Wheelchair Athletes’ 1962 Tour of South Africa and Rhodesia

RS 41/20/262

Paraplegics Tour of South Africa Program

Cailin Cullen is a student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and is currently completing a practicum at the Student Life and Culture Archives.

On June 11, 1962, a group of seventeen wheelchair athletes gathered at the University of Illinois for an orientation regarding their upcoming trip to Africa. For three full days, thirteen men and four women practiced their skills in track, field, basketball, archery, square dancing, cheer-leading, bowling, and chair handling skills. During this time, the group also met with Timothy Nugent, the University of Illinois Rehabilitation Center Director, and John Powell, an instructor in Physical Education and a former instructor at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.

The idea for the trip was imagined by Tom C. Knowles, the manager of Tom Tit’s Travel Agency in Grahamstown, South Africa. Knowles suffered a service injury during his time in the Royal Air Force and utilized a wheelchair. He heard about the University of Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Education Services (DRES) Program from his friend, John Powell. In an effort to spark public interest in his country for greater opportunity for disabled individuals, Knowles organized a tour and raised the funds for it.[1]

After their orientation in Champaign-Urbana, the group left for New York on June 14, 1962. They were accompanied by eight non-disabled coaches, equipment men, reporters, and general handy men. Among them was Roger Ebert. At the time, Ebert was a twenty-year old college student at the University of Illinois, working as a reporter for the News-Gazette and the Daily Illini.

One of the athletes, Jan Little, kept a journal throughout the trip. In it, she recounts their adventurous trip to New York, describing how the group’s bus broke down near Elkhart, IN. After a little push from their equipment truck, the bus got rolling again and they made it another 133 miles to Toledo! Once it was fixed up, they were back on their way and made it to New York just in time for the National Wheelchair games. According to Little, Illinois won hands down.[2]

The trip to South Africa was a long one, with layovers in London, Rome, Athens, Nairobi, and Salisbury before finally reaching Johannesburg. During their short stay in Rome, Little poked fun at her teammates, Paul Sones and Gilbert Fink, for amusing a few Romans by washing out their dainties and hanging them out the window…on the end of Paul’s crutch. Apparently they were not secured very well, because a “not too well dressed” Fink had to sneak down to the alley to retrieve them!

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American Paraplegics Team Arriving at Jan Smuts Airport

When the group landed in Johannesburg on June 20, they were swarmed by photographers and reporters. Little joked that after such a long journey, they were not their best selves, and her “largest end appeared front page the next day.” Most days on their tour of South Africa and Rhodesia consisted of both sight-seeing and sports exhibitions. They visited gold and copper mines, hospitals, schools, beautiful cities like Pretoria, and natural wonders like Victoria Falls. At these sites, or at designated stadiums, the group would display their athletic skills in basketball, football, archery, track and field events, swimming, square dancing, cheer-leading, and chair skills. Over the four weeks on the continent, they were given many dinners, receptions, and endless teas in their honor. The group often met with the mayor of the town they were visiting.

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U.S. Wheelchair Team Parade in Port Elizabeth during South African tour

They seemed to have a wonderful time despite minor hiccups along the way. In Paarl, the group stopped at a tobacco factory to give a short exhibition in archery and square dancing. Little explains that the square dancing was complicated by a wet dirt court and a record player which kept changing speeds. Earlier in the trip, the group noticed they were missing one co-ed for the square dancing exhibition in Johannesburg. So, the crowd was treated to “the most charming blond to ever sit in a wheelchair – Bob ‘Roberta’ Hawkes.” Little recalls that Bob Hawkes had some help from “a blond wig, long black skirt, white blouse and size 48 E falsies.”

The group said goodbye to the African continent on July 20, and landed in London the next day. Before heading home, the wheelchair athletes took part in the International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed. Upon their return to Champaign-Urbana, Roger Ebert published an article in the Daily Illini in which he describes the great impact the group of seventeen wheelchair athletes had on South Africa and Southern and Northern Rhodesia. Ebert called the tour “a tribute to international cooperation” and “a tribute to the bold, ambitious rehabilitation techniques fashioned by Nugent…which have made Illinois a world leader in this area.”[3]

RS 41/20/262

Tourist Information from Wheelchair Athletes’ Tour of South Africa and Rhodesia

[1] “18 Start Wheelchair Tour,” Daily Illini, June 18, 1962.

[2] Little, Janet, African Safari Tour Journal, Student Life and Culture Archives, RS 41/20/262.

[3] Ebert, Roger, “UI African ‘Wheelchair Safari’,” Daily Illini, August 9, 1962.

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