Sunday, September 27, 2009

Returning to Glory


The Rodney Dangerfield of Allegheny County: We have written more than 40 posts about our hometown of Clairton, PA. We have discussed the glory days and the prosperity that was once this community by the river. We’ve heard from hundreds of current and former residents, many of whom have been kind enough to share stories, photos, and tidbits about our town. But we have not only lived in the past. We’ve shared some of the tragedies and frustrations that have infected both Clairton and the surrounding communities in the Mon-Yough valley. Yet, for some reason Clairton, more than most of the other communities that have suffered similar consequences of the day the steel industry died, has seemed to take the most hits by neighbors and their own residents. We regularly read a Clairton area forum, for example and are surprised to hear so many negative comments. One strand of the forum has neighboring Jefferson Hills residents clamoring for their own zip code so they can disassociate from Clairton. Another bemoans the supposedly sub-standard school system.

The worm is turning: During the past 30 or so years those who left Clairton for school or work or war too often did not return. Those who remained saw their once-highly desirable steel mill jobs contract and disappear. Home values tumbled. The tax base shifted from the steel mills to local business and property taxes. But of course as businesses closed and property values shrank, services reached a nadir when the police force was disbanded and the city was patrolled by county police. The school district took its lumps as well and threatened to close or merge with another but neither option seemed viable. So the Clairton School District did what Clairton has done for the past one-hundred years; it wallowed in its self pity for a while then decided to change directions. That change is the subject of today’s blog.

Still an athletic power but with budget cuts: Clairton City School District has had to make budget cuts just like most schools across the nation. But instead of sitting idly by they formed the Clairton Bears Academic and Athletic Association. The inaugural fund raising golf outing at the Seven Springs Golf Course drew 108 participating golfers and raised some $5,000. The funds will help the athletes in all sports including the championship football team. And just as athletic teams are evaluated by their won-loss records, individual schools are evaluated on their students’ performance on standardized tests. Each year all Pennsylvania school students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 are given standardized tests. The testing is required by the No Child Left Behind Act and a passing grade denotes Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP. For the second time Clairton students in the grades tested achieved AYP. The high school was listed as Making Progress and the elementary school is in the Warning category. The superintendent has implemented a Reorganization Plan to continue working toward AYP in all levels.

Reorganization – back to the future: An old adage is, “The more things change the more they stay the same.” Perhaps there is some truth to that adage with Clairton City School District returning to a structure that was in place when Clairton schools excelled. The Board recently approved a realignment that would create an elementary school (K-6) and a Middle/high school for grades 7-12. The elementary school children will be heterogeneously grouped, meaning children will spend the entire day with the same teacher and with classmates of all abilities learning together. That is the preferred format of many educators who believe that homogenous grouping (grouping children by academic ability level) can lead to elitism in the top groups and student warehousing in the lower groups. Middle school students will change classes and work with teachers who have expertise in subject areas, much like high school students. One result will be smaller class sizes allowing for more individual attention. The format is the very similar to the one followed during the glory days of Clairton schools in the 1950s.

Wait! There’s more: Many pundits and educators who have bemoaned the slide in academic achievement in public schools have cited student appearance as a factor. This dilemma arises from the constitutional right of students to freedom of expression in speech and wearing apparel, as opposed to a school dress code. In keeping with the school’s obligation to provide a safe, healthy environment, the Clairton Education Center has adopted a dress code that complies with the Public School Code. Among the banned clothing are hoods, hats or other headgear, clothing that does not cover the midriff, outdoor jackets and coats, sunglasses, wallet chains, gang-related clothing, or jeans. Pants must be solid colored, light or dark blue, white or beige/brown fitted or belted at the waist, and no sweat pants. Skirts or jumpers must be the same colors as pants, no shorter than one inch above the knee and no slits more than one inch above the knee. Ditto for shirts, tops and sweaters, and they must cover the complete shoulder area. No t-shirts. Footwear must be fastened or laced and may not include flip-flops, open toed shoes, or “heelies.” Dress code is to be in effect during regular school hours as well as during athletic and school-sponsored travel.

Two crucial components: In addition to having students ready to learn, there are two crucial components to successful education; parent involvement and continued teacher development. Clairton addressed the teacher development component with an in-service this summer that included education techniques, classroom conduct, classroom management, and a host of other topics. Communication with parents is being addressed with several techniques including letters to parents, a web page, and a newsletter that is sent to every Clairton resident. Clairton deserves an A for efforts to get the School District on the track to effectively teach its students. Knowledge is power.

A little blogging music Maestro... From the Beatles; “With a Little Help from my Friends.”

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Clairton's Traditions

1931 W.P.I.A.L Champs
Clairton High School
Top row, left to Right
George Woodman, John Swetka, Eddie Johnson, Ken Stilley, John Snizik, William Wyke
Bottom Row, left to right
William Stokes, Leroy Sellers, Mike Kalcevich, Albert Meeleis, George Pavlack, Andy Berchok, Dick Horn

Home of the Bears nee Cobras

The first century of football: Clairton, a community that sits on the Monongahela River and has had booms and busts has had a rich tradition in high school football. In 2006 Clairton High School celebrated its first hundred years. The school and community have a great history. U. S. Steel’s Clairton Works was said to produce more coke, a component in steelmaking, than any other mill in the world. Clairton Park and swimming pool are among the most beautiful in Western Pennsylvania. Basketball, track, and other CHS teams have gained recognition with state championships and player recognition. The band and majorettes, aka Honeybears, have been the envy of neighboring schools. But today we will focus on the football team. The team was christened the Clairton Cobras sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s and played under that mascot until 1941 when they were renamed the Bears. I have been unable to discover why the name was changed and welcome any reader to share the reason. Whether Cobras or Bears, however, Clairton football has had a proud tradition. They won the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic League (WPIAL) championship in 1929 and again in 1931. In fact, from 1925-1931, a period of six years, the Clairton Cobras lost only one game. It was not unusual for 10,000 to 12,000 fans to watch the Clairton games, both home and away.

The 1931 championship team was coached by George Woodman who had starred as a center for Colgate University. After his stint as coach, Woodman became the principal of Clairton High School which followed his winning tradition under head coach Neil C. Brown, who would also later become the CHS principal. Starters for that team included Ken Stilley, a bruising 209 lb. fullback who went on to star at Notre Dame and later become the mayor of Clairton as well as a scout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The smallest member of the squad was quarterback John Snizik at 136 lbs. He was a longtime physical education instructor at CHS. Tackle Andy Berchok became the first CHS All American who also starred at the University of North Carolina. The 1931 team was a true melting pot that included children of Irish, English, Slavic, German, and African American parents.

The 1950s were good times in Clairton: Coach Neil Brown led the Bears from 1951 through 1960. During that period his record was 71-16-6. He was a high school classmate of Lucille Ball and lived to age 90. His most successful team in 1954 won the WPIAL championship. Fullback Joe Belland and tackle Ernie Westwood were named First Team All State. Even when the Bears did not win the championship they were an integral part of the Clairton ambiance. There are few things that tie a community together like a winning athletic team. Witness the result of the recent success of the Steelers and Pens in the greater Pittsburgh community that extends nationwide. But in Clairton, not only was the football team an integral part of Clairton pride, so were the other components such as the band, the Honeybears, the cheerleaders, the faculty and coaching staff, and the fans who believed that the success on the field translated to hope in their lives.

The Bears are rolling again: Clairton has had a few decades of economic decline. Area mills have for the most shut down, children living in poverty see little hope for the future, drug and crime reports have increased and other communities tend to look down their noses at Clairton residents. It is a perfect time for the Bears to share the pride with the community. This time the Pied Piper will not be George Woodman or Neil Brown, but head coach Tom Nola. The Bears have won the WPIAL in 2006 and again in 2008. Nothing breeds loyalty like victory. This year the Bears have several Division I potential players including Kevin Witherspoon, Deontae Howard, Eddie Ball, and Desimon Green. Word is that Kevin, who has caught 58 passes for about 1500 yards and 24 touchdowns has already committed to play for Pitt. The Bears are considered the class of their conference again this year and are picked to finish first.

Grandson with a horn: As mentioned, one of the Clairton staples has been their band and music support. The 1931 photo above of the CHS Bears was taken by Charlie Benack Studios, long the photographer of all things Clairton. In the late 1940s and 50s however, the owner’s son Benny showed phenomenal musical ability. Starting at age five he became one of the best known trumpeters in the area, playing Dixieland and Swing with the Riverboat Six, also known as the Iron City Six that provided the theme song for the 1960 Pirate’s World Championship team and was a regular musician at Steeler games. Benny was the band director at CHS who led the band to several award winning performances by adding high stepping and jazz routines to their repertoire.

Benny and his wife Gretchen had two sons and a daughter. Son Peek, or Benny Benack, Jr. is also an accomplished musician, playing the trumpet, clarinet, and saxophone. He leads the Benny Benack, Jr. Band which can be heard at

Third generation continues the tradition: Benny, Jr. married Claudia, now a classical pianist and professor of voice at Carnegie Mellon University, the school that Benny, Sr. attended. They had a son, Benny Benack III, now 18 and, no surprise here, an accomplished musician specializing in jazz trumpet. Benny III recently left home to attend college at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music on the Upper West Side – that’s in New York City for those of you who are geographically challenged. Benny III and proud Dad Benny II performed together this weekend at the Schenley Plaza in Oakland to celebrate Jazz Day at the Park. Benny III started taking classical piano lessons at age 5 but was a slacker compared to his late Grandpa. He did not start his trumpet playing until the second grade. Three generations of Benack musicians. Clairton roots run deep.

A little blogging music Maestro... The Clairton High School Fight Song.

Dr. Forgot

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Helping With the Language Barrier

G-20 Summit to be held in Pittsburgh
(Em guys gonna meet in Pixburg n-at)

A public Service Announcement: Next weekend the so-called G-20 Summit, more formally known as the Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, is scheduled to meet in Pittsburgh, PA. The summit will not only have an impact on the city itself but on surrounding communities, known as the Greater Pittsburgh Area. Many residents of the GPA speak colloquially. Therefore, in the interest of Political Correctness, today’s blog will attempt to guide residents of the GPA through some of the vernacular used by outsiders. Today’s blog will translate, paragraph by paragraph, news about the G-20 into Pittsburghese. So if you’re from Pittsburgh, Aspinwall, Baldwin, Beaver, Castle Shannon, Clairton, Crafton, Duquesne, Rankin, Moon, Mars, Swissvale, Coraopolis, Perryopolis or any other GPA location, this post could help you understand the foreigners – both international and New Yorkers - who will invade your Burgh.

Announcement and Press Release: The G-20 has announced it will hold this year’s Summit in the beautiful City of Pittsburgh. The downtown area is located at confluence of the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny Rivers. Weather can be tricky in Pittsburgh this time of year so invitees are encouraged to pack attire appropriate for a sudden chill or a sprinkle of rain. Participants are encouraged to sample the excellent local repast and beverages. Merchants will often prepare sack lunches filled with local delicacies for later consumption.

Da Suits are comin’: A whole bunch of foreign fellas is gonna flap their gums dahn by Point Park, along the Mon, the Ahia, n the Alley-gainey. If yinz go to see ‘em, bring yer babushkas cause it might get chilly er slippy. If the forners ain’t et (jeet yet?) air prolly gonna go ta Pimantis fer a sammich n a Arn City er some pop. Some of ‘em ‘ll buy a chipped ham sammich in a poke fer later.

More information from the G-20 Press Release: Visitors to this area, one of the most beautiful in Pennsylvania, are encouraged to explore. Visit the sights. The South Side is an area of interest with neat homes and unique businesses. The East Liberty area has some fine Italian restaurants. The Strip District with its wholesale area is a local’s delight. As you pass through surrounding communities you might see some local residents sitting on their front porches enjoying life.

If you are fortunate enough to be invited to a home of one of the locals from Moon, Turtle Creek, Slippery Rock, et. al. you might enjoy a local delicacy of skewered pork and veal cubes breaded and fried like chicken, or even a backyard barbecue. Locals drink tap water, not seltzer, and after dinner, plates and utensils are immediately washed. Local pantries are usually well stocked. But don’t just drop in without an invitation or you may be in trouble.

What else the foners ‘ll do: Most of ‘em ain’t been in Pensivania and they’re gonna be nebby. They’ll drive around tahn ‘n at. They’re gonna go see da Sahside, so be sure to redd up. They’re gonna go to Sliberty fer some sgetti. Er they might go dahn by the docks to da Strip. Sit aht on yer stoop to see da strangers.

If you meet one of these ferign fellas, bring him home fer some city chicken er a cookaht in the backyard. Give ‘em water straight from the spiket, n use yer warshrag to redd up the dishes after supper. Show ‘em the food in yer cubbert. But if they try to just pop in, they could be up a crik cause maybe you dittent go ta Foodland or Jynt Iggle yet.

Other highlights of Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh was once known as the Steel City. Their football team is named “Steelers,” even though U.S. Steel, J and L Steel, etc. are gone or now only shadows of their former selves. Take a ride on the streetcars for an hour or so. Be prompt though for if you’re running late, they won’t wait for you. Keep the tickets in a rubber band as souvenirs. Pittsburgh is a safe city. It is not pretentious. The most common dog breed is a mongrel.

More stuff ‘bout the Burgh: Piksburgh still has da Stillers, but Jaynell n at closed dahn. Go on da streecar fer an ahr er so, but if yer late they won’t wait on ya. Put a gummband around the tickets. Don’t be ascared in Picksburg. It ain’t uppity. Most dogs are Heinz 57 n at.

Final note to locals: As you can see, there’s gonna be a whole bunch a strangers in tahn next week – maybe a hunnert thousan. They’ll be driving rented Chiys n at, so be careful if ur on the Bulvard Dallies or da Parkway er in Carnaygee. Use ur blinkers n be as careful as if ur drivin a baby buggy. Don’t be ignernt to em er a jagoff n at. Get some kranz an make some “Welcome” signs. If ur in the park share the sliding board with em. If they sit at ur table in the park, skootch over for em. Maybe even buy em a sno-cone. And don’t let them know you feel sorry for them ‘cause when they get back home they won’t have Klondikes, jumbo sammiches, lightning bugs, jagger bushes, er a decent caach to sit on. They don’t know who Marn Cope was or da Bus and probly never saw Bill Caher coach da Stillers. Listen to yer Mum when she tells you to be nice or you’ll get a lickin. Make sure all da forners go home with good memories. Dats it. Fort Pitt.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Pennsylvania Polka” by Frankie Yankovic.

Dr. Forgot

Friday, September 4, 2009

Labor Day and Clairton

Take every car in America end to end and you have Labor Day

Labor Day Weekend: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Labor Day was first celebrated in New York, September 5, 1882. By 1884 the first Monday in September became the designated day to honor the workers of our country. Over the next 125+ year’s celebration of the holiday has changed from picnics in inner-city parks to family gatherings and backyard barbecues.

Last holiday of summer: Labor Day is the last long holiday of the summer season and families with children often take advantage of the extra long weekend to visit family. In recent years more than 40 million Americans have taken to the highways, air, rail, and other means of transport – over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house they go. But this year the recession has AAA predicting that a mere 39.1 million will travel more than 50 miles. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a long cold winter so enjoy the last days of summer and the fall, then batten down your hatches.

Tragedy in Clairton: This Labor Day weekend also brings news of tragedy to a community that was born and built upon the backs of labor. Clairton, PA is a frequent topic of this blog. We have reviewed the history of the community and the various transitions it has encountered from being Indian country, to mostly rural farmland, to small businesses then the rise and fall of the giant steel industry. We’ve discussed the immigrants from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, as well as African Americans who came to work in the thriving steel mills and coke works. There was occasional labor unrest and even a little political corruption, but as the song says, “Even the bad times were good.”

Not-so-stainless steel turns to rust: The halcyon days of Clairton eventually passed as many of her sons and daughters went off to school and work and war, and far too many only returned to visit aging parents. As one mill after another closed its rusted doors Clairton joined so many other cities in the area, particularly those up and down the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers in becoming part of the rust belt. One of the few beacons of hope that stood tall as its neighbors eroded back into the earth was Clairton Works. Using outdated equipment that earned Clairton and neighbor Glassport the distinction of being two of the top four polluting localities in the U.S. the Clairton Works limped along. Promises for a multimillion dollar upgrade that would result in the emission of cleaner air and added jobs, became one more broken promise to the City of Prayer.

Please, give us something, anything to cheer about: As the population of Clairton declined so did the school population. Clairton High School, once a powerhouse in sports from football to swimming, and having spawned students to at least three neighboring schools shrank in size and prestige. The town became known, perhaps unfairly, as a haven for thugs, druggies, and welfare cases. The older generation that occupied so many classic brick homes died off or moved into senior care facilities and their homes often sat vacant for years as real estate values plummeted. But the football team, known for its tough play, continued to be a source of pride. Even the Midget teams that a few years ago went a total of 24-0 were banned from the playoffs. The Clairton High School football team last year won the WPIAL and went on to state to lose a heartbreaker. Clairton still had its two proud assets: Bears football and the Clairton Coke Works. The latter employs about 1,000, many of whom are Clairton residents.

Clairton Coke Works Tragedy: Nick Ravetta was a young man with deep Clairton roots. He was the son of the late Adrian Ravetta who grew up in Sylvania Heights just above Woodland Terrace and Patricia Ravetta. Nick had lived in Clairton until a year and a half ago when he and he and his wife Maureen and family moved to nearby Pleasant Hills. He did not work for U.S. Steel but for a company that did maintenance work in various industrial sites. Power Piping Company, headquartered in nearby Lawrenceville specializes in installing industrial pipes and high-pressure equipment. This particular job at the Clairton Coke Works had workers doing maintenance in a gas cleaning part of the mill. The process of making coke from coal includes a baking process. Hot gasses from that process are transferred through pipes. It was in that area that the Mr. Ravetta and a colleague were working at the time of the incident. Hot gasses are a byproduct of the coke-making process. After the coke is processed it is an essential element in the making of steel. The explosion started a fire that burned through the tin roof of the Coke Works. Nicholas lost his life and at this writing there is no report of the condition of his fellow worker who was injured, nor was the name of that co-worker released.

A tribute to a father and husband: According to neighbors, Nick was a loving father who spent most of his free time puttering around the house, doing landscaping, and fixing up a play area for his two children, ages 3 and 1. Our most sincere sympathies extend to Nick’s immediate and extended family.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Bang the Drum Slowly” from the song “Streets of Laredo.

Dr. Forgot