By Van Craddock
More than 100 years ago, John R. Hoffmann was known for his heroic efforts on the Longview Cannibals’ minor league baseball team. An East Texas newspaper had called him “one of the best outfielders ever to perform in this area.” But in 1913, the “hero” term took on a new meaning for Hoffmann. That’s when the 26-year-old cotton clerk and part-time diamond star saved a beloved Longview physician from being run over by a train.
Fast forward to July 2016. Wayne Haney was browsing at a Longview estate sale when something intriguing caught his eye. It was a bronze medallion with a bearded man’s likeness embossed on it. “At first glance it looked like a Civil War general,” said Haney, associate pastor at Longview’s Spring Hill First Baptist Church. “I love history. I always have. The medal definitely got my attention.”
Haney bought the heavy, three-inch-diameter medal for $4 and took it home to show his wife, Leslie, and daughters Taylor and Madison. With some Internet research and help from church member and local historian Sue Moore, Haney learned he had stumbled across the Carnegie Medal awarded to John R. Hoffmann for his 1913 heroism.
John Richard Hoffmann was born in Calhoun, Mo., in 1888 and grew up in the East Texas community of Athens. He moved to Longview and joined the Longview Cannibals in 1908. He played several seasons for the team and later served as business manager and secretary of the baseball club. Longview, the county seat of Gregg County, was a cotton and rail center at the time. The town of 5,000 boasted two large depots, one located downtown and another at Longview Junction just east of the city limits.
Here are details from the Hero Fund’s report:
Local physician Dr. Andrew F. O’Bryan was traveling in his horse and buggy across the tracks at Longview Junction on the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 19, 1913. The 78-year-old O’Bryan could neither see nor hear the eastbound Texas and Pacific passenger train No. 52 that was approaching the station at about 15 m.p.h. on the main track. Likewise, the train engineer “did not know of O’Bryan’s danger.”
Seeing what was about to happen, Hoffmann ran toward O’Bryan’s horse, which had just stepped onto the main track. Hoffmann grabbed the thousand-pound animal’s bit with both hands and pulled the horse off the track, “barely clearing the track himself before the locomotive passed.” The locomotive’s bumper-timber “brushed his coat” as the passenger train rambled by. One witness said he “thought Hoffmann would be killed, and that Hoffmann did not escape death by a foot.”
Later, Hoffmann said that “when he started to the rescue, he did not have any thought of danger to himself; that immediately after the act he was greatly frightened and felt that he had had a narrow escape from death.” In short, Hoffmann didn’t have time to be scared as he raced toward the fortunate doctor’s buggy.
Hoffmann was nominated for the Carnegie Medal by G. A. Bodenheim, Longview’s mayor at the time, and the medal was awarded in 1914. Hoffmann received also a cash award of $1,000—the equivalent of more than $24,000 today. The money came in handy. According to the Hero Fund’s report, “Hoffmann’s father and mother … are partly dependent upon him for support. Hoffmann earns $50 a month. He sends $8 or $10 a month to his parents. Hoffmann wants to get married.”
Hoffmann married Eila Mae Wilson in October 1915. Later becoming a Gregg County chief deputy, he died in 1950 and is buried at Danville Cemetery in Kilgore, Texas.
“I’m glad I bought the medal. Just to hold it and touch it gives me a connection to the past,” said the Rev. Mr. Haney, a Belmont University music business graduate who has served on his church’s staff for 16 years. He said he hopes to see the medal displayed in a local museum or library so others can learn about Hoffmann’s bravery back in 1913.
By the way, Hoffmann was the father of another well-respected Longview resident, Jo Ann Hoffmann Metcalf. Mrs. Metcalf (1931-2012) worked 44 years for the City of Longview, retiring as city secretary and director of administrative services. She twice served as interim city manager. After her death, Longview’s city hall was renamed the Jo Ann Metcalf Municipal Building.
Van Craddock, a 1970 graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University, has written an East Texas history column for the Longview News-Journal since 1978. He has published two collections of his columns, most recently a book titled East Texas Tales: A Celebration of Pineywoods People, Places, Facts and Fables. The U.S. Army Vietnam veteran served 10 years on the Gregg County Historical Commission.