Wally Osterkorn’s Untold Tale of Redemption

by M.C. Antil on January 26, 2012

Perhaps the most moving scene of any western ever made is the final two minutes of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning tale of regret and redemption, Unforgiven.

In that final scene, it’s sunset and Eastwood’s William Munny is gently, wordlessly bringing flowers to a simple, solitary grave. He’s an aging, recovering drunk and a one-time lying, robbing and cheating son-of-a-bitch who as a young man would kill “anything that moved,” a lot of times for no other reason than he was drunk and felt like it.

What’s more, he’s just spent the entire film struggling to overcome his darker nature, while trying like hell to do the right thing; trying to outrun his poor choices, trying to keep his regrets from consuming him whole and, most of all, trying to finally become the man the woman in that shallow grave somehow saw every time she looked at him.

The woman – now dead from smallpox – has left her one-time, mad-dog of a husband to try to grow crops on a tiny patch of rocky soil, tend to a handful of ragged farm animals, and raise two beautiful children, jobs he’s proven he really cannot do well.

Certainly not as well as he once rained hell on humanity.

But the poignancy of Unforgiven and its emotional linchpin end up being the one thing – in fact, the only thing – capable of bringing a lost and lonely man like Munny back from the edge and back from the kind of unspeakable darkness that can wrap itself around a man’s soul.

The love of a good woman.

Honesty compels me to admit that until a few days ago I had never heard of Wally Osterkorn, who died recently after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. But heaven knows I certainly had plenty of chances to.

Wally, a handsome, high-energy, oak-tree of a guy with thick, jet-black hair and a magnetic smile, grew up in Chicago, where I now live, and went to Amundsen High School, not far from where I used to have an office. In fact, he still has family in that neighborhood.

He once lived in Syracuse, New York, where I had spent the first twenty some-odd years of my life.

And he once played for the old Syracuse Nationals of the NBA, about whom I have done a fair amount of research.

But, like I said, I had never, ever in my life heard of Wally Osterkorn.

But this week I learned about him from a piece in the Syracuse paper, one lamenting the big man’s passing that referenced an almost unbelievable series of incidents from a lifetime ago.  And, frankly, it was those incidents and their aftermath that led me to start working on the story you’re reading now.

The core of that newspaper story was a bittersweet interview with former Nat and Hall of Famer, Dolph Schayes, and tells how Osterkorn had once been a part-timer on the great Nat teams of the 1950s, and how he had been a dedicated teammate, a bruising intimidator, and an offensively challenged but chiseled wide body underneath the basket who worked hard to do little things to help his club win.

I would learn later that he was with the Nats during the 54-55 season, the year Syracuse won its one and only NBA title, but that an injury limited him to only 19 games.

The piece said that big Wally – a bruiser who couldn’t shoot a lick, but a guy who was always quick to throw a punch, swing an elbow, or deliver a forearm shiver to protect his own, particularly Dolph – was known to just about everyone in Syracuse as “Ox.”

But it told too about the injury in that championship season of 54-55 ended his career before his 27th birthday, and that somewhere thereabouts big Ox drifted into a life of crime in the very town where he’d once been hailed an NBA hero.

In fact, just a few months after his NBA career ended, Wally seemed so committed to his new life as a cat burglar and second story man (and yet apparently so ill-suited), that he soon got caught red-handed, soon was convicted of 40 counts of larceny, and soon found himself sentenced to four years at an unforgiving state penitentiary called Attica.

Wait. What?  Did you say Attica? 

Yep.

Young Wally Osterkorn, just months removed from regular minutes in meaningful NBA games, and months removed from hoisting the NBA trophy, found himself sentenced to four years of hard time with murderers, rapists and armed robbers in one of the most legendary, hard-core, maximum security penal institutions in the history of man.

Now, I have to tell you, this is where if you have any heart at all, or even a trace of humanity, the story starts to get good.  Because as it turns out, Wally was only in the second quarter of life. For Ox, the guy who would always throw his body in harm’s way to protect a teammate, fate would decree that there was still plenty of time left on the clock.  In fact, for the big guy it was not even halftime yet.

Eventually Wally got out of that hell-hole, found the strength to swallow his past and put his choices and his former life behind him, and move to Phoenix, where he someway, somehow re-built his life. In fact, rebuilt it in a way that would make one heck of a movie someday.

But back to that story in the Syracuse paper.  In it, Dolph talks about running into Ox a few years ago in Arizona and commenting how he looked nothing like the strutting young buck he’d known as a player, a guy he always viewed as larger than life.  “Smaller than life” is how Dolph described Wally in the piece, adding that as much as he liked Wally, he’d been disappointed by how Osterkorn had “turned his back on society.”

Dolph later suggested to Wally that the Nats have a reunion, and told him it would be a lot of fun.  Wally apparently just looked at his old teammate and confessed, “Dolph, I can’t. I can never go back to Syracuse. There’s too much history there for me.”

And I know what you’re probably thinking.  Big loser, that Osterkorn, right?  And probably a bad guy who got exactly what was coming to him?

Or just another spoiled, pampered ex-athlete incapable of functioning in the real world and playing by the rules, like the rest of us?  Or, maybe, a guy so jacked up on the intensity of the NBA game that he gravitated to the only thing he found that could give him that kind of rush off the court?

Well, you’re not alone.  Those thoughts and others crossed my mind when I first read about Wally and tried to wrap my brain around what the guy had done. And those thoughts obviously represent what at least some fans think in the Nats’ former hometown – at least, that is, if you are to believe the comments on Syracuse.com just below the Ox story.

What’s more, it’s entirely possible that any or all of those things were true back in the day; or at least true for a time. But they couldn’t have been true forever.  Not by a long shot.  Because when Wally got out of prison and relocated to what was in 1960 a sleepy, dusty little town in the middle of sun-baked Arizona, do you know what he got a job doing?

Selling encyclopedias. That’s right.  In just a few short years the man went from an NBA Championship to a prison cell in Attica to selling encyclopedias.

And what’s more, he sold those damn things door-to-door. In the desert. Without air conditioning. On straight commission.

And Wally didn’t just trudge door-to-door as some sort of transition job until he found something better.  Nope. He made a real go of it.  He tore that job of his apart.  Made it his own. And did it like few other salesmen in company history.

In fact, Wally Osterkorn was soon named Britannica’s Salesman of the Year for his district, and was given that award for not only how well he sold those books, and how often he did so, but for how dedicated he was. And Wally didn’t just earn that honor once, or even twice. He was named Salesman of the Year five times.

Five times.

I don’t know what motivated that big, hulking ex-felon to keep going day after day, year after year, selling those damn books in that damn heat.  Maybe it was the horrors of what he seen in prison, many of which I’m sure he kept buried inside him and took to his grave.

Maybe it was the thought of his beautiful and devoted wife, Carol, and how she so believed in him.

Or maybe, just maybe, big Wally needed to prove to himself he could be the man his wife saw when she looked at him, and that he had it in him to do what any man would want to do for the woman he loves; provide for her, protect her, and build a life for her.

I’d like to think it was a little of all those things.  But I guess, I’ll never really know because Ox is gone now.  His battle with Alzheimer’s is over, and his race against all his ghosts has, at long last, been run.

But not before Wally found it in himself to do some pretty soul-cleansing things. Not before he rose up the ranks at Britannica, and not before he was promoted to management and they named him District Manager of the Month.  Three times in fact.

Not before he’d gone back to school 20 years after the University of Illinois and got a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Arizona State and became a dedicated volunteer working with patients at the Camelback Psychiatric Hospital.

But most importantly, not before he and Carol would build for themselves a rich, full life in Arizona and create a beautiful, loving family, and not before the two of them would know the joy of being surrounded by six children, 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Not, in other words, until Wally Osterkorn drilled his horrible youthful mistake right between the eyes and buried it once and for all deep in the endless desert of his adopted home.

I called Carol Osterkorn a few days ago and, after offering her my sympathies, told her I’d like to tell her husband’s remarkable story.  I told her something recently ran in the Syracuse newspaper in which the second half of Wally’s life, the good half, was only given a brief mention.

But Carol didn’t want any part of it.  In fact, she didn’t want to even talk about where Wally had once been and what he’d done.  She only wanted to focus on the man he’d become.

I can’t blame her really.  Few women who love a man, now gone, would ever want to revisit the horror and shame of him going to prison, much less why he went there. In the end, to most people, certain things are best left buried and forgotten.

But I’m sorry.  I had to write this story.  I couldn’t help it.  From the safe distance of my office here in Chicago I saw Wally Osterkorn being defined (and slowly consigned to history) by a group of people in one part of the country who only seemed to want to know one stupid mistake he made as a kid.

And I saw another group of people on the opposite side of the country who had so distanced themselves from that mistake that in the process they buried the incredible story of how far the guy had come.  And in doing so they were denying us outsiders the opportunity to appreciate the kind of courage, strength and determination he must have carried deep within him.

And in between, all alone, was Wally.  The real Wally.

That’s why I wrote this story.  So that somewhere out there people may read it and know that a fringy, low-scoring ex-NBA enforcer and loyal teammate named Wally Osterkorn wasn’t just some failed petty thief, wasn’t just another emotionally scarred ex-con, and wasn’t just one more guy at the end of the bar choking on the shame of some past mistake.

And he wasn’t just a great salesman, a devoted husband, a loving patriarch, and a giving member of his community.

He was all those things.  And from what I can tell, that combination of those two men – one young and brash, the other old and regretful – was most likely the true Ox Osterkorn, a guy who may have done what he did as a kid, but a guy who seemed to spend the rest of his life trying like hell not to let it define him.

And those of us who didn’t know Wally personally, or those who had only seen him on the court, or had read about him somewhere, would do well not to try not to pigeonhole him as a man at either end of his run, but to try to think of him as a simple guy whose life turned out to be one the most complicated, unlikely and yet inspiring journeys imaginable.

Because the story of Wally Osterkorn is a story of redemption.  It is a story of atonement, a story of a million baby steps, and a story, most of all, of love.

And while I have no doubt that a big part of Ox was incapable of swallowing the enormous shame he felt for what he’d done and was probably still shattered right up to the very end, I also get the strong sense that among those shards of the former hoop star’s hopes, dreams and good name, there dwelt, especially deep in life, a giant of a man that only those closest to him got to see.

And if I had ever gotten the chance to talk to Wally, I think that’s what I would have told him.  That for what he had done to atone for his mistake, and how quietly dedicated he was to the process, he was a hero to me. I’d tell him that, his shame aside, at least one guy from Syracuse is and will always be very proud of him.

And I guess, now that I think of it, that’s what I should have told Carol.  That her husband must have been a remarkable man, and must have had a life force and a goodness inside him that had a way of making all the bad times seem, particularly now, like a small price to pay.

Those last two minutes of Unforgiven I mentioned earlier, the ones in which William Munny lays flowers on his wife’s grave, are accompanied by a simple little melody on a single acoustic guitar.  It is a piece called Claudia’s Theme.

And as that simple yet haunting melody is playing, and as the aging gunman’s silhouette slowly dissolves into nothingness, leaving only the grave, a barren tree and the dying traces of the day, the unlikely love story of William and Claudia Munny ends with these few final words:

Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County to visit the last resting place of her only daughter.

William Munny had long since disappeared with the children, some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods.

And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.

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