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


ben said...

gr8 story.....very authentic. I'll make sure other CLAIRTONIANs get hip. BENNY

Anonymous said...

This brings back many memories for an old Clairtonian.(smile)Benny Benack #1 was my band director along with his assistant-Mr. Bertini. And don't forget Mr. Rutillio Rotilli- our beloved orchestra director.Thank you for reminding us that there was a time when Clairton was a city that took pride in its schools, its educational endeavors,its sports, and its musicianship.This is what I like hearing.

Sharon said...

Thanks for posting all of this. It's quite fascinating to a former Clairtonian who now resides near Washington, DC. I'm sad when I make my trips home, seeing what has become of Clairton. Crime and drugs have overshadowed its former glory. There must be some way to make some changes to preserve Clairton. It was a wonderful place to grow up in the 50s and 60s (when I did) but I feel bad for the children there now. What can we collectively do?

Joey Niklas said...

aweseome article man... great job