Fifty-nine years had passed since these two Ashland Tomcat football heroes had even seen each other.
World War II was in full swing after they graduated from high school and, as many from their era did, they each went the journey that life took them and sometimes it was far away from their hometown of Ashland — even as far away as the Pacific Theater.
But even though six decades had passed since they’d even seen each other, these men have a link that forever ties them as Tomcats.
In the fall of 1942, they were part of an undefeated Tomcat team that is regarded as Kentucky state champions, given that distinction after a hard-fought 7-6 win over Louisville Manual in the ninth game of a 10-game perfect season.
J.C. Kennard and Paul DeHart engaged in a special Tomcat reunion last week, enjoying each other’s company for the first time since they ran into each other near Pollard Church in 1954. They were reunited in Plain City, Ohio, with the help of their sons, also named J.C. and Paul, and an assist from Donna Childers in helping Paul Jr. locate the Kennards.
“I knew if you wanted to know about somebody from Ashland, there’s no better person to ask than Donna,” DeHart said of his fellow 1970 graduate, No. 1 Putnam Stadium proponent and cheerleader and green-thumb florist.
Their fathers, who both served during World War II and who both worked for and retired from Ashland Oil, are pushing 88 years old but, at least for a few hours, they were young Tomcats again.
The elder Kennard, who was a junior in that ’42 season and is remembered for his relentless running style, and DeHart, who was a speedy junior running back, are some of the last surviving members of that ’42 Tomcat team — at least two others being Rupert “Doc” Rice, who lives in Lexington, and Bob Fidler, who lives in Flemingsburg. These boys had to grow up fast — the war was calling — as life was put on hold following a fall of glory in Putnam Stadium.
At the time, the stadium was a five-year-old sparkling football palace, one of the few stadiums of its kind in Kentucky. Seventy years later, the same can be said for ‘ol Putnam Stadium, even though her underbelly is in bad need of restoration. It remains one of the most unique stadiums in the state and a historic landmark in Kentucky, built with WPA funds for $6,500 starting in 1935 and finishing in time for the 1937 season.
But when Kennard, DeHart and Rice were running up and down the field so swiftly, the grass was never greener. It was the first Ashland team to go undefeated since the Tomcats moved to Putnam Stadium in the fall of 1937.
The coach of that ’42 team was Charles Ramey, his first season before a stint in the Marines interrupted his coaching career. Ramey left Ashland for service where he was in World War II battles from 1943 to 1945. He piloted a battalion of armored amtracks and knocked out Japanese battalions who had secretly infiltrated the island of Peleliu.
He came back after the war and was Ashland’s head coach again in 1946 and 1947. Ramey left Ashland after that season to become backfield coach and the chief scout at North Carolina State from 1948-50.
Ramey played on the Tomcats’ 1933 team that went 10-0 under coach Paul Jenkins, who he later became such good friends with that he asked him to be his son’s godfather. The ’33 Tomcats outscored opponents 370-53.
In ’42, Ramey was part of another great Tomcat team going for a perfect record against DuPont Manual in what most considered the state championship game the ninth week of the season. Ashland edged Manual 7-6 in a battle of powerhouses. The Tomcats mauled Russell 70-0 to complete the perfect season the following week.
“They both talked about that (Manual) game at length and in great detail,” said Paul DeHart Jr.
His father remembered Kennard speeding into the end zone with the Tomcats’ only touchdown.
“When they kicked off to begin the second half, J.C. took it straight down the field, zigzagged a little bit, and when he crossed the goalline he was the only man standing,” DeHart said. “Every play was a wall of humanity, a big pileup.”
After Kennard scored, Fidler kicked the extra point and the Tomcats were on the way to the 7-6 victory.
Rice, running out of the single-wing, sealed it with a long run late in the game to Manual’s 5-yard line, DeHart remembered. They were able to run out the remaining time.
Ashland and Glasgow were the only undefeated teams in the state in 1942 so both probably laid claim to the title.
“They gave us a patch on our sweater that had state champs on it,” DeHart said. “I know Glasgow said they’d take on all-comers.”
Paul DeHart Sr., who will turn 88 on May 9, has a razor-sharp memory still.
Kennard’s mind raced back to the 1940s, too, as he recalled what he could. Early dementia has taken away a lot of his memories but not all of them from his Tomcat days.
DeHart remembered punting one time when he launched a 49-yard boomer that hit a dry patch of turf at muddy Putnam Stadium. The regular punter, Jim Stith, had a 51-yard punt that day.
“We averaged 50 yards a punt on a rainy day,” DeHart said.
Looking into their eyes was like looking into a window of the past, at least for a few hours, according to both sons.
“The details they remembered, even down to the individual plays, was amazing,” said the younger DeHart.
Only three games were even close — 12-7 over Charleston High, 19-6 over Ironton and the win over Manual. Ashland never allowed more than a touchdown in a game and had five shutouts on the way to outscoring foes 341-31.
Kennard, Rice, DeHart, Stith, Fidler, Spencer Heaton, Charles Barber and Charles Goodman were some notable Tomcats in 1942. Most of these have died except for Kennard, Rice, DeHart and Fidler.
“That’s what we think anyway,” said young Paul DeHart, who is retired from the Air Force. “Dad or J.C. couldn’t remember knowing anything about many of the others.”
That’s what made this reunion all the more special. They are a proud part of Tomcat lore and have never forgotten the joy of being a part of Ashland’s grand football tradition that goes back generations.
When Kennard and DeHart put their arms around each other it was, indeed, a reunion of Tomcat champions for the ages.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.