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

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