Full speed ahead
Irwin “Speed” McCullough was born in 1926 on McCullough Farm, which his mother’s family had established in 1837. It is on McCullough Road, named not for the farm or the family, but for McCullough School, where Speed got his first eight years of education.
A situation like that might be expected to make someone feel very much at home. It certainly did for Speed. All of his life, the farm has not only been his home, but also his business.
“I started working on the farm as soon as I was big enough to be of any use,” Speed said. “Even when I was in elementary school, I milked the cows before walking to school.”
After graduating from Hickory High School, Speed continued to work on the farm and, in 1945, also started driving school bus.
“I was just eighteen years old,” he said. “It was good pay – maybe $2.50 per trip.”
In the early 1950s, Speed got interested in archery.
“I got my first old stick bow, and somebody invited me to go hunting,” Speed said. “Then these guys got to shooting field courses – like golf courses, but with targets out through the woods. I decided to try it. I went out with ten arrows, couldn’t hit the targets, hit the trees, hit the ground, and came back with no arrows. I thought, I’m not going to do that again. So I bought a better bow and learned how to shoot.”
Speed was a member of the Mercer County Senior Extension, a group for 4H people who had graduated from high school in Mercer County. A girl named Charlene Riddle was a member of the Venango County group. The groups came together for a “box social,” where the girls made up boxes, which were put up for bid. The guy who bought it shared it with the girl who made it.
“I knew which box was hers,” Speed said. “Two or three other guys knew I was going to buy it, so they ran up the price on me. I paid probably $7 for it, which was a lot of money at that time.”
Of course, that turned out to be the best investments he ever made.
Charlene was born and raised on a farm in Venango County, and attended a one-room elementary school and a unique high school.
“Wesley High School was very small,” Charlene said, “with only three grades. I graduated from there, and then went to Grove City for my Senior year.”
While at Wesley, Charlene loved to play basketball with a team that played basketball at the Grange Hall. After
graduating from Grove City, she worked in a grocery store for a year, then went to Slippery Rock State Teachers College for a degree in Health and Physical Education.
After that, she taught high school in Franklin for two years and coached the girls’ basketball team. One of those years the team was undefeated. She married Speed in 1954, then taught Physical Education at West Middlesex High School for two years. Their first daughter, Nancy, was born in 1955; son, David, in 1956; and daughter, Janet, in 1960.
Charlene took a few years off from teaching to raise her family, then went back to teaching Physical Education. She taught at successively at Hickory, Sharpsville, Jamestown,and Reynolds. But as she got older, she decided to switch subjects.
“I didn’t want to be an old gym teacher standing on the sidelines watching the students play,” she said. “I always wanted to get in there and mix it up with them. So I got certified in Library Science and started teaching elementary library.”
Speed, meanwhile, worked the farm and developed his archery skills. Earlier in this article Speed described his initial disaster on a field archery course, and mentioned that he bought a better bow and learned how to shoot. But he didn’t say just how good he got. He ranked in the top ten of the National Archery Association, and finished third at the Indoor National Target Championships twice. He set a long-standing record in the Clout competition, in which archers shoot at a flag (called the Clout) 180 yards away, receiving points according to the distance the arrows land from the pole.
But Speed is best known for helping hundreds of others to become better, starting with his own family. Charlene and all of his kids became excellent archers.
“Dave became very good at it,” Speed said. “Janet didn’t have the most natural ability, but she had a grim determination. It was a mistake to tell her she couldn’t do something.”
Someone must have told Janet that she couldn’t make the national team, because she did. She went to a lot of Olympic sports festivals, one as far away as Finland. She fell just short of making the Olympic team.
The influence of Speed and Charlene, however, did reach all the way to the Olympics. Archery became an Olympic sport in 1972. In anticipation of that, the National Archery Association started JOAD – the Junior Olympic Archery Development program. In 1971, the McCulloughs started what was probably the first JOAD program in Pennsylvania, and one of the first few in the nation.
“Speed knew how to shoot,” Charlene said, “and I knew how to teach.”
She went to archery instructors school and many seminars for teaching archery and teaching archery coaches. One year, the National Archery Association honored her as the National Developmental Coach of the year.
Although based in Sharon, their JOAD program initially had to use the practice facilities at Western Reserve, in Ohio.
“Dave came over to the house one day,” Speed said, “and asked if we would like to have somewhere up here to teach the kids. So they built the Gold-n-Grain Archery Shop next to our house. We thought way back here in the sticks, nobody would find us. But the night we opened up, on the first Thursday in January, 1991, we had a houseful – 60 kids, as many as we could handle. And that happened for 12 or 13 years.”
The program developed twelve national champions in various age groups, as well as more state champions than Speed and Charlene can count. Their best known former student, Rodney White, won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics and a bronze in 2000.
The best measure of their success may not be the number of champions they have coached, but rather the number of young people who have enjoyed their encouragement and guidance.
“Some of the kids come to socialize,” Speed said. Their friends are shooting, so they come, too. Then there are those who like to see their scores keeping getting better. And finally we have the ones that want to be the best. They’re the ones I’d give more time to.”
With perhaps a dozen archery clubs within fifty miles, the McCulloughs spent many weekends and evenings taking their students to competitions.
“There were maybe a dozen archery clubs within fifty miles,” Speed said. “When Gold-n-Grain shows up, you better be looking for second place, because we’re going to win it.”
In addition to the indoor range, their son Dave built a field archery course on the farm. Archers use whatever equipment they want – anything from old-fashioned long bows to modern compound bows – to shoot one arrow at each of twenty 3-D animal targets.
“We only taught the recurve bow,” Speed said, “because it is still the only kind used in the Olympics.”
But the skills learned on the recurve bow also apply to the modern compound bows.
“Form is the name of the game,” Speed said, “Dave learned good form with the recurve bow, then he got a good compound. In this area, nobody can beat him.”
As passionate as they are about archery, Speed and Charlene acknowledge that there are others even more passionat about it.
“Last Sunday,” Speed said, “before we went to church, we saw six guys in long black coats and black hats start on Dave’s outdoor course. They were wearing snowshoes, and had old fashioned long bows. It was about zero degrees. That’s a form of insanity.”
Archery, of course, was not the only thing in the McCulloughs’ lives. Through the years, they developed the farm into a thriving grain-growing enterprise, which son Dave now runs. Speed also played baseball in the Pymatuning league for twenty years and built several ball fields.
“ We’ve been very active in Faith Presbyterian Church,” Charlene said. “It was the Clarksville Presbyterian Church. When dam came in, we built the new church in Hermitage. Speed he was chairman of first building committee, and we built on two more times. I taught Sunday school and I was on the session. Speed was on the board of trustees.”
Of course, family has always been central in their lives, and not just with their children and grandchildren.
“My siblings have always been important to me,” Charlene said. “Six of us grew up on a farm – Charles, Donald, Lynn, Mary, Jim, and me. Jim and I are the only two still alive.
Charlene and Speed lost Nancy Katzen, their oldest child, on December 20, 2009, after she lost a year-long battle against cancer. She and her sister, Janet Gerard, were both nurses. Janet now lives with her husband in Oregon.
Speed and Charlene are proud of their six grandchildren: Nancy’s daughters Caitlin and Allison Keeler, Dave’s daughters Justine and Jenna McCullough, and Janet’s son Bryce and Daughter Kyleigh.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010