Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 2, 2018

Remembering a Veteran: Dr. James Naismith, YMCA


By James Patton

James Naismith, Basketball Inventor and Coach

‘Tis April and the fancy of many has lightly turned to…basketball, a sport literally invented in 1891 by one man, James Naismith (1861–1939). He was a Canadian (until 1925) who at the time was a physical education instructor at the International YMCA Training School, which became Springfield College in 1954. Naismith left there shortly after his blockbuster invention to study medicine in Denver and upon graduation from that he took up employment at the University of Kansas (KU), where he would spend most of his working life serving as a physical education instructor, coach of several sports, athletic director, chaplain, and physician. Although he coached KU basketball only for the program’s first nine seasons, with an overall record of 55–60, his "coaching tree" includes his successor, the legendary Forrest "Phog" Allen, the founders of two other dynastic NCAA programs, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, and North Carolina’s Dean Smith, and the NBA great Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain.

But there were times in Naismith’s life that didn’t involve KU. Prior to joining the YMCA, Naismith had graduated with a degree in theology from McGill University’s Presbyterian College. Although not an ordained minister (the YMCA was interdenominational) when the call came in March 1916 for the Kansas National Guard to send a unit to guard the Mexican Border, Naismith was swept up in the fervor. He quickly obtained credentials from the Presbyterian Church and was appointed by the governor as an honorary captain and the chaplain of the nascent 1st Kansas Infantry. He was then 54 years old. 

National Guardsman James Naismith Guarding the Border in 1916

The regiment was mobilized at Ft. Riley in June 1916 and sent to Eagle Pass, Texas. They served there for about four months. Their time was characterized by monotonously watching river crossings—there were quite a few on the Rio Grande in the low-water season—and by training exercises. There was no combat, not even a desultory pot shot or two. 

Naismith took his calling as the chaplain very seriously, approaching the task just like coaching a team of his young players, encouraging them to realize their potential. He conducted church services, counseled soldiers, and advised his CO as to the spiritual needs of the unit. He was particularly concerned with efforts to keep the troops away from prostitutes, gambling, alcohol, and brawls with the locals. To this end, and to keep them busy and physically fit, he organized basketball games, baseball games, and boxing matches involving the entire garrison at Eagle Pass. 

Back in Lawrence, when war was declared, Naismith sought to have his inactive National Guard chaplaincy transferred to active duty status, but he was turned down flat: he was a Canadian citizen and he was way too old. 

But he found another avenue of service that was open to him. As the ranks quickly swelled, the Army was woefully short of chaplains and concluded agreements with service organizations to provide spiritual guidance and support if not actual religious celebrations. One of these was Naismith’s old friend the YMCA. 

James Naismith, YMCA Secretary in France

It was originally thought that these volunteer counselors would work at stateside training camps and hospitals. Because of his long experience (as well as his National Guard stint), in June 1917 Naismith was accepted as a lecturer on "moral conditions and sex education." His job was training counselors, inspiring troops and developing programs to improve morale and morality. His experience in this work formed a large part of the material for his 1918 book, Essence of a Healthy Life. 

In the fall he was sent to France as a YMCA Overseas Secretary, where his work continued as before but now in the shadow of the front. He wrote of this time, "I feel that I’m fitted for this work." With his breadth of experience, probably no one was a better choice. Early in his time in France he wrote:
"It is a pretty big job…go over and make the camps clean places for the boys to fight. And also get the right spirit into the men. That involves two things. Educate the men and eliminate the evils from the camps and vicinity. Pershing is very anxious to have this done. I go without instructions to find out the best thing to do and then get the machinery working. It is no child's play, especially when it is among the old-fashioned type of soldier and in France where ideals are so different. The responsibility is great but I am going into it determined. I do wish that you and the family would pray for me, for I have never felt so much in need of help as I do at this present minute."

Historic Marker at Kansas University Honoring Naismith

He spent 19 months with the YMCA in France. Shortly before his return he wrote that he was thankful for "the knowledge that I have tried to help the people of the world to make it a little better, and that I have tried to love my neighbor as myself." When he returned, he resumed his former duties at KU, a 57-year-old veteran.

Sources include the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps and The University of Kansas. 

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