By Sarah Key
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 09/30/2020 – The 1940’s era of Classic Hollywood was full of many stars the world has recognized over time, such as child star Freddie Bartholomew, vaudevillian actor Mickey Rooney, and Broadway star Sidney Poitier. Alongside them in a leading role was Oscar-winning actor Spencer Tracy, perhaps one of the most brilliant and natural actors of all time. Born April 5, 1900, Tracy would grow to become one of the most influential actors of our generation leaving an important legacy, alongside the legacy his wife Louise Treadwell Tracy made for their son John. The preservation of their legacy has uplifted thousands for many generations through their inspirational life stories into helping others.
Spencer began his acting career in 1920 while attending Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin. As president of the debate team at Ripon, he was supposed to lead in a debate at Ripon. Walking solemnly up the stairs to the podium, Spencer said he couldn’t participate based on a sudden family death of his baby sister. With tears running down his face, his peers, professors, and the audience were silent to the sadness of such news. A classmate had reached out to Spencer with condolences and Spencer replied, “I don’t even have a sister, I just had a little too much fun last night with the boys and wasn’t prepared to go on with the debate!”
To his surprise, the drama teacher overheard the truth behind Spencer’s lying, and as punishment for his deceitfulness, Spencer was to join the drama club. If he could fool everyone in the auditorium, this would prove him a great actor. On his last day of a debate trip to New York, he was walking down Broadway and discovered that the New York Academy of Performing Arts was auditioning. Spencer had an audition and was accepted. The rest is history.
Going back to Ripon College, he notified everyone that he was to leave Ripon and join the Academy. As a junior at Ripon, he did not graduate in 1924, however, returned on June 10, 1940, to accept his honorary degree after being the first male actor to receive back-to-back Oscars. It was to Ripon’s credit for helping discover his talents.
Spencer became a renowned actor in becoming the first male actor to receive consecutive Academy Awards in 1937 and 1938 for Captain’s Courageous (1937) with Freddie Bartholomew, and Boys Town (1938) with Mickey Rooney, respectfully. He starred in 74 films in 37 years, earning nine Oscar nominations and winning two for both films.
An interesting note regarding Spencer and his films revolves around the date of his birth in 1900; Whatever year any film he made was, that was how old he actually was. For example, Boys Town was made in 1938, and Spencer would have been 38 years old!
“In the summer of 2004, our family drove from California to Omaha, Nebraska via an RV. We visited Boys Town and got to see Spencer’s Oscar for the first time. After winning the Oscar for Best Actor, Spencer sent it to Father Flanagan in a shoebox where it sat in the mailroom at Boys Town over the weekend. Father Flanagan was very surprised I’m sure and that’s where the Oscar has been for the last 80 plus years,” said Cyndi Tracy, the family historian, daughter-in-law to John, and mother of great-grandsons Sean and Shane Tracy.”
It is important to note that Tracy portrayed Father Flanagan (Edward J. Flanagan) in Boys Town, who was a Priest and founder of the orphanage “Boys Town”, itself. He believed that children had the right to be valued, protected, and to have the basic necessities of life. He sought to close juvenile facilities where children were abused, and thus, in 1917, after working with Omaha’s homeless men, he opened Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, later becoming Boys Town, to help the children create better lives for themselves.
Before such successes, at a time with no talking pictures, in May 1923, Spencer met his wife Louise on a train platform on the way to the same theatre in White Plains, New York. A top-billed actress, sophisticated, regal, and true lady with an English accent marrying an Irishman with lots of energy, created a pair who both loved to live life to the fullest. Getting engaged four weeks later, they married in September 1923. Nine months and two weeks after marriage, their son John was born on June 26th, 1924. Ten months after John was born, that is when Louise discovered their son was born deaf.
John was born with Usher Syndrome, a genetic disease that affects hearing and vision. Louise discovered he was deaf when a slamming porch door failed to wake the sleeping 10-month-old. He was profoundly deaf, and his eyes were afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa. At the age of six years old, John was also struck with infantile paralysis.
In 1925, Louise devoted her time and energy to studying how deaf children could be taught to communicate with the hearing and speaking world. She patiently guided John into an understanding of language and lip-reading. With such encouragement, John learned to speak, and in 1942, Mrs. Tracy responded to a desperate call for help from twelve other mothers of deaf children, and USC donated a bungalow for the original support group of the mothers of deaf children, which led to the founding of John Tracy Clinic.
Louise established many programs to educate and offer emotional support to the parents and their deaf children, free of charge. By encouraging parents to build a foundation of communication with their young children during the critical language development stage from birth through age five, John Tracy Clinic has enabled close to half a million children to master the challenges of oral communication and communicate on par with their hearing peers by the time they reach kindergarten. John’s son Joseph ‘Joe’ Tracy remembers the impact his grandmother made on his life on what she accomplished through the Clinic.
“My memory of my grandmother is that she was one of the greatest ladies I ever heard of. She was a documentarian with her work at the Clinic. She became an event organizer and organized all of the events to run the building. She’d have a printing department to print correspondences for those who couldn’t come to the Clinic. She would mail it to them for free. The Clinic translated their correspondence courses into 100 different languages. She also played Polo and they would play at Will Rogers’s home and pick her first for teams. She was first because she was really good at Polo. She traveled around the United States for different Polo teams and she pushed to play even on football fields. She looked like Queen Elizabeth. She reminds me of my grandmother because they have the same Royal regal speech about each other. Anytime I looked at my grandmother she would stand the same way. She had that prowess in her with that Scottish blood,” Joe said.
Despite a childhood battle with infantile paralysis, John began riding horses at ten years old and became an accomplished polo player. He also became an excellent swimmer, played tennis and learned to water ski. A great artist, he attended Chouinard Art School, which is now the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. He attended for five years in the 1950s and soon was hired at Walt Disney Studios as a prop artist in Burbank, California. From there, John created his own comic books that he illustrated for many, many years, becoming a storyboard artist. In 1953, he married Nadine Cau. They both met over the fence at the Tracy Ranch in Encino. She was admiring the horses on the ranch and met John. They conversed back in forth, and that is when their relationship began.
“By the time I met John in 1989, he was blind, deaf, and had to use a cane due to polio he contracted. John was extremely bright; he had a great sense of humor and had such an ease to his personality. He was a grateful man and was certainly faith-filled,” Cyndi said.
A beautiful part of the Tracy legacy is the bonding relationship the family had with Walt Disney with John and his family. The Disney and Tracy families go back to the 1930s when Spencer and Walt played polo at Western actor Will Rogers’ ranch in Pacific Palisades, California. They all became very close as time continued, and when John Tracy Clinic was founded in 1942, Disney was on the original board of directors. They remained friends with the Tracy’s until their passings. Joe Tracy remembers growing up with the Disney family and even attended the opening day of Disneyland as a newborn with his family.
“Our family’s connection to the Disney family leaves me with a sense of pride. I’m proud of how our families met in person. I came close to knowing Disney myself. His daughter Diane Disney had a little wine vineyard called the Silverado Vineyards. I did some artwork for that. I gave her a couple of drawings that I did for the museum. That made me feel proud. They played polo with my grandfather and Will Rogers. Walt saw someone get in a bad polo accident and that scared him a little bit. He couldn’t afford an injury like that. He tried to get Spencer to stop playing polo because of his contract and the movies he had to do. The studios told him to stop so he put a different name on the game board. My Grandma took me to a few Disney events at Walt Disney Studios. I met the voice actor for Donald Duck. Then I met Roy Disney. I did some artwork for him, too,” Joe said.
Joe is currently a professional artist, and his inspiration grew into the art world when he was a young child. He became interested in Disney animation and cartoon art as he looked through his father’s favorite art books by Andrew Loomis. John collected original comic book boards and has a bunch of 8×10 frames. They used to do the comics in the newspaper articles in the early 1930s and 40s. John would make them and photograph them. John also had some hand-drawn comics for newspapers.
“My art career was based on my father having art books all over the house. When I was a little kid I’d look through the art books and I’d heard the stories about the Disney family. My mom encouraged me when I was three years old to look through those books. I’d sit in front of the TV and copy the characters. That’s how I became involved with the Motion Picture. My father was a prop master for animation art and studied how characters and objects moved in the foreground,” Joe said.
Joe also has fond memories of growing up with his grandfather, Spencer, and grandmother, Louise.
“I had more childhood memories with my grandfather up until he passed away when I was 12. Spencer would come over for dinner when I was just a kid. That was always a great day. We’d go to restaurants like Chasen’s and The Brown Derby. We did some frisbee in the yard when I was a kid and played some croquet that my grandmother brought out for us. We brought my dad out to visit me in Los Angeles from Los Alamos. Spencer had a hot rod Jaguar and he made it from LA to the Santa Barbara area in an hour and a half. I couldn’t ride in it with Spencer. He asked to take me to the studio and that was a big ‘No’ from Louise. Spencer was known for speeding. All his cars were hot rods. He had a Jaguar than a Thunderbird in the sports car version. He got the #500 off of the production line. He put in a reservation right away. My grandmother became one of my heroes in what she did for the Clinic and how hard she worked. She came home at night and answered every single letter she got and hand answered all of them at her desk. She took us out to dessert with the family and played a little cards. She’d attend a rose garden, have dinner, and make a dessert with the kids at the Clinic. She’d wake up and do that all over again the next day,” Joe said.
Up until John’s passing, Cyndi was his caregiver and saw all of the light he had as a person. Though he was born profoundly deaf and later became blind, John taught everyone how to live happily with God.
“He was an inspiration to us all. At bedtime, I always told him he was our everyday hero. Because of him and his mother, there were hundreds of thousands of children that learned to speak from all around the world. He was not only humbled, he felt blessed that God had a purpose in his life that would help others! Today, John Tracy Clinic has helped hundreds of thousands of children and their families from around the world, all at no costs…ever,” Cyndi added.
Cyndi has been the family historian for nearly 30 years, and one way she has preserved and promoted the legacy of the Tracy’s was in May 2019 with her sons Sean and Shane when they went to Freeport, Illinois to celebrate the unveiling of the Spencer Tracy Auditorium at the Lindo Theater. Spencer’s ancestors go back to the founding family of the city of Freeport, and a plaque there reads, “One of the greatest film actors of the twentieth century who had deep family roots in Freeport.” In 2005, Cyndi produced the Silver Spur Award show at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City, California, which benefitted John Tracy Clinic, with John himself in attendance there to personally thank everyone for coming and for supporting the Clinic.
John Tracy Clinic was relocated from 806 W. Adams Blvd to the new facility at 2160 W. Adams Blvd in Los Angeles, California on February 29th, 2020. They have a new location and a new name, John Tracy Center. The relocated Center had a grand opening and the families that have been impacted by Louise Treadwell Tracy and John’s legacy were present. Hundreds of people attended the event, and Cyndi, Shane, and Sean were present themselves to embrace the legacy even further.
“My grandfather has helped me keep a positive mindset. He had so much against him in his life and he always kept a smile on his face. That is a reminder for me to count my Blessings,” Shane said.
In connection with preserving the Tracy legacy, Shane Tracy graduated from Ripon College in 2017, nearly 100 years from when Spencer was a Sophomore at Ripon, and Spencer was enrolled at Ripon in 1920, 100 years ago this year.
“It was inspiring to know that he went to the same college as me and that we both walked the same paths to school and studied in the same classrooms. There was also a tiny bit of pressure to do well to honor his legacy. I wanted to make him proud as a fellow alumnus, his descendant, and his great-grandson,” Shane said.
Shane shares remarkable features to Spencer, too, and looks like Spencer’s long lost identical twin. The jawline, nose, eyes, hair, and personality are all features that Shane has of his ancestor. The family was also close with the Reagan family and Nancy Reagan came up to Shane, who was a young child at the time, and she pinched his cheeks and quoted, “You look just like your great-grandfather!”
Shane’s brother, Sean, followed in the same footsteps as his great-grandfather as well and pursued acting as a child. Sean was in Perry Farrell’s music video titled “Song Yet To Be Sung”, and auditioned for several movies and commercials. Sean looks more like John with his delicate features, slender body, and quiet and private personality.
“My dad was a happy man with all of his handicaps. He was always happy. Sean has a photographic memory like my dad. My father knew the name of every horse and he prayed for them and the new horses that we got. Spencer loved his Polo and had to change his name to play it. He also loved sailing. We once went up to lunch with Nancy Reagan and my dad went on a date with her when he was 18. My grandmother spent time at the clinic with Nancy and Nancy’s mother. We were at this lunch and Nancy asked my dad about the time they had lunch together and he said, “Oh yeah. I remember!” He had a B.L.T. and a milkshake and it cost only $2.40,” Joe added.
“We were honored and blessed to be the special guests of honor…We were overwhelmed with excitement to see and feel grandmother Louise Tracy’s mission and lifelong work still as meaningful and evident as it was when she was still alive. She founded JTC in 1942 and worked every day until 1979. She was a true pioneer. Her legacy continues. My sons Sean and Shane were also inspired to see the work that continues today due to their great-grandmother Louise and their grandfather John Tracy,” Cyndi said.
Other descendants of John Tracy are grandchildren Carolyn Tracy and Dyllan Tracy.
Had Spencer not discovered his talent of acting, married Louise, and had his son John, the legacy into helping hundreds of thousands of children regain their senses worldwide would have not been made possible. The Tracy legacy has grown over the years through Spencer’s acting career, Louise’s founding of John Tracy Clinic in helping deaf children master oral communication, and the family events surrounding the miracles of the legacy.
“I feel Spencer would want to be remembered by doing the best you can in whatever path you choose.” “When it comes to acting, don’t let them catch you at it!” (Spencer Tracy said) I feel John would want to be remembered by his belief in God; that he had a special purpose for his life and to be kind to one another,” Cyndi added.
“My dad would like to be remembered for his hard work and success overcoming his handicaps along with his work at Disney and playing his polo. He had polio on top of being deaf, which made one of his legs bad, but he was till able to ride horses and swim. He overcame all of those handicaps. My grandmother would like to be remembered as giving her life to a cause because she did the right thing. There was no financial gain at all in doing what she did. She also donated a lot of money to Clinic herself as well. She’d want to be remembered more for the Clinic. She was an actress too and top-billed over Spencer when they first started out. They met on the train traveling from show to show. She gave it all up to help her son and quit acting…The sacrifice and hard work just for the sake of being involved to help her son and all of the parents for free. It all started from a bungalow,” Joe added.
Photos courtesy of Joe Tracy and Cyndi Tracy