Chet Scharnick never got the chance to officially appear in a race alongside Rafer Johnson from nearby Kingsburg.
When track season rolled around, he was playing baseball for his Sanger High Apaches.
But the pair knew each other — by reputation if nothing else. Scharnick was Sanger’s athletic standout, the guy who scored three touchdowns in the 1951 championship football game and batted .400. He was a close friend of teammate Tom Flores.
At some point over at the old high school, the pair met on the dirt track. Jeff Scharnick, Chet’s oldest son, said legend has it his dad got in a three-point football stance while Johnson dug a hole with his foot in the track as a makeshift starting block. Somebody said, “Go!”
“Somebody said he had kicked off his tennis shoes and ran in his bare feet,” Jeff said. “Rafer had his track shoes on.”
Johnson went on to win gold in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Flores earned four Super Bowl rings, two as coach of the Oakland Raiders, and now has the stadium named after him. And Scharnick?
Chet Scharnick got called up by the St. Louis Cardinals right out of high school. Jeff said it’s uncertain how many games he played in the organization’s minor league program. He developed a tooth ache that caused nerve damage and rendered one of his eyes nearly sightless. And he was let go. His baseball career was over before he even got the chance to play in a major league game.
And Chet became a painter. But not just any painter. He took on the toughest, nastiest, most dangerous of industrial painting jobs. He sandblasted tanks, hung off the sides of the tallest buildings around, dangling from a rope with a paint brush or sprayer. He’d apply caustic materials to metal inside a tank using nothing but a canvas hood to protect him from the fumes, holding his breath until he couldn’t take it. He’d grab a fresh breath and go back in.
Jeff said his dad applied his competitiveness to his new job. He was just that kind of guy.
Chet Scharnick, 84 and one of a dozen kids, was found dead in his Fresno home Jan. 18. Katreeva Woolf was arrested in connection with his death.
He was buried at Sanger Cemetery on Feb. 16 and a reception immediately afterward was held in the Clovis Senior Center where he played pool and organized tournaments.
Jeff said his dad grew up poor. His grandfather, Edward Scharnick, built a house for their large family on Academy Avenue. The elder Scharnick died when Chet was 11.
“It was the last house on Academy,” Jeff said. “My uncle told me they got running water in that house in 1944. Before that, they brought it in from an outside well and used an outhouse.”
Chet married Patricia Beckley and had three sons. Jeff was the oldest. Then came Greg and Randy.
“We all played baseball,” Jeff said.
Greg also played soccer. Jeff and Randy played football. The trio attended Hoover High in Fresno.
But Chet, the guy who was named Sanger High’s athlete of the year in 1953 alongside his sister Betty, never stopped being an Apache fan. “Back when I was a kid, he always went to all the home games,” Jeff said. “I remember being 8 to 10 years old and it was so foggy you could barely see the play. He sat through the whole game.
“He always sat on the visitors side on the top. There would be a whole group up there, all these old-timers. He liked it because there was more room. We’d even go to away games. Even when it was raining. We’d bring a big sheet of plastic with us.”
Chet taught his oldest son the painting trade. Since he was 12 Jeff tagged along on what he called “side jobs” that his dad took. They painted pools at night, mostly swimming pools because the intense heat would affect the coating.
Jeff said his dad didn’t really talk much of his high school sports accomplishments. “He didn’t like to brag,” Jeff said.
But he did once mention running 80 yards in a football playoff game. The game was against Roosevelt High. The Apaches led at the half but lost the game.
“He always said, ‘Don’t get cocky. Don’t think you have the game won,’” Jeff said. “The year before he led the Valley in home runs.”
Sanger master statistician Ron Blackwood called Chet Scharnick “one of Sanger’s top athletes in the early 1950s.” Blackwood said he was the No. 1 running back on the 1951 Valley championship team, “the first ever for football.” Chet also played on the team that went to the league championship in 1952 but lost to Wasco 14-13.
Blackwood said Chet was “one of several Sanger baseball players in the early 1950s to sign a major league contract. He played on the 1951 and 1953 league championship teams. The ‘53 team was Valley championship runner-up.
“In the early 2000s, he and his wife sat on the east side (of Tom Flores Stadium) at the the far north end of the bleachers,” Blackwood said via email.
In the writeup for Chet’s consideration for the Sanger Athletic Hall of Fame, it says he played varsity football and baseball for three years, scored three touchdowns in the 1951 championship game, batted .400 and was signed by the Cardinals.
In a news clipping from McClatchy Newspaper Service, likely originally from the Fresno Bee, it said, “Just before the end of the half, Scharnick, who played a brilliant game for the Apaches, went over his left side for the third touchdown and also kicked the point.” The game was against the Porterville Panthers and Sanger won 20-13.
Chet was 6 feet tall. A black and white photo, part of a collection of memorabilia Jeff carried in a cigar box, showed him scoring a touchdown, diving into the end zone. His helmet had no face mask. On the back it said, “52 Madera game 19-6. Scored twice.”
But that was his early life. Later he started painting signs. A writeup in the Sanger Herald from 2009 showed Chet with a sign he crafted of a Sanger Apache arrowhead about 3 feet wide. “Through Chet’s Arts & Crafts, a combination of hobby and business, Scharnick creates wooden memorabilia, including such themes as the Oakland Raiders and Minnie Mouse,” wrote Josh Lopez.
Jeff said his dad continued making the signs. His house was full of them when Chet died. They were done on a type of fiber board and hand painted to exacting standards. The works were split up amongst the grandchildren.
Chet never slowed down. He used a cane in his later years but continued to stay busy. Jeff said his dad built quite a few waterfalls and fish ponds in his back yard, for instance.
Still, painting dominated most of his life. He practiced the trade for more than 50 years, painting “nearly every building in downtown Fresno,” Jeff said. “I saw my dad do things I never wanted to do. Dangerous things. Hanging from ropes. When I did it, things were a lot safer than back in the ‘50s.”
Chet got into the painting trade through his brother-in-law Roy Morton. After getting cut by the Cardinals, he joined the crew of Cunnings & Cunnings, a painting contractor in Fresno. “After he started, he brought in his brothers — Harvey, Fred and Henry,” Jeff said.
Jeff joined, too. He went to college but made better money in the trades. He and his brothers followed. “We were the second generation,” he said.
Jeff Roberts, regional director of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 294, said Chet was well liked throughout the membership and was a member for 63 years. For more than 40 years, Chet served as union president. “He will always be a member (of the union),” Roberts said.
Roberts said Chet stepped down as president in 2010 but sat on many negotiating, apprenticeship and other committees. He said in an email that while he and the membership are grateful to Chet for his service, “He was much more than that. He was willing to lend a hand to anyone in the community who needed it, was never quick to judge anyone and was always ready to put other people’s needs in front of his own.
“I for one, along with many others, learned valuable lessons from Brother Scharnick, and the memory of his ability to make people laugh is carrying me and I am sure others through this sad time. We the members of (District Council 16 and the union) will truly miss our Brother, and we shall never forget him.”
Jeff Scharnick said his dad was in very good health. “He had some foot issue,” he said. “He used a cane. But he was still doing good.”
Chet will likely be inducted into the Sanger Athletic Hall of Fame relatively shortly. He will be remembered.
The reporter can be contacted by email at email@example.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.