Innerviews: Football memories highlight full life
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 88, Victor Asseff's still fertile mind brims with colorful anecdotes that define his life.
He talks in vivid detail about parents who emigrated from Syria, his exploits on the Charleston High School football team, the restaurant and poolroom he owned on Elizabeth Street, his contributions as a teacher and counselor and his rise through the Masonic ranks.
Known as "Duke" in high school, he still has the football awarded to him in 1942 after Charleston High School whipped cross-town rival Stonewall Jackson 26-6. Autographs on the ball include such familiar names as Stanley Preiser, Warne Stark and Leon McCoy.
A belated post-war college student, he loves telling how he excelled in college despite his father's admonition that he was too old to learn.
He lives in the house his father built in 1953 on a vacant hillside called Bona Vista Drive. He drives his father's car, circa 1970.
So many stories. So little space. He could, as they say, write a book.
"My parents came from a town in Syria like Charleston and St. Albans, outside of Damascus. They came over in 1919 with one child. The Sayres and Ammars from the same hometown were here, so they came to Charleston.
"Poppa at first was a peddler. He put his stuff in two or three suitcases and would go out in the country to a house and open up his suitcases, and people would buy clothing and jewelry and whatever.
"Then on State Street -- Lee Street now -- he had a clothing store. Later, on the corner where Fruth is now, he had a confectionary, Alex's Place. He sold cigars and candy and pop. The year that beer came out, boy, it hit the boom!
"At Christmas, right outside the store, we sold oranges, grapefruits, grapes and English walnuts. The whole family worked there.
"The horse and buggy would bring ice and they would put ice on the beer and pop coolers. They sold lots of cigarettes. They had Wings for 10 cents a pack, Lucky Strikes, Chesterfields, Piedmonts, Raleighs. They had Bugler, the kind you rolled.
"I started playing sports in junior high at Thomas Jefferson. Then I went to Charleston High and played football and ran track. I ran the 100, 220 and 440, did the shot put and threw the javelin.
"In 1940, '41 and '42, I played football at CHS. They called me 'Duke,' because I dressed real well and I was sharp. I even put 'Duke' on my Social Security card.
"The coaches were Lyle Rich and Mendy Carp. The '42 game against Stonewall, I got the football because I was the best player. I recovered a fumble and ran it almost for a touchdown and made a lot of tackles and blocked real good. The score was 26 to 6.
"All games were at Laidley Field. They would have 20,000 to 25,000 people and everybody had reserved seat tickets. The Stonewall game was a big one, the east and the west fighting each other. They had bonfires and celebrated down on Capitol Street.
"We always played Catholic the first game. Stonewall, Charleston, Huntington and Parkersburg were the big games. All the other schools were what I called second-hand teams, just scrimmages for us. We played Kingsport, Tenn., and Ashland, Ky., and a team in Ohio. If we lost one or two games, we had a bad season.
"We were awarded sweaters with the letter on them. My last year, they quit giving sweaters and started only giving letters. We liked the sweaters better. I still have mine.
"Now players have all these pads and face gears. We didn't have all that. There was a lot of bleeding. I don't know how many times my nose was bleeding, and my mouth. But a little alcohol dried it right up.
"I was chosen for the North-South Game but didn't get to play because I was going into the Air Force as a cadet. I went as far as Texas and Momma says, 'Victor, you get out flying, you want me to die?' Fighter planes in the war were going down all over the place. She said, 'If you get into the war, there are French mothers, Italian mothers, Greek mothers, mothers of all the boys in the war. I don't want them to kill you, and you shouldn't be killing them.'
"So I washed myself out as a cadet pilot but remained a cadet and went into the B-29s and B-17s, the bombers. They put me on the B-17 as a gunner. I took two or three missions and decided that wasn't for me. They put you in position, and you don't get out of there until you get back. So I went on to the 29s as an instrument man. I would fly, but only in the states.
"I was working with the B-29s and B-17s and getting the boys grouped up, deciding who would go in what group to what plane. Everybody wanted to go with their buddies.
"I was in Amarillo, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Tampa. In Amarillo, Donald O'Connor was a good friend of mine. He was in the service there, too.
"I've got so many stories. In Sacramento, I wanted to go to L.A. to see Edna Salem. She used to live in Charleston beside the State Theater. I was thumbing from Sacramento to L.A. This man in a black Cadillac convertible passed me up. He drove about a mile and turned around and came back and stopped to pick me up.
"He said, 'Where are you going?' I said I was going to L.A. to see a friend from Charleston named Edna Salem. He said, 'That's where I'm going.'
"He knocked on her door and said, 'Edna, guess who I've got with me? Victor Asseff from Charleston. I picked him up thumbing on the highway.' Can you believe that?
"Poppa opened a bar and poolroom on Elizabeth Street, the Regent. Later, my younger brother and I owned it, and my older brother had the Regal downtown with George Simon. Lots of big-time football and basketball players came to the Regent. Rod Hundley was one of them. I used to loan him a lot of money, poor fellow.
"One day, George Brody brought in Luther Thomas, principal of Sharon Dawes School in Miami, and asked to bring him to my wedding so he could see an Orthodox wedding. He was marrying Sabe Howard's sister a week or two later. I said sure.
"Luther asked why I didn't go to college. I told him I had a good business going and lost out on the GI Bill. If you weren't registered for college or going to college by a certain date, you couldn't go on the GI Bill. They cut it off. Luther knew Pat McGovern who was in charge of the GI Bill. He said, 'If I get the GI Bill for you, will you go to college?'
"I told Poppa I was going to give my business to Phil or let Sheffek have it because I was going back to school. He said, 'Victor, you are too old to learn.' I was maybe 19 or 20. My cousin, Abe, was with him and told him to let me go.
"Pat McGovern sent a letter to Washington and got me four years of college and one year for my master's.
"I got my B.S. and M.A. from Morris Harvey and my master's from Marshall. I got a degree in administration, teaching 1-12 and counseling. From 1955 to the late 1960s, I was teaching at DuPont High School -- psychology and world and American history.
"Dave Acord was superintendent. He came to my office, said they needed a counselor at Roosevelt Junior High. I loved it. There's not a place I go that black people and white people, all the people I had in school, don't hug me and say, 'Oh, Mr. Asseff, there was never a teacher like you.'
"Roger Hicks, poor fellow, I had to give him clothes and shoes and he washed dishes in the cafeteria to eat. He worked at Stone and Thomas and would go to New York and Paris with the buyers. He left here and went to San Francisco. Today, the man is a millionaire. He calls me every day.
"When I gave a test, the good students had to take it. The poor students could look up the answers in the book. I never failed anybody. If they were failing, I let them do a project on some country or whatever, so I could give them a D or a D-minus.
"I retired in June of '83. I was in a little bit of real estate with my dad for a while. Then I got real active in the Masons, Scottish Rite and Shrine. This is my ring on the 14th Degree. From there, I went to the 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite.
"This is my father's house, the first house they built on this hill in 1953. He bought the whole street, from Bona Vista to Oakridge Drive.
"I drive the 1970 Electra 225 that belonged to my father. It has about 130 miles on it. Tony at Danny's up in Kanawha City keeps it up for me.
"I've done a lot things. I went to Cuba on my honeymoon. I've been to almost all the states, and I've met a lot of interesting people. The only thing I regret is, I would like to have been a fighter pilot."Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.