The Monday After: Charlie Torrence was 'Heart of Canton'

Monday, Nov. 28, 2022

STANDING HEAD: The Monday After

Double-amputee Charlie Torrence traveled the streets of Canton on his low-slung cart before his death July 26, 2007, letting his arms do the work of his missing legs and inspiring countless city residents with his dedication to live out his life in a manner that didn't allow his injury to become his handicap.
Double-amputee Charlie Torrence traveled the streets of Canton on his low-slung cart before his death July 26, 2007, letting his arms do the work of his missing legs and inspiring countless city residents with his dedication to live out his life in a manner that didn't allow his injury to become his handicap.

As the calendar turns its pages toward the holidays, we are reminded of inspirational stories from the past. Few of those stories are more moving than the tale of Charles "Charlie" Torrence Jr., who died a little more than 15 years ago.

The facts and effects of Torrence's life reached farther than the city limits of Canton or the boundaries of Stark County.

"The March issue of Reader's Digest, on the stands Feb. 24, will feature a Henry Hurt story, 'The Heart of Canton, Ohio,'" noted Diana Rossetti in her Bold Face column on Sunday, Feb. 8, 1987. "It features double amputee Charlie Torrence, who travels the streets of downtown Canton on a cart propelled by the strength of his arms."

An editorial in The Canton Repository, then known simply as The Repository, followed Hurt's article. The editorial, published March 8, 1987, agreed with the judgment of the article's author that Torrence's life had risen through his actions to a level that inspired area residents who encountered him.

"For many years, Charles Torrence has been an inspiration to countless Cantonians," the editorial said. "Almost everyone who has visited downtown Canton in the last 35 years has seen Charlie Torrence moving about on his special wheeled platform that is low enough to let his arms do the work of his missing legs."

The editorial detailed the cause of the injury that Torrence ultimately wouldn't let prevent him from living out a meaningful life.

"Everybody but newcomers know that Charlie lost his legs in a train mishap when he was 24," the editorial noted. "They also know that he never came close to losing his courage, his humor or his determination in that rail accident."

Torrence's actions showed everyone who met him that "Charlie has never sought nor tolerated pity," the 1987 editoral said.

"He is a living advertisement that says clearly: Never waste time feeling sorry for yourself. Use what you have to do what you can," said the editorial. "That's why he is an inspiration. That's why he has been so important to Canton all these years."

Local writers knew Torrence

It was Repository columnist Jim Hillibish who suggested Hurt's article.

In a 2004 column Hillibish recalled his interaction with Hurt, whose "roving editor" status on his business card signaled his constant "urges to chronicle America."

"Henry's travels years before took him through Canton and a fish supper at Bender's restaurant downtown. He fell in love with the town and the food, and sought an excuse to return," Hillibish recalled in his "Page Two" column. "So he cold-called The Rep from Chatham (Virginia).

"'Is Bender's still there? There's got to be something out there to write about,' he said. 'Charlie Torrence,' I offered. 'Take the next plane out.'"

Hurt took Hillibish's advice and returned to Canton. "It was an easy sell," Hillibish admitted. Something about Torrence drew people to him. And, it was an appropriate recommendation, coming from "Bish." Of all the writers at the Repository who wrote about him through the years, Hillibish perhaps knew Torrence best. The two encountered each other frequently during their travels through Canton.

In the 2004 column, Hillibish remembered seeing Torrence at a play at Malone College.

"Outside, a cold front was slamming through. In the audience was our friend, Charlie Torrence, soaked but bright, on his homemade push cart with its caster wheels. His muscled arms powered him up Market Avenue in the storm. He had no legs.

"We were talking after the show, and I insisted we put his cart in my car and drive him home. I should have known better. 'I'm fine,' he said. We passed him on Market Avenue in the wet snow, one hand after the other."

Chose to be an example

That's how Torrence lived, "one hand after the other," in his variation of the manner that others get through their lives by moving forward, "one foot in front of the other."

Hillibish remembered in his column how it all began with an accident that could have ended Torrence's life.

"Charlie lost his legs under a train near the Market Avenue S crossing," Hillibish wrote. "Police officer Frank Burnosky found him nearly dead and saved his life. Charlie used his new life to show the power of one man against the insurmountable."

Torrence once told Hillibish that "God gave me a second life," and, according to Hillibish "he expressed it by refusing wheelchairs, nursing homes and especially sympathy."

Instead, Torrence built the cart with which Canton residents and visitors became so familiar, a cart he powered by wielding "wooden hand 'scoots' covered with tire rubber," Hillibish described.

"When a car ran over it, Frank (Burnosky) and the police built him a new one, and put a flag and reflectors on the back. Charlie was evident everywhere. He exemplified resilience, in a nonassuming way. Folks who met him realized their own problems were small. This was Charlie's mission," wrote Hillibish.

"He told me it was important for folks to see him as he was and not on crutches. His acceptance downtown was loving and respectful, a man closer to God than most of us."

Torrence suffered much pain

It wasn't an easy "ride" through life for Torrence, of course.

Torrence, who had served in the Army during World War II and was briefly employed at Republic Steel before his tragic injuries, spent eight months in a coma − not expected to live − following the train accident, which had resulted from him being robbed, beaten and left unconscious on the railroad tracks.

"But, by the help of God, much prayer, love and support of family and friends, he survived that accident," Torrence's obituary said on Aug. 2, 2007.  "Later, he was twice hit by cars, but continued to survive and get around on his cart. ... For more than 40 years, Charles could be seen all over Canton, even as far out as Belden Village on his cart, using those wooden blocks to push and maneuver himself just about anywhere anyone with two legs could go.

"He could often be found in downtown Canton, resting on a corner while en route to wherever would be his destination for that day. Many marveled at how he got around."

Repository writer Myrna Mullen in 1981, reporting on a short documentary film, "One Hill To Climb," made about Torrence that was being aired on local PBS channels, interviewed the film's subject, who expressed thankfulness "to be alive" after the train took his legs.

"Now, I'm grateful the way I get around," he said. "I wouldn't hardly need legs."

"Like it says in the Bible," said Torrence, who nurtured an abiding faith at Jerusalem Baptist Church, "God helps those who help themselves."

Charlie's story spreads to others

Torrence helped others, many more than he might have imaged, when Hurt came to Canton to put Charlie's story into a magazine that at the time had a circulation exceeding seven million.

"I told Henry we'd find him on his cart eating a coney at the Arcade Market, talking about God's grace, intertwining his life's stories," wrote Hillibish in his 2004 column. "No one listened to Charlie without having a burden lifted, without feeling a lot better about people, and, indeed, themselves.

"This he would do with everyone, from lawyers and seretaries to drunks and drug addicts. You'd find him on the streets at all hours."

Hillibish told Repository readers that when Hurt subsequently wrote about Torrence, "the heart of Canton, Ohio, was bared for all." Bish bought for Torrence a copy of the magazine in which the article appeared.

"He scanned it and then hit the street without it. Charlie never took anything from anybody."

But, Torrence gave much to others.

"Charlie never wrote a book, he has never been elected to public office, he never has chaired a civic committee, but he is a special part of Canton and he is held in high esteem," said the Repository's editorial writers after the Reader's Digest article was published in 1987.

"He has made his mark by letting his life be his simple yet profound statement about the human condition."

That was why Henry Hurt's journey to Canton to meet and write about Charlie Torrence was so meaningful, not only to Canton readers but to individuals everywhere. It was an article that everyone needed to read, said the editorial.

"That's not such a big deal to Charlie, but all of Canton is happy to share him − and his no-nonsense message − with the rest of the world. (It) wouldn't hurt a thing if Charlie's inspiration ripple a long way from Canton."

In his column, Hillibish remembered sharing a fish supper with Hurt at Bender's after the writer's interview with Torrence.

"'You know,' he said, looking me in the eye, 'Charlie Torrence says a lot about the people in your town.'"

"'I know it now,' I said."

Reach Gary at On Twitter: @gbrownREP.

This article originally appeared on The Repository: The Monday After: Charlie Torrence was 'Heart of Canton'