Beloit's Tarzan lived life in fast lane

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File photo Tarzan Honor was a football and track star at Beloit Memorial High School.

Despite a scrapbook brimming with athletic achievements, Tarzan Leroy Honor's favorite success story had nothing to do with the gridiron, track or baseball diamond.

It occurred in 1970 when the former Hall of Fame athlete from Beloit and a dozen college kids helped bring clean water to a dusty, parched African village.

"We thought we were going to be just supplying the labor to build the water system," Honor said during a 1997 interview for the Daily News' Legends of Sports series. "Instead, I had to design the thing and I'm no engineer. We spent the summer digging ditches and laying pipe and we brought water to that village.

"It was very satisfying. The villagers honored us before we left, dancing for hours."

Tarzan passed away at the age of 85 on March 25 in Glendora, Calif. He spent his life in the fast lane, whether it was side-stepping defenders as a standout halfback at Beloit High School in the early 1950s, volunteering to test an escape device for a U.S. bomber or honing his humanitarian skills on many trips to Africa.

Born in Beloit on Aug. 8, 1933, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Honor. Travis became a football star at Beloit Memorial High School, leading the Big Eight in scoring as a senior when he earned both all-conference and All-State honors. In a 60-7 rout of Janesville in his final 1951 football game, he scored three touchdowns.

He was a blur on the track as well, teaming with George Foster, Laverne Bradford and future NFL star Frank Clarke to post a 1950 state record of 1:31.6 in the 880-yard relay.

Tarzan said baseball was actually his first love. In 1949, he helped the Legion team capture a state title.

"We went out to North Dakota to play in the Midwest Regional and Joe (Payne) and I were the first black people they'd ever seen," Tarzan said. "We encountered some prejudice, but our team really synched well. We supported each other."

While he loved baseball, his future was football. He accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Wisconsin, along with Clarke, but soon questioned his decision..

"I was about 5-10 and 165 pounds," he said. "That was really small for the Big Ten. My speed wasn't a question, but my size was."

When former Beloiter John Thiel, an assistant football coach at Trinidad Junior College in Colorado, invited Honor and Clarke to join him, they accepted and brought along several friends: Dick Gupton and Charles Gladney of Beloit and Dick Franklin of South Beloit.

"We thought we could build our own team," Tarzan said.

They came close. Trinidad, a small city of about 12,000 had seen few blacks. The fortunes of the football team dramatically improve ddue to the Beloit connection.

Tarzan was an instant hit, with the newspaper there describing him as "the Beloit Bullet" as he routinely broke long runs, He earned All-Empire State Conference honors and then turned to track, where he took first in the National Junior College Meet in Hutchinson, Kan., with a leap of 21-8 in the long jump.

His next stop was at the University of Denver, where he earned all-conference in 1956. In track, he helped Denver win a pair of conference titles, taking first in both the long jump and 100.

He graduated with a degree in business administration.

"Most graduates from the University of Denver business school were receiving three or four offers immediately and companies were flying them all over the country for interviews," Tarzan said. "The two black guys in the business school received no offers whatsoever."

To get his foot in the door, Tarzan worked as an engineering aid for Stanley Aviation, a company which had the contract to design an escape device for the Convair B-58 Hustler bomber.

Tarzan volunteered for 60 crash tests. Conditions were simulated in the tests by dropping a protected cylinder containing the pilot's seat from a framework 12 feet above the ground and measuring the pilot's reactions. Drops were made into sand, compacted dirt and cement. Tarzan received a concussion during one test.

"They asked me to try to test out of the plane itself, but I turned that down," he said. "Not too long after that one of the test planes missed its mark, crashed in a canyon and everyone board was killed."

In 1970, Tarzan became the first black dean of student services at the University of Colorado. He also became involved with expeditions in Africa, working with humanitarian organizations as well as companies seeking energy contracts in African nations.

He took 11 college students to Sierra Leone through a non-profit organization, Operation Crossroads Africa.

"We had seven black kids and four whites," Tarzan said. "We all lived together in one house with a sheet down the middle separating boys and girls."

He spent that first summer in east Africa, building the water system. The next, he helped build a road in central Africa. The third, he took over as director of all the programs run in west Africa by Operation Crossroads Africa.

"I consider myself a problem solver," he said.

During his travels, he studied African culture in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Botswana, Ethiopia and Kenya.

"I went right to the tribal leaders and spoke to them," he said. "I found out these people had a fabulous history. I acquired a great deal of knowledge."

He used that knowledge as a lecturer on African history and culture and formed a power company, Honor Energy, through a partnership with the Manzanita of the Kumeyaay Indigenous Nation. He stayed in close contact with his younger brother Alan in Beloit and his humanitarian work extended to his hometown. He believed it was important to preserve the history of the Fairbanks Flats, a rare example of segregated company housing where black workers at Fairbanks Morse, including his own family, lived.

Naturally inquisitive, Tarzan didn't uncover the history of his unique name until later in life.

"It took me about 50 years to find out why my mother named me Tarzan," he said. "I'd asked her many times and she always said, 'Boy, that's none of your business.' Finally, when she got to be 85 years old, I asked her again."

Turns out the old Tarzan movies were popular at the time he was born and his mother was a big fan.

"She just said, 'I liked the name.' and that was it," he said.

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