Sunday, December 14, 2008

Prisoner of Second Grade

Help, I’m being held prisoner…

More Clairton legacy: We have written about our old hometown of Clairton, PA on numerous occasions. See labels for other Clairton entries. Clairton was a mill town of about 20,000 people during the 1950s and was fairly diverse for that era. Those of Anglo extraction were for the most part the movers and shakers in Clairton although after World War II several second generation Americans became prominent citizens in politics, supervisory positions in the mills, and of course business owners. The town was prosperous boasting at least three movie theaters and about a dozen car dealerships. The high school boasted a winning football team and two All American football players; Andy Berchock and Jim Kelley. Ron Lancaster, “The Little General" is a legend in Canadian football. Capt. Reginald Desiderio won the Congressional Medal of honor. Other sons and daughters of Clairton include entertainers, congresswomen, doctors and poets.

My poet of choice: Joan Cutuly was an odd duck. Her dad was a prominent Clairton physician and her mom a scientist. They had six college degrees between them and Joan was genetically engineered to become a scientist as well. She was smart enough, earning top grades in school and her analytical mind could analyze a science problem as easily as it could diagram a sentence. But her heart was that of a poet not a scientist. She wrote poetry. Lots of it. She also published a book in 1993 about her days teaching English at Las Vegas High School. It sold well and Joan Cutuly’s name was added to the long list of Clairtonians who made their mark on the world. Then Joan just disappeared.

Clairton High School alumni are diligent about keeping in touch. Many graduating classes have reunions every five years. Some classes combine their reunions and there is an annual multi-class reunion each summer at Clairton Park. Clairton ex-pats living in Florida even have an annual Clairton High School reunion. During the reunions the “Whatever happened to…” question is invariable asked and when Joan’s name was mentioned nobody seemed to know. Didn’t she visit her Dad once driving up in a limo? Was she waiting tables at a lodge in the Grand Canyon? A ski bum in Telluride? Selling insurance in Seaside, Oregon? Then on to the next classmate.

The lost has been found: Turns out Joan was indeed in Oregon for the past decade or so writing poetry and compiling a book that was recently published. “Prisoner of Second Grade” is a sad and hilarious story of the author’s 50-year struggle trying to both reconcile the poet’s mind trapped inside a scientist’s environment and trying to make a perpetually broken system of education work. If you have any Clairton connections this book is a must read. If you ever felt your psyche was trapped in the wrong body this book is a must read. If you can answer “yes” to the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the American education system?” this book is a must read. Go to Joan’s website at and see what you are missing.

More famous Clairtonians: Nancy Bekavac was the sixth president of Scripps College, one of the Claremont Colleges in California. She was the first female to hold that position. Nancy was a 1965 CHS grad who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore and then graduated from Yale Law where she was a classmate of Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Benny Benack was made famous by his song "Beat'em Bucs" and was a staple at Pittsburgh Pirate and Steeler games. He began playing trumpet at age five, and practiced for six or seven hours a day throughout his childhood. He was an innovative bandleader at Clairton High School, introducing jazz, swing, and high-stepping routines to the marching band's pregame and halftime performances.

Washington Redskins running back Larry Brown, born in Clairton, went to four consecutive Pro Bowls under Coach Vince Lombardi.

Dale Hamer a professional football referee for 23 years was an Algebra teacher at Clairton High School. He is now an instant replay official.

At 6’8” Stew Johnson was considered a giant in the 1950s when he played center and Forward at Murray State. He was drafted into professional basketball in the second round of the NBA draft by the New York Knicks in 1966.

Lance Michael Parrish, a Clairtonian, aka "Big Wheel" played professional baseball starting in the mid-1970s with the Detroit Tigers and playing catcher for several teams until he was beaten out by Mike Piazza.

Finally, Claudine Cmrada Schneider was born in Clairton and served ten years in the U.S. House of Representatives. She also was a faculty member at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Just a few who got their start in the City of Clairton, Pennsylvania.

A little blogging music Maestro… The Clairton High School band pep song, “When the Saints Go Marching In” with Benny Benack directing.

Dr. Forgot

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