By Norman V. Kelly
There was a man in our town that walked the streets of Downtown Peoria for over three decades. During the almost twenty-years that I worked downtown I saw him many, many times. He knew everyone in town and had a story to tell to each and every person that stopped long enough to listen. I have seen children point at him, and ladies turn away in fear. I am here to tell you that they had nothing to fear from Robert Merle Coy, better known as ‘Chief’ Coy. Robert was born in Holden, Missouri on February 22, 1902 and arrived here in Peoria in 1913. He went to school at Tyng, dropping out during the eighth-grade. It was at Tyng when a principal there started calling him ‘Chief,’ because Coy had told them a story about him being a chief of a gang of bad men. It stayed with him until his death on October 2, 1980. He ended his days living in the Pavilion Oaks Nursing Home, dying at the age of seventy-eight.
I mentioned the fear some woman had of the ‘Chief’ because of his face. The right side of his face was distorted from an early injury, which paralyzed that area, causing a very noticeable drooping of the right eye.
His eye remained blood-shot and quite frankly scary upon first looking at him. When engaged in conversation the droop caused him to lisp, and often drool, but to those lucky folks that took the time to know him, he was an admirable, gentle man. He accumulated more records than any person ever to have lived here in Peoria, Illinois. Interested folks soon learned that Robert was hit in the face when he was still in his crib by his own father which caused severe and permanent nerve damage. That injury became more apparent as he grew into manhood, and believe me he was quite a man.
Records and More Records
Rather than use his face as an excuse he said this about his features.
“My face did help me to determine to learn to do many things that no one else could do.”
He held records in Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not,” and John Hix’s “Strange As It May Seem.” Here is a sample of his prowess: Able to recite in four minutes all fifty states and their capitols, the Presidents of the United States, the books of the Bible in order, the first fifty Popes of the Catholic Church, and the names of 15 ancient historical events in Greek and Hebrew. In the John Hix’s story he depicted the ‘Chief’ as “The Strongest Man In The World.”
His strength and endurance were legendary. Way back in the 30’s he would entertain crowds by turning over automobiles and tearing telephone books in half. He could bend steel bolts in half and tear tin tobacco cans in half with his bare hands. He rejoiced in putting a rope around his neck, attaching the rope to a car he would pull it around the block.
One period of his life he went to every state in the union obtaining autographs of every governor in every state. He walked hundreds and hundreds of miles and ran dozens of marathons long before people really knew what they were. His jobs here in Peoria, before he was seen putting ads in windows around town were at the Herschel Company and during the war he was a mailman. Always active, always busy, ‘Chief’ Coy was a man usually on a quest of one kind or the other.
His boxing and wrestling records are far too numerous to mention, but I can tell you that he retired as a champion in every one of those sports. He also entertained people in town as a billiard marathoner playing for just over 120 hours until friends forced him to stop. He held records in all kinds of running events, running many of those events barefooted.
The ‘Chief’ gained National attention and there were many articles written about him. Sports editors called him a “Rugged, virile man, gentle, religious and inspiring.” He held records in whatever event he decided to compete in and he did it with a flare of honesty and modesty.
Here is a voice out of the past. Everett M. Dirksen, when he was a Member of Congress said, “Chief Coy is a remarkable all-around athlete, one whose performances read like the labors of Hercules.”
I feel certain that a lot of those people that saw and even talked to Coy would be surprised to learn that he was an author. After all, his formal education ended in the eighth-grade. He wrote a 50,000-word story on the ‘Sacrifice of the Mass,’ and began work on ‘The History of the World by a Catholic.’ The ‘Chief’ was a devout Catholic and knew the entire Mass by heart, becoming a Tertiary of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Robert Coy never married and lived alone living a considerable time in the Jefferson Hotel in Downtown Peoria, Illinois.
Robert Coy was hoping to get to be a contestant on the TV show, “The $64,000 Question,” but that never happened. Local folks were convinced it was the ‘Chief’s’ looks that defeated him there. He certainly did not lose anywhere else in his rich, eventful life. Peoria was a much more interesting place thanks to Robert ‘Chief’ Coy, one of Peoria’s truly remarkable characters.
Editor’s Note: This one is for Robert Rafferty. Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org