Four Akron Stories to Inspire You
Most of us may never feel the itch to strike out on our own; to follow the call of individualism and become an entrepreneur, or cast aside the safety and security of a common life to follow our dreams. But among us there will always be those special few who are unafraid — and in conquering their fear, find their place in history.
If you’ve studied our city’s past, you know this was a place built on dreams, a dare, and dollar or two. In 1825, General Simon Perkins convinced people to dig a giant ditch through his property to create the Ohio Canal, and the city of Akron. John R. Buchtel reached into his own pocket in 1867 and convinced other Akronites to donate money in the effort to establish the college that would later become The University of Akron. In 1958, local sports agent Eddie Elias got 33 of the country’s best bowlers to chip in 50 bucks apiece to start the PBA, the professional bowlers league that dominated TV for a generation.
It’s those kind of stories that can inspire later generations to think big; to take on challenges and demonstrate that there’s no failure where creativity, smarts and honest effort live.
Today, on a smaller scale, we are seeing more and more young Akron entrepreneurs taking chances, following their dreams, and betting not only on themselves — but on the city they have come to love. It may start with a small business, an alternative newspaper, a neighborhood vision…or just a good idea that no one had thought of before.
They say fortune favors the bold. But pure fearlessness is even rarer. It’s one thing to risk your savings, your relationships or your financial security. It’s quite another to risk your life.
Here are four Akron stories that demonstrate The Right Stuff.
MELVIN & KIDDO
Truth be told, Melvin Vaniman wasn’t even from Akron, though he has a street named after him in Goodyear Heights. Born in Virden, Illinois in 1866, he started out as a photographer — but wedding portraits were simply not his thing.
No, Melvin gained a worldwide reputation as an innovative panoramic photographer, creating promotional images in far off places like Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. Many of his beautiful images were shot from hot air balloons, using his own “swing-lens” camera design to capture full 360×180 degree panoramic images.
Around 1904, Melvin grew bored with photography and took up exploration, including two attempts at crossing the North Pole, the first in an airship named America. In 1910, his first trip across the Atlantic in the same airship was unsuccessful when the engines failed and his crew had to be rescued by a Royal Mail steamship.
Through many of his adventures, Vaniman was accompanied by a faithful friend and traveling mascot, Kiddo — a tabby that came to be well-known as “The Airship Cat.” During his initial attempt to cross the ocean, Kiddo became quite disruptive inside the airship’s gondola, causing Vaniman to radio his launch boat to “come and get this goddam cat!” Fortunately, the tabby was among the crew later rescued.
We’re not quite sure what moved Melvin Vaniman to name his second airship Akron; perhaps he may have visited here, and something about the town inspired him. Lighter-than-air development was still in its infancy, and it would be some years before Goodyear’s airships and zeppelins graced our skies.
What we do know is that he made his second bold attempt at an Atlantic crossing in 1912. Just off the Jersey shore near Atlantic City, the Akron, which was of advanced design and filled with over 11,000 cubic meters of hydrogen, exploded — plunging the ship’s gondola over 750 meters to an inlet. Neither Vaniman nor his four crewmen survived.
Two years later, when Goodyear Heights was laid out, Vaniman’s brave effort would be forever memorialized by one of the neighborhood’s streets. Thankfully, there is no street named Kiddo; Melvin’s feline friend retired from flying after 1910.
TO TOUCH THE FACE OF GOD
The Challenger disaster was a tragedy for everyone, but particularly for Akronites, who lost one of their own. I did not know Judy Resnik, though her father was my optometrist; I still remember the trips to his small office on East Market Street, and like many others I can still remember where I was the day of the disaster.
A 1966 graduate of Firestone, Judy was a brilliant kid with a perfect SAT score and skilled in both mathematics and classical piano. Graduating from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in electrical engineering, she later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland.
It’s hard to know whether Judy had always been attracted by the allure of space travel. After working at RCA and on NASA projects while there, she was actually recruited into the astronaut program in 1978 at age 29. She served as a mission specialist on the maiden flight of the shuttle Discovery in 1984, becoming the second woman in space, after Sally Ride.
Just as you’d expect from an Akron kid, Judy displayed a great sense of humor. Floating around inside Discovery, she would hold up signs saying “Hi Dad” for the cameras, and was not shy about her well-known romantic crush on actor Tom Selleck.
When Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight on January 28, 1986, America lost a brave crew and Akron lost one of its best and brightest representatives. Another “local kid who made good”, she is highly cherished along with the other brave few who have made the trip into outer space.
BUILT FOR SPEED: THE ARFONS BROTHERS
It figures. Only a guy from Akron would have the ‘nads to strap a jet engine onto four wheels and go racing. But in this case, there were two guys, Art Arfons and his half-brother, Walt.
Their father, a Greek immigrant, came to America at the age of 14 and settled in Akron, where he operated a feed mill. The brothers’ natural ingenuity and mechanical skills found an outlet in working on cars, and though Walt was ten years older than Art, they forged a common bond in their desire to go fast.
In 1952, they built their first dragster, a three-wheeler with an Olds 6-cylinder engine, pained a hideous green shade that matched their old Oliver farm tractor. Dubbed “The Green Monster” by the track PA announcer, the name stuck for all of the brothers’ joint projects.
Using surplus aircraft piston engines at first, the brothers raced throughout the 1950’s. They were the first drag racers to hit 150 mph in a quarter mile, and continued to do so using subsequent versions of The Green Monster.
Around 1960, the brothers parted amicably and followed their separate paths, although they continued to compete with each other on a friendly basis. Art headed to Bonneville with an Allison aircraft engine powered car that hit over 313 mph in 1961.
Being no slouch, brother Walt became the first to introduce a jet-engine dragster in 1960, utilizing a parachute to slow the car down at the end of the run. In 1967, Chrysler Corporation gave Walt a Dodge Dart, Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Charger to convert into dragsters. Walt simply strapped jet engines onto all three stock cars and went racing.
During the 1960’s, both brothers returned to the Bonneville salt flats many times with new and innovative jet-powered cars they designed. During 1964 they went back-and-forth against record-holder Craig Breedlove and his Spirit of America, Art in a new Green Monster and Walt in the Wingfoot Express. Hitting record speeds of over 400mph (Walt) and 500mph (Art) the brothers battled across the salt flats with all comers for speed record supremacy.
In later years, the brothers drove less and spent their time mostly designing cars, with Art enjoying great success in jet turbine powered tractor pulling competitions, and being named to the Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. Art passed in 2007, and older brother Walt passed in 2013. Today, you can still see their Green Monster sign out on Pickle Road, north of Killian.
A little bit crazy? Maybe. What we can say for sure is that when it comes to “life in the fast lane” — no one showed the way better than the two brothers from Akron.
THE MEDAL OF HONOR
They call them the Greatest Generation, and the Marine from Akron, Harold G. Epperson, is a prime example. Born in 1923, Harold grew up in Massillon and graduated from Washington High School in 1941.
After graduation, Harold went to work at Goodyear Aircraft in Akron, and decided to enlist in the Marine Corps Reserve in 1942. In the Pacific, he fought a fierce battle on Tarawa, where his unit, the 1st Battalion 6th Marines, was awarded a battle citation for their service.
But the war wasn’t over, and neither was Harold. During the battle of Saipan, 21-year old Private First Class Epperson made the ultimate sacrifice.
With his machine gun emplacement under attack by the Japanese during a pre-dawn raid, Harold fought furiously alongside his comrades to fend off a desperate assault from the enemy, who had infiltrated their position. Just as the attack began to subside, a wounded enemy soldier, who was thought to have been dead, rose up and heaved a grenade into Epperson’s position. We’ll let the official Medal of Honor citation handle the rest:
“Determined to save his comrades, Pfc. Epperson unhesitatingly chose to sacrifice himself and, diving upon the deadly missile, absorbed the shattering violence of the exploding charge in his own body. Stouthearted and indomitable in the face of certain death, Pfc. Epperson fearlessly yielded his own life that his able comrades might carry on the relentless battle against a ruthless enemy. His superb valor and unfaltering devotion to duty throughout reflect the highest credit upon himself and upon the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”
Sometimes it’s found in the quest for self-discovery. It can also be found in the search for answers in science; or in simple dreams — to go faster, higher, or farther. And we know it dwells in an unwavering devotion to protect friends and loved ones.
All good lessons that “Kids from Akron” can take to heart.