Finding Wooden's head

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MARTINSVILLE, Ind. – The big mystery in this little town is how the head of a deceased former principal wound up on the wax statue of favorite son John Wooden.

"If you can find that out, you've got a scoop," said Elmer Reynolds, 70, a native of this small Southern Indiana town who knows just about everything else about Wooden, the town's most famous product.

About the only thing that is certain is that the wax statue that stands in a glass case at Martinsville High School, just across the hall from the John R. Wooden gymnasium, doesn't look a lick like Wooden.

Which is the real John Wooden?

Introducing ... John Wooden and John Wooden?
(Top: Dan Wetzel; Bottom: AP)

The body is similar to Wooden's. It is wearing a conservative suit that Wooden might have worn back in his UCLA days. There is even a sign by the feet that reads: "John Wooden."

But the head? It isn't John Wooden. It isn't even close. And it isn't just a bad artist's rendering. If it wasn't for the sign at his feet, you could have 1,000 guesses to whom it was and still not choose John Wooden.

Even Wooden knows it.

"I don't know whose picture they sent (to the sculptor)," Wooden told the Indianapolis Star last year, "but I don't think it was mine. My daughter was mad about it, but like I told her, I don't know who that guy is, but he is a heck of a lot better looking than I am.'"

Last fall, after reading Wooden's comments while on assignment in Indiana, I stopped by for a look and found the entire thing rather comical. But due to time and technology constraints I couldn't take a picture or get the full story.

This year, with the Final Four just up the road in Indianapolis and featuring UCLA, this seemed like the perfect time to remedy that. So Thursday I packed the digital camera, gassed up the rental car and gathered a fact finding team – myself, my freeloading father and Drexel assistant basketball coach Tony Chiles.

"We are on the side of truth," reminded Chiles.

There is a chance we may have even found it.

The first stop after cruising down State Road 37 was Martinsville High School, a 3,000-student school on the west side of town, near the strip malls. It was spring break, so we needed a maintenance worker, who we'll protect with anonymity, to let us in to see the statue and fill us in on the gossip.

The worker's story was one that been passed down through different maintenance crews and was the wildest one we had heard.

At some point in the 1970s, the city commissioned a wax statue to honor Wooden, their most famous alum. When it arrived it looked just like him. But then, when moving it into place, some workmen dropped it, causing Wooden's head to break off from the body.

The wax was so bent out of shape that it was beyond salvage. And since no one thought a headless John Wooden statue made for much of a tribute, something needed to be done.

Which is the real John Wooden?

The Wooden statue. (Dan Wetzel)

But rather than pay for an entirely new statue (and considering the body was still in perfect shape) the school asked the sculptor if he would create a new head that could be affixed to the original body.

The sculptor said it could be done; just send another picture of Wooden so he could recreate the Hall of Famer's facial features. But what got sent was not a picture of Wooden, but a picture of the then-principal, Henry E. Pearcy. Thus the statue returned with Pearcy's head on it.

"You want to see a picture of Mr. Pearcy?" the worker asked, leading us over to one that commemorated his 34 years of service to the city. "I think (the statue) looks like him."

It sort of did, although a plaque is a tough judge. (Later, we saw real pictures of Pearcy from the 70s that looked remarkably like the statue head.) The obvious solution here was to go ask him, but Henry Pearcy is dead.

Instead we asked the worker, why, at the time, did the school accept it? Why not send the head back and get it to look like, you know, the person they were honoring.

"I don't know," said the worker. "I don't even know if (the story) is true. That's just what I heard."

What do the kids today think, I asked.

"They don't notice," the worker said. "They don't know what Mr. Pearcy looked like. They don't know what Mr. Wooden looks like."

Little towns like this always have a diner where the truth is served along with eggs over easy, apple pies and meatloaf.

In Martinsville the place is Ruby's, which sits on the west side of the court house square. It used to be called the Martinsville Candy Kitchen and has been the town's main joint since the 1920s. As my father and Chiles went to work on some world class milk shakes, I tried to find out if anyone could explain the statue situation.

"I don't know," said owner/cook Ruby Pruitt as she worked on some mac and cheese. "But I do know that statue is creepy. It looks like it is always looking at you."

The strange part was that no one seemed to have spent much time thinking about it. Yes it didn't look like Wooden. Yes it did look like Henry Pearcy. But why dwell on it? One customer, a man, didn't seem to care. He wasn't a huge Wooden fan.

"I think he's turned his back on this town. He could have built a sports center for these kids. I think he's a nice guy and all, but he could have done that."

"He does make some nice money going out on that speaking thing," said Pruitt.

I didn't bother pointing out that since the town couldn't even put the right head on the statue, why should Wooden do anything for them. Instead I just asked for a lead on who might know.

"Go up to Poe's Cafeteria, it's on (State Road) 67, towards Mooresville," said waitress Ramona Byrd. "Rick and Mike Poe know Wooden well. Their daddy and him were friends. Mama Poe might be there too."

Poe's Cafeteria is a big ol' place, with a long row of heart-clogging selections – carved beef, macaroni, potatoes, gravy, pies, cake – none of them seemingly costing more than $3. This is country cookin'. Business was brisk.

Rick Poe seemed a little taken aback by our questions. Maybe he was being protective of Wooden. His family and the coach go way back – "Johnny eats here when he comes back to Indiana. He has eaten here the last two Thanksgivings." Plus my companions were still full from Ruby's, so he wasn't getting a buck out of us. Whatever it was, he wasn't willing to admit anything about the head.

"There is some resemblance there (to Wooden)," he said, the only person who thought so since, other than both of them being white men, there is no resemblance.

Mike Poe, however, claimed he had heard someone from Martinsville had seen the statue for sale, thought it looked like Wooden and got the town to buy it. Which would have been an incredible coincidence, but was at least something new.

We offered up the story we had heard at the school. Mike Poe laughed but claimed he had never heard it.

"But if they did (break the head off), they may not want to admit it," he said.

The Poes gave us directions to Wooden's boyhood home – a humble farm house 12 miles from Martinsville – and the number of Elmer Reynolds, who had just put together a Martinsville Wall of Fame museum back in court house square and was a local Wooden expert.

"I am going in for a brain scan next week," said Elmer Reynolds on the phone. "I am not worried though, I've had people look through my ear before and see nothing but daylight."

Small towns have characters and this was one of them. Reynolds is all energy, despite his ailments, which include the aforementioned brain situation, diabetes and blurred vision. It didn't prevent him from wheeling his Cadillac convertible downtown to see us. He wore a red, white and blue shirt – resembling the U.S. flag. He had a stack of photos and more info than we could ever need.

He started talking about bad feed and lost farms and Wooden war stories. He could go on. In fact he did. But what about the head on the statue?

"It's an embarrassment," Reynolds said. "If I could I'd have it destroyed. We were going to have a celebration at the school last fall and if Wooden went, I was going to cover it up with a towel."

I told him the theory about Henry Pearcy. Reynolds said he didn't know if that was true, but the head did look like Pearcy. "Henry Pearcy was a personal friend of mine," he said. He was at a loss at how it came to be though, like just about everyone else, after all these years he just accepted it.

"Maybe Joe Williams would know," Reynolds said. "He was the athletic director then. If he doesn't know, I don't know who would."

I called Joe Williams, but he was out golfing so we left a message. Then I decided to pay the local newspaper, the Martinsville Daily Reporter a visit, figuring they were the keepers of the record around here. The lady at the front desk didn't know. A couple of reporters admitted the head wasn't Wooden, but they had never heard why.

Finally the news editor said no current staffer knew, but Bette Nunn, now 70 years old, was the former managing editor and she had worked there for 41 years.

"If she doesn't know, no one will," he said, echoing what I had been hearing all day. He gave me Nunn's number. "Don't be alarmed when she answers Bail Bonds.' That's what she does now."

Bette Nunn answered as promised, laughed at the story, but admitted she hadn't made the Principal Pearcy connection. "I'm sure they intended it to be John Wooden," she said.

Nunn claimed that she had never heard the story of what happened. "If there was a mystery, I would have heard it," she said. "If they did drop and break it, I am sure they were trying to keep it a secret. (But it's hard) to keep a secret in a small town."

She apologized for not being able to offer more.

We were befuddled. We were confused. We couldn't understand why no one seemed to really care that such a silly statue was still standing. So we smartly decided to go over to the Firehouse Pub on the east side of the square to have a beer and hash it all out.

Tony Chiles surmised that Principal Pearcy was jealous of Wooden. It was Pearcy, after all, who had spent 34 years serving the town while Wooden was off in California getting rich and famous. And sure, while Wooden was the superior athlete (all-state in 1927 and 28, all-American at Purdue in 1930, 31 and 32), Pearcy was all-state in 1939. So it wasn't like he was chopped liver.

But did he get a statue? Heck, no.

"He had motive, Chiles concluded.

"And as principal, he had opportunity," my father added.

With these two condemning a dead man it was clearly time to leave and let Martinsville have its colorful story. No one in town had ever really researched it. No one in Indiana, for that matter. Even when the Indianapolis Star had written that brief story about it last fall, they didn't even bother to send a photographer down to take a picture.

Maybe we were just strangely obsessed with it. If no one else cared, why should we?

But then the phone rang.

"I remember most of it," said Joe Williams, the old athletic director. "Someone I don't recall, but someone who must have had a lot of influence around town, came up to the school board with (the statue idea).

"He had been way up in Northern Indiana and seen a wax statue at a museum or a store that was going out of business. The statue, he said, looked like Johnny Wooden. He pressured the school board to buy it.

"It came, but it didn't look like Johnny. I didn't think it looked like him at all. I thought it was a disservice to Johnny. But we put it out there. Then, when they were cleaning or something, it broke. I can't remember whether it was an arm or an ear or what, but something fell off.

"We put it back in a closet. I'd as soon as kept it in the closet, but they decided to send it out to get fixed. It came back and it's been there (ever since)."

Did the face get changed so it looked more like Henry Pearcy? Could there be anything to the story of the wrong picture getting sent, which Wooden himself believes?

"It does look like (Pearcy), but it looked like him the first time too."

So, if you believe that explanation and all the coincidences it would require, everyone's story was partially correct. And partially incorrect. And apparently, that isn't someone else's head on Wooden's statue (as even he believes). It is just that Wooden's name is under someone else's statue.

It is the statue of Wooden ... that isn't.

Which ends the mystery but begs a new question: Can't some rich UCLA booster just buy Martinsville a new statue of John Wooden? After 30 years, they aren't going to do it themselves.