Hoosick Township Historical Society

Henderson Edward “Harry” Van Surdam


Picture of Harry Van Surdam ____________ Picture of Harry Van Surdam


Harry Van Surdam was born on September 28, 1881.  He was the son of Henderson S. Van Surdam and the former Frances Leonard.


His father worked at the Walter A. Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Company as a traffic clerk in the main office and was also a musician playing the coronet. He started the summer band concerts in the Wood’s Park and the present bandstand is named for Harry’s  father.


Harry learned to play the clarinet and piano and was in his father’s band at age 12.  He graduated from the Hoosick Falls High School in 1898.   He played in bands for the next two years and was a clarinet soloist in the Detroit City Band in 1901.                                                          


He decided to attend Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in September 1901. He became interested in football and became captain of the Freshman team.  He played varsity football for the next three years as Quarterback, at 138 pounds. In 1904, he was named to the sub All-American team and in 1905 was named the Walter Camp All-American Quarterback.


Upon graduation Harry became coach of the football team at Marietta College in Ohio.  In the first game he had his team throw a forward pass for which  the team had a penalty called by the officials.  In the big game against Ohio University the team threw a 49-yard pass to the surprise of the officials.  Harry “devised one of the first legal forward pass plays ever used by a college team,” according to the Oklahoma Daily, in a 1966 article.


Harry went on to become Coach of the University of the South and then El Paso Military Institute. The 1910 Mexican Revolution caused the Institute to close. Harry thought the campus of the Institute should become a State school.  A committee was formed and legislation was passed after two years to form the Texas State School of Mines in 1913.  Harry raised $50,000 to buy the buildings of the closed Institute and give it to the State. The school is now called the University of Texas at El Paso. A magazine called Nova, a magazine of the University, published an article about Harry Van Surdam entitled “The Founder”, in 1978.  He was interviewed at the college at age 96.


He resumed his musical interests and formed a six-piece band that played at a newly opened hotel in El Paso. He lead a four piece band at this hotel for two years.   In 1913, he formed a symphony orchestra of 35 members and played in the El Paso area.


When World War I broke out,  he was past draft age.  He signed up to train as a balloon observer.  He wore the beret with wings all the rest of his life.  In 1923,  he took an orchestra around the world playing on boats and at famous hotels. He told me many stories about playing at the Coronado Hotel in San Diego.  In 1926, he married Beulah, a daughter of the owners on the Munson Ocean Lines.  She was an opera singer and he accompanied her.  They lived in New York in the winter and in Lake Placid in the summer.  Harry worked as a promoter for the American Hotel Corporation.                                                               


Harry officiated football for more than 40 years.  He was a supporter of the Sun Bowl game and officiated at the games in 1939, 1940 and 1941.  He was a regular at the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl. After he was unable to officiate, he ran the electric clock at games.  The last time he ran the clock was at age 81 at the Army-Navy game.  He was a 52-year member of the Football Coaches Association.


Among his many honors was the Helms award for completing 70 years of activity in football.  He helped organize the Touchdown Clubs of New York and Washington. In 1972, he was placed in the National Football Hall of Fame.  On May 4, 1976, at age 95,  he presented the award to the Hoosick Falls Central School in front of a cheering student body. It hangs in the foyer of the school.


For 30 years he wrote a sports column for the Hoosick Falls Standard Press called “Traveling Sports Reporter”.  His last column appeared in 1979 at the age of 98.  On September 28, 1981, the community honored Harry Van Surdam with a parade and concert in the Wood’s Park. More than 300 people attended the concert on that day.  On May 20, 1982, a plaque was mounted on the band stand in the Wood’s Park to celebrate his 100th birthday. He observed the plaque with Mayor Donald Bogardus just eight days before his death.


Harry Van Surdam spent the last four years of his life in the Hoosick Falls Health Center.  He was active up to his death on May 28, 1982 at the age of 101.  He was a colorful and exceptional man.


Recent Photo By Edith Beaumont

Text Compiled by Philip Leonard

December 1999.


From a song by Harry Van Surdam:


Let’s All be Friendly

A nod, a smile, you’d scarce believe,

How much the burden ‘twill relieve,

Of some poor soul constrained to grieve,

Thinking the world unfriendly,

A gracious word, a kindly deed,

Does more to help the human need,

Than any doctrine, form or creed;

So let’s be friendly;

So let’s all be friendly.