Saturday, January 28, 2012

Catching Up Clairton

HAIL TO THE HEROES: In case you have been living in a cave, (or just because I like hearing the sound of it)Our Clairton High School Bears football team recently won an unprecedented three-peat. That is, they won their third state championship as well as having set enough records to require a new record book. Bravo.

Last year we placed a call to CHS alumni as well as other boosters and those who just admire the accomplishments of the little high school that could. The results were fantastic, as the goal was exceeded which allowed for the purchase of new game jerseys. Super Bear fan and CHS alum Bev Alcorn recent sent me an email reminder that read in part: “We are asking all of the CHS Alumni, fans, friends, and family to help raise the money for the Championship Rings for the Clairton Bears as we did last year. Please send your donations to: Sue Wessel, 512 N. 6th Street, Clairton, Pa 15025. Please make your checks payable to the Clairton Athletic Champions Club.”

The Clairton Athletic Champions Club is also selling Clairton Bears Sweatshirts for $25.00 s-xl, & $30.00 1x-3x. If you are interested, please drop me an email at and I’ll forward it to Sue.

BEARS STILL SHINE: In case you missed it, Steeler media did a summary of the Championship Game. Click on the link to enjoy:

Eagle-eye CHS alum Ed Sowa caught an item of another example of CHS recognition by the Steelers. In a Daily News article by Michael DiVittorio, “Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and Clairton City School District junior Carlton Dennis will be featured as part of an upcoming documentary.” Divittorio goes on to explain that USA Network will do aa series beginning Feb. 10 entitled “NFL Characters Unite,” a series designed to help students deal with racism, bullying, and other forms of abuse. Featured will be Steeler great Hines Ward and CHS junior Carlton Dennis. Ward, the MVP of Super Bowl XL, spent time at CHS having lunch with the students, attending an assembly, and spending time with Carlton. The future of Clairton belongs to the next generation. They are working hard to capture it.

A video has been circulating on the internet regarding a tremendous accident in Pittsburgh. Carl Blackburn and Putzie Martin, both of whom sent me the item ask, “Why didn’t we learn about this in school?” Simple. They were absent that day. Enjoy this bit of history:

WHAT’S HAPPENING TODAY AT CHS: The best thing about CHS alumni is they do not forget where they came from and strive to make things better for current students. Dr. Pauline Long and a host of other graduates have been meeting regularly to mentor CHS undergrads. Yours truly was honored to take part in the December meeting in which several successful alumni shared their secrets of success. Dr. Long shared the following synopsis of the most recent meeting:

Reaching the Reachable Mentoring program
“We had another successful and I call it fun day with primarily 11 & 12th grade students at CHS in the Library. The THEME of "Dare to Dream" was exemplified by two entrepreneurs with businesses in Clairton. Peggy Price of Peggy Price Dance Studios and Karen George of KAG Signworks both gave talks about how they started their business. Peggy has been in business for 33 years and Karen for 21. Janella Hamlin director of Youth Places and an Educator concluded the program with a talk about "Living your Dream". She mentioned several deceased coaches and classmates that did not make it to realize their dreams, but encouraged those in the audience that we as alumni mentors were here to help them realize theirs. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Erhlich explained how the Reaching the Reachable Mentoring program fit in with the larger Educational program that CHS is having in a schematic that included MAPS. She announced that there would be several other programs in February where the Alumni where encouraged to participate and speak to the students about their careers.. Feb. 14, Feb. 17 and Feb. 29, 2012.

Toni Schley, Terrence Fort, Ebony Howard, Sean Thomas and Dr. Long were also present. A special thank you to Jaleah Webb for her dance demonstration...with Peggy Price... we're looking forward to another presentation of Feb. 17, 2012.”

CLAIRTON MUSIC: Many alumni remember the sweet strains of Benny Benack and his coronet. The CHS music teacher became an icon not only in our community but in Pittsburgh where he played for Steeler and Pirate games, including the year the Bucs won the World Series. Benny Benack, Jr. inherited his father’s passion for music and education and although he did as many gigs as he wanted, Jr. got a degree from Duquesne and is today a bank vice-president. But he passed the passion and discipline on to his son, Benny Benack III, is now age 21 and currently playing various concerts around Pittsburgh. He’s a pretty darn good trumpet player and singer from what I hear.

A little blogging music Maestro… “When the Saints Come Marching Home.” By the Bennys Benack

Dr. Forgot

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Black phone, dial phone, pay phone, cell phone

Is this the party to whom I am speaking?: After I received a telephone call I began thinking today.... that alone can be dangerous, But I began to think about the telephone anad how much it has changed since I was a wee wee tot when my mother put me on a wee wee pot to see if I'd wee wee or not.

One ring or two: My earliest recollections of a phone in the house was a black model with no dial or buttons. If you wanted to make a call you'd pick up the phone and a pleasant female voice would say, "Number, please." And you would tell her the two or three digit number of the place you were calling and she'd ring it. You could tell if the call ws meant for you by the number of rings.

Sometimes you'd pick up the telephone and somebody would already be carrying on a conversation. The proper thing to do would be to hang up but if the conversation seemed juicy or interesting you'd listen silently so they did not know you were on the line. Such a thing was possible because a private phone line (nobody else was on your line) was more expensive than a party line that could have several people on the same line but of course only one at a time could use it. If there was an emergency or if you had to make an urgent phone call you'd politely ask those using the party line to hang up so you could use it. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't.

Remember, during this era, post WW-!! most homeowners had lived through the Great Depression and were very frugal. The phone was an expense that was new to their budget so people often took the least expensive option - the party line.

Progress: Soon the antiquated black phones were replaced by phones with dials on the front. More people opted for private lines and you could pick up a phone, listen for the tone and dial the three digit number of the party whom you were calling. You could play tricks with the phone too. For example, instead of dialing the number two, you could hit the hang up button twice quickly. Ditto the number one, three, etc. But soon that trick became impractical as more private lines cam on board and an exchange was added. In my town of Clairton the exchange was CL3. Later the phone company found that multiple cities on the same exchange caused confusion so the city names were replaced with other exchange names. Clairton's CL3 became Belmont or BE3, and eventually simply 233 and the letters on the dial phone were ignored.

The pay phone: Many businesses provided pay phones for their customers. A nickel was inserted into the phone to get a dial tone. Later the rate went up to a dime then 20 cents and finally a quarter. When the pay phones cost a quarter for a call a famous gaffe occurred by a president when he asked one of his staff for a nickel to use the phone in a business he was touring. The media made a big thing about how out of touch he was.

The standard became three minute intervals and if you exceeded the time limit the operator would come on and say, "Your three minutes are up, please signal when through." That meant after the call was completed the operator would calculate how much additional money was required. It worked on the honor system, which usually became, "You've got the honor.... we've got the system." After the call was completed the caller would simply skip out leaving the phone ringing in a futile effort to reach the caller to let them know the additional charges. The phone company, aka Ma Bell, soon figured out that rather than trusting that they'd get paid when the call was completed, they could interrupt the call each three minutes and require additional payment in advance.

If you did not have a coin to put into the pay phone you could dial "O" for free and an operator would come on the line. You would tell her the number you wanted to call and the call would be "collect" or "reverse the charges" which meant the recipient of the call would pay for it on their next bill. You could also call for whoever answered (station to station) or ask for a specific individual (person to person), the latter was a more expensive call but if the person was unavailable there was no charge. Many a serviceman and college kid figured out that by going to a pay phone and calling home person to person and asking for himself, he could let his parents know he'd arrived safely and the call would be free.

No respect: Pay phones became the target of all sorts of shenanigans in an effort to make free calls or relieve the phone of some of its booty that previous callers had left. Sometimes a pay phone would malfunction and at the end of the call coins would drop into the coin return. Other times a person could trick the phone into thinking money had been deposited. This would work by opening a paper clip and inserting one end into the speaker holes until it touched the metal disc inside. The other end of the paper clip would touch a metal part of the phone and voila! A free local call. Others would tape record coins falling into the phone then when making a call, play the tape into the phone and the phone would "think" it had been paid. Then there was the "blue box," a contraption made famous by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It simulated sounds that allowed a person to make long instance calls for free. But the coup de gras for any young person was to stop as he passed each pay phone and check the coin return for one that might have been forgotten by a previous user. Kids today will never be able to enjoy that thrill.

Phone booths were a part of Americana whether for trying to cheat them, using them for their intended purposes, finding a coin in the return, or having a place for Superman to change clothes. But there are rarely found today.

Button, button whose got the button? In 1965 I moved to Pocatello, Idaho. All phones were dial phones then. When I went to arrange for a phone to be put in my house I was asked if I wanted to take part in a pilot study. A handful of small communities around America had been chosen by Ma Bell to try out a revolutionary new phone - one with no dial but buttons instead. I agreed and whenever I called friends or family across the country and told them my phone was a push button, they thought I was kidding.

Today Ma Bell is long gone, phone booths are extinct and pay phones are rare. Many homes have given up their land lines. We have come so far with telephone technology. But have we really? From the party line to the dial phone to the pay phone to the push button I can never once remember having a dropped call!

A little blogging music Maestro, "If the Phone Doesn't Ring, That'd be Me."

Dr. Forgot

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Clairton Heroes

Our Own Dandy Don

Don Taylor was a medium height skinny kid who lived at the upper end of Farnsworth Avenue near Malmady Village, the temporary housing built for returning WW-II GIs. He had a great personality and a penchant for music so he took part in the famous Clairton High School Marching Band during the 1940s. He reflects on his days in the marching band and how what goes around comes around.

Says Taylor, "In 1946, the band was all set to parade up Miller Avenue but the person to carry the American flag was sick. Since I was undoubtedly the worst trombone player to ever play in the band, I volunteered to carry the flag. Sixty years later, CHS celebrated its 100th anniversary with a gigantic parade over a mile long walk from the school to the stadium. Among the participants were people from the past. Leading the parade and carrying the flag was the oldest participant -- yours truly and wearing the shako, plume and pants from 1946! Who would have thought when I was 16 that 60 years later I would have that same honor!"

Whatever Don did was done with flair – not the braggadocio kind, but the kind of flair that set him apart from the rest of the pack. And he was very loyal to his high school even after graduation. In fact, when he finished college, Don returned to Clairton to teach at his alma mater.

Don Taylor the band member became Mr. Taylor the teacher but he did not lose his flair. He became part of the history that he taught and soon was one of the most popular teachers at Clairton High School. It was a two-way street. Just as his students were inspired by and devoted to him, Mr. Taylor put every ounce of his knowledge and personality into his teaching. To this day, mention the name of a student and chances are he will be able to tell you that student’s strengths, what s/he did after graduation and where s/he sat in his classroom. Don Taylor continued to be an asset to CHS until his retirement and beyond. He’s been a tremendous supporter of academics and athletics at the school. But teaching at CHS was just his day job.

After the sun set Don would head out across Ravensburg Bridge and up 885 to the Community College of Allegheny County where he again became one of the favorite faculty members on the campus. Together (high school and college) he taught for nearly six decades, 44 of which were at Community College of Allegheny County. All together he reached some 10,000 students. He would reach them with his interesting lectures but also by getting into the characters about which he taught – literally. While serving as Chair of the department he assumed his teaching duties in uniform – he would sometimes dress as the characters of whom he taught and never failed to spice up his lectures with little-known factoids about figures and events. For example, when he lectured on the Old West and General George Armstrong Custer, “Two-gun Taylor” would don a Wyatt Earp vest, a Dodge City badge, cowboy hat and boots, and strap a replica Colt .45 Peacemaker to his hip.

Don felt ownership to CCAC as he and 16 others started the local campus using West Mifflin Middle School as their first venue. The following year the venue was changed to a condemned elementary school building in McKeesport and in 1973 moved to the current location in West Mifflin. Besides teaching and serving as an administrator, the professor wrote curriculum and prepared his own “Taylor Made” exams for his courses. Professor Mr. Taylor might have had 80 birthdays but his energy level and commitment to Clairton and education has never aged. Don Taylor, Clairton boy.

BEARS STILL SHINE: Bill Bennett played football at CHS and Rutgers and although he’s spend most of his adult life in California and Arizona, he remains close to CHS and the athletic program, particularly the academic side of the program. Bill arranged for a couple dozen CHS 1960 alumni to have a tailgate in the Hershey football field parking lot before the game. He was also a crucial component of getting the Bears to Dallas for their 7 on 7 victories. He recently sent me an email that included a 15-minute summary of the championship game done by Steeler media. Click on the link to enjoy:

GENEROSITY: Clairton High School has fundraisers each year. The monies generated go to help the school in every phase from academics, to extra curricular activities. Many blog readers and CHS Alumni have contributed in the past to assist their alma mater. This year Nanette Gordon (Lhromer) and Barry Lhromer presented the School District with a very generous donation to kick off 2012. Their gift will go toward sorely needed items. On behalf of the Clairton School District we thank the Lhromer family.

In case the name does not ring a bell, Archie Lohrmer ran the Busy Beaver business on State Street at the bottom of St. Clair Avenue that provided building materials. He was a business icon for many decades and a pillar of the community. It is great to see his family carry on the tradition. The Boosters and alumni have also helped in the past and continue with their generosity.

BROAD AGENDA: The Clairton Athletic Champions Club and the Athletic Booster Club met last week and discussed a variety of topics including championship rings for the football team. The team has really brought the community together and made all of us proud to see such positive focus on Clairton. To refresh your memory, the team has broken multiple records including having the longest winning streak (47) of any team in the country at any level – high school, college, or professional. A tip of the helmet to our guys and the guys, gals, and adults who support them. The Athletic Boosters and football parents do a tremendous job of supporting the Board and the players.

The Awards Banquet will take place this spring. A speaker is being contacted and I don’t want to spill the beans but my sources tell me it is somebody who is highly recognizable and it will be a coup to have this person address our Bears. Last year’s speaker, Bill Shay, an educator and the winningest coach in Western PA, delivered a moving speech that had many of the players on the edge of their seats.

GET YOUR CHS SWEATSHIRTS WHILE THEY LAST: Champion Sweatshirts are now available for $25 each (2X and 3X sizes are $30 each). A check or money order, made payable to the Clairton Athletic Champions Club or CACC, can be sent to Clairton Education Center, 501 Waddell Avenue, Clairton PA 15025, Attn: CACC. Any other questions about the sweatshirts can be addressed to Paulette Bradford; email at Visit the Clairton Bears Football Facebook page.

The trophies in the case will eventually tarnish, the sweatshirts will eventually fade but the memories that our players have created will live on for a lifetime.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Green Green Grass of Home,” by Tom Jones.

Dr. Forgot

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nothing Endures But Change - Hercules


An agricultural project in Clairton is coming to fruition courtesy of an Allegheny County grant. Allegheny Grows is an initiative that creates community and workforce development opportunities through urban farming and gardening. Clairton was one of two municipalities to be selected to participate in Allegheny Grows starting next year. The Unity Group, part of Clairton Chamber of Commerce, will manage the grant. They and the City and the city will work to provide fresh vegetables to community members, particularly seniors, as well as teach youth to become entrepreneurs. Allegheny Grows will offer Clairton and Natrona Heights two years of technical support and supplies. The first year includes intensive start-up services, such as site planning and community organizing, in addition to providing building and growing materials and technical assistance. The second year will include continuing support services, such as garden sustainability and maintenance training.

This got me to thinking. It was a little over 100 years ago that Clairton became a city. Prior to that Clairton, Coal Valley, Large, and the area was mostly farmland. There was very little industry… a glass plant, a baling wire company, and a few other small businesses. But Clairton was a happening place before the steel mills sprung up along the Monongahela River. There was a beautiful park on the riverbank where the last holdout, Clairton Works, continues to spew poison into the air making Clairton and Glassport’s air the fourth most polluted in the country, behind only Los Angeles and St. Louis.

The community has changed and evolved over the years. The well-to-do Blair family once owned property that overlooked the river. That property was eventually used to build low rent housing called Blair Heights. It was so mismanaged and such a magnet for crime that the entire project was eventually razed.

My grandparents got a glimpse of the city shortly after it had become incorporated. The park was gone, the mills were belching smoke, quencher, and the like, and the snow turned grey shortly after hitting the ground. Regardless of the color of new roof shingles, they were all black after the first year.

Fifty or so years after Clairton became an incorporated city I had the good fortune to see it during its growth years. I lived on St. Clair Avenue, which ended at State Street near the river. The other end was paved to Seventh Street (Rite Aid, nee Gumble’s Chevrolet). Beyond Seventh St. Clair was an ash road for three blocks then ended at Tenth Street. My parents used to tell me of the trolley that ran the length of St. Clair Avenue. A ride cost a nickel and on weekends, one nickel could be used to ride for an entire afternoon.

The last house on the street belonged to Bobo Benedetto who had two girls, Carol, my classmate, and Sassy whose real name was Frances, and one boy, Louie, who was my best friend. At the end of the street there was no bridge, only the woods and Old Man Jacobs Farm. The City Buildings were across from the football field. It was an idyllic setting. Most fathers were WW-II veterans who worked in the mill and most grandparents spoke a language other than English.

I learned about death one cold winter morning when my best friend was suddenly taken. Louie had come home from school with a headache and before the night was over he was gone. Brain tumor, I was told. Nobody’s fault. I was numb. I had never lost a family member; not a sibling or a parent or even a grandparent. Yet here I was barely a teen and my life had been changed dramatically. I could not have imagined how the community would change over the next half century.

By the time I graduated from Clairton High School the world was starting (or continuing) to change. Hippies, Vietnam, Haight-Ashbury, Flower Power, LSD, Marijuana, Woodstock… What had begun as a feel good era morphed into a scourge of drugs. Our community was not spared, although it would be a couple of decades until the combination of hopelessness, joblessness, and the death of the American steel industry merged to change the once prosperous community that many of us remember fondly.

A little over a year ago some 200 members of law enforcement culminated an ongoing investigation with the arrest of some 42 major drug dealers. It was a federal bust so those arrested did not go to county jail for a slap on the wrists but ended up doing hard time in federal prisons. One Clairton drug dealer who was busted got his drugs from a man in Duquesne who was supplied by a man in Penn Hills whose suppliers were from Texas and Georgia. It was a long and twisted web. The city is trying to heal but it is not an easy process.

The short-term answer is to save the children. The Bears football team focused plenty of positive attention on the city. Much of that focus has turned to positive consequences. Terrence Fort and begun to assemble a cadre of mentors to help CHS students, both athletes and non-athletes establish a sense of pride and self confidence that will help them pursue post-secondary education and break the cycle of poverty. The young people are the hope of the future.

Perhaps the answer will be to stretch back more than 100 years, when Clairton was mostly farmland and the city was a drawing card for Pittsburgh elite to come to the area and enjoy dancing, picnics, and amusement. The Allegheny Grows grant could be the start of something big. Perhaps it is time to either fix the emissions from the Coke Works (s USS Steel has promised, then started, then stopped, then started, then stopped…) or raze it in favor of a budding hospitality industry. Regardless of the direction the community takes, the new leaders – including those who have instilled long-lost pride in the community by their performance on the athletic field – are positioned to initiate the positive change that happens about every 100 years or so in Clairton.

A little blogging music Maestro… “Feels Like Home to Me,” with lyrics by Deryl Dodd

Dr. Forgot