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TRIBUTE TO EARL HANGEN

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  Earl Hangen is an American Checkerist who spent many years as an official of the American Checker Federation. Some who know him are aware of his dedication and devotion to the game in years past.   

 However, in this modern age of Internet Checkers, and the recent influx of players due to the popularity of Internet play, computer programming and analysis, there are many who are not familiar with his involvement in the game.

  Jay Hinnershitz has been a personal friend of Earl's for over 25 years, and has decided to create this living memorial....

THE ONLINE MUSEUM OF CHECKERS HISTORY
 
PROUDLY PRESENTS
 
A
TRIBUTE
TO
EARL HANGEN

 

“I AM A WORKER FOR CHECKERS.”

Earl Hangen, 1986, from an article in the Reading Eagle.
 
 
 
 

So it was written….

Earl Hangen was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on April 17, 1927. The son of Viola (Immel) and George Hangen (a union truck driver) his youth was spent in the blue collar working class neighborhoods in which he would spend his entire life. In fact, other than when he did his stint in the USNR in the late 1940’s, he has lived within the same 4 square mile area, although at several different residences. He comes from a very small family, having one older brother, Alfred, now deceased. Alfred had several children and grandchildren. These would be the only children in Earl’s family, as Earl himself never married, and had no children of his own.

Earl developed a fascination with the game of Checkers while attending Northeast Junior High in Reading, PA. The school had a Chess club, which also contained a few checkers players. By his own accounts he was “probably the best Checkers player, but not the best Chess player”.

At some point after graduating from Reading Senior High, Earl went to work for the United States Postal Service. Here he would remain employed, in several different functions, until finally retiring in 1977 as a payroll clerk. No doubt it was the attention to detail developed in this position which enabled him to excel in his position as the American Checker Federation Mail Play Director, which he would be appointed to several years later, after joining the ACF.

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Earl failed three drafts for the US Military in 1945-48 due to his vision problems, having had poor eyesight since his youth. He would later join the United States Naval Reserves, where he would spend time on the “Kearsarge”.

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During the early 1960’s, Earl renewed his childhood love of the game of Checkers.  At this time, he had a fellow Reading friend who would go to several local bars and the two would play for leisure, although occasionally a small bet would take place. Earl was still a working class employee of the US Postal Service, being single and living at home with his mother and father, his older brother having married and moved out of his parent’s house years before.

Finally came the year 1976, when Earl was preparing for retirement from the USPS, having earned a full pension. With ample time on his hands, he needed something to occupy himself with. He discovered Mail Play Checkers and made the acquaintance of several mail players who suggested to him ACF membership. Earl then joined the ACF and very quickly caught the eye of many of the top-rung ladder players as a player to be reckoned with. He immediately set about to playing matches on every available ladder, including Wood’s, Badger, Tribble, Creek and others. Earl’s willingness to correspond with his competitors gained him a reputation as a very friendly and popular player on these ladders, and many players looked forward to a match with Earl “The Hangman” Hangen, as some began to call him. Whether on a Ladder, in a Mail play tourney, or a friendly, off the record un-sanctioned match, Earl was available to any and all.

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About this same time Earl discovered “Churchill’s Compilations” and began to submit corrections and additions. However, his forte was in finding transpositions. He was so adept at this that Ernie Churchill himself was befuddled at Earl’s ability to research and find these transpositions.  This was a “knack” of Earl’s that he would develop very early in his studies as a player.

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This transposition work would also assist him in the late 1980’s when movements were made to include barred openings into the ACF 3-Move deck. At that time, Earl would assist Brian Hinkle, Don Norris, Marion Tinsley, Eugene Frazier and others who spent countless hours researching and analyzing the barred openings. Earl could transpose some of the barred openings into some landings from the already approved openings. He was very proud that his transposition work had caught the eye of Marion Tinsley. And, in his position as Mail Play Director for the ACF and the Pennsylvania State Checkers Association, Earl took votes from the membership for approval of their use, and organized several mail tourneys with some of these openings as an experiment.

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LETTER FROM BRIAN HINKLE TO EARL HANGEN, FROM HANGEN'S FILES

As detailed, prompt and thorough as Earl was in everything he did, it was a natural for him to move into a position within the structure of the ACF that would require organizational skills. He had everyone’s respect as a fellow player, and when the chance to become the director of “Wood’s Ladder”, the granddaddy of all mail play ladders, opened up, Earl jumped at the chance. Wood’s Ladder had been an official ACF sanctioned event, and had been running regularly in the pages of the ACF Bulletin for many years.

In August of 1979 Earl applied for the position, and in September, he was appointed as the new director for this ladder.

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Earl took over the Ladder, and, even though the Ladder did not have the number of members that it did in the earlier days of the 1930-50’s when at times there were  130-150 members, it was quite a task to run this ladder efficiently and accurately. With that stated, there was rarely a time when someone had to wait for a match, or their ranking on the ladder was not accurate. (This last item being a contentious item for mail players…..one must see, in order to believe, all of the letters to Earl regarding questions on this issue. Players fought hard for their rungs, and defended them tooth and nail! Most, not understanding the way the ladder rungs were won or lost, would be dismayed when a player above them would lose their rung, and as a result, their own rung would be lowered…..)

During the summer of 1980, Roy Little, who had been serving as the ACF Mail Play Director, decided he no longer wished to continue in his position. Through correspondence, Little suggested that Earl take over as the ACF Mail Play Director, subject to ACF Executive Committee approval. There was no doubt that he would receive the position, as he had transformed “Wood’s Ladder” into one of the ACF’s most popular programs. Earl received the appointment in December of 1981, and in a very short time, transformed the position into probably the most high profile non-Executive Committee position within the ACF. Earl dealt with hundreds of players worldwide,(ACF and non-ACF members) due to organizing the ACF Inter District Mail playoffs, the World Qualifying Mail Playoffs, Wood’s Ladder,  the ACF “Free” Mail Tournaments and the World Mail Play Championship Matches. Later, Earl would also take over the responsibility of organizing the Great Britain-United States Team Mail Matches from Fred Vore, who had been Team Captain for the US team for many years.  He would go on to organize many other Team Mail Play matches for the ACF and the Pennsylvania State Checker Association, including matches with Malta, Barbados, Scotland and Pakistan, among others.

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Although Earl had the respect of nearly every player worldwide, he was NOT a member of the ACF Executive Committee, as he had to constantly remind many players who would write to him with issues and concerns that necessitated presentation to the ACF Executive Committee itself, and not to him as Mail Play Director. In spite of this, Earl would spend countless hours assisting, to the best of his ability, those in need of guidance, even if the issues were not mail-play related.

It didn’t take long for the ACF top brass to recognize Earl’s attention to detail, his dedication, and devotion to the game and his position. They heaped constant praise upon him at every opportunity available, and allowed him to make decisions regarding the Mail program that normally would require the full input of the ACF Executive Committee. This was remarkable, in that the position of ACF Mail Play Director was never an “elected” position, always appointed, and was always answerable and subject to the whims of the Executive Committee. Louis Van Deven, a former ACF Mail Play Director, resigned the position as he felt the mail program did not receive enough attention from the ACF Executive Committee. This (among other issues) lead to Van Deven’s resignation. This was a far cry from the autonomy Earl was given, regarding the ACF Mail Program.

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There was one major dispute that arose early during Earl’s tenure, and it proved very quickly to him that he was not a member of the ACF Executive Committee, and was indeed, at its mercy. Having been at the time of his appointment to Mail Play Director still a contributor to Churchill’s Compilation’s, Ernie Churchill suggested to Earl that he send all of the mail games that Dick Fortman (as ACF Bulletin Games Editor) was not interested in to Churchill for publication in “CC”. When Earl asked the ACF Executive Committee for permission to do this, Earl was told under no circumstances whatsoever was he to send the games to Churchill. He was, in fact, told to discard what Fortman did not want. Obviously, there was a behind the scenes dispute, and Earl was caught in the middle…….which caused him great distress. Earl “rode the fence” on this issue, balancing his friendship with Churchill with his duties to the ACF Executive Committee. Eventually, the smoke settled, but not before proving to Earl how challenging the position of ACF Mail Play Director could be.

There was at least one time when Earl offered his services for other positions in the ACF. He was told that, although it was believed he was indeed very qualified for the positions, it was felt that the mail program, at the time more successful than ever before, and one of the most popular functions sanctioned by the ACF, would collapse without Earl guiding it.

In 1985, Earl took over as director of the PSCA (Pennsylvania State Checker Association) Mail play program from his friend Paul Ottey, a fellow Pennsylvania Checkerist. This position entailed running the Pennsylvania State Checker Association Mail Play Ladder, organizing the PSCA “Round Robin” tourneys, and organizing international team mail play matches.  As with the ACF Mail Play program, Earl transformed the PSCA Mail Play program into a tightly run, very successful function of the PSCA. Indeed, the PSCA Mail Play program was successful with Ottey as its director, but soared to new heights under Earl, along with the “Keystone Review”, which was the official organ of the PSCA . There were many “heavyweight” players who competed in the PSCA mail tournaments and ladder, and these games were all published in the bi-monthly “Keystone Review” newsletter.

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Paul Ottey was a Pennsylvania Checkerist who befriended Earl right from the very beginning of Earl’s entry into the world of Mail Play. Just prior to Ottey’s passing in September  1990, he told Earl that he would bequeath his collection of books to him with the understanding that Earl was to give any duplicates to new, incoming mail players. This gesture greatly increased the size of Earl’s own library, but also gave Earl the chance to distribute many books throughout the world, which he did. Ottey signed or stamped all of his books on the inside front cover or first page. Many of these books find their way onto the open market and quite often books for sale on Ebay are being sold with the Ottey marking…..every single one of these books came from Paul Ottey, via Earl Hangen. 

In spite of all of his organizational work, Earl continued to compete himself as a player on all ladders available, and, in one of his proudest moments as a mail player, managed to win the top rung on “”TRIBBLE’S LADDER”, the ladder started in the 1940’s by Stenson Tribble of Georgia.

As ACF Mail Play Director, Earl was responsible for receiving the game sheets from all ACF sanctioned mail play events, these to be forwarded to whoever was ACF games editor at the time. In the early 1980’s, the Games editor was Richard Fortman. Earl would send the games to Fortman, and as a result, they became common correspondents, beginning a friendship that would last over twenty years. These two became rather close comrades, without ever having met each other face to face. Earl saved the letters from Fortman in a special notebook containing literally hundreds of pages. These letters survive with many other files of Earl’s, currently with Jay Hinnershitz, West Reading, PA.

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It was in 1985 when Earl’s mother passed away. He now lived alone with the company of only a pet bird, his father having passed away many years before in 1968. Earl moved a few times after his mother’s passing, always moving into a full two story, several bedroom home. This because, in spite of the fact that he devoted so much time to the game of Checkers, Earl somehow found time for several other hobbies.

He was an avid stamp collector, a coin collector, an astronomy buff who had an amazing collection of NASA books from the late 1950’s-1970’s, and a photographer, with thousands of slides of the Reading, PA. area from the 1940’s-1960’s, which he took himself with several cameras he owned. The items from these other hobbies, collections, along with his Checkers related material and files would take up most of the space in the homes he moved into.

On top of all this, Earl would volunteer time to the Berks County Office of the Aging, where he would drive senior citizens to the grocery store and doctor meetings and other functions. He would receive commendations for these efforts.

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In all the work he did for Checkers, he was most proud of, and devoted to, “Wood’s Ladder”. He made a personal project to accumulate every single posting of the ladder standings, which he almost accomplished. The only thing left was to get the standings from the “Donora Herald” where the ladder was believed to have been started by Tony O’Hare in the early-mid 1930’s, prior to the Ladder being moved to Rex Wood’s “Our Checker Player”.  In the pre-internet days, it was nearly impossible to determine if old columns such as these still existed without spending many hours and dollars on driving, researching, etc. Earl received help with this project from many of his correspondents

In 1994, Earl became frustrated with the publishing of his Wood’s Ladder standings in the ACF Bulletin. If they were published on time, often they were inaccurate, and Earl was constantly receiving calls and letters from members questioning these inaccuracies.  Finally, the camel’s back broke and Earl began to publish his own “Wood’s Ladder Report”.

The ACF would always grant Earl a yearly allowance for postage, but, this would rarely cover even of the actual postage he spent. The “Wood’s Ladder Report” was financed with his own money, which he would generate by delivering a “merchandiser”, a local newspaper with nothing but advertisements. Earl would deliver hundreds of these in a single evening, which would be a challenge for a healthy young man……

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The WLR would become very popular amongst players. In general, Earl would send these to Wood’s Ladder players, but, whenever he came into contact with someone new, he would send them a copy, in an effort to entice them to join the ladder. And, once Jim Reed’s “Keystone Checker Review” ended, there were no other publications showing photographs. With that, many started to send Earl photographs to use in his WLR, including many from Dick Fortman. Earl, having never used a computer, would write all of the WLR text by hand, and would photocopy and Xerox the photos and images and shrink them, to finish a page. He would then take these to a printer and have copies made to mail out. The WLR also was a place for announcements, notices, updates, etc. Earl would accommodate as many as he possibly could….for a small 4 page newsletter, he packed an amazing amount of info into it.

All of the original copies of Earl’s WLR survive, and are currently in the possession of Jay Hinnershitz, West Reading, PA.

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The Final “Wood’s Ladder Report”

Earl was always willing and prepared to support any new magazine, organization, cause or club. He is a lifetime member of the ACF, was a charter member of the ICHF, and subscribed to all the Checkers related magazines of his day. He also tried to promote mail checkers to the public in general. In 1986, there was an article in the Reading Eagle that, even though it contains some inaccuracies (what media coverage does not?) sheds some positive light on the ACF mail Play program.

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In 1996, Earl contacted the “GAMES” Magazine with info on the mail program. And the response was overwhelming!! There remains a folder contained within Earl’s files, which has nearly 50 inquiries into the program, from men, women and children all over the world, mostly from the US.

However, this interest was on the very eve of the “Internet Explosion”….one of the nails that sealed the coffin on the ACF Mail program. With computers readily available, and Checkers playing sites on the Internet, the whole concept of mail play began to lose the interest of many of the veteran players, and could not maintain the interest of new players.

However, Earl’s WLR was more popular than ever, he was mailing out up to 150 copies per quarter, all financed with his own money. Some would send him a few dollars, which was always appreciated, but the cost was much more than Earl could truly afford, so he took on double merchandiser routes. This began to affect his health.

Earl suffered migraine headaches for most of his adult life, and until recent years, would not seek treatment for them. This self neglect, along with the strain of delivering his papers, and his constant work on the mail play program (for a period of many years, Earl received at least 10, and upwards of 30 pieces of mail EVERY DAY!!) led to debilitating migraines which finally caused him to seek medical attention.

This he received, but it did not help. Indeed, it seems to have worsened his health, as almost immediately after the treatment, which included medication, Earl began to suffer from memory loss.

In an unsent letter from 2006, Earl wrote to ACF President Alan Millhone, stating that, due to his condition, he could no longer direct the mail play program on a regular basis, and resigned, with the promise of a return if he recovered. His wish was to continue his “Wood’s Ladder Report” , and continue with a reformatted  tournament for the American Mail Play Championship, but this would never happen…...

With his position in the annals of the game’s history secure, Earl now spends his time far removed from the day to day activities of organized Checkers, watching television and relaxing at the Berks County Home, also known as “Berks Heim”, a nursing home on the northwestern edge of his home city of Reading, PA. He can recall the names of most of the players that he corresponded with from the heyday of his time as ACF Mail Play Director. Names like Dennis Cayton, Dick Fortman, Mac Banks, Nigel Proffitt, Jim Loy, Jerry Childers, Matt Long and several others who generated a friendship with him through correspondence. He seems to be able to remember his interactions with these men, but, sadly, he cannot recall that he once ran the ACF Mail program, which is probably better for him, as, with his full mental faculties, he would most likely be heart-broken to see that the ACF mail program has completely disappeared from the landscape.

There are few who have devoted as much to the game of Checkers as Earl Hangen…..this tribute is a testimony to his contributions to the game itself, but primarily to Mail Play, which was his focus. His kind comes along maybe once in a generation.

For those that are unaware, The Online Museum Of Checkers History is, and has been from the first day, dedicated to Earl Hangen.

 

God Bless You Earl………………….

 

 

 

 

WE HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED 
A
TRIBUTE
TO
EARL HANGEN
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