April 22 – Happy Birthday Tom Brownell

BrownellTomSo you’re at an Amsterdam clam bake and the guy pictured here walks up to you and says I’ll bet you $100 that I can throw 75 horseshoe ringers out of 100 tosses. Do you bet him? Heck if that happened to me, I’d probably have said let’s make it $200. Not any more! Not after researching this guy’s past.

Tom Brownell was the greatest horseshoe pitcher in the history of Amsterdam.He was born in Olean, NY on this date in 1923 and moved to this area when he was just a boy. He started pitching horseshoes when he was 14 and proved a quick study, winning the Fulton County Horseshoe Tournament that same year. He won his first New York State Championship in 1940, at the State Fair in Syracuse. He successfully defended that title the following year in Rochester and also went to work for GE, getting hired at the Schenectady main plant.

World War II interrupted both his GE and horseshoe careers. He went into the Army in 1943 and saw action in Europe. When he came home from service he stepped up his horseshoe competition level, competing in both the state and world championship tournaments. He went on to win five more New York State titles. His best performance at the World level  was an incredible third-place finish at the 1955 World Championships held in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom married Amsterdam native Shirley Palmieri on New Year’s Day in 1948 and their son Tom was born that December. The family lived in the lower East Main/Cranesville neighborhood of the city. In 1956, GE transferred him to their San Jose, California plant, where he became Manager of Drafting Documentation for the Company’s Nuclear Energy Division.

So how good was Tom with a horseshoe? During his best years, he averaged 75 ringers for every 100 shoes he pitched. In the 1955 State Tournament, he set a New York State record by throwing 30 ringers in 31 pitches for a percentage of 96.9%. So if it was Tom Brownell who approached you and me at that Amsterdam Clam Bake I was referring to up in the first paragraph, you’d be $100 poorer and I’d be a couple of C notes lighter myself.

Tom died in 1976 at the very young age of 53, one year after he was selected as one of just four people to go to South Africa to put on a horseshoe-pitching exhibition.

Two interesting side notes to today’s post; Tom Brownell was also an excellent kegler, competing in this City’s best bowling league back in the 1950’s, the old Carpet City Classic that used to roll at Tony Griffin’s Wilton Lanes. Like bowling, the secret to horseshoe pitching is replicating the exact same body motion and arm swing on each toss. The best bowler in the City back in the 1950’s was Jinx Brooks. In 1955, Jinx finished 12th in the New York State Horseshoe Tournament. He was eliminated by Tom Brownell.

 

April 21 – Happy Birthday Harrison Wilson Jr.

 

Harrison Wilson Jr.

My grandson Bradley started at quarterback for his Pop Warner football team in Fayetteville, NY and this coming fall, he will be trying out for his middle school’s modified football team. I asked Bradley to do me a favor some day. I asked him to make me the second Amsterdam native in history to have a grandson who was a winning quarterback in an NFL Super Bowl. You don’t think I’m putting too much pressure on the kid, do you?

In any event, the first Amsterdam-born grandfather of a Super-Bowl winning QB celebrates a birthday today. Here’s the background.

Russell Wilson quarterbacked the Seattle Seahawks to a 43-8 rout of the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014. Russell Wilson is the great grandson of Harrison Wilson Sr. Harrison Sr. was the son of a slave. He moved to Amsterdam in the early 1900s and got a job working for a local builder named Thomas McGibbon. On April 21, 1925, Harrison’s wife Marguerite gave birth to Russell Wilson’s grandfather, who they named Harrison Wilson Jr. Harrison Jr. would grow up to become an outstanding student athlete at Wilbur Lynch High School. He starred on both the school’s football and basketball teams.

In January of 1943, as Harrison Jr.’s varsity basketball team was winning its way to a Class A Sectional title, a huge late afternoon fire engulfed a downtown Amsterdam building which was owned by McGibbon and housed the Empire Market on the first floor and a bowling alley on the second. When the roof of the building collapsed, two girl pinsetters working in the alley at the time, were trapped. Harrison Wilson Sr. with help from an unidentified second person rushed onto the scene and helped free them both. A grateful McGibbon would later respond to his long-time employee’s heroism by letting Wilson operate and keep all the revenues generated from a rather small parking lot the builder also owned in downtown Amsterdam.

After graduating from High School, Harrison Jr. enlisted in the Navy and served till the end of WWII. He then went to Kentucky State on the GI Bill, lettered in four varsity sports and graduated with a teaching degree. He later earned his doctorate from Indiana University. He would then become the highly successful basketball coach at Mississippi’s Jackson State, compiling a stellar 340-72 record during his 16-year career. He became President of Norfolk University in 1975.

In the mid 1990’s, the Amsterdam High School Marching Band was invited to play in the State of Virginia’s International Music Festival, which is still held annually in Norfolk. When Wilson heard his alma mater’s marching band was coming to town, he sprang into action. Norfolk State University has one of the great marching band programs in this country. Wilson arranged to have his school’s band do a clinic for the Marching Rams, providing the young musicians with valuable tips they could use when performing. Afterwards, Wilson had the college’s culinary staff prepare a full dinner for all of the Amsterdam students, their teachers and chaperones. One parent who made the trip told me that Wilson treated the band like royalty, commenting that there were even linen table cloths on the dining hall tables when the band sat down to its full-course meal. Wilson regaled the group with his fond memories of Amsterdam. It was evident to all who attended that day, how fond he was of his hometown. Wilson retired from Norfolk State 1997.

Just recently, Russell Wilson signed a new $141 million contract to continue  quarterbacking the Seattle Seahawks. I’m going out on the limb here and calling that deal the largest contract ever signed by a grandson of a native of Amsterdam, NY. Wait till I tell my grandson!

 

April 10 – Happy Birthday Tim Kolodziej

kolod

He was the first Amsterdam High School superstar athlete I can actually remember. I only got to see him play once or twice because I didn’t begin going to the games up at the Wilbur Lynch Gymnasium until the very tail end of his senior season. But I was an avid sports fan and I’d read every sports page of every newspaper I could get my hands on from the time I was six or seven years-old. One of those papers was the Recorder and I’d devour every line of the two or three pages of sports that would be included in each evening’s issue, from the “Art of Sports” columns written by my old neighbor, the great Art Hoefs, to every name and score that appeared in those nightly “Aces of the Alley” listings.

I remember not being able to pronounce his last name for the longest time. “K-O-L-O-D-Z-I-E-J;” how the hell did they expect a 7-year-old kid to sound that one out? But whenever an article reporting the results of a Hilltopper basketball game appeared, my eyes immediately went to the box score and specifically, the numbers alongside that name I could not pronounce. I’d do a similar thing with the Daily News. My Dad would bring one home every night and if it were baseball season, I’d go right to the Yankee box score and check Mickey Mantle’s numbers. That’s what being a young fan was like a half century ago if your parents weren’t into sports and didn’t take you to games. You waited for the paper, you looked at the box score and you reacted to the numbers that appeared alongside your favorite players.

Most of the time, the number in the column alongside Tim Kolodziej’s name would be something in the twenties. During his final year, in 1964 it got into the forties twice, (40 points versus New Rochelle and 42 points versus Johnstown) which remains even in the much faster paced game of today, a pretty spectacular achievement for any high school hoopster.

But what the box score couldn’t describe for me was the tremendous all-around game this guy had. He was six feet five inches tall, fast, and strong, could jump, had great basketball instincts and was also extremely smart. Art Hoefs would use the phrase “slashing and dashing” to characterize his amazing ability to drive into and through the lane at top speed and put the ball into the hole in a variety of ways.

The rest of this City was reading all those box scores along with me and hundreds were cramming into that glorious old pit of a gymnasium at the top of Brandt Place to watch this supremely gifted athlete lead some of the school’s best ever basketball teams to record-breaking win streaks and league championships. Kolodziej ended up “slashing and dashing” his way to an AHS record of 1,106 career points and a four-year-scholarship to play for Duke University. I even learned how to pronounce his last name. I’m trying to remember if his number “32” jersey and the game ball from his 42 point outburst against Johnstown are still being displayed in the trophy case up at the High School. If not, they should be.

Tim was one of three children born to Ed and Sally Kolodziej, who owned and operated the old Kuk’s Grill up on James Street. After graduating from Duke, he married the former Sandy Gallagher, also from Amsterdam. They now live in New Hampshire and are spelling their last name “K-O-L-O-J-A-Y.” Even a seven-year-old box score reader could have figured out how to pronounce that.

Another April 10 Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant never payed round ball but he did become famous for something else that was round.

June 2 – Happy Birthday Art DelDuca

DukesIf you had to pick the top four Major League pitchers who ever made a start for the Amsterdam Rugmakers during their days as a Class C farm team for the New York Yankees, its an easy task. Vic Raschi, Lou Burdette, Bob Grim and Spec Shea all once wore the Amsterdam uniform and each of them went on to have very solid big league careers.

But ironically, none of them were the best hurlers on the Rugmaker teams they pitched for much earlier in their respective professional careers. In fact, Grim was pretty terrible during his one year in Amsterdam, compiling a 6-14 record, an ERA over six and a reputation for not being able to throw strikes. Burdette, who would go on to win over 200 games as a big league hurler after the Yankees traded him to the Braves, had a 9-10 record during his one season at Mohawk Mills Park.

The all-time starting rotation for the Rugmakers would instead include pitchers baseball fans outside of those who followed Rugmaker baseball during the team’s existence, never heard of.  At the top of that rotation would be Jackie Robinson (no not that Jackie Robinson) who became the only Rugmaker pitcher to win twenty games when he went 22-5 for the 1941 team. It would include Carl DeRose, who went 19-6 for the ’42 squad, with a sparkling 2.66 ERA and Herb Karpel, who went 19-9 for the ’39 Ruggies. Ken Rogers, who pitched with Burdette on the 1947 team earns a spot with his 18-6 record. Mike Rossi would beat out today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant for the fifth spot in the all-time Rugmaker rotation because of longevity. Rossi pitched parts of four seasons for Amsterdam, separated by his service in WWII. Rossi owns the career mark for most Rugmaker victories by a pitcher with 40…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

April 20 – Happy Birthday William H. English

English2.photoThe caption above the accompanying photo that appeared in the September 22, 1944 edition of the Amsterdam Evening Recorder read “Fate Deals Cruel Blow to This Army Officer.” His name was William Howard English. He was a Lieutenant in the Army Air Force during WWII. He flew 50 bombing missions during the war in both Africa and Italy. He had almost been killed on one of those missions, a bombing run to destroy a strategic railroad bridge on the western coast of Italy. Moments after his B-26 Marauder dropped its payload toward that target, shrapnel from a burst of the enemy’s heavy anti-aircraft fire tore through the side of the cockpit and missed English’s head by mere inches.

So he survived that close call and survived the perils he encountered on the 49 other missions he flew against the enemy and then came back to the states where he was reassigned to flight instructor. Then in September of 1944, English was on a training flight over Lovettesfield, VA, when an accident occurred and this young Rug City hero was tragically killed doing what he often told people was something he knew he wanted to do. In fact, according to his Dad at the time of the accident, Lt. English was already planning to continue his career as a pilot after the war.

William J. English was born on April 20, 1917. The family lived at 35 1/2 Lincoln Avenue. His Dad worked in the rug mills and his Mom was a schoolteacher. He graduated from Wilbur Lynch in 1934. He then graduated from Oswego State Teachers College with an industrial arts major but went to work for New York Power & Light. He learned how to fly in the old Civilian Pilot’s Training Corp that used to be operated out of the Schenectady County airport and received his pilot’s license in 1941. He had a sister Margaret who also went overseas in service of her country as a Red Cross volunteer.

 

April 18 – Happy Birthday Vince Ventura

Ventura_VinceAmsterdam fans loved the Rugmaker’s Vince Ventura for a couple of real good reasons. First of all, in addition to being a solid pitcher for the 1939 team, posting a 10-4 record with an ERA of just 3.31, the multi-talented New York City native also filled in at third base for manager Eddie Sawyer’s ball club and averaged .309 at the plate that season.

The second reason Ventura was a popular figure in the Rug City was his Italian heritage…

You can read the rest of my story about this former Amsterdam Rugmaker in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

April 13 – Happy Birthday Ralph DiCaterino

photo-dicat2Ralph and Michalena DiCaterino had ten children, five daughters and five sons. The daughters all got married; one to a Pepe, another to an Ecobelli, another to  a Wright, another to a DiCarlo and another to a Viscusi. All the boys got married too, including Ralph Jr., who was born on this date in 1920. He had gotten a job at GE when the US entered WWII and settled on Albert Street with his young wife Mary and they gave birth to a daughter, Ann Marie. It would only be a matter of time before Ralph himself was called to serve his country. That happened in May of 1944, when he was ordered to report to basic training at Camp Dix, NJ and then infantry training at Camp Croft in South Carolina. He would then come home for a short leave, before shipping out with his unit to France on October 29th…

You can read the rest of my story about this Amsterdam soldier in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

April 7 – Happy Birthday Trish Skeels

283056_1690350517677_5200607_nWhen one of our readers nominated “Mrs. Skeels” for the April 7th slot of the Amsterdam Birthday Blog, I have to admit my first reaction was tinged with a bit of trepidation. Not because there was any question she deserved to be recognized because I knew she did. My problem was that I’m Trish Skeels brother-in-law and I knew from experience that her treatment of me as the husband of her sister did not give me the sort of inside-the-classroom-perception I needed to explain to you all why she was such an outstanding elementary educator.

Now granted, I’ve been with her countless times, mostly in Capital District shopping malls when she and my wife would be headed to yet another store and we’d hear someone screech “Mrs. Skeels, Mrs. Skeels!” Her husband Richard and I would then patiently wait while whoever did the screeching hugged her, told her how much they loved being in her classroom and then discussed what they had been doing during the twenty or so years since. This type of encounter has happened so many times, one didn’t have to be a genius to figure out that Trish Skeels was a much loved teacher, but I needed details.

Then I remembered Michela. She’s my oldest daughter who not only had Mrs. Skeels as a fifth grader at Bacon Elementary, she went on to become an elementary teacher herself. I called her earlier today and asked her to explain why her aunt was such a gifted teacher. Michela said it was the enthusiasm that Trish brought to her job every single day. She always worked so hard to create a warm and inviting atmosphere for her students. She set high expectations for her kids and she pushed them to achieve but when they did, she celebrated with them and that made learning fun and personally rewarding. Michela emphasized Trish’s ability to instill a love of literature in her students. She converted the reading of a book from something her class had to do to something they couldn’t wait to do.

During her thirty-plus years at Bacon, Trish Skeels truly became the face and spirit of that special school. She was also a powerful advocate for kids outside of the classroom. Trish was one of the driving forces behind the effort to get the Sassafras Safari playground constructed. She’s also the person who came up with the brilliant concept for the original Teen Scene, which enrolled the help of parents to turn Lynch Middle School into a place where kids actually wanted to spend their Friday nights. I know I speak for the hundreds of students whose lives she touched when I thank her for her years of exceptional service and wish her a very Happy Birthday. We love you Trish!

 

March 27 – Happy Birthday Clarence Hawker

bus_GWhen Clarence Hawker graduated from Amsterdam’s Lynch High School, the inscription he selected to be posted alongside his senior picture read, “There’s a place and means for every man alive.” After serving his country during World War II, Clarence found that his place in life was meant to be in the driver’s seat of a bus, specifically a school bus, where over the next four decades, he became a local celebrity.

He drove the Cranesville route for the Greater Amsterdam School District for many years and if you ask any of the students he transported what they thought about “Hawker” many would tell you that those daily rides to and from school were among their fondest memories…

You can read the rest of my story about this popular former school bus driver in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.

March 25 – Happy Birthday William Bell Wait

wait1865xYou’ve almost certainly never heard of William Bell Wait but he had to be one of the most clever and industrious educators and inventors ever to be born in Amsterdam. That birth took place on this date in 1839. Evidently, he wasn’t a resident for very long because he received his early education in the public schools of Albany, NY and he graduated from Albany Normal College (predecessor of SUNY Albany) in 1859…

You can read the rest of my story about this Amsterdam-native in my new book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam Birthdays.” To order your copy, click here.