By Charles A. Teale, Sr. (c) Connecticut Explored, Fall 2015
I dropped out of school at age 14. That I achieved what I have, I owe mainly to one man, and I called him Mr. Hurley.
I was 17 when it finally dawned on me that I had made a huge mistake by dropping out of school. For a couple of years, I was able to find work, usually washing dishes or bussing tables. With the money I earned I could hang out with friends and have enough laughs to make me forget all about school. Then the day came when I could not find a job, and all of the good times ended. I suddenly came to realize that I was about to turn 18 and I had nothing going for me. I thought that getting a good job was the only thing that would return me to the good times. That year, 1973, Pratt and Whitney Aircraft was hiring, and they were paying big money. However, Pratt and Whitney didn’t hire everyone, just people who had an excellent work history and references. I had neither. So I paid a visit to the only man I knew could help me get hired. Everyone knew who he was. When I was in the fifth grade he was my gym teacher, and by the time I was 17 he was assistant principal at Weaver High School. His name was Walter J. “Doc” Hurley. Although everyone else seemed to call him “Doc”—a nickname given him by his father—I called him Mr. Hurley.
It took a few trips to get up the nerve, but I finally got tired of stalling and drove up to his house at 289 Ridgefield Street in Hartford. I knocked on his door, and when he answered, I said, “My name is Charles Teale. I used to be one of your students and I think I’m in trouble. I need your help.” He said, “Come on inside. Have a seat. What seems to be the problem?” I told him I had dropped out of high school. For a while he simply paced the floor, shaking his head from side to side. Then he said, “I can’t believe you gave up on your education. What do you expect me to do?” When I told him that I hoped he would give me a reference, he said, “I’m not going to help you to get a job, because you’re going back to school!” I said, “I can’t go back to Weaver, I’ll be an 18-year-old freshman.” He replied, “You don’t have to go back to Weaver, you can get a GED. With that you can go on to college.” In an instant the feeling of despair lifted. I came to realize that it was not all over for me. Before I left his home he told me three things: “Be of service, get an education, and don’t quit.”
The paper I wrote his words down on stayed with me for 10 years. By then, I was in earnest. Time and time again my persistence was tested until I had succeeded in accomplishing all of my academic and professional goals. Determined to repay this community for all that it had done for me, I decided to teach and tutor adult education students my system of learning, understanding, and remembering information.
I also served on many boards and committees, including the Hartford History Center’s Advisory Board at the Hartford Public Library. While serving in this capacity, I interviewed Mr. Hurley, and the transcript was added to the library’s history collection.
He told me how just a couple of years after he helped me get my life back on track, he founded the “Doc” Hurley Scholarship Fund. He said, “In 1975 I was able to go to the principal of Weaver High, Paul Copes, and tell him that all of the problems that we were having with dropouts and violence were related to [students’] sense of hopelessness. Somehow we need to tell them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.” He invited the basketball teams from Virginia State (his alma mater) and Hampton University to play a demonstration game in Hartford. For the next 37 years, an annual basketball tournament raised money for the scholarship fund. He estimated the fund provided scholarships to more than 500 students.
Toward the end of his life, negative reports about mismanagement of Mr. Hurley’s scholarship fund hit the news. This was his life’s work, and I sensed that he could be suffering. I contacted him and during our meeting explained, “I know a way we can preserve your life’s experiences, share your words of wisdom, and save your scholarship fund.” He said, “How?” I replied, “Let me write your autobiography.” It took 43 interviews at home, in the hospital, and at the Alexandria Manor Nursing Home in Bloomfield, Connecticut. The book eventually topped 200 pages, but when I had written just 104 pages, he looked at it and exclaimed, “Chief, you deserve a pat on the back!”
I wish I could report that he lived to see the book completed. Sadly, on February 9, 2014, Walter J. “Doc” Hurley died. At his funeral I vowed to finish his book, and on February 18, 2015 we launched his book at the place where it all began, the Hartford Public Library. It was the most moving experience I had ever had. I must give credit to Brenda Miller and the rest the people of our library who made it such a heartwarming success.
Today, the “Doc” Hurley Scholarship Fund continues under the stewardship of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Foundation president Linda Kelly said, “Mr. Hurley’s commitment to improving the educational opportunities for the young people of the Greater Hartford community is unparalleled and steadfast. We are proud to continue his legacy through this scholarship fund.”
Charles A. Teale, Sr. is the retired fire chief of Hartford, Connecticut.
The Making of a Legend: The Life and Times of Walter J. “Doc” Hurley, Sr., by Chief Charles A. Teale, Sr., Ret., is available for $19.95 at Tru Books Bookstore, 3155 Main Street, Hartford, and at Passages Gallery, 509 Farmington Avenue, Hartford. Net proceeds benefit the “Doc” Hurley Scholarship Fund. In addition, donations to the fund can be made at http://www.hfpg.org/index.php/donate (and search “hurley”) or by calling the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving at 860-548-1888.