to enter the insurance business, he returned in 1943 and started the football program at Radcliff High School, which no longer exists. . . . Started the football program at Carver High School in 1956, beginning it with a junior high team. . . .. After four seasons at Carver, he became principal at Marshall Junior High School. . . . While coaching, he also inspired students as a science teacher.

Family: Married in 1936 to the former Alice Ingersoll, who is deceased. . . . Fowlkes, whose middle name was Taliaferro, was one of eight sons born to William Thomas and Sallie Sale Fowlkes.

Accomplishments: Regarded as the ''Father of Black Football'' in Columbus, he is credited with choosing the nicknames for Spencer and Carver high school's athletic teams (the Greenwaves and Tigers, respectively). . . . During his career as a high school football coach at Spencer, Radcliff and Carver, he went a combined 64-26-8 in 15 seasons. . . . He guided Spencer to a 7-0-1 record in 1933 and ended the season with a win over Knoxville's Austin High School, which resulted in a mythical black high school national championship. . . . He guided Spencer to state championships in 1931 and 1933 and led Radcliff to a 9-1 state championship season in 1947. . . . Served as the athletic trainer for the Columbus Cardinals baseball team and for the Jordan High School football team in the late 1940s. . . . Fowlkes was also a member of the Southern Intercollegiate Officials' Association.

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