The Shot Heard Around the World
Charles Edward Fonville, 50' Econ, was born Apr. 27, 1927 in Birmingham, Alabama. He was the seventh of the eight children of the Reverend Cephus E. Fonville and his wife Rachel. Growing up during the Depression was not easy. Too young to work he spent most of his time in school or reading. He loved to read and always seemed to have a book nearby.
At the end of 1938 the family moved to Decatur Illinois. During World War II, while his four older brothers went into the military or to work, Charles went to school. He was a good student who also played football, basketball and ran track. Just before he finished his senior year, his family moved to Detroit Michigan.
Charles Fonville proved to be an outstanding athlete. The frustration of having to repeat his senior year was taken out on the opposing teams. This is when he got his introduction to the throwing events. While he played football and basketball it was his wins in the track events that constantly got his name into the Detroit sports news. At the end of the track season, Miller High won the Detroit Metropolitan League outdoor track title. It was Miller High's first title in any sport. It also brought him to the attention of then University of Michigan assistant track coach, Ken Doherty.
The defining moment, July 13, 1945
In 1944 the St. Antoine YMCA had won the Detroit YMCA Track Championship. In 1945 the defending champs were without a team so Fonville and Jessie Nimmons decided that just the two of them would go to Belle Isle and represent the St. Antoine YMCA. Their plan was simple, compete only in the events that they thought that they could win first or first & second place and pull off the upset of the year. While Nimmons took second in the 100 & 200, Fonville took first in the 100, 200, high jump & shot put. The 440 relay produced the highlight of the day. Fonville and Nimmons were allowed to compete in the event, both ran 220 legs and actually won the event. Under protest, they were later disqualified for only not having four runners and the resulting loss of points dropped them into second place for the tournament.
Many years later when asked why it was so much easier for black athletes to compete in Track and Field over the other sports he said.
"When the gun goes off, all the things people can use to discriminate with are virtually shorn away. The clock and the measuring tape let you know how you stand in relation to teammates and opponents, without regard to the subjective judgment of a coach or meet official."
The University of Michigan
Charles Fonville was recruited by Michigan for track. After talking with former Michigan Track men, Willis Ward and William Watson who advised him to forget about football and basketball, he settled in and waited for spring. In 1945, there were few scholarships for black athletes, so with summer jobs and working in the dining room at a sorority during the school year, he paid his own way through his entire stay at Michigan. School and work schedules decided which events he would compete in. Fonville chose the Shot Put and Discus because he could practice when time permitted and first year Assistant Coach Don Canham agreed. In addition to the shot put and discus, Fonville made the qualifying marks in several other events. He tied the Wolverine mark for the 60 yd dash, ran the 100 yard & 200 yard dashes, high jumped six feet and on his first attempt at the broad jump at Michigan managed 21' 3". Coach Doherty later commented that if the food over at the sorority house could do this for Fonville, he wanted to see how well the girls would do. During the track season he became the first Wolverine Freshman to break the 50 foot barrier and later that season the Ferry Field record.
At the beginning of his Sophomore season during the time trials, even before the competition began, Fonville set the Yost Field House record for the Shot Put. Over the course of the second season his main competitor was Wasser of Illinois. By the end of the second season, Fonville had bested his rival 3-2 in competition.
At 6’2" and only 194 pounds, Fonville started out his Junior season by setting the World Indoor and American Record at the Michigan State College Relays. The measurement lines for the event were marked out every four feet, starting at 40 feet and ending at 52 feet. Fonville had been working out in the off season and his second toss (he always used the first toss just to qualify and the second toss for distance) landed more than four and a half feet beyond the last line. Leave it to the guys from East Lansing to underestimate the power of a Michigan Wolverine. During the season he consistently had a 56 foot toss during competition and therefore had no equal throughout the year. Fonville eventually inched to within striking range of the World Record.
Two months later, Fonville was invited to compete in the Kansas Relays. Upon arriving, Fonville, along with Harrison Dillard of Baldwin-Wallace University, were taken to the home of a black family where they were to be housed during the event. Without unpacking they decided to take a walk to the University of Kansas campus where they found the other visiting white athletes being given campus tours and their treatment far different than their own. They both considered leaving but decided to stay and compete. Charles called Ann Arbor to tell them that he wanted leave, he got Don Canham who told him that he was “Sent to Kansas City to represent the University of Michigan”, the conversation was short and clear.
On April 17, 1948 on his second toss of the qualifying round Fonville shattered the 1934 World Record of 57'-1" in the Shot Put by a foot with a toss of 58'-3/8". Later that same day in the finals, Dillard ran the 120 High Hurdles in 13.6 seconds and shaved a tenth off the 1936 World Record. The two New World Record champions quietly left Lawrence Kansas and returned home the next day. Needless to say that the reception Fonville received on his return to Michigan was far better. At the end of the track season he was unanimously elected to be Captain of the track team for 1949.
1948 was a very good year for The University of Michigan. It started out with an undefeated Football National Championship, the first Hockey National Championship, a World Record in the Shot Put, the undefeated Swim & Dive National Championship, and ended with another undefeated Football National Championship. Big Ten titles in Baseball and Basketball rounded out the year.
All of the speculation of a 60 foot record and visions of Olympic Gold ended when Fonville had an operation to repair vertebrae in his back. He decided to forgo the 1949 track season to allow his back to fully recover. Although disappointed, he was not defeated and returned to compete in 1950 for the new track Head Coach Don Canham, where he once again consistently tossed the Shot Put in the 56 foot range. By the end of the season Fonville had his third Big Ten indoor title in the Shot Put.
Charles Fonville went to work at Kaiser-Frazer Automotive in Labor Relations during the day and attended Wayne State Law School at night. In 1954 he passed the bar and worked in private practice in Detroit for forty years.
In 1952, Don Canham's first book, Field Techniques Illustrated, was published. The dedication reads "DEDICATED TO CHARLIE FONVILLE A WORLD RECORD HOLDER WHO ACCEPTED DISAPPOINTMENT AS GRACIOUSLY AS HE DID FAME AND SUCCESS" and his copy is personally signed.
In 1957, when Dave Owen broke his Michigan record, Charles Fonville was the Meet Official who bent over the tape and called out the distance of 59'-0".
In 1959, the Golden Anniversary of the Drake Relays, Charles Fonville and Dave Owen, were the two Michigan men honored as members and Harrison Dillard, his roommate at the Kansas Relays in 1948, was also so honored as a member of the Drake Relays Hall of Fame.
In 1967, The University of Michigan, recognized Charles Fonville with one of the thirty-three 'Athlete of the Era' awards during the Sesquicentennial All Sport Banquet.
In 1979, The University of Michigan, once again recognized Charles Fonville by electing him to the Michigan Hall of Honor along with F. Crisler, R. Fisher, W. Heston, D. Hubbard, C. Kocsis, R. Kramer, A. Schultz, G. Sisler, R. Tomjanovich & F. Yost.
Charles Fonville died on July 13, 1994 (49 years to the day after that event on Belle Isle) at The University of Michigan Hospital and was buried in Detroit on July 18, 1994. He always appreciated The University of Michigan for its academic excellence and unfailing support of him as an athlete and alumnus.
On the Golden Anniversary of Charles Fonville’s record performance I will simply end with this.
Hail to the Victor Valiant,
Hail to the Conquering Hero,
Hail, Hail to Fonville of Michigan,
World Champion of the West
Carl Eric Fonville, P.E. '77 BSE, '78 MSE
April 17, 1998
My great thanks to my Aunt Edna for creating his scrapbook and thus preserving the majority of his accomplishments.