University of Iowa to honor ex-football player Harold Bradley Jr., a giant of creativity

Jon Darsee
Special to the Register
Harold Bradley Jr. once described pro football as a great career because it gave him five months a year to devote to making art.

Note to readers: This story has been edited from its original publication to correctly identify Jim Wiese.

Harold Bradley Jr. led a renaissance life: 1950 University of Iowa football MVP, two-time NFL champion with the Cleveland Browns, a promising painter who began winning art prizes in grade school, an actor who appeared in two dozen movies, numerous television shows and plays.

He spent time as a soldier, social activist, art historian, music promoter, television host and educator. He “influenced the fabric of Italian music,” as one friend put it.

And if all that wasn’t enough, at age 60, Bradley embarked on a new career, becoming a popular singer in Italy performing before countless audiences, including the Pope and Nelson Mandela.

On Friday, Oct. 15, Bradley’s three children — Lea, Michaela and Oliver — will receive the Distinguished Alumni award from the UI on behalf of their father, who died in April at age 91 — just days after learning that he would be a recipient of this award. 

At age 60, Harold Bradley Jr. embarked on a new career, becoming a popular singer in Italy performing before countless audiences, including the Pope and Nelson Mandela.

A remarkable man, a remarkable life

Few men have captured my attention like Harold Bradley Jr. He was one of those rare individuals courageous enough to follow his creative instincts and dreams wherever they led. He was driven by a fundamental urge to express himself creatively, by a great desire to break down barriers and bring people together through the arts, and by his deep Christian faith.

His charismatic persona seemed to draw people of all kinds to him. This impressive figure, “more a stately oak tree than a man,” wrote Italian music critic Dario Salvatori, had the ability to touch lives in a way that left individuals and crowds alike captivated. 

I first learned of Bradley three years ago, curious about four portraits of Black Iowa icons hanging in the Iowa Memorial Union. Discovering that athletic prowess paralleled his artistic talent, I became inspired but also perplexed, wondering why I’d never heard of this Black honor student who so deftly parlayed success on Iowa’s gridiron and art school classrooms into a remarkable renaissance life. 

This photo of University of Iowa football player Harold Bradley appeared in the Des Moines Register on Sept. 29, 1948. The caption reads "Portraying a virtual Jekyll-Hyde switch, Harold Bradley, Iowa tackle, tries his hand at an easel following a Hawkeye scrimmage. Bradley's nose shows the effects of football, but his big right hand can still wield a brush in the manner which won him several national art prizes while a prep in Chicago."

Influencing the fabric of Italian music 

Bradley founded Folkstudio in Rome in an art space he shared with a Canadian sculptor. Seeing an opportunity to introduce Italians to Black culture, folk, Jazz, gospel and indigenous music of all types, Bradley transformed the studio into a bohemian music venue.  Legends such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar would come to perform.

TIME magazine ran a story titled, "Folk Singers: For the Love of it." According to the article, “… when an American Negro painter named Harold Bradley opened his Folkstudio two years ago, Rome greeted it like springtime. Since then, the Studio has become a genuine academy of folkloric song and is fast becoming the most popular club in the city.” 

The impact and legacy of Folkstudio is arguably the most important of Bradley’s achievements. Two books have chronicled its impact. The City of Rome celebrated Bradley on both the 25th and 50th anniversary of Folkstudio’s founding and is currently in talks with Bradley’s children about creating a museum highlighting his influence. 

A 2012 declaration from the City of Rome read, “Harold Willard Bradley Jr. influenced Italian cultural life for more than 50 years. In particular, the Folkstudio Harold founded in his art-studio, in 1961, left a lasting mark on Italy’s music landscape. Its cultural impact was significant as it became the benchmark for success for generations of Italian music-makers to come, including many iconic names.”

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Following his creative muse

Retiring from the NFL after the 1958 season, Harold Bradley Jr. headed to Perugia and art school where he met his future wife, Hannalore Zaccharias. On Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, Bradley’s three children — Lea, Michaela and Oliver — will receive the Distinguished Alumni award from the University of Iowa on behalf of their father, who died in April at age 91

Retiring from the NFL after the 1958 season, Bradley headed to Perugia and art school where he met his future wife, Hannalore Zaccharias. Partners until her death in 2014, they shared many passions but also histories of discrimination, prejudice and the Holocaust. Hannalore was a German Jew who lived in hiding throughout World War II. Though interracial marriages were rare in 1960 and fraught with challenges, Hannalore and Harold were undaunted.

UI hall of fame track and field coach and athlete Ted Wheeler, who ran for the USA in the 1956 Olympics, was a close friend of Bradley. They both lived in Helen Lemme’s boarding house because Black students were not allowed to live in the dorms. Cupping his hands together as if trying to contain his friend’s considerable character, Wheeler said, “Harold had so many skills and talents for one man. And yet he was so generous, so kind and giving, and he had a very rare intellect. But he always found a way to be humble, respectful and kind regardless of who he was speaking to. He cared for humanity at its very core. When you looked at Harold Bradley, you didn’t see black or white, you saw human.”

While playing for the Cleveland Browns, Bradley devoted down time to art at the historic Karamu house, a pioneering interracial cultural center. He once described pro football as a great career because it gave him five months a year to devote to making art. Long-time Karamu director and friend Dorothy Silver marveled at what she called Bradley’s brilliant ability to motivate and empower, “Harold was an exceptional artist and teacher. He truly understood that artistic achievement could be used as a bridge to connect all of us in a positive way.” 

Harold Bradley Jr. (18) celebrates with his University of Iowa football teammates after a victory.

Children’s music innovator and childhood friend Ella Jenkins — awarded the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 — said Bradley had a unique way of making people feel comfortable inside their skins. She called him “a pioneering spirit in the globalization of music … who could tear down the ‘physical and metaphorical’ barriers that divide people … Like a magnet, like a clap of the hand, Harold could connect people of all social and economic backgrounds with such lightness.”

Crisscrossing back and forth between the States and Italy, Bradley’s journey was often unplanned. Committing oneself to live life led by one’s creative muses takes faith and courage; and though Bradley’s path was sometimes rocky, it was also marked by acts of synchronicity. One story goes that in 1960 while busking on a street corner in Rome singing Black spirituals and playing his guitar, Bradley was spotted by movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, who asked Bradley if he wanted to be in the movies. The film "Barbarras," starring Anthony Quinn and Jack Palance, launched an acting career of more than two dozen films including "Cleopatra" starring Elizabeth Taylor. 

His roots influenced his life, careers

Harold Bradley Jr., right, is shown with Elizabeth Taylor, left, during a scene in the iconic Hollywood film "Cleopatra."

From an early age, art teachers encouraged him to devote his immense talent to making art, but Bradley refused to settle on one form of expression. In a 1965 Ebony magazine profile titled “A Young Man With Worlds to Conquer,” Bradley is quoted as saying, “I sometimes work 18-hour days because I want to do so much.” He felt that writing, singing and acting were also important. Besides, he would say, "I only need three or four hours of sleep each night."

Bradley never forgot his time at Iowa back in the day when a Black man had to go to Chicago or St. Louis just to get a proper haircut. Bradley loved Iowa and was ever an ambassador, encouraging Black youth and several prominent athletes to come; he was quick to praise how the strength, understanding and friendships developed at Iowa guided and bolstered him. 

Harold Bradley Jr. is shown on the Cleveland Browns sideline in the 1950s.

The Bradley children wrote, “… dad continues to be the very rare embodiment of what it means to possess and share pure positive energy — the talent to involve, captivate and enthrall people from diverse countries and cultures …”

A beautiful letter from Caritas Rome — the charitable arm of the Italian Bishops Conference — emphasized that Bradley donated countless hours singing or speaking to those in need. They specifically recalled his support for homeless refugees from the Sudan, even hosting one man in his home for several months.

Bradley’s desire to use art to connect and help people manifested in many ways. “I remember when Harold gave up a comfortable job to go teach art to a child-convict at Joliet’s maximum security prison,” wrote Ella Jenkins, “He could make the most violent and disadvantaged kid feel proud about creating beautiful art.”

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A robust legacy to be proud of

Harold Bradley Jr. founded Folkstudio in Rome. Seeing an opportunity to introduce Italians to Black culture, folk, Jazz, gospel and indigenous music of all types, Bradley transformed the studio into a bohemian music venue. Legends such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar would come to perform.

Speaking with coach Wheeler’s children — Mary and Ted Jr. — their respect and admiration for “Mr. Bradley” resonated through every word they spoke. Ted Jr. described him as regal, a complete man, unbelievably humble. I heard similar sentiment from everyone I interviewed. 

If it’s possible to have a mentor from beyond the grave, I’ve found one in Harold Bradley Jr. His examples of inner strength, selflessness and fortitude push me to be better. I’m reminded that each time I go out on a limb for something or someone, or put my creativity on the line, I grow stronger. 

Bradley’s children wrote that perhaps his aura can best be understood in the refrain of this gospel song, often sung by him and sung along by his Italian and multinational audiences:

“… This little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine,

This Little Light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine,

This Little light of mine, Yes, I’m gonna let it shine,

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine …”

As Bradley’s funeral concluded in Rome this spring, people didn’t want to leave. A crowd gathered around the casket. They couldn’t stop touching it as if being soothed or even energized — perhaps hoping that Harold Bradley Jr.’s indomitable light might shine down on them. I certainly am.

Jon Darsee, of Iowa City, is a regular and longtime contributor to the Des Moines Register. He is a West Des Moines Valley graduate and member of the University of Iowa’s 1980 Final Four team. Darsee was a medical device industry executive for more than 20 years before becoming the chief innovation officer for the University of Iowa. Email him at Jondarsee@gmail.com

Special thanks to UI alum Jim Wiese, who spent more than a year compiling a 100-page dossier for the alumni review committee. His document was foundational to writing this story.

From left, portraits of Estella Louise Ferguson, Emlen Lewis Tunnell, Helen Lemme and Frederick Wayman "Duke" Slater painted by Harold Bradley Jr., are seen Oct. 5 at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City.

FOUR PAINTINGS OF FOUR FACES BY HAROLD BRADLEY 

Paul Engle, founder of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and friend and mentor to Harold Bradley Jr., wrote this poem as a tribute to four Bradley paintings that are displayed at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. 

A terrible thing it is to live life hard,

Bruise on the beaten muscle, broken bone,

But still to stand up under the rich sun

And softly say — a poor life, but my own.

A terrible thing it is for us to see

Those who endured, endured — but with such grace.

Those with their dark skins in their dark lives

Who brought a dazzling brilliance to this place.

And now, and here, each painted face

Cries to us — Look! We are all the human race. 

Jon Darsee