By David Hudson with Joe VanHoose
Alfordsville, Indiana is a town of 112 people today, tucked in the southern swath of the state east of Interstate 69, west of U.S. Highway 231, and far away enough from either to enjoy much economic development.
But this place is not insignificant. It is in the middle of a region that has lived and breathed high school basketball for decades. Thousands of basketball players and coaches have roots and connections to southwestern Indiana. Larry Bird grew up in nearby French Lick.
Bob Knight was slinging chairs just down the road in Bloomington. Steve Alford, an Indiana icon, perfected what would become a championship-winning jump shot in New Castle. Before becoming an All-American, Calbert Cheaney was starring in Evansville.
John Wooden, Jack Butcher, Junior Gee, Damon Bailey and the Zeller brothers have all lived with the passion of basketball in Southern Indiana.
The list is made up of famous players and coaches, national champions and Olympic gold medalists, many of whom played in the NBA.
Clifford “Butch” Canary isn’t on the list. Playing for Alfordsville High School in the late 1950s, Canary never won any state basketball awards or state championship. There aren’t any old statues with his likeness or any old gyms with his jersey hanging from the rafters.
At 16, Butch lost his life to electrocution in front of his father and a few friends and teammates. But the memories that may come around every basketball season draw to focus a Southern Indiana kid whose future in the game was as wide open as it was for all the greats.
I grew up hearing stories about Butch and his skills as a basketball player. Those stories were ingrained in my mind at an early age. I had always wondered about him, about what he might have accomplished. Could Butch Canary have been on the level of an Alford? Is it fair to ask if anyone could be another Bird?
Lingering Legends, Questions
Though tiny today, back in 1957, Alfordsville was bustling enough to have a high school with about 85 students, a couple of stores, and a gas station.
Wilbert “Wig” Canary, Butch’s father, coached his son his freshman year at Alfordsville High, but Wig stepped aside after that season to become the school’s principal – not a bad career arc. Now, he needed a basketball coach.
My dad, Kenneth Hudson, was 23 at the time, starting his teaching career in Alfordsville on two-and-a-half years of college at Indiana University and two years in the Army with a tour of Korea. Soon, Wig named him the head coach of the Alfordsville basketball team.
Two of my uncles, Dave Brown and Eugene Schnarr, grew up playing basketball with Butch, and they also played for my dad during his first season at Alfordsville.
My dad, Dave and Eugene ended up marrying sisters. My aunts have told me how they were not always happy to see “Coach Hudson” come to the house and pick up my mom for dates. They were not fond of their sister dating one of their teachers.
Given the timestamp and the small-knit farming community this all happened in, maybe this could have been a story likened to the movie Hoosiers.
But nobody died in Hoosiers.
Taken Away Too Soon
To write about a player who played 64 years ago revives some old memories – just not the ones you want to think about. As I was researching Butch’s high school career, I discovered Jerry Osmon, my high school basketball coach, played against him.
When I first asked Osmon about Butch, he had forgotten about his talent or any instances on the court.
But Osmon remembers Butch’s tragic death.
The front-page headline from the Washington Daily Times read “Alfordsville Boy Killed Instantly by Electrocution.”
The article describes how Butch, who was working a construction job alongside his dad, Wig, lost his footing and fell against a high-tension service line. He grabbed the line with both hands and fell against a metal fence, which formed a mighty ground for the ravaging electricity.
“A 16-year-old outstanding Alfordsville High School basketball player was shocked fatally yesterday afternoon,” the paper reads. “Young Canary was a well-known and well- liked boy and was a star basketball player on the Alfordsville High School Team.”
The paper doesn’t go into how two of his teammates were also working with Butch and his father, how they saw the horrific death. My Uncle Dave remembers being at the 4-H Fairgrounds and hearing about Butch’s accident announced over the local radio.
Dick Lemon, a close friend and teammate, recalled what happened to Butch’s girlfriend that day. Earlier that morning, his girlfriend had called the local radio station requesting a song to be played for Butch that afternoon.
Later that day, after his death, she called the station and asked them not to play the request.
That school year, my Dad moved in with the Canary family and saw a father haunted by loss. He saw a man grieve for months.
At school, Wig would sit with my Dad at lunch and talk about Butch. When he’d get home from basketball practice or late-night games, Wig would be ready to repeat the same stories about Butch.
Two years after Butch’s death, Wig Canary took another job in the northern part of the state, and the family moved away from Alfordsville.
What Might Have Been
On the court, my dad always believed that Butch was on par with talent to Junior Gee, a local star for rival Loogootee High School. Both were excellent ball handlers and outstanding shooters.
Gee graduated from Loogootee in 1963 and played for legendary coach Jack Butcher. Butcher himself graduated from Loogootee in 1951 and then played at Memphis State where he was a three-year starter. After college, Butcher turned down an offer from the Boston Celtics to return to Loogootee and begin a legendary high school coaching career.
After an amazing high school career, Gee was selected to the Indiana High School All-Star team and then started for three years at the University of Miami, sharing the court with teammate and NBA great Rick Barry.
If it were possible that Butch was as good as Gee, then maybe he could have had a Division I college career. Of course, we’ll never know, but Butch did a lot in two years.
Going through archives of local newspapers, as well as my Dad’s old clippings, I found out Butch was certainly a standout on his team. In the 13 games I had stats on his freshman year, Butch averaged 11.2 points a game with a high game of 24. In 18 games across his sophomore year, Butch averaged 17.9 points. He scored more than 20 points seven times.
Keep in mind, this was high school basketball being played in the late 1950s without a 3-point line when some teams would hold the ball for a minute or longer before taking a shot.
Regardless, these stats would be impressive for anyone in their first two years of high school varsity basketball. And the stat line could have been better, my dad admits. He owns up to many mistakes he made during his first year of coaching.
“My best player would be the first one out of the game,” he lamented. “I would have coached him a lot differently today.”
In all fairness to Dad, he probably would have coached Butch differently the next season.
Only Memories Remain
The footprints of Butch Canary have all but been erased.
Alfordsville High was consolidated into nearby Barr-Reeve High School in 1965. Eight students were in the last graduating class. The old high school gym stood in disrepair for decades before it was razed a few years ago.
My dad became a principal himself and, although he retired in 1993, he is still always up for talking basketball.
But he also has memories about Butch that don’t involve basketball at all. Dad trustingly let Butch use his new 1956 Pontiac to take players home after practice. Butch already had a solid work ethic and strong leadership traits. There is no doubt Dad believes Butch’s true accomplishments in life would be far greater than his basketball career might have been.
Of course, none of us will ever know what might have been. But in Clifford Canary’s short 16 years, it is clear he had an impact on the game of basketball and many who knew him.
I am not a journalist. This effort has taken months. My family and parents read the rough draft. My oldest daughter asked, “Why did you write this story?”
Maybe the better question is what did you experience in writing this story?
Unexpectedly, my Dad and I bonded in a way that we had not done in years. It was kind of like shooting hoops in the backyard so long ago, sharing each other’s company and the game we both love. Writing the account enabled me to see my dad as a young man, a coach, and view him in a way I had not often thought about.
When I called him and asked him what he thought about the story, he said he cried. That startled me.
I think I have only seen my Dad cry twice in my life. He really liked it. I could write something that made someone cry? His approval gave me much satisfaction.
For those of us who still have our fathers in our lives, do we ever really stop trying to please them? When we take a step back and look, isn’t that what Butch Canary was trying to do the day he died.
He was a son wanting to please his father.
And maybe that is enough of a reason.