Black History Month: Henry Philmon, DVM
AMES, Iowa - Henry (Hank) Philmon, while still a senior high school football and track standout at Davenport Central in 1952, knew what he wanted. The dream of being a veterinarian was the end goal; Iowa State football and track and field would be the means to that end. The path he selected, as one of the first African-American student-athletes in the history of Cyclone athletics, led to greater things after his playing career was over.
The driving force in Philmon's life was an intuitive understanding and genuine appreciation of all animals great and small.
"I was a very quiet person," Philmon said. "But I had a way with animals. In high school I'd have four or five dogs following me home all the time."
Late in his high school career, Philmon had flirtation with the University of Iowa and its School of Medicine.
"They were looking at me for wrestling," Philmon said. "But they wanted me to go there on my own for the first year. I didn't see myself in human medicine, so I applied at Iowa State for pre-veterinary medicine."
Philmon was accepted into the school as a pre-veterinary aspirant. The die was cast. Philmon elected to play football and compete in track and field at Iowa State, just the second African-American student-athlete at Iowa State since 1927.
Philmon entered Iowa State in the fall of 1952, living in Friley Hall. His initial challenge was not racial; it was an adjustment to the collegiate experience made by many of his classmates.
"Coming from high school, everybody is on you about getting your work done," Philmon said. "It is your responsibility, but there was help. At college, it is on you and you either complete your assignment or you don't and reap the consequences either way. If you needed assistance, it was your responsibility to seek it out."
Over time, Philmon adjusted to the challenges of balancing academics and football.
"I made up my mind," Philmon said. "I was going there to get an education and the thing that was getting me there was athletics, that's what I focused on."
In addition, Philmon's college schedule included Army ROTC. That choice would pay dividends after life at Iowa State.
Philmon spent his first collegiate year (1952-53) on the freshman team because first-year players out of high school were not eligible at the time. When Philmon arrived on campus, there was another African-American on the Iowa State roster. Al Stevenson, 5-9, 182-pound sophomore fullback from St. Louis, Mo. was the first African-American player on the Cyclone football roster since Holloway Smith in 1926-27. Stevenson, who had five carries for 34 yards in 1952, did not return in 1953.
As a sophomore football player in 1953, Philmon played under Iowa State head coach Abe Stuber. Stuber was in his seventh season as head coach of the Cyclones, making him the longest tenured football mentor in the Big Seven Conference.
"Coach Stuber was very quiet," Philmon said. "I didn't have many conversations with him. That was just the way he was."
Philmon played in every game as a sophomore, rushing for 101 yards on 26 carriers with four pass receptions for 65 yards.
Stuber resigned after a 2-7 1953 season and Iowa State hired the sparky 32-year-old Vince Di Francesca as Iowa State's head football coach.
Race wasn't a major issue for Philmon until he began to travel with the football and track teams in 1953.
"No one on our team paid any attention to it."
In 1954, fellow African-American Harold Potts, like Philmon a former Davenport Blue Devil prep, had also made the Cyclone football team.
Iowa State traveled to Columbia, Mo. for an Oct. 23 game against the Tigers. Missouri was still an all-white team. But the color distinctions cut deeper south of the Iowa border.
"Harold Potts and I were the only African-Americans on the trip," Philmon said. "We could not stay in the team hotel so they put us in a funeral parlor that also served as a home for the local (black) funeral director."
Philmon remembers every minute of his night there and was affected by his macabre surroundings.
"I didn't sleep all night," Philmon said.
Philmon was also a standout performer in track and field and remembers going to a restaurant in Kansas City, Mo.
"Several guys on the team went to eat after a session," Philmon said. "We all placed our orders but mine never came. After 20 minutes of asking the waitress about it, they finally told us they weren't going to serve me. The nice thing was, the rest of the team stood up and we walked out, leaving the food on the table."
The Cyclones improved to 3-6 in 1954. Philmon was the team's second-leading rusher, finishing his junior season with 238 yards on 42 carries. He also caught 9 passes for 51 yards and was the team's primary kick returner averaging 22.4 yards per return on 11 chances.
The challenges of being one of the few African-American males on campus presented day-to-day hurdles.
When inducted into the ISU Letterwinners Hall of Fame, another early Iowa State African-American athlete Tom Vaughn (1962-64) recounted his Iowa State coach Clay Stapleton telling him that the coaching staff was heading on the road recruiting to get some good players.
"I told him don't worry about the team, coach, just get us some girls," Vaughn said.
It wasn't a throw-away line.
"The one thing I did miss was when I at Iowa State was African-American girls, there weren't many on campus when I was there," Philmon said. "So we did a lot of flying up and down the highway between Ames and Des Moines because of that fact."
Iowa State headed into Philmon's senior year of 1955 with firm handle on what would be a sophomore dominated squad. That youth had to swim upstream against a tough schedule.
The result was a 1-7-1 campaign. At the time, because of strict substitution rules, the majority of players played both on office and defense.
"My senior year against Oklahoma, I played about 58 minutes," Philmon said. "That was the only time where I really got injured. (OU defenders) hit me high and low and I hurt my back. Now, I'm beginning to have problems with it."
The Iowa State Yearbook for 1956 gave Philmon a good sendoff.
"Hank Philmon, from Davenport, another pint-sized half-back, possesses speed that makes him one of the fastest runners in the Conference. He has earned three football and three track letters and is another of those who can be counted on for dependable duty on both offense and defense."
When his Iowa State football career ended, his time at ISU didn't. Philmon redoubled his focus on earning his D.V.M. in 1958.
Frederick Patterson was Iowa State's first black veterinary school graduate. He is a graduate of the Class of 1923, entering veterinary school in 1919. He went on to become the president of Tuskegee University, and during his tenure he established Tuskegee's School of Veterinary Medicine. Still, Philmon was among the first African-Americans to earn a DVM at Iowa State and the only one in his class. He is still friends with Dr. Donovan Gordon, an African-American who was one year behind him in vet school.
Philmon had participated in Army ROTC and that included a required regular army stint. Philmon served in the Veterinary Corps, mostly doing food inspection. He left the Army as a captain. Then he went on to a successful veterinary career. He owned his own animal hospital in Minnetonka, Minn., initiating the planning and construction as a fully conceptualized companion facility. He wrote and developed curriculum for veterinary technician schools.
Today, he is still working and as an animal doctor continues to make house calls. He provides service through M.A.S.H., a Mobile Animal Surgical Hospital. He cares for companion animals with owners who can't get out to an animal hospital. It is a round the clock service. Philmon also works part-time at other animal hospitals.
Obviously, Philmon still loves his job. When asked how long he has been retired, Philmon gives a quick answer.
"I haven't," he said.
The father of three has worked to encourage African-American youngsters to learn the game of tennis, which he enjoyed playing. It is no surprise that he has done the same type of mentoring with aspiring veterinarians. Philmon still has good words for Iowa State.
"I enjoyed my time at Iowa State very much," Philmon said. "It was a challenge but I really enjoyed my time there."