One humid afternoon in May, Walter "Doc" Hurley was sitting outside Weaver High School chatting about the pitching rotation of his beloved Red Sox when a boy with basketball shoes slung over his shoulders interrupted.
Hurley offered the boy a handshake and a hug and then stuck him to the concrete with a stare that has frozen three generations of Hartford children.
"What's your plan?" Hurley asked.
Basketball practice was in the boy's immediate future, but that is not what Hurley wanted and he waited through a brief silence before asking for specifics.
"Is there college?"
The boy nodded, relieved to have discovered he knew the right answer.
Hurley gave a subtle nod of approval and the boy bounded up the steps into the gymnasium.
"Education, man, that's the whole thing," Hurley said when the young man was gone. "If you don't get them in the classroom, these kids get to hanging around on the street and get involved with foolishness."
As Hurley spoke, Hartford was in the middle of a bloody spring that included the deaths of two students at Fox Middle School, just down the road from the well-kept Tudor house where Hurley still lives.
He is 84 and has lived through disappointment and heartbreak. He uses a walker to navigate steps and every so often he will forget a name for a few seconds, but there is nothing frail about him. Not his body. Not his mind.
He still looks like he could knock you down if he needed to. He still leans back in his chair at the kitchen table, the way your mother told you not to.
And he is still here, fighting for the minds of Hartford's children.
By Choice, Not Chance
One doesn't become a man like Doc Hurley by chance. There is choice involved. Decisions made one at a time over decades become a living resume.
For men such as Johnny Egan, Bob Countryman and John Norman, teammates on the 1957 Weaver High School basketball team that won the state and New England championships, that resume starts under a sweltering sun on the playgrounds of Hartford.
Doc Hurley was their guide, their coach, their caretaker.
But he was not their friend.
This was a choice.
"In those days, you didn't call them mentors, but that's what he was," Countryman said from his home in San Diego. "He was the largest person I had ever seen. He was larger than life to me, and in a way he still is. He didn't try to hang out with us. He was an adult, a man. We looked up to him."
During the 1950s, Hurley spent most of the school year working in Virginia, where his career as an official and a coach took shape. But he spent his summers in Hartford, working as a playground supervisor with the city parks and recreation department.
"I was probably in the sixth grade and having the discipline from a guy like Doc had a lot to do with learning how to play," said Egan, who played 11 seasons in the NBA. "He was strict. We weren't the easiest guys to control back then, but Doc could do it. Some of the guys would have gotten into trouble without him."
In summer 1956, Egan, Countryman and others from Weaver competed together in a summer league that included college players.
Hurley was their coach.
"People would follow us around," Egan said. "We had good leaders, and we became pretty close. Doc and [Weaver coach] Charlie Horvath had a lot to do with building that family atmosphere."
Horvath guided Weaver to the state and New England championships the next spring. His players still recall their coach with fondness. And they still credit Hurley for part of their success.
"There is no question in my mind," Countryman said. "That summer helped us come together. That helped us win it."
Doc Hurley still has a booming voice capable of commanding attention but nothing is more arresting than when he whispers.
"Here's a thing that has been very close to me," he said softly one morning while sitting at his kitchen table. "I never did get the opportunity to do the things that I wanted to do in Hartford because it was a case where it just wasn't time for a black coach. I would come back every summer and I would try to make a connection and I would be knocking on the door of the school board, but the time just wasn't right."
Hurley was a four-sport star at Weaver High and graduated in 1941.
He served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He played professional football in the 1940s with the All-American Football Conference's Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a successful high school coach in track and football in Virginia, and an accomplished basketball official.
When a newspaper in Portsmouth, Va., learned Hurley was going to make Hartford his home, it lamented the loss of a coach who "has literally raised Norfolk County and Norcom [High School] by the bootstraps."
But when Charlie Horvath retired in the late 1950s, Hurley was not hired to replace him.
"We knew that Doc was going to be the next coach," Countryman said. "And then they went and picked this guy from Hartford High. You could not imagine the disappointment."
Hurley never coached at Weaver.
"I never did get over it, and it's still in my heart," Hurley said. "I used to dream about coaching a [football] team at Dillon Stadium because I knew what I could do. It was just one of those things."
Calming The Protesters
Doc Hurley was teaching his physical education class at Northwest-Jones School the morning of April 6, 1968, when he was interrupted by frantic school officials.
Students were threatening to tear down Weaver in protest of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.
"They said `Hurley, you've got to get up to Weaver,'" Hurley said. "I said `I'm in the middle of my class.' They said `Never mind the class, just go.'"
When Hurley arrived at Weaver High School there were about 500 students massed outside, awaiting a fuse.
John Lobon was one of those students.
"Doc got the football team on his side," said Lobon, who now works with the Connecticut Development Authority. "He knew us all from the time we were little kids. I can still remember it so clearly. He said, `We are not destroying this school. If you tear down this school, where are you going to go to get educated?'" Lobon said.
Hurley also enlisted leaders of several street gangs and together they went through the school room by room to make sure everyone was out.
Then Hurley led the students on a march to Keney Park.
Through the unrest of the volatile summer of 1968, as riots ripped through the city's North End, Weaver was untouched.
"The key was that I was able to call them by name and say `Hey, Johnny, come over here,'" Hurley said.
Officials were paying attention. Hurley wanted to return to his teaching job but they offered him a raise if he would stay on as a vice principal. For the next 25 years, Hurley worked in administration at Weaver High School.
"They said, `Have you ever considered administration?' and I said `No, man, I want to get back to my class,'" Hurley said. "Then they threw the money at me. My son was going to Penn and the tuition was $6,000. The raise they offered was $6,000. What could I do?"
Perhaps a man denied his dream job because of the color of his skin could be forgiven for retreating from his community but this was not Doc Hurley's choice.
He was told he couldn't officiate varsity games so he officiated junior varsity games until coaches, who saw what they were missing, demanded he be allowed to call varsity games as well.
He might not have been coaching at Weaver but he was on the playgrounds, mentoring kids.
"I reached a certain point in this educational scheme that allowed me to be influential to young people," Hurley said. "I was able to get to the point where they had confidence in me and learned to develop themselves educationally. Because I had the confidence that education is the key to all of our problems."
Out of this grew the Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation, which began in 1975 with one scholarship. The foundation now has 18 scholarships and has helped more than 430 young people pay for college.
The scholarships were initially financed by the Doc Hurley Classic basketball tournament, but corporate sponsorship has increased.
Norman hopes it will continue to grow.
"People think these scholarships go just to African American kids or kids from Weaver or athletes," said Norman, who went on to play basketball at Trinity College and serves on the foundation's board of trustees. "That's not true. That wouldn't be Doc. These scholarships are open to all."
Hurley has been criticized by some for opening his scholarships to students from outside the city.
The grants are still based in part on financial need, as well as academic excellence and what some call "the Hurley factor," which is best described as a mix of extracurricular participation and community service, but not every dollar goes to Hartford kids.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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