Bluefield Daily Telegraph
What was may soon start turning again into what is for McDowell County schools. Having the state return authority back to the county earlier this week was a grand occasion. It’s amazing that could ever happen. Once upon a time and not so long ago there was not a better school system anywhere around. While many local counties, including my own of Tazewell had a host of wooden buildings for the children, McDowell had sturdy brick structures all over.
When the mines of Consolidation Coal and U.S. Steel (U.S. Coal & Coke) were booming from Jenkinjones on down through main Gary and into Iaeger, the teachers, students and staff were among the finest. As recently as 1950 McDowell County unofficially had a census of around 103,000 residents. Few houses could be found unoccupied and a vibrant, working-class population made the communities hum like bee hives with the mining industry.
All those families produced thousands of children, leading to some fine students and wonderful ball teams.
For many years, the annual battle for the barrel between Gary and Welch was a highlight of every Veterans Day week. I remember very well my senior year at Pocahontas, nervously handing a note to Mrs. Betty Daugherty in the office and hoping that our principal Gaza Kovach would OK it. It said I was going to the dentist, but Dad was waiting and we drove right across Peel Chestnut Mountain, down through Anawalt and on to Gary to see that ballgame.
Steve Thornton tossed a swing pass to Chester Thomas on the first play and I can see it like it was yesterday. Thomas takes a step to the right and then cut upfield and go 62 yards for a touchdown before the fans had even settled into their seats. Sid Cure was coaching Gary at that time and they had a weight bar down there at the field house with steel wheels off some kind of mining car. The Coaldiggers had a pair of giant linemen, Mike Tolley and Oakley Dalton, among others, and just all kinds of speed, so they were a handful for everybody.
Gary beat Beaver 14-8 that year and it seems like there was a picture of Tolley and Dalton hitting a Bluefield player — high and low — and making a huge tackle. My dad worked at No. 14 Gary and Doug Tolley, Mike’s father, was his boss, so we had all kinds of reasons to keep up with GHS during that time. Anyway, Gary won that game 44-12. I thought I had gotten off free with the “dentist” excuse until the next day in government class. My teacher, Mr. Don Perfin, stopped by my desk, leaned over and said, “You liked that screen pass right on the first play, didn’t you?” He’d been there, too, and seen the whole thing. What a game. Gary won the state championship with a 28-0 win over Oceana out at Mitchell Stadium just a few days after that.
Those were the kinds of memories that made Sunday’s McDowell County Sports Hall of Fame induction so much fun. My buddy Wayne Hicks and the Welch Lions Club have extended a standing invitation to cover those events so as long as I can, I will keep coming back. It is great to see so many stars who shone brightly from Big Creek to Elkhorn and everywhere in between. Mike Callaway of the McDowell Board of Education even let us know that Mount View has the only fireplace in any school cafeteria in West Virginia.
For instance, one of the greatest coaches of any era, Tony Colobro, has entered the “living legend” status and he is always one of the centers of attention at any gathering. Coach Colobro started his coaching career at Iaeger before becoming a record-setter at both Bluefield State and Concord.
He was a teacher of mine at BSC and we have worked together for years on a variety of projects. Coach’s daughter, Susan, was my daughter’s third grade teacher and known as “Dr. Maupin” for her skill at putting strings around children’s teeth and the classroom door knob. Of course, Nick Colobro, Coach Colobro’s son, was terrific at Bluefield High School and later at Virginia Tech before reviving the Tazewell football program and then going on to win a couple of state championships at Gate City. Coach Colobro’s 1963 Welch team, undefeated and one of the best teams in area history, was inducted.
That team was crooked out of getting to play for the title but anyone who saw them remembers their greatness.
Mark Page of the great Northfork dynasty, a classmate at Bluefield State who played for John Quintier, went into the hall. What a shooter. I can see his shot with my eyes closed. I always felt sorry for the guys who had to guard him because he shot their eyes out on many nights out at the Brushfork Armory. My friend, Ronnie Tote, who was for a few years step-for-step good with Jennings Boyd as coach of the Lady Blue Demons, was another inductee.
It was fun to see Fred Schrom, especially because his wife, Gerrie, a faithful reader of this column and a great teacher herself during her tenure in the county, was at the same table. I learned all kinds of facts talking to John Palko, who also took chemistry from Freida Riley, the inspirational teacher of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys at Big Creek.
I especially appreciated the induction of the WELC Radio folks. We had an old brown Philco unit and I was about 4-years-old when one day I managed to turn it on and the first broadcast voice I ever heard was that of Johnny Villani. A lifetime memory, that one. “Dickie Lee” Roberts may have been the most entertaining speaker and I truly liked getting to see Jim Gregory, who almost became a pro basketball player and who knows that rebounds are still important. I was very impressed to recall that Leon “Babe” Allison of Gary District played against the Harlem Globetrotters and Hall of Famers Meadowlark Lemon and Curley Neal, among others. Don Boyd was at Louisville with John Unitas before No. 19 became “Johnny U.”
We learned that Eustace Frederick was a world-class engineer after his great sports career but a comment made by “Joe Ed” Phillips capped off the day.
Phillips recalled a day he was honored at Concord and students knew not only that he was from Welch but from “The County.” That’s right, long live the Free State of McDowell.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.