Dave McConnaughey gone but, hopefully, no longer forgotten

by Bob Heyden

His name was Dave McConnaughey. He would have been 80 years old on Sunday (Feb. 18). He never made it past 22, killed in action in Vietnam on March 30, 1966, eight months after he was drafted at age 21. Coming up on 58 years ago. McConnaughey was part of a harness racing loving family, that relocated when he was a wee kid, from Hillsboro, OH to the Lebanon Fairgrounds because they wanted to be closer to the sport they loved/lived 24/7. It was twin brothers Ronald and Donald, 13 years Dave’s senior, as well as mom, Bertha, and dad, Mason. Even sister Joy married a man who would become a racing official in Ohio, Bobby Gray. A family dedication of the highest order.

Dave was an eager young driver, and a good one. Here’s his line from the 1965 Trotting and Pacing Guide from the 1964 Spring Fair Meet at Lebanon Raceway: 47 11-6-6 .348, good for third in the final tally. He was 20-years-old. In his two years of driving, he won 28 then 35 races. In his first 21 fair races, he hit the board in 14 of them.

Mike Woebkenberg, the starter of more than 100,000 career races and still going strong — currently starting at Miami Valley — idolized Dave to a degree. “Oh yes, there was an eight- or nine-year age difference and I was 12 or so, but I sure looked up to him,” Woebkenberg said. “He was going to be the next superstar, the next great driver. That was the buzz back then.”

Woebkenberg said the whole family made their living at the races.

“The brothers had green and orange colors and green and white,” Woebkenberg said. “They always had three, four horses at a time and a good one in Mister Budmite. They did a lot of their work with trotters like him. The family was known for using sheepskin back then.

“We lost Bill Bailey to Vietnam back then, Ronny Millington went too, but he came back.”

David L. McConnaughey is how his name appears on the Vietnam Memorial. There are 58,220 names with 1,919 from Ohio and 10 from Lebanon. The army private first class is honored on panel 6E, line 67 of the wall.

Some good souls have left remembrances online for PFC McConnaughey, here are a few:

• Jerry Sandwisch posted on 11/2/17, “The war may be forgotten, but the warrior will always be remembered. All Gave Some-Some Gave All. Rest In Peace David.”

• On 2/14/03 Donald Lytle said in part, “As a fellow Buckeye, I say ‘Thank you.’ As a Veteran, I say ‘Job Well Done Soldier.’

• Lucy Micik posted on 8/2/20, “Dear PFC David McConnaughey, Thank you for your service as an Infantryman with the 1st Cavalry. Saying thank you isn’t enough, but it is from the heart. Time passes quickly, but our world needs help. Please watch over America, it stills needs your strength, courage, guidance and faithfulness. Rest in peace with the angels.”

• Ross Snyder on 3/31/17 posted in part, “I knew Davey and his family while growing up in Lebanon, OH. It was so tragic when Davey was killed. He was [a] great harness racing driver who had so much more to offer here on earth.”

That last sentence is the one that got me dumped out of the lawn chair into action.

“So much more to offer.”

For a second let’s look at the probably unfair comparison to Peter Haughton, a shining light in the industry who was lost to an auto accident at age 25 in 1980.

Peter Haughton was the “Chosen One.”

Dave McConnaughey is the “Forgotten One,” by us, the industry, for the most part. I get it, there were 56 fairs in Ohio — from Ashland to Zanesville; from Lebanon the first, to Lancaster the last — during 1964-65. There was no simulcasting then. Herve Filion was just about to enter the 1,000-win club. It was that far back.

Peter was born into racing royalty and had no problem rolling up his sleeves.

Dave’s family was one of many on the fair circuit, in many ways the essence of the industry. 

Dave was drafted in May 1965 and made his way to Vietnam by October that year. It was in March we lost him. He died of small arms fire bullet wounds in an Army hospital March 30, 1966. The story first appeared in the Lebanon Post and Star on April 2.

His family? Mom, Bertha, passed at 68 on April 11, 1978. Dad at 75 in February 1977. The twin brothers are also no longer here. Donald died on Feb. 29, 1984 and has a harness horse on his headstone. Ronald passed at 66 on Sept. 17 1996 and a winner’s circle picture of a standardbred is his headstone. All are buried together. Dave’s headstone reads: David L. McConnaughey Section H Lot 118-1 PFC TRP A 9 CAV I Cav DIV

No, Dave is not James Dean with a frozen-in-time-oh-what could-have-been look on his face. And he was not very likely heading to a Peter Haughton like career. His aspirations in the sport were not to be. He would not see Bret Hanover win his third straight Horse of the Year title, He loved standardbreds and his country, paying the ultimate price. He never would make it to Goshen, NY, 633 miles away, to either go in himself or root on some of his buddies who did. Heck, maybe David McDuffee, half a dozen years older than Dave McConnaughey, would have noticed Dave and referred to as “kid” on Hall Night 2024. Nobody knows.

For too long his name has been one of many from a war most have long since etch-a-sketched from their life. In the 1960s, our nightly news led off with a body count from Vietnam. The war went from 1961-75. Dave found what he wanted to do and maybe he would have been the most famous driving Buckeye “Dave” pre-Dave Miller, who got his start in the Ohio fair circuit too.

To quote Mike Woebkenberg again, “Then Vietnam happened.”

Casualties rarely had an eternal flame. We had a bad habit back here in the USA of lumping them all together; a horrible dream in search of some kind of ending. There was none. Masses of evil, 8,649 miles away were now part of our routine. You were far more likely in 1966 to see Walter Cronkite in a battlefield helmet than Dave with a driving one.

Personally, I want to shine the spotlight on those people/stories that remain dormant. How wonderful would it be to see Dave McConnaughey’s name on an Ohio Fair Driver of the Year award? Or to see his bio in the Miami Valley/Northfield Park program. To remember his birthday going forward. He just turned the Big 8-0 with little, well no, fanfare. I have undertaken the task of not letting that happen again. He wasn’t sky diving or treasure hunting in the deep ocean folks. He was serving his country! His obit was filler in the trades back near 60 years ago. Nobody’s at fault. The magazines and the sport were deluged at the time. A pretty safe bet here is that Dave would have been chomping at the bit when his service was complete to get back to racing. He didn’t get that choice. But we have one, to honor and remember and promote those who went above and beyond, all with a love of standardbred racing as the foundation. Dave seems to be a wonderful place to start.