Once a Hero

Art Spaugy, Student Athlete

By Brant Short

Photos courtesy of Brant Short

In our family, the story of Arthur E. Spaugy was told and retold, as all good legends are, so I knew of his sporting achievements at the University of Idaho and of his tragic death. When I was growing up in the 1960s, I was often told about Art’s photograph on the university’s gymnasium wall.

He was my mother’s cousin, although they never met. He died in 1933 and my mom, Barbara Stennett, wasn’t born until 1938. But she knew his biography and shared it with me as part of my family legacy.

Actually, I never thought much about Art until she gave me several photographs of him and press clippings about his death. They had been collected by my great aunt Olga Fisher, who died in 2004 and was the last family member to know Art personally.

Although she was technically Art’s aunt, they were only six years apart in age and were more like siblings. Olga shared many stories of Art with my mother, who passed them on to me.

I was especially moved by the photographs of him that I inherited. Through capturing a moment in time, I think a photo can tell us something about the inner person, while a series of images from different times and contexts offer wider clues to the subject’s character.

I don’t have many photographs of Art but they’re enough to suggest a young man with a wry smile who exuded self-confidence, optimism, and who embraced life.

They inspired me to look further, in part to determine if my assumptions about him were correct, in part to better understand my family background, but also to consider sports and college life from nearly a century ago.

Art attended the University of Idaho from 1928-1932, where he excelled in football, played basketball and baseball, and was one of the most popular students on campus, active in many aspects of student life.

I suppose he exemplified the ideal of the “student athlete” of his generation. My investigations made me realize that although Art has been forgotten for nearly a century, fragments of his short life help recall a more innocent time in America.

Football players received little financial aid, participated in other extra-curricular activities, and often played both offense and defense. The vast majority of Vandal football players were from Idaho, many from rural areas of the state.

Art was born in 1908 in Pocatello. His father, William Spaugy, had come from Pennsylvania and was a brakeman for the Union Pacific Railroad. His mother was Marie Nussbaum, my grandfather’s eldest sister.

She immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1904 and ended up in Montpelier. Art grew up with many Nussbaum relatives as a support system, including two aunts (Olga and Ida) and an uncle (Walter, my grandfather). My mother learned about Art through the many days and nights she spent with her aunts and cousins. The Nussbaum family helped Art financially when he attended college and he spent one summer living with his Aunt Ida, when he worked at a flour mill in Burley.

Art had two younger brothers, Ralph and Donald, both of whom attended the University of Idaho, which was often called Idaho in those days, where they both lettered in football.

Art graduated from Nampa High School in 1928. His yearbook photograph and accompanying list of school activities reveal an all-around student. He was on the football and basketball teams for three years, and was team captain in both sports his senior year.

He also was on the baseball and tennis squads, and lettered eleven times. Beyond that, he was vice president of the senior class and of the Bulldog Athletic Club, and belonged to the Junior Rotarians.

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Press photo of Art Spaugy released by the University of Idaho.
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Art as assistant coach of the university's football team.
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Art in his high school football uniform.
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College graduation photos, 1932.
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University of Idaho freshman football squad, 1932.
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Art in a university sports sweater.
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Art and his mother, Marie, in Montpelier, 1930.
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From left: Art, Don, and Ralph Spaugy.
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A couple of things fellow students had written next to Art’s senior photo in his yearbook were revealing. One line was penned as a quote from Art: “I may be taller than average, but then, so was Lincoln.” The other accurately predicted his future: “He’ll coach football and basketball, and other sports too. His teams will win in whatever they do.”

I scoured the 1928-1929 University of Idaho class yearbook, The Gem of the Mountains, and the campus newspaper, The Argonaut, for information about Art’s freshman year in Moscow. The yearbook reveals he joined Phi Delta Theta fraternity, of which he remained a member throughout his university years.

He received a freshman “numeral sweater” in both football and basketball, which required being on the field or court at least fifty percent of the playing season. Of sixty players who turned out for freshman football, Art was one of nineteen to earn a sweater, and he was one of only eight in basketball. He also played freshman baseball, but I found no other information about that.

Each year, Art’s prowess as a football player grew, but the Vandals were not successful on the field. Back then, the University of Idaho was a member of the Pacific Coast Conference, a precursor to the Pac 12, which meant they regularly competed against much larger schools, such as Washington, Oregon, California, and Stanford.

The conference was established in 1915 and Idaho (along with USC) joined the conference in 1922. After Montana and UCLA joined, the conference had ten member schools from 1928 to 1959. Understandably, Idaho and Montana were the least successful schools overall, but the Vandals were competitive in many sports and the football games were often close during Art’s career.

They won a conference football game in the fall of 1929, Art’s first year on the varsity, and were 4-5 overall. The season ended with a 41-7 win against Idaho Southern Branch (now Idaho State University) during which Art intercepted a pass at defensive center and returned it sixty yards for a touchdown.

The following year, 1930, was a tough one for the Vandals. An October article in The Christian Science Monitor noted that head coach Leo Calland “is not expecting much from his pony squad this year.” The team had only four seniors and eight juniors, and was mostly sophomores.

They went 4-7 but were 0-5 in conference play, with lopsided losses to Washington, Oregon, Washington State, and UCLA. Their wins all came at the expense of smaller schools. Newspaper articles highlighted the Vandals’ lack of depth and hopes of rebuilding for the future.

Art started at both offensive and defensive center, and began to emerge as a team leader. The week that Idaho played UCLA, the Santa Cruz News featured a photo collage titled “Folks, Meet the Vandals.” Art was at the center of six players, in his lineman pose.

The article mentioned that like most small schools, Idaho suffered from a lack of reserves and the team had played poor defense so far, but the offensive line, predicted in the preseason to be one of the team’s “weak spots,” had performed well. Art and the other linemen got their names in the paper.

The highlight of that year was a trip to Hawaii. In the football section of the yearbook, the featured photo shows the team wearing traditional leis, standing in front of their cruise ship. Art’s characteristic smile makes him easy to pick out.

On Christmas Day, Idaho played an exhibition game against an alumni team from St. Louis College of Honolulu (identified as the “Honolulu All Stars” in some reports), and won 20-14.

On New Year’s Day 1931, the Vandals lost to the University of Hawaii, 37-0. The Argonaut suggested that the seventy-five-degree temperature might have been partially responsible for the team’s lack of energy.

Despite the shellacking, Art stood out for his performance in that game. A Honolulu newspaper reporter mentioned only one Idaho player by name: “Arthur Spaugy, center, put forth the best performance for the visitors.”  

The varsity baseball team, on which Art was a pitcher, likewise struggled to a record of 3-20. I didn’t uncover any individual statistics but Art was mentioned twice in the yearbook for effective pitching during a tour of the Oregon coast and while hosting Oregon in Moscow.

In previewing the first football game of Art’s senior year, The Argonaut reported that he would start at “the pivot point” (offensive and defensive center). The story also said Art was “hard to move out of the line as well as being an excellent passer,” although I found no record of him throwing a pass in a game.

By contemporary standards, the Vandals were not physically imposing. Standing well over six feet tall and weighing 185 pounds, Art was the third-heaviest player on the squad of thirty-five.

The Vandals went 3-4 that year. In a 9-0 loss to Oregon, the defense was praised, especially defensive linemen John Norby and Art who were “in on nearly every tackle, throwing the Oregon backs behind the line of scrimmage time after time.”

In a loss to Washington, Art and his defensive line teammates were praised for holding the Huskies to a draw in the second half. He was commended in a tight 21-19 victory against Montana for playing his “usual steady game” on the line.

In the homecoming game, Idaho defeated Gonzaga but Art was injured after intercepting a pass. “As he limped from the field,” reported The Argonaut, “the stands gave him a rousing tribute, as he was leaving his last home game.”

Multiple injuries kept all but a small number of players out of the final game of the season, played in three inches of mud against a larger and healthier California team. It was the first game in two years that Art did not start, but he suited up.

Even though the Vandals won only a single conference game in 1931, Art and two teammates earned Honorable Mentions on the Pacific Coast All Conference Team, a remarkable achievement amid the league’s large universities.

Centers don’t get the press coverage of quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, but he clearly impressed the Boston Braves of the National Football League, who asked him to join the team for the 1932 season. The Argonaut reported that Art hadn’t decided if he would accept, and the article noted he had received “prominent mention on several All-Coast and All-Northwest mythical elevens.”

I came across a November 8 open letter to the editor of The Argonaut that suggested there were rumblings about the Vandal head coach by season’s end. It was written by the “nineteen Vandal players left uninjured after the Oregon game.”

The players called Coach Leo Calland “one of the highest principled, cleanest, and capable men any university could have for its football coach.” Noting the challenges the team had faced, the letter concluded: “We are only asking just to give Idaho a break. It isn’t for us fellows who play, but for Coach Calland, the man who can bring Idaho out of the cellar and keep her out of it.”

Coach Calland’s habit was to select different players as captains for individual games, but at the football team’s fall banquet two weeks after the season ended, Art was elected by the squad as honorary captain. According to The Argonaut, Art provided the “best inspiration” on the team and was praised for sportsmanship, leadership, and fighting spirit. The reporter concluded that he ranked among “the best centers in the West.”

Both socially and academically, Art embraced campus life beyond the athletic fields. Just after the 1931 football season ended, he was one of five Idaho students selected for membership in the Blue Key Honor Society, founded in 1924, which “recognizes college students at senior institutions of higher education for balanced and all-around excellence in scholarship, leadership, and service.”

Membership is based “on all-around leadership and integrity in student life, high scholastic achievement, and service to others.” The Argonaut story about the Blue Key pledges noted that “Spaugy is one of the best known members of the senior class” and listed his multiple activities.

In February 1932, at an annual “Spinster Skip” dance sponsored by Mortar Board, an academic honor society, “Art Spaugy, prominent athlete” was crowned “campus king.” The newspaper said Mortar Board made its choice “on the basis of personality, popularity, and scholarship. Spaugy represents a combination of all three.”

The article noted that Art “is tall, dark and handsome enough to please the most particular co-ed” and is also “modest and perhaps a little bashful.” The award was kept secret until the intermission of the dance and then a picture of Art in his football uniform was flashed on a large screen in the hall. “All I can say,” Art responded, “is that I surely feel unnecessary.”

The 1932 yearbook listed Art as one of the “Campus Leaders” of the graduating class. That fall, he became an assistant coach for the freshman football team and was an instructor in other sports. Concerning Art’s coaching year in Moscow, I have just two photographs. On Friday, June 2, 1933, he was named Athletic Director at Lewiston Normal School.

He died the next day.

Art and a friend, Boyd Brigham, a teacher at Moscow High School, left on a Friday afternoon for a weekend fishing trip on the Clearwater River’s Middle Fork, about twenty miles north of Kooskia. With them was Boyd’s wife Pauline. They were met in Kooskia by Farrell Trenary and his wife, who was Pauline’s sister.

The five planned to stay the night at a cabin, but high water made the road impassable by the vehicle, which they left behind as they hiked five miles to the cabin in the dark. The next day, Trenary went back to town, perhaps in a second vehicle, with plans to return that evening.

Art and Boyd decided to build a raft and float to their car to retrieve provisions. According to news reports, Mrs. Trenary, who knew the river, tried to talk them out of this plan.

The water was smooth near the cabin as the two women walked along the river, watching Art and Boyd on their raft. About three hundred yards from the abandoned car, the water turned swift, and when the women were forced to go around a knoll, they lost view of the men.

Once they came around the bend, there was no sight of Art and Boyd or the raft. The women ran to a ranger station for help and a search began. Later that day, someone on a bridge in Kooskia saw parts of a raft in the river.

The following day, hundreds of people from Moscow, Orofino, Lewiston, and Kooskia participated in the search. Pauline and her sister, several university faculty members, and Art’s two brothers were among the searchers. The two bodies were never recovered.

Art’s brothers both played football at the university and went on to successful careers. Ralph died in 1976 and Don in 1997. Don’s son, Donald Arthur Spaugy, lives in Seattle and told me his father rarely talked about Art, but it was clear the death affected him his entire life.

Pauline Brigham had been married to Boyd for less than a year. A high school music teacher, she moved to Lewiston after Boyd’s death, taught piano lessons, and was a church pianist for the rest of her life. She died in Lewiston in 1992 and never remarried.

Recalling Art’s life reminds me that every person has an impact on others, regardless of how long they lived. For most of us, our legacy will fade with the generations. Art Spaugy was only twenty-five years old when he died, but the fragments of his biography that remain tell a story I think was worth repeating.

In my copy of Art’s graduation picture from the University of Idaho he wears a bow tie and what appears to be a tuxedo jacket, and he looks like a movie star from the 1930s. The photo was sent to his Aunt Olga. He wrote the following on the back of the photograph:

 “Thought I’d better send you a photo of your onery little nephew because it will probably be the last one I’ll ever have taken—I wanted to put it in a frame for you but I’m financially embarrassed. With love, Art.”

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Brant Short

About Brant Short

Brant Short grew up in Rupert and studied history and communication at Idaho State University. In 1985 he earned a doctorate from Indiana University. He was a faculty member at ISU for nine years before moving to Flagstaff in 1995. Brant taught at Northern Arizona University for twenty-six years, retiring in 2022.

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