Sunday, October 31, 2010

Building Blocks of Clairton

Clairton Police Department: Keeping your grandparents safe in 1948.
Left to Right FRONT ROW: Albert Ihnat, Joseph Soltis, Joseph Frickanish, Chief Pete Orsini, Raymond Eichler, Ralph Cole, Tony Katish
SECOND ROW: Eddie Johnson, Vernon Presley, Alex Chester, Chuck Hoff, Leo O’Donnell, Sarge Fiore, Vince Ross, Pete Maskin
THIRD ROW: Bernard Busch, Charlie George, Mike Lutheran, Sam Myford, Bruce Ackinclose, Salem Greene, George Trocheck

Regular season ends: The Bears ended their regular season and the final score was: Clairton 483, Opponents total 19. The amazing CHS football squad finished their undefeated regular season having scored 60 or more points in four of their nine games. The fewest points scored, 41, came against Little Washington which plays in a bigger league than Clairton. It is true that our hometown has had some setbacks and encountered many changes over the past half century or so, but football tradition lives. We salute Coach Nola, his staff, and the entire football squad. Job well done! Now on to the playoffs. Season results below:

Date Opponent Time/Result
Fri., Sep 3 at Washington W41 - 0
Fri., Sep 10 Western Beaver W55 - 6
Fri., Sep 17 at Carlynton W60 - 6
Fri., Sep 24 Chartiers-Houston W48 - 0
Fri., Oct 1 at Avella W60 - 0
Fri., Oct 8 Bentworth W60 - 0
Fri., Oct 15 at Brentwood W52 - 0
Fri., Oct 22 Fort Cherry W42 - 7
Fri., Oct 29 at Serra Catholic W60 - 0

Passing of a giant: We mentioned former CHS football coach Pat Risha in a prior post and cited some of the challenges that he’s had during his career as an educational administrator. The local media produced several stories that were critical of some of his dealings and those articles led to an ethics probe of the superintendent of three different area school districts. It is clear Mr. Risha had both supporters and detractors, but one cannot deny the impact he had in so many different arenas within the field of Education. From his start as a substitute Phys. Ed. teacher at Clairton High School to his tenure as a successful coach, to his ventures (and adventures) into local politics, business, and education; Mr. Risha was a difference maker. Pat Risha passed away last week of an apparent heart attack. West Mifflin Superintendent Janet Sardon, who replaced Risha was quoted as saying, "He was one of the best superintendents this region has ever seen. Every decision, every program he put in place, everything he did was always surrounded by the best interests of kids." Rest in Peace Pat Risha.

Clairton doctor: We have written in blogs past about one of Clairton’s family physicians, Dr. Eugene Cutuly. He was our family doctor for most of my youth, and after I left home, he continued as both family friend and doctor of my parents. My father died at age 87 and my mother passed away in her ninety-first year. Dr. Cutuly was their doctor until they died, and he was five years older than they were! If you search his name in the box on the upper left of this blog, you will find past blogs that we’ve written about Dr. Cutuly.

An unassuming, understated rebel: The Cutuly’s eldest daughter Joan and I shared classes and Sadie Hawkins dances as well as other CHS experiences. We were classmates. Joan became a teacher first at CHS, then at other schools and at some point moved to Las Vegas where she taught High School English. She was more than the typical English teacher, she was a teacher on a mission to teach and reach all students – gang members, honor students, limited English speakers, and every other high school student who wandered into her classroom. Her methods were unique and groundbreaking as she used the teaching of writing skills as problem solving strategies. She became a very successful award-winning teacher, recognized in the fast-growing school district as one of the best. In fact she became so successful that her unorthodox methods, although successful, threatened the traditional administration. The administration pressured her to replace those unorthodox albeit successful teaching techniques for the more traditional ones that ironically resulted in lower achievement and higher dropout rates! Joan wrote a book which was published by the National Council of Teachers of English, entitled “Home of the Wildcats: Perils of an English Teacher”

Joan was branded a radical by school officials – a round peg in a square profession; the buttons figuratively ripped from her soldier uniform and her sword broken. She was driven from the corps of teaching and those who drove her out were rewarded with cash bonuses. But she soldiered on. Bent but not broken she was driven from the desert to the sea coast where she rested, recuperated, then regrouped. She came to terms with many issues in her life and published a second book, “Prisoner of Second Grade.”

In her own words: In the introduction of her second book Joan describes herself in the following way, “I was more of a poet at heart than a teacher. By poet, I don’t mean simply a lover of metaphor but rather one who breathes for the day when truth turns power structures into flowers. It’s this latter trait that in so many oppressive regimes has earned poets a reputation for being nettlesome.”

Joan Cutuly has begun a new phase of writing. Inspired by an obnoxious but lovable seagull, she has put together a wonderful blog site called the Gulliver Initiative. Its purpose is to create better schools through art, humanity, and reason. I encourage you to visit the web site at If you don’t find as fascinating as I did, I’ll refund your money. (just kidding – its free). Joan Cutuly, Clairton gal.

Finally, we have a question for readers of this blog. We have seen many references to Club 46 in Clairton (image above). There is even a logo on a facebook page. This seems to be a community activity that is hosted by the volunteer fire department and hosts dances, fish frys, and other community activities. So we are sending out a research request to all blog readers; please tell us about Club 46 and we will post the information in a future blog.

A little blogging music maestro, “Paperback Writer” by The Beatles

Monday, October 25, 2010

Clairton football, etc.

Clairton: City of Prayer and Stalwart People

Lancaster’s Grand Dame: We’ve written before about the amazing Lancaster family of Clairton. Type Amazing Lancasters in the blank space in the upper right corner of this blog (just to the left of the word share), click on the magnifying glass icon and that post will appear. Elmer Rowan Lancaster and Dorothy Pauline Cooley were married back in the days when men were men and women were happy about it. They moved into a humble home n what was then called Woodland Terrace. Ron was the first born and would go on to become the most famous through the medium of football – a hall of fame player, coach, and sportscaster in Canada. After Ron there followed a passel of kids to include Jean, Allen, Marvin, Carol, Bill, Betty, Dorothy, Janet and Shelby. But every Lancaster child after Ron might have not become if not famous in all of North America although each became fine examples of what kind, generous, successful people should be.

The scion of the family passed away in 1999 at the age of 83. Three of the four boys, Allen, Marvin, and most recently Ron, have passed away as well. But Mother Hen Dorothy keeps on keeping on even at age 92. Oh, she might not have quite the spring in her step as she once did (she now does most of her traveling in a wheelchair due to a hip problem) she still is a diehard football fan, and that means the Clairton Bears. For more than half a century Dorothy Lancaster attended every Bears home game and a few away games as well. Her four sons were all Bear players. Her six daughters were also HoneyBears and cheerleaders. In fact, Dorothy has been watching Bear football since she was a child. Clairton’s football team is undefeated this year and took the state championship last year. Part of the reason is great talent. Part of the reason is great coaching, and part of the reason is great fan support from Ms. Lancaster anad the Clairton High School boosters. RAH!

Speaking of Clairton football: The Bears played Fort Cherry last Friday. It was senior night and the team started out a little sluggish. The opponents actually launched a nine-play 75 yard drive to go ahead of CHS by a score of 7-0. Then the Bears came out of hibernation, shook off much of the lethargy, and scored the next 42 points. Final score: 42-7. Running total for the year: Bears 423 – Opponents 19.

Adding insult to injury: The Bentworth High School football was not looking forward to their game with Clairton. CHS was a powerhouse. A juggernaut that chewed up its opponents and spit them out, and BHS was not particularly strong this year. But off they went like sheep to a slaughter and indeed it was a 52-0 slaughter. That would have been bad enough, but when they returned to their locker room they discovered it had been burglarized. Seems a replacement custodian who had worked that night did not realize the door should have been locked and some thieves took advantage... a crime of opportunity. Clairton Superintendent Lucille Abellonio said the district will compensate the Bentworth players and staff after a final inventory of stolen items has been completed.

Where’s the fire: Clairton fire chief John Lattanzi, a 22-year fire department veteran, made about $40,000 per year. Not an exorbitant amount for a fire chief, but a bit rich for the struggling Clairton budget. So next year when the new budget goes into effect the fire chief position will be relegated to volunteer status and the money that had been the salary will go into the general fund. The rest of the firemen are volunteers.

Thar’s gold in them thar rolling hills: Between the Clairton turnoff and the Blue Flame on route 51, there is a turnoff for the Expressway that will meander down to West Virginia. The toll booth on Rte. 43 collects four bits (that’s 50 cents in western talk). And West Virginia wants their piece of the action so they recently passed legislation to collect a toll on their side of the highway. When the WVA portion of the highway opens next spring there will be a toll booth to collect a buck a car - $4 for trucks. Fewer than 4 miles of the 75 mile expressway lie in West Virginia. Keep a cache of quarters in that cup holder.

A personal memory: I’ll close today’s blog with a personal memory of Clairton. I grew up on the last block of St. Clair Ave. There was no Ravensburg Bridge and the road from Rite Aid (nee Gumbles Chevrolet) onward was unpaved. It was an ash road, covered with residue from the mill that was pulverized into dust as cars drove over it. In the summer tar was spread over the pulverized ashes which kept the dust down but drove our mothers crazy as the kids tracked tar into the house.

There were only a few boys in that last block; Louie (who died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 13 or so) and Butchie (who has spent most of his life behind bars for bank robbery and assorted other charges) and me. Johnny and Kenny were little twerps too young to hang with the big kids.

The last house on the street belonged to Mr. and Mrs. G. They had no children and she was a grandmotherly type from whose lips came the sweetest words – until Mr. G. came home drunk – which was nightly. Then she would unleash a litany curses at him that would make a sailor blush.

My good friend Carol who was Louie’s sister, along with little sister Sassy, and I would often watch Mr. G come home after a hard day of working and drinking. He would aim his panel truck at the open door of the one-car garage then BOOM! He’d hit the side. Then he’d back up, take aim again and head into the garage… BOOM! He’d hit the other side. All the time Mrs. G. would be shouting vulgar curses at her drunken husband. The ritual would continue until he was finally able to navigate the truck into the garage. Across the street, through the picture window, we would howl with laughter each time he missed the garage. There was little concern in those days about the perils of drunken driving and indeed Mr. G. lost his life when he presumably misjudged the onset of a bridge and drove his truck over a cliff. The days of innocence were not without tragedy.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Those Were the Days,” by Mary Hopkin.
Dr. Forgot

Sunday, October 17, 2010

You've gotta love Clairton!

First a word about the Clairton Bears…

Game # 7 - Brentwood: Thanks to the many readers who keep me apprised of Clairton area happenings, particularly Cal Sabo who is usually first with the Bear news. Last Friday the unbeaten Bears put their streak on the line against a strong 4-1 Brentwood team and quarterback Cory Bauer, one of WPIAL’s top rated passers. The result? The QB completed two of 16 passes for a total of minus two yards and four interceptions. The entire Brentwood team could not manage a single first down and ended the game with minus six yards total. So how did our lads do offensively? Josh Page, Desimon Green, Brandon Small and Tyler Boyd all scored touchdowns… BEFORE THE GAME WAS TEN MINUTES OLD!!! Boyd netted 106 yards and two touchdowns ON THREE CARRIES! The Bear defense forced turnovers on three of Brentwood’s first six plays. Final score: Clairton 52, Brentwood 0. For the season: Clairton 381, Opponents 12. The Brentwood coach shook his head and said, “I’ve never seen a team like that.”

There was one scary moment in the game when Pitt recruit Desimon Green, after he had made two sacks and batted down five passes, made a tackle that left him lying on the turf. He was removed from the field to a hospital in an ambulance. But coach Nola reports that the move was precautionary and Desimon is fine.

Clairton coaches and politics: Coach Nola is being carried around on a throne as though he was a genius. But a few short years ago he was being vilified over – shoes! As Dinah Washington (wife of football great Frank “Night Train” Lane) used to croon, “What a Difference a Day Makes.” So it is for Patrick Risha, successful Clairton football coach from the 1980s. He left gridiron for another field – educational administration, and became Superintendent of South Allegheny, McKeesport Area, and West Mifflin Area. Just as his Bears teams won on the field, several teams of businesses won contracts in his school districts – but not without lawsuits and controversy. There have been allegations that school district employees were directed to do work on the homes of his son as well as a school board member on company time. Controversy also followed his tenure in which favored companies submitted low bids for work, then billed the district substantially more by implementing “change orders” that nearly tripled the cost of the project.

Controversy began to swirl around Coach Risha then he was assistant superintendent at South Allegheny. He and a cousin were appointed to the Port Authority board. Soon there were allegations of bid fixing, but the controversy didn’t hurt his professional status as he was soon named superintendent of the school district. He left that position under pressure but with a negotiated $325,000 settlement. He and the attorney who had negotiated the settlement moved on to McKeesport as superintendent and school district counsel respectively. He then moved on to West Mifflin where the same attorney was solicitor. Between 2005 and 2009 the attorney’s firm collected nearly $ 1 million from McKeesport and West Mifflin school districts. In 2009 Superintendent Risha, who by then was working from home, resigned shortly after school board elections saw his supporters defeated by his antagonists. Reports continue to circulate that the 60-year old former superintendent and Clairton football coach is being investigated by the State Ethics Commission.

Same family; different controversy: Coach Risha’s son, Patrick, is neither a coach nor a school superintendent. Rather he is a businessman who, along with relatives of two officials of the Clairton Municipal Authority, started a business and came up with a clever and fascinating scheme that turns water into wine – well, not literally. The firm, Green Disposal, was formed in 2009 and two months later bumped 146-year old CNX Gas Corporation to become the designated firm to dump tainted water from shale gas extracting (fracking) into Clairton’s Mon Valley sanitation plant.

Here’s how it works: Green Disposal pays Clairton 6.5 cents per gallon to accept wastewater from the fracking process, and treat it at the plant located at “Peters Creek Bottoms” near State Street before it flows into Peters Creek and the Monongahela River. Once Green Disposal got the contract to treat the water, it contracted with CNX (yes, the same firm they edged out to get the Clairton contract) to allow CNX to deposit its waste water into the Clairton plant. Result? Green Disposal gets paid by CNX to allow CNX to dump tainted fracking water through the Clairton waste water treatment plant. Green Disposal then pays Clairton 6.5 cents per gallon to allow the water to be cleaned at the plant. The contract between Green Disposal and CNX is private so we do not know how much profit Green Disposal makes without ever touching the tainted water. But Clairton stands to make nearly $ 700,000 in the deal this year alone! And Green Disposal? They’ve already moved on to the West Mifflin Sanitary Sewer Municipal Authority and signed a contract with them. To paraphrase an old mining adage, “Thar’s gold in that there water!”

A labor of love: John Hodish loves his hometown. Born and raised in Clairton, he not only chooses to remain, but is on a campaign to improve the City. He led a recent March to Washington to raise the awareness of the plight of Clairton, seek political help, and raise funds on behalf of the City. John heads the Clairton Community Outreach Program (CCOP) that has formed many partnerships and outlets for Clairton residents in need (see photo above). Their Gospel Choir is going strong and the boxing club boasts the fifth ranked boxer in the nation, Samantha Griffith. Much of the help has come from ordinary folks, some from extraordinary ones like State Committeewoman Ruth Pastore, whose Crime Watch program works hand-in-hand with CCOP. As an offshoot of the Crime Watch program John and his volunteers are starting a program to address domestic abuse of women and children. They hope to eventually offer temporary shelter for abuse victims. I remember ex-Clairtonian the late Alex Ross making a plea at a class reunion. He said, “We need to give back – to help our city. We need to show it that some of us may have moved away, but we have not abandoned Clairton.” I encourage every reader of this blog to contact John Hodish at Send him an email and ask how you can help your hometown.

A little blogging music Maestro… “HELP!” by the Beatles.

Dr. Forgot

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Disappearing Traditions

Clairton High School… Home of the ????

Clairton and sports: Clairton residents have always loved their sports. The photo above is of a baseball team that represented Clairton Works. It comes from Jim Hartman of the Mifflin Township Historical Society and is courtesy of former Clairton resident Betsy Banzen. I’m not sure if the Clairton Works baseball team had a mascot name such as the Cokers, Cobras or even the Bears, but the photo shows that sports has always been and continues to be an integral part of the fabric of proud Clairtonians. High school sports have dominated in Clairton since 1914, nearly 100 years ago. The football stadium, dedicated in 1930, saw a tradition begin of residents lining the streets to watch a parade comprised of the band and other groups march from the high school up Miller Avenue to the stadium. Such rich traditions and sports teams have stood through good times and bad in our hometown.

Bears continue to be victorious: The Clairton High School Bear football team defense has had a difficult season so far. Western Beaver and Chartiers-Houston each scored six points against them. Of course the offense scored 55 and 60 points respectively in those games. Coach Nola must have had a talk with the defense because no team has crossed the CHS goal line since. Total points in the six victories so far this season: CHS: 329, Opponents: 12. The regular season still has four more games to go. We will keep you posted. But an ominous cloud might be hanging over Clairton High School and we don’t mean pollution from the mill that has given our city the fourth most dangerous air in the U.S. According to a recent Post-Gazette article by Brian David, there are rumblings that CHS might close and the district merged with another.

Dying tradition: In the article, David begins by talking about the Monaca High Indians, a team that CHS defeated a couple of years ago while en route to the State Championship playoffs. Monaca is an Ohio River town located several miles past the Greater Pittsburgh Airport. It is similar in size and history to Clairton; populated by many ethnic Eastern Europeans who worked in the area J&L steel mills and other industries. Monaca high School sent many of its athletes on to become successful in life. Basketball star Terry Evans became a noted physician; Three-sport star athlete Steve Rudish became a school principal, and many others were successful. The success of Monaca High grads is similar in many ways to that of CHS grads. But a funny thing happened on the way to continued success of Monaca High School. It closed. Dwindling enrollment in the school after the mills closed, the young people moved away, and the old people died caused the local school board to merge their school with Center Area High School and the Monaca Indians were blended into the team now known as the Central Valley Warriors. Football games are now played at Center’s old stadium, not far from the old Monaca High stadium.

One of the saddest losses of tradition when Monaca High School closed was the annual Bridge game between Monaca and its cross-river rival Rochester. The prize was naming rights to the bridge that spans the Ohio River between the two towns. If the Indians won, it would be the Monaca-Rochester Bridge for the next year. If the Rams won, it would be the Rochester-Monaca Bridge. Now it has one name on one end and the other name on the other -- and it will stay that way.

Could a similar fate await the might Clairton Bears? Some say that shrinking student numbers and shrinking tax revenue portend potential doom to many communities steeped in tradition. Those mentioned that could be merged include Aliquippa, Rochester, Monessen, Brentwood, Bethlehem-Center and Clairton. School board president Richard Livingston was quoted in the David article as saying, "Eventually, down the road, we're going to have to face facts." Mayor Richard Lattanzi was even more morose in his comments, saying, "If we would lose our school, our football team, a big part of our identity would be gone," I'd compare it to when U.S. Steel closed down."

School Board President Livingston, who is a teacher in a district outside Clairton, captures the essence of Clairton football when he describes how retirees show up to watch practices, churches schedule fish fries around home games, and locals know all the players by their first name. Those are Clairton traditions that have been going on for more than half a century. Banners that announce the Bears State Championship hang in businesses throughout town, City Hall, and the mayor’s office. However, with an entire student body of 840 and falling, and with test scores among the lowest in the area, keeping the football traditions of winning teams and game parades could be ominous.

Similar but not identical: If Clairton High School is forced into a merger they will be dragged kicking and screaming into it. Not so with Monaca. Their merger was done voluntarily; something that has not been replicated. There is, however, pending legislation to make school districts county-wide, as exists in Nevada and other states. Gov. Ed Rendell has suggested that the current 500 school districts in Pennsylvania be reduced to 100. There are advantages to such changes. Monaca children now attend newer schools with improved curriculum and better technology. When Monaca and Central merged the result to Central Valley was a $1 million savings from operating two districts independently.

If Clairton were to merge, who would the logical partner be? Some suggest Jefferson Borough and Thomas Jefferson High School. Others say Elizabeth Forward, West Mifflin, or even other river communities that were former mill towns. Two things are certain; that the merger would not be voluntary, and that the rich traditions that have made Clairton football an iconic even to local residents for nearly 100 years will be lost.

A little blogging music Maestro... “American Pie” by Don McLean.

Dr. Forgot