IOWA CITY — Transporting Hayden Fry to and from various engagements during his most recent trips here for FRYfest — the annual kickoff to the Hawkeye football season named in honor of the legendary coach — was like escorting an A-list celebrity.
“There’s no mistaking who Hayden Fry is,” said Dale Arens, a University of Iowa assistant athletics director who became part of Fry’s entourage during the visits — helping drive him to and from events, while also carving out “rocking chair time” for him.
“Hayden literally on those FRYfest weekends — I’m not exaggerating — you couldn’t walk him 5 yards without people wanting to have a moment with him,” Arens said. “And he would pose for every selfie and talk, and not just like, ‘Hi, thank you.’ It’s like, when somebody approached him, it was, ‘Where are you from?’ He was interested in them. He was so kind.”
That juxtaposition — a larger-than-life figure whose influence spread far beyond the gridiron with a down-to-earth Southerner who knelt to greet children and left strangers feeling a personal connection — captured why the Hawkeye coach became a legend.
“I don’t expect to ever in my lifetime meet someone who has that gift of making such a genuine connection with the people that they touch,” Arens said, recalling a time Fry stayed until nearly midnight at a book signing to accommodate his fans.
Of course, Arens said, it didn’t hurt that Fry was so successful — leading the Hawkeyes to 14 bowl games in 20 years.
“He did it the right way,” Arens said. “He did it with integrity. He didn’t have to have a foul mouth. He was a consummate gentlemen.”
A day after Fry died Tuesday at the age of 90, friends shared their memories of the Texas native who never lost his Southern drawl and mastered the balancing act of humility with well-deserved pride, often mitigated by humor.
Fry, for example, was honored by the decision to name Coralville’s First Avenue — the route he took to work for years — “Hayden Fry Way.”
And launching an annual FRYfest to kick off the start of the football season didn’t take much convincing, according to Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
READ MORE GAZETTE COVERAGE ON FRY’S LEGACY:
When city officials pitched to Fry the prospect of erecting a statue in his honor, he liked the idea and wanted it planted right there along Hayden Fry Way — so he could “size up” visiting football teams as their buses rolled off Interstate 80 en route to Kinnick Stadium.
He said, according to Schamberger, “I want them to see me first.”
When community leaders first revealed to Fry his statue — modeled in “traditional Hayden” fashion with light pants, Pony shoes, aviator glasses and a commander cap — he opined about what a handsome gentleman that was.
“‘That looks just like Humphrey Bogart’ — that’s the first thing he said when we showed him the statue in person,” Schamberger said.
But even with a Bogart-esque statue and a street named in his honor, Fry wasn’t above handwritten thank you cards, small acts of generosity, extra time spent with fans and a Frosty from Wendy’s — a favorite dessert.
In fact, a typical first stop after arriving in Iowa for the annual festival was Wendy’s, according to Schamberger. Arens said it became a “quirky little tradition.”
“I always thought it was really very sweet — no pun intended,” he said. “But Hayden loved Frostys.”
Occasionally, during a tightly scheduled day, Arens said he and a few others would find a gap between events and say, “Hayden, we’re going to go get that Frosty.”
It might just have been about the ice cream for Fry, Arens acknowledged. “But as much as it was a treat for him, it was a way bigger treat for us,” he said.
Former Coralville police Chief Barry Bedford — who helped with Fry’s ersatz security detail — said he, too, remembers fondly getting a Frosty with Fry and will forever think of his friend when getting one again.
“I can’t drive past Wendy’s now without thinking of him,” Bedford said.
During Bedford’s hours in the car with Fry over the years, he got to talk to him a lot — not only about sports and his players, but about life.
“I felt, in a way, honored that he would trust me with those types of comments and feelings … and I tried to listen and be supportive,” Bedford said. “He wasn’t the type of person to generally worry. But obviously we all have things in our life that you need to talk to somebody about, and I was grateful to be able to be there when he chose to involve me in that.”
And, Bedford said, Fry was always positive.
“I can’t remember a single negative thing he ever said about anybody or pretty much anything,” the former chief said.
Although Coralville City Administrator Kelly Hayworth got to know Fry in his official capacity, he attended the UI during Fry’s prime as a coach and got to experience some of the excitement he created.
Hayworth said he believes Fry transcended the football field that propelled his fame because of the deep care he had for the state and region — pointing to his “America Needs Farmers” campaign during the farm crisis of the 1980s.
“He encouraged his football players, he encouraged his assistant football coaches, all of his staff, he encouraged them to give back to the community and be involved,” Hayworth said. “And he himself did that as well. I think he cared and understood that it was larger than just the football game.”
Years later, Hayworth said, Fry maintained that big-picture perspective in his return visits — sometimes creating challenges for his entourage.
“One of the things that everybody always laughed about was (that) there was no keeping Hayden on schedule because if somebody wanted to talk to him or wanted to meet him, he was going to stop and do that,” Hayworth said. “There was not one person that wasn’t a friend to Hayden and that he wouldn’t take time to have a discussion with.”
Once, Hayworth said, he introduced to Fry a friend who was undergoing cancer treatment — like Fry had endured.
“I introduced him to the person and said, ‘Hayden, he’s going through cancer treatments,’ and he just stopped instantly and spent time with him,” Hayworth said. “He just showed great love and compassion for him … And it had a huge impact on him. He was in tears after his discussion with Hayden.”
So, of course, when Hayworth asked Fry how he wanted his statue displayed — on a pedestal or not — Fry said not.
“Hayden told us that he did not want to be on a pedestal,” he said. “He was adamant about that — that he wasn’t going to be on a pedestal.”
But, according to Hayworth, Fry did have a request.
“He did want to be high enough off the ground that a dog couldn’t pee on his shoes.”
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