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Card Chronicle Catches Up With: The family of the late John Tong

Time is OUT ... on the floor

Wake Forest v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Professionalism /prėfeSHėnlizem/ pro•fes•sion•al•ism (noun): the competence or skill expected of a true professional

Amidst all the seemingly neve rending dark clouds that have hovered over Louisville Basketball the past handful of years, I sometimes self-medicate by daydreaming and reminding myself just how fortunate I am to be a Cardinal fan…..all the great players, the Hall of Fame coaches, the National Championships, a new bright future under Chris Mack and so much more. And, add to the fact that we as UofL fans have been blessed with two of the best PA announcers in collegiate basketball history is simply the cherry on top.

Undoubtedly, UofL’s current PA announcer, Sean Moth, is well past becoming a household name amongst UofL fans. He is wildly popular and rightfully so. Perhaps the most impressive feat Moth has accomplished has been successfully filling the shoes of the Cards former PA announcer – the late Mr. John Tong. Two separate styles, two great announcers.

I know, the mention of John Tong likely has many of you currently playing back some of Tong’s famous taglines and one-liners in your head. I do it all the time. One of my many favorite soundbites for whatever reason is playing back Tong’s announcement of LaBradford Smith as a starter in my head……”And at guard, a 6’3” senior-uh, from Bay City Texas-uh…..LaBradforrrrrrrd Smith-uh”.

I once joked with one of my best friends and a fellow diehard UofL fan, Tim Paul, that I could listen to a loop of John Tong for hours on my iPod while on vacation and be perfectly satisfied.

I wasn’t kidding.

The behind the scenes real life story of the late John Tong is compelling and one that was only made possible for me to highlight by me interviewing his son, Eric Tong. Thanks to Eric, I was able to get a deep glimpse into the life of a man whose voice will forever echo throughout the now vacated Freedom Hall and the minds of Louisville Basketball fans around the country.

Please join me as I go in depth with John’s son, Eric, for Issue 11 of the Return to the Flock series to learn more about the man who Cardinal fans will never forget.

“Annnnd, time is OUT…..on the floor.”

Eric, thank you for doing this. I’m confident the readers will thoroughly enjoy learning who Tong really was. First, tell the readers a little bit about yourself (where you grew up, education, family, career)

ET: I was born in Jefferson County (Buechel) Louisville Kentucky. I attended Goldsmith Elementary, Saint Pius, Saint Raphael, Saint Xavier High School and earned my College Degree from Wayland Baptist University, while serving my Country in the United States Airforce. I have traveled the world, fought in two wars, multiple military and humanitarian operations and have had the privilege of knowing some of the most Valorous people that humanity has to offer.

I am married to my high school sweetheart Lisa Kay Fenwick Tong. We were blessed with four children and 4 grandchildren. I have had 2 successful and fulfilling careers in my life: (1) United States Air Force and (2) Regional Vice President of Brantley/SMS Event Services.

(Editor’s note: please join me in thanking Eric for his service……)

Where did your father, the legendary Mr. John Tong grow up?

ET: My father was born on the 13th of October 1925 in Springfield, Kentucky. He was raised by his Grandfather until the age of three or four. His Grandfather and most of the men in the family were loggers and sawmill workers.

Sometime during late 1928/early 1929, there was a logging accident and several of the men including his Grandfather were injured. This tragic event combined with the Stock Market crash of 29 October 1929, which ushered in “The Great Depression”, left my father’s future in a difficult situation. No one in the family could physically and/or financially take care of my father. In fact, they couldn’t even feed and clothe their own children.

My father was placed in an orphanage in Bardstown, Kentucky (St Thomas) and was shortly thereafter transferred to Saint Thomas Orphanage located in Louisville which is now home to Bellarmine University. In 1938 the Louisville facility was closed and he was moved to the new Saint Thomas Orphanage located in Anchorage, Kentucky. He was now only thirteen years old! The next part is really difficult and heart breaking!

Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen someone pulled him out of the Orphanage and he eventually became somewhat homeless and destitute! I discovered this information from a letter I received from Catholic Charities while researching my family tree. The Letter was written to Father Herman J. Lammers. When World War II Broke out, my dad joined the Navy as soon as he could! I don’t really know how old he was but his war buddies always joked with him about forging his age and being only sixteen years old.

My Father always told me that World War II saved his life and the United States Navy was the best family that he ever had until he married my mother. His War buddies brag about how my dad world put on his Dress Navy Uniform and walk the deck at night in enemy waters while surrounded by Japanese ships. They would say to him, “John, get that damn uniform off and take cover, you are going to get your head blown off!” and would reply, “ I have three squares (meals) a day, a nice suit, a place to lay my head and a family. Today is the best day of my life”!

(Editor’s note: Thank you, Mr. Tong, for your service as well. I had no idea he served in the US Navy)

As a child or a young adult, was your father heavily involved in sports?

ET: Yes, my father has always been heavily involved in sports. But mostly from the referee, umpire and coaching perspective. The orphanages had sports programs and if you could make the teams, you could travel off the property. My dad liked that very much, but he was only good enough to make the baseball team. So, he devised a plan that would secure him a position on all the sports teams. He studied each of the sports, dissecting every aspect of them, until he became a sports expert! This secured him a position (trainer, assistant coach, referee, umpire, etc.) on all the sports teams, but most importantly it secured him a seat on the bus!

(Editor’s note: I’m not surprised in the least that he became an expert on all the aforementioned sports b/c he sure as hell mastered the art of PA announcing)

At what point did your father first get into public announcing?

ET: My father’s first official public announcing began during World War II. He mostly announced boxing matches aboard ship.

Did your father attend college after serving his country?

ET: My father never had the opportunity to attend college. When the war was over and he was discharged he had no place to go and no one was waiting for him. He went straight to work! I believe that he landed a sales position in retail/hardware at Jacob Levy’s Brothers. The store was located at the corner of 3rd and Market.

Note: The building is now home to the “The Old Spaghetti Factory”.

Aside from being a PA announcer, did your father have another career? He also called games for the KHSAA did he not?

ET: My father’s main career was a salesman for O’Connor and Raque (Office Supply company). And yes, he did announce the KHSAA State tournament(s).

Did you or your siblings (if you have them) ever attend UofL games while your father was announcing?

ET: Yes, my brother David and I attended many games. I had the opportunity to be a ball boy at many of the games. My favorite sporting events the he announced was Boxing and Baseball. I had the great opportunity to help set-up the rings and work the corner of many boxing matches.

On a personal level, I absolutely loved your Dad. I mean if I were putting together a very short list of items that personified the fabric of Freedom Hall, your Dad’s voice would absolutely be on it. I can still hear the sound of his voice when he would say “Steps Called”, or “Both teams…are now in in the bonus” and of course his famous intro before the starting lineups. Were there any particular sayings your father had that you remember the most?

ET: He always was happy and joked around using all kinds of funny sayings. He was that way 24/7. He loved to embarrass my girlfriend who is now my wife by saying over the microphone “Kay Fenwick please call your answering service”.

(My father actually remembered hearing that when I told him what David shared about his wife!)

Aside from calling all of their home games, was your Dad actually a big Louisville fan?

ET: He LOVED U of L and being part of its sports program.

Were there any UofL players that he specifically took a liking to during his time as the PA announcer?

ET: I can’t just name one. There are so many of them that had such great character, talent and class! At his funeral I was so honored by the number of players (College and Professional) that said their goal as a kid was to hear my Dad call their name in Freedom Hall! The majority of the players didn’t come from wealth and privilege, for the most part they had huge hurdles to overcome and my dad identified with that and loved to see them achieve what they worked so hard for!

(Editor’s note: this interview personifies the term “heartfelt”)

On the flip side, were there any particular games that had more sentimental value to your Dad?

ET: The one and only game that he missed! That game was the day I was born!

Above is a great video from the 1986 Senior Day ceremony that encapsulates the greatness that was John Tong…..

Was it difficult for your father to retire and step away from the microphone?

ET: I am sure that it was a difficult decision, but he always wanted to go out on top and he did it his way! My dad lived his life like a Cool Jazzy Frank Sinatra song.

(Editor’s note: well played Eric, well played)

I can assure you that any Louisville Basketball fan who is old enough to remember your father is a fan of his work. How do you, as his son, hope that Louisville fans remember your Dad?

ET: I would love for my Father to be remembered as the man that overcame great adversity and lived his life with empathy, integrity and that his hard work and professionalism behind the microphone helped so many achieve their well-deserved goals. He surely didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he loved the content of character he saw in others.

Thank you to CD Kaplan for writing his short piece on John Tong which was published by Card Chronicle a few weeks back. I had been working on this interview piece even during that time not knowing that he was about to produce his Fan Moments piece on him. I think the bridge to this interview worked nicely.

Thanks also to Sean Payne for getting me in contact with Eric Tong.

Go Cards!