'Flying Hebrew' a star once more thanks to nursing home
Sunday, November 17, 1996 - Ottawa Citizen
Display cases at the door of every patient's room at the Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre are the best ideas designers had. Without them, a person wouldn't get to know people like The Flying Hebrew.
For two years, I've been a regular visitor to the Perley. My mother lives there. Call them chronic care patients, or long-term stay clients, or find another name, but for most of them it's the last home they'll have. Most have serious damage caused by age. Many can't communicate. Many are bedridden.
One man, a stroke victim, is confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak. We've often made eye contact and I have wondered whether he was aware of his surroundings. Sometimes, he seemed barely able to stay awake. At other times his bright blue eyes seemed to be seeing into me. Often, they seemed angry.
His wife spends most of her day, every day, with him.
I learned his name from the plate on his door. I was able to check the display case. There was a framed photo and a newspaper clipping. I met handsome young Joe Zelikovitz, Ottawa Rough Riders No. 25, star "flying wing" (halfback) of the 1930s. The clipping was from Ottawa Jewish Bulletin and Review, 1986. Hang on: There must be a mistake. It says he intercepted seven passes in one game. It seems improbable.
There's more. The brief history paints him as one of Ottawa's greatest athletes in many sports, and he earned the nickname The Flying Hebrew courtesy of the sportswriters of his day. He is a member of the Ottawa Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
A check into the Canadian Football League record book gives the record for most interceptions in one game to Rod Hill of Winnipeg, Hamilton at Winnipeg, Sept. 11, 1961. Five only. Greg Fulton at the CFL Hall of Fame in Hamilton said records only go back to when the CFL was formed in 1958. Zelikovitz played in a league known as The Big Four: Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Hamilton. Seven interceptions in one game seemed unlikely to him too.
The game was Oct. 15, 1936, a Saturday. The following Monday the Citizen's coverage was massive, and written by sports editor Tommy Shields. Reading through it I was surprised at the number of names of players I had know later in their lives. Andy Tommy. Tiny Herman. Leo Seguin would go on to become Ottawa police chief and sign my first press card in 1962. Carl (Soggy) Norton would go on to head a squad of Ottawa detectives and spend much time telling me to go away because I bugged him.
Zelikovitz was the hero of the day. But no mention of seven interceptions.
Joe's wife, Inez, was spoonfeeding him at their regular table against the window. I told her there must have been a mistake about the seven interceptions. She was adamant.
Back to the microfilm. Bingo. There it is in a sidebar by reporter Jack Koffman. Zel, the Hebrew Flying Wing, intercepted seven passes. He was prominent from start to finish.
Sports heroes of his day were routinely offered jobs with the police department or fire department. Without television sports heroes to overshadow them, they were applauded when they walked into rooms. They were paid little and did it for the love of the game.
Joe turned down an offer to be a cop, and became the third generation to run the family business on Bank Street, Zelikovitz's Leather Goods. He and Inez had no children.
I was waiting for Inez to take the photo out of the display case, and apologizing for doubting her, when eye contact with No. 25 was made again. He was in his wheelchair, held in by a tray locked across the chair's arms. It was probably imagination, but I thought I saw laughter.
Now I could see not the man who is, but the man who was. There was some sense of guilt for not seeing him sooner, and for not paying more attention to those display cases.
He's 82 now. The stroke hit in 1990. Among his peers today, he is still a top physical specimen in that he requires no medication.
The rooms are occupied by men and women who often can't walk or talk. Many drool and babble. But they are also there in their fighter planes, war nurses' uniforms, wedding clothes and family reunions. Strong hearts have robbed them of dignity by letting other parts wear out first.
Joe Zelikovitz, through his display case, gave me something of a smarten-up slap. A newspaper clipping and a photo give him back his dignity. He is no longer a damaged old man, but a story. He's a reminder that if we keep our eyes and minds open, we can still learn from, or at least be reminded by, people like him. The reminder is to look beyond the obvious.
Sadly, many occupied rooms have empty display cases.