By Dan Woog, “Woog’s World,” first published in the Westport News.
RON KAUFMAN’S ULTIMATE GAME
In the early 1970s Ron Kaufman was too small to play on most Staples High School teams. But Ultimate Frisbee was different.
The squad – one of the first at any high school in the country – fit perfectly with the do-your-own-thing, find-your-own-path ethos of the time. And it was particularly apt that Staples had a Frisbee team: The original Frisbiee Pie Company, which gave the world the flying disc, was just a few miles up I-95, in Bridgeport. (It was torn down not long after – and turned into a jai alai fronton.)
Still, Ultimate Frisbee was no walk in the park. “I was the last kid picked,” Kaufman recalled recently by email from Singapore, where he has lived since 1990. “I dropped the disc more often than the local dog. But
still they let me play.”
Kaufman headed off to Brown University in 1974. Former Staples player Dan Buckley was not far away, at the University of Connecticut. Within weeks, Buckley formed a team. He challenged Brown to a game.
Kaufman rallied his freshman dorm mates – including ex-Stapleite Jim Garvin. (Garvin is now NASA’s chief scientist for Mars exploration. As Kaufman noted, “flying saucers certainly influenced his life.”)
Brown lost, 38-8. On the way back to Providence, Kaufman’s squad committed to building a real team. The next year he was elected captain. The squad drafted a constitution, gained permission to use official athletic fields, and was given funds to buy reject Master Frisbees from Wham-O for games. Brown soon became an Ivy League Ultimate Frisbee power.
By the summer of 1974 Westport had an Ultimate Frisbee League, with regular practices and games. Kaufman and Buckley invited teams from Brown, UConn and Westport to a “Westport Festival of Flight” on the Staples fields. First selectman Jacqueline Heneage threw in the first Frisbee.
Kaufman spent his junior year of college in Europe. On his second night in London he and new friend Jeremy Way – the head of the United Kingdom Frisbee Society – sat in a lighting tower 30 yards above Hyde Park, watching a free concert by Elton John. “We did the obvious,” Kaufman said. “We threw Frisbees.”
Kaufman played and promoted Ultimate Frisbee across the continent. He worked with organizations in Sweden, France, Denmark, Italy, Germany and the U.K., translating rules, organizing festivals, and sleeping on floors and couches. Frisbee sales funded his travel.
In 1978 Kaufman worked the microphone at the World Frisbee Championships in the Rose Bowl. Later he emceed the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum Festival. By 1979, when he graduated from Brown, his organization was growing so fast he had no time to apply for a “real job.” (It was called “Discovering the World” – as in “Disc Covering” – get it?)
He moved to Davis, California for law school, but in 1980 Discovering had tripled in size and volume. Kaufman dropped law school, and published the largest catalog of flying discs available anywhere at the time. He bought an early computer – an Osborne – to keep track of it all.
Through 1985, Discovering the World grew to include a wide range of antiques, custom printing, bags, shirts, books and foot bags. He filled the Milton Keynes Bowl in the U.K. with Frisbees, hot air balloons, kites, and a TV celebrity who landed midfield in a helicopter. He brought the first “International Frisbee Friendship Tour” to China. It was featured by NBC, Reuters, UPI, AP and Life magazine.
“It was fun,” Kaufman said. “But it was becoming a ‘real business.'”
Though the Russians were not as open to Frisbees as China – who says all communists are the same? – Kaufman managed to open doors to refuseniks, the Soviet Peace Committee, and one open-minded Politburo member. He played in several sports halls, a few school yards, and on Red Square.
In 1985 Kaufman sold Discovering the World. (It still exists, and turns a profit.) Then Chernobyl blew up, and with it Kaufman’s plans for “World Peace Tours.” He moved to Washington state, and spent a year “watching deer in the woods, and sunsets over the water.”
Kaufman entered the corporate world in 1990, designing adult educational curriculum and games. “Same profession, different focus,” he said. Frisbees came out of storage as props for training exercises on partnership, teamwork and quality service.
He traded the remnants of his Frisbee collection for $40,000 of fine-art glass. Today – 92 countries later – Kaufman continues to create educational curriculum for adults that stresses “the importance of cooperation and
creative effort.” The pay is better, he said – “and the spirit of fun and participation is still very much alive.”
All of which leads up to next weekend. The Staples Class of 1974 meets for its 35th reunion – and Ultimate Frisbee is part of the plan. A reunion game is set for Saturday, October 10. Many of the original players will be there. Al Jolley, a math teacher who organized that first squad and is now the longest serving faculty member at Staples, will receive a special acknowledgment.
Ron Kaufman is traveling halfway around the world to be there. That’s appropriate. After all, Frisbee has taken him to just about every country on it.