Tete-a-tete Archives

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Tete-a-tete: Shockingly true tales of my Herculean, heroic great-grandpa

There’s a nigh-mythic quality to the stories that family members tell of days gone by. Whether it’s a clever prank a relative pulled on one of their professors that went down in college history or the tired tale of walking to school in the snow — uphill, both ways — that gets trotted out every time you ask for a ride to the bus stop, the accounts of yesteryear seem a little more vibrant, a little more epic than the goings-on of today.

Even though I greatly enjoy hearing these stories, I tend to take them with a grain of salt. As someone who has been unintentionally guilty of revisionist childhood (to use my father’s turn of phrase), I understand that the passage of time and the differing perspective of our younger selves can paint the past with more majestic strokes than were initially laid on the canvas.

And then, just recently, my grandfather on my mother’s side unexpectedly came across a treasure trove of newspaper articles about his father that not only back up the family stories, but flesh out details that make my great-grandfather the real-life equivalent of folk heroes like Paul Bunyan and John Henry.

Great-Grandpa Batty, or “Raging Reg” as he was referred to in the headlines, stood nearly six and a half feet tall, tipped the scales at 260 pounds and wore a size 17 shoe. He served in the Army during World War I and went to college after he was discharged from the military, so he was 22 or 23 years old when he enrolled as a freshman at Yale University. This age gap of a few years between Great-Grandpa and his collegiate peers, in combination with his enormous stature, led his fellow students to nickname him “Pop Batty.”

While Pop earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, he wrestled and played football for Yale. As the captain of the wrestling team, his stature landed him in what was then known as the unlimited class. Based on the newspaper articles we have, it seems as though the numbered weight classes ended with 175 pounds, meaning Pop wrestled opponents ranging from 176 pounds to behemoths even larger than himself.

He was named the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling champion in his class after winning a grueling 14 minute and 40 second match, and he always insisted that his fellow wrestlers play by the rules. He once threw his opponent out of the ring — as in, heaved him bodily — for biting his ear during a match. And if Pop threw you, you stayed thrown.

Speaking of throwing people, collegiate football had to introduce a rule specifically to keep Yale from having a consistent advantage over the other teams. The rule? You cannot score by throwing your teammate, who is holding the ball, into the end zone.

Until that time, one of the Yale football team’s favorite plays had been to get the ball to the one of the lighter players and steer that player toward Pop. The player would step into Pop’s waiting hands and Pop would launch him up into the air, over the heads of the opposing team and right into the end zone. For variation, one player ran up Pop’s back and leapt into the end zone.

Pop’s unique grasp of football strategy came in extremely handy, however, when the Rialto Theater in New Haven, Conn. caught fire in November 1921. He rescued five women from the burning building in quite an interesting fashion.

To quote the newspaper article, “He seized a woman in each hand and succeeding in getting them to the door, at the same time pushing another one before him. Returning, he dragged out the fourth by the leg, and the fifth by the collar of her coat.”

Pop himself escaped without any injuries, which was a miracle and a mercy. He had assisted in putting out another fire during his time in the military, but had fallen through the roof and had had to be rescued. It took two men to drag Pop out of the burning building, one of whom Pop reconnected with later in life. Pop’s rescuer remembered him as “the man who almost gave me a heart attack,” because it had been such a struggle to carry someone of Pop’s stature.

Researching Pop has been quite an adventure. The newspaper articles my great-grandmother saved and passed down to my grandfather have provided a real-life foundation for a larger-than-life relative whose epic accomplishments could have been written off as mere family folklore, like the labors of a modern-day Hercules. Nothing makes a story better than finding out it’s really true.

I am concerned, however, that this could be the start of a worrying trend in which other relatives start digging up news coverage to support their own stories. Should Dad ever produce rock-solid evidence that he did indeed walk to school in the snow — uphill, both ways — it will be much harder for my youngest siblings to negotiate for a ride to the bus stop on drizzly days.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published June 5, 2014.

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