Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bridgeville High School, 19442 and 1943. December 28, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                      John F. Oyler

December 28, 2017

Bridgeville High School, 1942 and 1943

We had intended to devote our December Bridgeville Area Historical Society “Second Tuesday” workshop to the Bridgeville High School classes of 1942, ‘43’ and ’44, but soon determined that we had far too much information available than could be compressed into one hour. We barely got through 1943; ’44 will have to wait until next month.

As is our custom we opened the session with a discussion of the times. The Fall of 1941 was indeed unusual. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that we would soon enter World War II eventually; the attack on Pearl Harbor initiated the inevitable with a shock.

The football season started that Fall with a surprisingly easy 15 to 0 drubbing of Carnegie. Ray Zaney started the scoring with a safety, followed by touchdowns by Jack McMahon and Bruno Filippi. The right end on the team was Ralph Mikus; he was honored by the Pittsburgh paper for his scholastic achievements. According to the article he planned to go on to Carnegie Tech after graduation.

Another member of that team was right guard William Shadish. He would go on to earning a medical degree during his service with the U. S. Army, then have a memorable experience in the Korean War. After being captured while treating wounded soldiers he spent over one thousand days in POW camps where he ministered to hundreds of ill and wounded fellow prisoners. His exploits were recorded in a remarkable book, “When Hell Froze Over”.

The team went on to complete an undefeated, untied season with an impressive 20 to 0 win over South Fayette, only to add the term “uninvited” to their resume when their schedule failed to produce sufficient “Gardner points” to qualify for the playoffs. Coach Neil Brown contended this was his best team ever.

The Senior play that year was “One Mad Night“, a ”mystery-farce in three acts” starring Mary Martha Holman and Bill Barbish. In those days a high school play was a major social/cultural event in the community, something no one wanted to miss.

The basketball team had a successful season, ending in a tie with South Fayette for the Section 12 title. They won the playoff comfortably with a 40 to 33 win at Dormont, led by a guard named Kovach. When we asked Russ Kovach which of his relatives this was, he said it had to be some other family.

A day later my brother solved the mystery. One of the World War II fatalities in his book, “Almost Forgotten”, was a twenty-year old ex-BHS basketball player named Robert Kovack. His name had been Anglicized from Kovacevich. His family lived on Vanadium Road in Kirwan Heights. A member of the First Marine Division he lost his life on Palau, one of the many tragedies of the war.

As we progressed through the evening my brother identified far too many other BHS students who ultimately lost their lives in the war, including Bob Baldini, Bob Bogdeweicz, Alex Asti, and Elmer Straka. It is quite sad to imagine these boys in high school with their whole lives ahead of them, knowing that their dreams would never be fulfilled.

An interesting newspaper clipping, dated February 4, 1942, reported a feud between Burgess John Graham (also a physical education teacher at the high school) and the Borough Council regarding corruption in the Borough. According to Mr. Graham, “The town’s wide open and even the high school students are booking numbers!” He blamed it on the influence of the twenty-two pinball machines in the teenage hangouts in Bridgeville and had them confiscated. The Council did not support his action and had the machines returned to the establishments that housed them.

A rich source of information about the high school during the war years was the Bridger, a monthly eight-page pamphlet published by the students. The Historical Society has a copy of the March 1942 issue; it is number two of volume one of the Bridger. We would like to have number one, not to mention any other issues of the Bridger during that era.

This issue reported on the basketball season, announced the Honor Roll (which included eighth grader Mary Weise), and exhorted the students to write letters to alumni in the service. The Junior play, “Professor, How Could You?”, was scheduled for the next month, starring Bob McKee. I am sure I saw the play; a family friend, June Klein, had a part in it.

A particularly funny item in the Bridger is a poem describing “Pop” Ferree “clearing the hall”. Anyone who knew Mr. Ferree has to chuckle at the spectacle of him trying to get the students into their classrooms.

BHS capped off a successful sports year with an impressive showing in the WPIAL Class B Field and Track championships, running away with the title. Sam Camp was the big star, with several record setting performances.

There were eighty one graduates in the Class of 1942, true members of the Greatest Generation. We are all grateful to them for the way they accepted the challenges of World War II, fought it to a successful conclusion, and came home to begin productive lives as civilians.

The next item in the evening’s presentation was a tongue-in-cheek look at the contributions of the Home Front to the war effort, as exemplified by the Junior Commandos. As a promotional gimmick one of the Pittsburgh daily papers started an organization by that name to provide young people with an opportunity to do something constructive.

Eddie Croft, a master opportunist, took advantage of his charisma and convinced the school administration to let him draft the entire student body into the Commandos. The September 21, 1942, edition of the paper has an entire page devoted to his efforts.

The upper half of the page has a pair of photos of high school students, each giving the classic Commando two-fingered salute. At the bottom is a mob scene – the entire grade school student body crammed into the center hall on the first floor of Washington School. I was a fifth-grader that year and can be seen prominently near the back of the group. The Commandos did get credit for collecting scrap metal and paper, and provided Colonel Croft with a lot of exposure in the newspapers.

Thanks to the blocking of left tackle Ed Maruzewski, fullback Chuck Beadling scored the only points in BHS’ win over Class A opponent, Canonsburg. A few weeks later Maruzewski was moved to halfback where he proceeded to run rough shod over the opposition, leading the team to another undefeated season. The 33 to 0 drubbing of South Fayette featured four touchdowns by Maruzewski.

This record earned the locals a trip to the Class B playoffs, culminating in a 12 to 0 victory over Leetsdale and Bridgeville’s first WPIAL Class B championship. It was a great achievement for Coach Kass Kovalchek in his only year as BHS head coach. Neil Brown had departed after the previous school year for Har-Brack Union High School. Two weeks later Kovalchek left for the Navy Pre-Flight School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He was replaced by BHS alumnus Jack Wight.

The Historical Society is fortunate to have one copy of the Bridger for that school year – November 1942, number two of volume II. Again, any donations of Bridgers from that era would be appreciated. Once again, the Honor Roll included ninth-grader Mary Weise, as well as her older brother, Chuck. In this issue the gossip column was entitled “Water Under the Bridge”, a title we have appropriated for this column. Advertisers for this issue included Weise”s “Greeting Card Store”, jeweler Peter Strasser, and the Cricket Shop.

The basketball team was edged out 24 to 20 by Clark High, losing the Section l2 championship for the first time in many years. Similarly, the soccer team lost the WPIAL title to South Fayette, because of a 1 to 0 loss. Track and Field was a different story however as BHS repeated as Class B champions, this time led by Homer Duchess. Following the last meet Coach John Graham left for the U. S. Navy and an assignment as a physical instructor.

The graduating class of 1943 was eighty-five strong, with most of the young men ticketed for induction into the various branches of the service, an experience many of them would not survive. They too are remembered as belonging to the Greatest Generation.

The next “Second Tuesday” workshop is scheduled for 7:00 pm, January 9, 2018 in the History Center. We will attempt to cover the Classes of 1944 and 1945.

A Christmas Letter, 2017. December 21, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                         John F. Oyler

December 21, 2017

A Christmas Letter, 2017

Last year I dedicated a column to a Christmas letter to our readers and enjoyed it so much that I have decided to repeat that process again this year. It has been my custom for a number of years to type out a general discussion of the activities of our extended family and to then customize it for the individual folks on my Christmas card list – this will serve as my column as well this year.

This term I am completing my twenty-fifth year teaching in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Pittsburgh. It has been a rewarding experience for me. My colleagues and I are quite fortunate to have the opportunity to interface with a wonderful group of young people there. Currently I teach Materials of Construction to Sophomores and also coordinate the Senior Design Project program that all of our Seniors take in their final semester.

My daughter Elizabeth is also teaching at Pitt, in the East Asian Languages and Literature Department; lunch with her at the University Club is a highlight of each week. Her family has purchased a home in Olde Sewickley Highlands, just off Camp Meeting Road. Mike is on a sabbatical from his job at the University of Illinois and has been busy moving necessities here from Champaign.

Their thirteen year old daughter Rachael is an eighth grader at Quaker Valley Middle School and deeply involved with music. She is a fine violinist, a good pianist, and a beginner on the guitar. It was a special treat recently to see her perform at the Carnegie Music Hall with the Symphonette, a training string orchestra closely associated with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I have also enjoyed attending the Pittsburgh Symphony concerts with her and her family.

John’s family spent most of the year in Beijing. Four year old Lai An has started school there in a program that seems quite advanced for a child of that age. We are hoping to see them here in Pittsburgh for Christmas. John’s company, Beigene, appears to be prospering. They have expanded into manufacturing and marketing drugs, but their primary focus is still on continuing clinical trials prior to approval of drugs they have developed.

I went to Colorado in the summer to see fifteen year old Ian (Lazar Wolf) and ten year old Claire perform in “Fiddler on the Roof” and again in the Fall to see Ian (the Carpenter) in “Alice in Wonderland”. I also got to see twelve year old Nora play soccer and basketball on the Fall trip. My grandchildren are terrific; the plays and sporting events in which these children participate are impressive.

Their parents are busy supporting all their children’s activities, but still manage to find time to earn livings. Sara manages a state of the art conservation genetics lab for the Department of the Interior; Jim is a very versatile substitute teacher.

We had the family together in Champaign for Rachael’s Bat Mitzvah in May and then in Truckee, California, for a family vacation in mid-summer. For me the highlight of the vacation was an Amtrak train ride on the California Zephyr from Colfax through the Sierra Nevadas to Truckee.

I continue to enjoy frequent brunches with the Octogenarian Club, a group of my cronies from Bridgeville High School days. My other old fogeys group is our Book Club, which meets once a month, rotating between each other’s homes. For December we will go to the North Side to Max’s Allegheny Tavern, an annual treat. My favorite of the books we read recently is “Golden Hill” by Francis Spufford, an excellent combination of mystery and historical fiction.

Another enjoyable monthly activity is “Second Tuesday”, a workshop that I host for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society. This year we have concentrated on the history of Bridgeville High School, currently are up to 1942. I also gave a handful of historical talks to a variety of organizations, dealing with “The Mason Dixon Line”, “Higbee Glass”, and “The Flannery Brothers and Standard Chemical Company”, among others.

The opportunity to walk in our woods twice a day is a real blessing. It always includes a visit to the tulip tree we had planted in memory of my wife. It is doing okay now, although it was slightly damaged in the winter by a buck trying to rub the satin off his antlers. This necessitated my building a rugged fence around it.

I enjoy the change of the seasons and looking for Mayflowers and trillium in the Spring, “chicken of the woods” mushrooms in the Summer, and bittersweet in the Fall. I am known to the folks who inhabit the woods as the “dogless dog-walker”. I don’t think I could bear watching another old dog die.

A year-end column would not be complete without some comment on the state of affairs in our country and in the world. It doesn’t appear that we are making much progress. Somehow we need to find leadership that can reconcile the differences between the extreme factions that end up in power. We hope it doesn’t require a catastrophic crisis for that to happen.

These columns are a great source of pleasure for me. It is always a treat for me when a stranger comes up to me and reports that he or she knows me from reading my columns. I do wish a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year to all of our readers.

The USS Niagara December 14, 2017

Copyright © 2017                                                         John F. Oyler

December 14, 2017

The USS Niagara

The November program meeting of the Bridgeville Area Historical Society featured an interesting talk by Edd Hale on his experience as a volunteer sailor on the USS Niagara. It was his second visit to the Society; last March he gave a memorable presentation on “The Great Castle Shannon Bank Robbery”.

The original USS Niagara was one of six warships constructed by Noah Brown in Erie in 1813 as part of a battle fleet assembled to contest the British naval supremacy in the Great Lakes during the War of 1812. The Niagara and her sister brig, the Lawrence, both had drafts that were too big to permit them to cross the sandbar protecting the Erie port from Lake Erie. When their construction was completed, they were floated over the sandbar by temporarily attaching large floatation devices called “camels” on each side.

 The Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, resulted in a complete victory for the American fleet led by Oliver Hazard Perry as reported to General William Henry Harrison – “We have met the enemy and they are ours, two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop.” The Niagara played a key role in the battle when Perry transferred his flag to her following severe damage to his flagship, the Lawrence.

Following the war the Niagara was purposely sunk in Misery Bay at Erie. She was raised as part of the celebration of the Centennial of the Battle of Lake Erie and functioned as an historic relic until the 1970s when rot finally got the best of her. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission had a replica built in 1988 which now serves as a “sailing ambassador for Pennsylvania”.

Technically the Niagara is a brig, a sailing vessel with two square rigged masts. The mainmast is the aft one and is somewhat taller than the foremast. The term square rigged denotes the fact that the mainsails are carried on horizontal spars, called yards, “square” (at right angles) to the masts. The speaker pointed out that the term “yardarm” refers to the part of the yard extending beyond the end of the sail.

The Niagara has a hull length of 123 feet, with a sparred length of 198 feet. Her beam is 32 feet; her draft, 10’ – 9”. Her displacement is 297 tons. The mainmast is 118 – 4” high, the foremast, 113’ – 4”. The original vessel carried eighteen carronades and two “chasers”. The chasers are long guns mounted on wheels so they can be located at the bow or stern. They fired twelve pound balls accurately at long ranges. The carronades were located semi-permanently, nine on each side. They fired thirty two pound balls at short range.

In 1813 the Niagara had a crew of 155 men and officers, most of which served the twenty guns (six men per gun). At the Battle of Lake Erie the Niagara also took on two squads of Marines (eighteen Kentucky riflemen).
The current Niagara has a crew of twenty professional officers and sailors, supplemented by twenty volunteers. Her sailing schedule is May through September. The Niagara regularly sails the four western Great Lakes and, via the Welland Canal, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River as far as Quebec City. The Museum is open year around.

Mr. Hale has volunteered as a crewman on the Niagara for the past nine years and gave an very positive report on the experience. He was particularly proud of a photograph of him high in the rigging on one of the foremast yards. Another photo showed him bent over in the space below decks where the headroom at his hammock is only five feet.

His discussion of the Niagara included a tutorial on nautical terms. The “rigging” consists of standing lines and running lines. Standing lines are the guy lines that support the masts. Those running fore and aft are called stays; laterally, shrouds. The running lines (a total of 190) are used to raise and lower the sails. The Niagara has eight miles of lines, one third of which is replaced each year.

The replica brig is equipped with two modern 180 horsepower Diesel engines, although she still could be propelled by rowing a dozen long sweeps. Her anchor weighs 1900 pounds and is raised and lowered by a six inch diameter cable using a ten armed capstan.

Mr. Hale is an enthusiastic supporter of the Niagara and of the experience of volunteering as a sailor on her. He strongly recommended a visit to her museum and a four hour Day Sail on her next summer.

There will be no program meeting for the Historical Society in December; the next scheduled program will be presented in a Sunday afternoon meeting at 1:30 pm on January 28, 2018. Dr. John Auberle’s subject is “A Lion in the White House: A Biography of Teddy Roosevelt”. The meeting will be in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, on Commercial Street in Bridgeville.