A few weeks back we reported that the Winston-Salem Foundation had moved into the new office building across from the library. In a second post we explained that the death of Leo Caldwell in a high school football game in 1923 had played a significant role kick starting the foundation’s fund raising. Ever since, I have been bedeviled by people who want to know the details of Caldwell’s death. So here it is:
At 8:45 AM on Saturday, October 20, 1923, a Southern Railway train from Charlotte steamed into Union Station in Winston-Salem and disgorged the Charlotte Central High School football team and hundreds of fans from the Queen City. They marched up the hill and took over their local headquarters at the Zinzendorf Hotel on Main Street, where they joined a number of former Charlotte players who had arrived the night before from Chapel Hill.
The downtown area was already awash with cars decorated in the black and gold colors of the R. J. Reynolds High School Golden Tornado. Elsewhere in the state, the UNC White Terror had already clinched the state college football championship with a 14-0 win over the North Carolina State Red Terror on Thursday. Later in the day on Saturday, the Wake Forest Baptists and the Davidson Presbyterians would do battle in Charlotte, hoping for a second place finish. But in the Twin City, high school ball was king, and this was the game.
The Charlotte / Winston-Salem rivalry was probably the best in the state. In recent years, Charlotte had dominated, winning the state championship the previous year. But local fans were optimistic. This would be the first meeting under the new names of Central and Reynolds. And Central had stumbled early, suffering narrow losses to the Davidson freshmen and to area rival Monroe High School, while the Golden Tornado had strung together four straight wins, blowing out Durham High in the opener 25-0, and just the week before whipping their other top rival, Greensboro High.
Charlotte Central football team, 1923
The Reynolds campus was so new that the gym had not yet been built, so late in the morning the Reynolds players began assembling at the YMCA on Cherry Street, where they would change into their uniforms before being bussed to Hanes Park. The field there ran parallel to Reynolda Road, pretty much in the same place that the Reynolds team now practices. There were some bleachers along the Reynolda side of the field, but most of the spectators would have to stand.
YMCA, Cherry Street
Both teams arrived early and began their pre-game drills before a crowd of over 2,000 fans, one of the largest, according to the Twin City Sentinel, in local history. Reynolds won the toss and took the field. In the early going, both teams struggled to make first downs. But late in the first quarter, Reynolds drove toward the Central goal. The Wildcats held, but Reynolds captain/quarterback Robah Veach sent a perfect drop kick spinning between the uprights. RJR 3, Central 0.
R.J. Reynolds football team, 1923
That score held up throughout the first half and well into the third quarter. But then Central launched a determined drive, gaining a first down inside the RJR ten yard line. The Tornado stopped them and took over on downs. Central held and RJR was forced to punt from their eight. Halfback Leo Caldwell booted it out past the forty. The Reynolds coverage was right on top of the returner, Mutt Nisbet, but he put on several moves and suddenly streaked into the clear, headed for the goal line. Only one defender remained to be beaten…the punter Leo Caldwell.
Mutt feinted left, feinted right, but Leo held firm and a huge collision occurred. Leo went over backward, but held on…the threat was over for the moment. Mutt was rattled and got up slowly. But Leo did not move. His teammates gathered around, then the coaches raced onto the field. Leo whispered “I can’t get my breath”, then passed out. An ambulance was summoned and raced away toward the brand new Baptist Hospital, just a few blocks away on Hawthorne Road. Leo died en route.
The game was called. There would be no final score. It was later determined that Leo had landed on the back of his head, breaking his neck. Almost immediately, the superintendent of schools, R.H. Latham, announced that the rest of the Reynolds season was cancelled. “It is a great game,” he said. “But it is not worth the price that has been paid. Nothing could be.”
The return trip to Charlotte was a somber one for the Queen City contingent. And when they arrived, they found that many locals wanted to cancel their season as well. A committee, however, decided to continue. Central went on to avenge their earlier loss to Monroe in the western championship game, then defeated Sanford High School to win the state championship.
Leo Caldwell was buried at Salem cemetery on Monday, October 22 His pallbearers were his friends and teammates. Two days later, an anonymous letter was printed on the front page of the Twin City Sentinel, urging citizens to contribute money to the Winston-Salem Foundation for college scholarships in Leo’s name. The letter writer included his or her own contribution, $25.
A committee was appointed to manage the new fund. Their first decision was that the fund would provide low interest loans rather than scholarships. Another citizen pointed out that many local children were unable to finish high school because of lack of funds, so assistance for high school students was added.
Both of the daily newspapers, the morning Journal and the evening Sentinel, agreed to promote the fund by publishing articles and listing the contributors daily. The goal was set at $20,000. And the money began pouring in.
Individual amounts ranged from $500 to 50¢. The B.F. Huntley family contributed $500, as did Bowman and Natalie Gray. Some other prominent families gave $200. Churches and civic groups chipped in with amounts ranging from $30 to over $100. The Civitan Club gave an initial $175, then upped that to $2,000.
The 5A class at the West End School gave $1.50. The sophomore class at Reynolds High gave $30.66. That inspired all of the students at Reynolds to organize. They went door to door. Their first contribution was $400. Their second raised their total to over $1,000.
But the true spirit of the enterprise was captured by three young women, Alma Clodfelter, Iris Norman and Sadie Berry, who worked as clerks at Edward A. Farley, ladies and mens clothing, at 313 North Main Street, and their friend, Annie Anglin, who worked on the other side of the square at Hall’s Style Shop. They each gave one dollar.
At the five week mark, the fund had raised over $8,000. In early December, the annual Christmas funds drove the Caldwell fund off the front pages, but by then over half the goal had already been reached, and the success of the Winston-Salem Foundation’s Leo Caldwell fund was assured. Since then, the foundation has contributed to many areas of our community, but hundreds of young people who might not have had a shot at a college education have benefited directly from Leo Caldwell’s final act.