Recorded on April 11, 2014. Length: 33 Minutes.
Neil Blatchford moved to Northbrook in 1950 when he was five. In this interview Mr. Blatchford discusses growing up in Northbrook. Mr. Blatchford focuses on the schools he attended, growing up in Northbrook, and the many sports he played including bicycle racing, football, baseball, and speed skating. Mr. Blatchford also shares his experiences representing the country during the 1968 Winter Olympics in speed skating.
JH: Good afternoon and welcome to Northbrook Voices, an oral history project sponsored by the Northbrook Historical Society and the Northbrook Public Library. My name is Judy Hughes, and I am pleased to welcome Neil Blatchford, who moved to Northbrook when he was five years old. Neil is your nickname, isn’t it? What’s your real name?
NB: My real name is Nathaniel Hopkins Blatchford the fourth.
JH: The fourth?
NB: Yeah. I’m glad nobody knew the middle name Hopkins because everybody probably would have called me Hoppy. That’s what I think anyway, or something like that.
JH: Absolutely. They would have picked that as your nickname. Your family has some deep roots in this area?
NB: Right. Yeah.
JH: You were mentioning your grandfather.
NB: Yeah. Actually, my dad grew up in Winnetka. He went to North Shore Country Day. At the Winnetka community house, my grandfather’s name, Nathaniel H. Blatchford, is above one of the doors leading to one of the rooms at the Winnetka community center. I’m trying to find out how that happened. They’re getting back to me on that. I don’t know what the deal was. He must have done something. Maybe gave them some money, I don’t know. Who knows?
JH: Interesting. You were five when you moved to Northbrook. Where did your family move?
NB: Here in Northbrook or from where?
JH: Alright, where did you live before?
NB: We lived in Wayne and Bartlett. I don’t know which one was the one before we moved to Northbrook. When I came here in 1950, I was five years old.
JH: Where was your Northbrook house?
NB: We lived in the oldest house in Northbrook on Lake Road, which we called County Line Road. 1705 County Line Road.
JH: You say it was the oldest house in Northbrook. Tell me about that house.
NB: Okay. Well, it was set back a bit off Lake … see, I’m calling it Lake Cook now. I don’t know why. Set back off, kind of actually on a hill. There were many trees. It was a very large house, two-story with a wrap around porch. We had sun decks. There was a circular driveway which we used to ride our bicycles on real fast, like race and stuff.
We had some barns that we didn’t own, but there were like three barns. There was a great big barn, two stories, which accommodated horses, I could see. There was actually a pump house off of that. There was another building which actually had a windmill with a ladder going straight up. It was all covered in vines. I never had the courage to climb that ladder. I just couldn’t do it. It was really high. We used to get up on top of the roof and look up and stuff like that. There was another flat building, with just a slight pitched roof, I don’t know what that was used for. Then there was another building, which we called a pig sty. It was mainly brick.
Like I say, my dad bought the land which had all the grass and the trees, but then there were the barns, and you had all the field where Northbrook Court is today. Hundreds of acres.
JH: This was Northbrook Court? Did you have a lot of neighbors there?
NB: That was really great about it. I could see Glenbrook countryside from my room, which faced the west, okay? There were homes there, and actually were to the south, too, in Glenbrook countryside. Other than that, the only house I could really see was my neighbor across the street, George Dewey, was my first friend. We were both the same age. We actually lived in two completely different worlds because I’m in Cook County, he’s in Lake County. I ended up going to Glenbrook and he ended up going to Deerfield. We both played football, so that’s another story. He was my first friend, and that was really the only house that I could see. That was north of us on the other side of the street.
JH: Did you keep ponies or horses?
NB: Yeah, we had three horses. The most we had at one time was two. We had Saber and Snowball, and then Spice came along later. I don’t know what happened. I think maybe Snowball died or something.
Saber was a cow pony. He was big and he was strong and mean. He didn’t like me too much. When horse’s ears go back, you got big trouble. They’re telling you something. What he would do is, you would mount him of course the proper way, from his left side facing his rear. If you got too close to his back feet, he would cow kick you. That means he would bring his left leg up and he would try to kick you that way. Sometimes he would get you. If you’re aware of that, then you move backwards towards his head more, see? Then he would whip around and bite you. You had big problems with this horse. He was kind of nasty.
The other two, Snowball and Spice, they were very gentle and sweet.
JH: Were there other horses nearby?
NB: Yeah, we had east of us was Royal Oak Stables. We’d go down there occasionally. They had plenty of horses. Once a year, or something like that, they’d have a contest where they’d do the jumping and dressage, whatever they call that.
We would always ride by along the creek. Then we’d go under the tollway at the end of the forest reserve. That’s (_________???) road.
My sisters were big on jumping. Actually, I finally got the courage to take the cassettes or the VCRs or whatever it is, and make DVDs out of them. They sat in my bookcase forever and this winter I had the time to do it. I was able to watch my dad’s old movies and see my sisters do their jumping and all sorts of stuff. That was fantastic.
JH: So you had a rather large family?
NB: Yeah, I had six sisters. I’m the only boy. Maybe that’s why I’m spoiled, you see? That’s what people have said. I’m the second oldest. My sister Kathy was a year and a half, about, older than me. She was always much taller. Finally, in junior high or in high school, let’s say high school, freshman year, I started growing, so I surpassed her.
She was pretty tough. One time, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I peeked through the keyhole of her room of which she somehow opened the door and threw an iron and hit me in the face, just breaking my teeth. It was kind of a bad lesson. Shouldn’t do that.
JH: No, you shouldn’t. Your other sisters?
NB: Well, Sally was next, and Holly was a couple years younger than her. Then came Carol, who sadly was killed in an automobile accident in 1969, actually on this day, April 11, 1969. Then, actually before her, I have to go back, excuseme. After Holly … It goes Cathy, Neil, Sally, Holly …
My mother had another child who sadly again died at six months. She was before Carol. We were having a party and I was seven years old, it was before party. We were getting everything ready. It was a beautiful day. All of a sudden I heard this commotion. I look over, I see my dad with the baby on the ground. He was doing some arm thing. We didn’t have mouth to mouth in those days, or whatever it is, you know? He was doing some arm movement. He told me to run across the street and tell Mrs. Dewey. I ran as fast as I could and I came in there and Mrs. Dewey was so calm. I couldn’t understand why she was so calm. She was kind of this matronly lady with white hair. I told her to call the police. I stayed at their house. I was seven. She ended up, she died.
Back in those days, they never talked about somebody who died like that. It was just as if she never existed. It was kind of sad. Actually, to this day, nobody in our family really even acknowledges her, which is really super sad. It wasn’t until my mother died and I found in her little bible a little thing from the paper about Evie, so I kept that. That’s about all I’ve got.
NB: Then we had Julie, after Carol. She’s my youngest sister. Five are living. No, four are living. Excuse me.
JH: Where did you and your siblings go to school?
NB: I started out at Greenbriar. I think my teacher was the principal. I want to say Mrs. Kesler?
NB: Okay, Keller. I was thinking about that just last night, I thought I’m losing it just a little bit. I thought about, that’s the guy I skated against, you know? My big number one enemy from Germany. It couldn’t be him, right? Mrs. Keller. Anyway, I went to kindergarten there. My memory of that is that she wrote in a memo to my mother that I couldn’t skip. That was a big deal. We had to skip around the room. I just couldn’t skip. I could run and walk, but I couldn’t skip. I felt pretty bad about that.
JH: Was she telling you you weren’t coordinated?
NB: I don’t know what the deal was.
JH: That didn’t play out in your life, did it? You were very well coordinated.
NB: Yeah, it turns out. The thing I looked for, I remembered last night I have a report card from Mrs. Keller, okay? In that report, I wish I could have found it last night. I looked for a little while. I just got discouraged. I just think I couldn’t get it. I wanted to bring this to you because, it’s too bad I couldn’t, because she described me to a T, exactly as I am today. I just couldn’t believe it, her description of me. She had me pegged. It was really cool. I wish I could have brought it to you.
JH: After Greenbriar, where did you go to school?
NB: I went to Crestwood. I was there fourth through eighth grade.
JH: Was it always Crestwood when you went, the name of the school was always Crestwood when you went there?
NB: Yeah, Crestwood, right?
JH: I know that schools had several different names over time.
NB: Yeah. We had, Coach Shangdon —–(??) was our teacher. He was a nice guy. I liked him a lot. I think my best day at Crestwood, other than playing marbles early in the morning, riding my bike there, my best day was we had two gym classes, recess, and all-star football game of which I played in. I think Doug Rader intercepted a pass in front of me and went for the winning touchdown. He played for the Houston Astros. I think it had to have been him. That was my best day. I liked to be outside.
JH: So, Doug Rader grew up here in town, then?
NB: Yeah, Doug Rader was a year ahead of me. Everybody knew he was a really good baseball player. I never really played against him except for maybe one year at little league, and I think he hit a fly ball. We were playing out on the little league field off Shermer Road and I just had got a new glove. You know how a new glove is? It’s just stiff as a board. A high pop-up and it hit my glove and bounced out. I think that was Doug Rader, although I’m not totally sure. I think that was him.
He was always two years ahead of me, so every time he moved up, I would move on to another class, too. I never really overlapped with him.
JH: You said you played baseball on the field on Shermer. Which field is that?
NB: Well, it’s the one by Culligan. I mean, I guess that’s what we called it. The thing I remember most about that is, I played for Adam’s Drug Store and Mr. Baldwin was our coach, and Dickie Baldwin was his son, was my good friend. It was kind of fun. We really played good baseball. The warm-ups were great and everything. It was very high-caliber little league, I think. The team to beat, I think, was Melzer’s ——(??), and that’s Doug Rader was on that team. He didn’t even bat like third, fourth, or fifth. He was like second or sixth. I mean, they had huge guys and a ton of home runs. The big thing was that if a guy hit a home run in right field, because all the cars were parked along Shermer Road, might take out a window. That was a big deal. Hear that noise, it was wonderful. Not just a car. You’re not driving by, but just parked, okay?
JH: When you said Culligan, is that the Culligan’s plant that’s now … It’s on Shermer Road, and I can’t think of the name right now. See, I forget things, too. It used to be Fire Guard and now it’s Granger.
NB: Yes. Fire Guard. That sounds familiar.
JH: Right, and now it’s Granger. They had a baseball field there that you played little league.
NB: Yeah, right. That was a lot of fun. I think they would give us … See, I’m thinking like this, going back now, I didn’t think about this before I came here. They would give us a stick of gum when we’d show up, and that was cool. It was just really … I love baseball. That was my sport. I always wanted to be Mickey Mantle. He was my hero. Be a professional baseball player. I had that thought for a long time, through pony league and then I played colt league.
I had to make a decision when I was about 17 because I ended up running track at Glenbrook instead of playing baseball. That was good for the speed skating track. I still played summer baseball anyway. I played three years of colt league, but I never really played legion. The guys who played high school baseball, they concentrated on it and they would play the legion. I wasn’t until It was about my third year of colt league when I discovered I couldn’t hit a curve ball and the fast balls were really coming in really fast. The writing was on the wall. That was my time.
May last stop was over here on the field where the junior high is, (___________???). I was sure I was going to hit as far as, a big hit, then I just had the greatest cut in the world, and I swung as hard as I could, and I tapped the ball to the pitcher. He threw to second, and then to first for a double play. That was my last stop of my life.
JH: Sports have played an important part in your life. You played, you said track and field at Glenbrook?
NB: Yeah. I ran freshman and sophomore year. I forget, but I think I must have run junior, too. Senior, I was injured in skating so I didn’t run my senior year.
JH: You also played football at Glenbrook?
NB: Football, yeah. Football was something else. That was a real indoctrination in pressure and trying to become a man, I guess. What happened was, I started out a little tiny guy, and I wanted to carry the ball probably, as a freshman, be a half back, but I remember the coach saying, “Okay, I’m going to ask you guys what position you want to play.” When it came to, he said, “Okay, Blanchford, what do you want?” I just didn’t have the courage, so I said, “End.” I just didn’t have the courage to say half back, so I ended sixth string with guys much bigger than me and I did absolutely nothing at all. I used to just hang around the dummies, I remember. I never really got in a game, I don’t think. I was very discouraged.
I remember one time my dad came to practice. In fact, he probably came to some practices. I’d see him way down at the end in his hat and his suit, kind of whatever looking and stuff. Anyway, I remember I was in the living room of our house and I said, “I don’t think I’m going to play football anymore.” He said, “I don’t know. You meet nice people. It’s a good activity.” He convinced me to go out again as a sophomore. I just got a lot of playing time as a sophomore. Went both ways, I think. At Glenbrook at that time, what they did was, they moved kids up one notch if they were pretty good. A kid was a sophomore, like me, if he was good he’d play on the JV. That opened up an opportunity for me to play and I got a lot of playing time as a sophomore. I really enjoyed it.
Then I went out as a junior. They had the JV and I was playing, I played two games. Actually, the coach came up to me and said, “Neil, would you like to play quarterback?” I thought, “Yeah, I’ll try quarterback.” I played two games as quarterback. I think we won both of them. That Monday I was actually going to the bathroom and some kid said, “Hey, Neil, you got moved up to the varsity.” I said, “You gotta be kidding me.” Sure enough, he moved me up to varsity because Tim Shannon had gotten a concussion. Actually, I thought they were going to move me up as a quarterback because my hero, Mike Connolly, had lost a couple of games. He was a wonderful athlete, just a terrific guy. I thought, “Wow, they’re going to put me ahead of him. I can’t believe this,” which was crazy to think because the guy was terrific. But they moved me up as a defensive back, which I soon found out.
Well anyway, that was something else. Because our coach had me do this drill where I was the tackler and the ball carrier, we would stand in the middle of the field, 10 yards apart. We would both run to the sidelines, we’re 10 yards apart, you see. Then when we get to the sidelines, we both cut off, and I would hit him. I would tackle him. Then I would run back to the middle of the field, get a fresh ball carrier to do the same thing. Maybe go to the other sidelines, cut up and hit him. Then I’d go back to middle of the field, get another guy, go up and hit him. Time after time after time, a new guy, just me, tackling, tackling, tackling. I got to a point where I started crying. This guy, the coach, says, “Blanchford, you want to stay with the varsity or go back to the JV?” I said, “I’m staying with the varsity.” I could easily have said I wanted to go back to the JV. That was a defining moment for me.
JH: You mentioned that your best friend across the street lived in a different world than you did because he lived in Lake County and you lived in Cook County. Did your friends play football as well? Did he play football as well?
NB: Yeah, George Dewey played football at Deerfield.
JH: Did you ever meet?
NB: Yeah. Actually, Jim Hoover tells a good story about that. This is what happened. In our big game senior year George is an offensive tackle and I’m a defensive back. He comes down, and the first thing he says to me as he’s trying to block me, and it’s very easy for a defensive back not to let one of those guys by you because you’re pretty quick and they’re not that quick. After getting rid of them, he said, “I’m going to kill you Blanchford!” I guess some time in that game, too, I must have scored a touchdown or something, because I guess they were all running after me, everybody was yelling my name, they were so mad at me. I guess that’s because I knew some of the guys on the team through George.
JH: Your sports of baseball and football are not the only sport that’s been in your life. You want to talk about the sport that people may know your name because of that sport?
NB: That’s speed skating. Before we do that, can I just say one more thing about football?
NB: Okay. First, I want to talk about coach Semorian —-(??). He was my defensive back coach when I was a senior. I always remember, we were coming off the field and I said something like, this is after practice, I said, “Well, coach Semorian —-(??), I thought,” and before I could even finish, he said, “Don’t think, Blanchford!” I remember that. That was interesting.
The other one was coach Sherman. That’s the one I really remember the most. That was, when he brought me up to the varsity, my first game. The pressure was incredible. We were playing Proviso West, I think. They had a guy named Logan Duga, and he was their star halfback. It was Logan Duga this and Logan Duga that, all week. I played defensive back in the first play of the game. Sure enough he ran over to my side, he ran for a touchdown about 50 yards. I came off the field and the coach, not Sherman, excuse me one of the other coaches was banging me in the head with something, they’re saying, “Look at Kenny Holmes, look what you’ve done! He’s crying!” Because he scored a touchdown.
Getting back to coach Sherman, it was the next Monday, we went in for game films. I was in student council, a place I never should have been in my entire life, I was like a fish out of water, you see, in student council. The president of student council was Dave Laylie and he was the team captain of football. Don Hollun was president of senior class. I knew these guys had to have been smart, right? Coach Sherman is up there talking to us, it’s Monday, it’s film time. We’d lost the game and it’s very, very tense, you know? This is what he says to me. He says, not to me, to the guys. I’m 15, I don’t even know if I’m 16 yet. He says, “You’s guys ain’t got the brains to do the job right.” “You’s guys ain’t got the brains to do the job right.” I’m thinking, “He’s president of student council. He’s president of the senior class. What are you talking about?” I’m thinking, it took him literally … I’ve seen him many times after that, and I told him the same thing all the time. It is in my head. I can’t get that thing out of my head. It’s unbelievable.
JH: That’s funny.
NB: It really is, yeah.
JH: Okay, so let’s talk about speed skating.
JH: That played an important part in your life and your sister’s life as well. At least one of your sisters. I don’t know-
NB: Actually, all of my sisters. Sally made the Olympic team as I did in 68. Holly actually won all the divisions in silver skates. I never won a silver skates, she won all five. She was a great skater. Carol was a great skater, too. Julie also did skating. My older sister Cathy, a little bit, but not too much.
We started out and we used to have annual races here. I think over there where the historical center is. I remember in my race, and all my friends, a buddy of mine (_________???), Dickie Baldwin, and Bobby Airs, were all skating in that race. I fell immediately and had to watch all the guys make the one lap, you know? That was kind of tough. I think that was, I must have been somewhere under nine. That was our yearly race.
Then at nine, I joined the speed skating club. The way I got hooked was we had our first meet, it was a night meet, it was at Tower Rink, and I had my uniform on and it was cool. I skated out to the middle of the rink and there was a picnic bench there. On the picnic bench was, I’d never seen a trophy before, all the trophies. I said, “Man, this is a sport for me. I got to have a trophy.” I tried for years to get one. It’s not that easy. I skated the midget division and the juvenile division and finally I think in the junior division I got a trophy. It took a number of years to get one.
JH: When you say the Tower Rink, where was the Tower Rink?
NB: It’s where we are right here, at the library. It’s a lot smaller-looking now. Before it was a lot bigger.
JH: It encompassed this this whole area where the library is today?
NB: Right. It was a move up from the youth center to come to this. Then they made the rink in the bicycle track for the speed skaters. That’s where we’d go after that.
JH: Did you race bicycles, too?
NB: Yes, I did. I did a little bit of that. Speed skating and bicycling, they kind of go hand in hand. I also played baseball in the summer. To play baseball and ride the bike, and we had football practice. I couldn’t do it all. I did a little bit of bicycling. I feel once here at the track and that did it for me. It was, I mean, it was bad. Somehow I couldn’t get out of the situation I was in and our wheels touched and I saw it coming and I just couldn’t do anything. It was frustrating. I went down and I get all skinned up. I remember thinking, “I don’t think this is for me.”
JH: You mentioned that you and your sister made the Olympics team in 1968?
JH: Where was that Olympics?
NB: That was in Grenoble.
JH: You want to talk about that experience a little bit?
NB: Yeah, okay. In 67 I was able to go to Norway to train, which was a big confidence booster for me. That was a wonderful experience. I left college, I went to Macalester in Minnesota, I left college it turned out actually for a year and a half. In 67 I went to Norway. Norway is the greatest country in the whole world. I love Norway. The people there and the skaters were wonderful to me. I really learned a lot. My time improved over the course of a couple months.
I continued to train for that year until the Olympic trials. We had four opportunities up at west Ellis in the 500 meter. That was my specialty. I think the first one I didn’t do very well. Second one, I got paired with Terry McDermott, I think it was the last period of the group, although I’m not totally sure about that, but I think it was. At least I know I got paired with McDermott. He was the defending Olympic champion from 1964. It was wonderful. I was able to get the better of the two lanes based upon the wind at west Ellis, so I did take advantage of it. I ended up beating him at 40.3 and he had 40.9. That pretty much got me on the Olympic team. That was a great feeling. It was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in sports. I still had two more race, which I think I ended up winning them, but that race pretty much did it for me. It was wonderful.
JH: What does it feel like representing your country at an Olympics?
NB: Well, for sure in 68 I was really proud of the fact. I mean, I remember we went to New York City and they gave us a wonderful camel hair coat with an Olympic insignia on it with the rings and everything, and USA. I remember walking down the street and I went up to the top of the empire state building but I just, with all the people and stuff, wearing that coat. It was wonderful really to make the team and to go. It was just great, you know. The whole experience.
JH: You and your sister Sally were on that team?
JH: Was there anyone else from Northbrook?
NB: Well, yeah. Eddie Rudolph made the team. It was his third Olympics. Unfortunately he had a problem with his child, so he had to come back home. His child was ill. Then he also pulled a leg muscle(_________???). He was paired against Keller, the great German who eventually won the 500 meter in the Olympics. I’ll never forget. It was down at the starting line and they took off. It was just a wonderful race. At the hundred meter mark, Eddie stood up. What happened? He’s got a whole lap to go and he just stood up. Well, he was injured, so then he had to go home, so he didn’t compete.
I don’t think anybody else … I think maybe … Oh, excuse me. Dianne Holum, she got silver and a bronze medal. I was thinking of the men. I don’t think Leah was on that team. No, Diane was.
JH: That’s four kids from Northbrook on that one Olympic team.
NB: Yeah, I think so.
JH: Representing the entire country.
JH: That’s quite an accomplishment.
NB: Yeah. We’ve had a lot of Olympians, 19 or 20. When you figure out the percentage of what it is per number of people in this country, it’s like probably one in some millions, I guess. It’s rare I guess.
JH: I think Northbrook has sent an Olympian every year but one since in the 50s sometime.
NB: It really is.
JH: Amazing. We are almost at the end of our interview. Can you believe we’ve been talking almost 30 minutes here.
NB: I have a whole list here.
JH: Is there something on your list that you haven’t covered with us today that you want to cover?
NB: I’m looking at my list right now. Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. How much time do I have?
NB: Okay. Well … We went to Saint Giles church here. I’m Episcopalian. We went to he one actually just down the street here, a little white church right now, but that’s where we went.
JH: What’s now the Christian Science church?
NB: Right. Our minister was Father Badger. One day after the service, my dad was there and Father Badger and me, and I don’t know, somebody else was there, kind of talking. I was pretty young, junior high or even younger. All of a sudden, my dad said something like, “Well, sure. Neil would like to be an acolyte.” I went, “What? What’s he talking about?” What was I supposed to say, right? Ten years later after being an acolyte, I did that for 10 years. They had a thing called the Order of Saint Vincent, and Father Badger, he would tutor me for that. I would go down to the rectory. I was in high school at that time, probably a senior, and I remember he said, “Well, Neil, would you like … Have you ever thought about going into the ministry?” I thought, “No, not really.” That was something I thought was interesting. That was my … Ten years as an acolyte, that taught you a lot of discipline. You had to get up, you had to be at church by 7:30. You and maybe another acolyte would do the service.
That was my first indoctrination on wine, actually. Not that I drink wine now, but we give the bread and wine. One time there was an excess. We do our thing over to the side. We have the water and the wine bottles and we’re doing our thing. One day he had a little bit excess, so he pours it down your throat and my face went red as a beet. I’ve never been so … That was an experience, you know. I did that.
There’s one other thing, too, I probably should tell you about. When I was staying on Lake Cook road and had nothing better to do than to make an ice ball. This is during the winter. I saw a good target coming down there. It got bigger and bigger. It was a yellow target, got bigger and bigger as it got close to me. It was a school bus. I thought, “This is wonderful. I know I can hit this thing.” So, I fired my fastball and I hit the window. The bus slowly came to a stop. The door was right opposite me. Nothing was going on. Nothing, nothing. Then all of a sudden, the door flew open and some black flash came out. The next thing I was in the ground and somebody on top of me putting snow in my face, saying, “How do you like it, kid?” It was my sister’s bus. She ran up to my mother and said, “Mom, Neil’s getting beat up by the lady bus driver!” I had to ride her bus the next two or three years. That was tough. Irene Pearson and her husband was the police chief, I guess. Nobody even moved on her bus, especially me, after that.
JH: Well Neil, thank you so very much for participating in Northbrook Voices. Yourmemories of life in Northbrook will add a unique and personal perspective about the history of our village.
NB: Thank you. Enjoyed being here.