Melting Pot

Melting Pot

Sure, the Johnstown area was well known for its coal, steel mills and open hearths.But the small towns in the surrounding hills had their own melting pot of sorts.A typical class through senior high was a good example – Papcunik, Penrod, Poldiak, Potchak, Prudhoe, Refi, Spaid and Travato – year after year, class after class, each room melted the ancestries together to form a fairly tight unit.And it followed true in sports as well.  

We had Pollocks, Dagos, Hunkies, Whops, Guineas and Johnny Bulls in every small town in our school district and consequently on every team from little league through high school. There were Catholics, Protestants, Jews and non-believers all living as neighbors on every street and in every town.But when we recited The Lord’s Prayer on the field before every football game, everyone voluntarily joined in.

There is still a “Hunky Hill” in St. Michael.Salix was filled with WASPS.Basile’s Tavern in South Fork saw its largest crowds after mass on Saturday evenings.And if you think you were going to find a parking spot at Morris’ Tavern, across the street from Forest Hills High School on a Friday night when the Rangers were home, you were dreaming!The only time that lot might have been as crowded was on a Friday during Lent.

The “Black Hand” organized in Beaverdale many years back and the Mafia was present too.Rumors abound that the Klan had members living fairly close to Krantzlers, a store owned by a Jewish family. Oddly, there was never any reported trouble.

Most towns in the school district had at least nine or ten churches, a dozen bars and numerous small family-owned businesses.Cy Siegal’s store was in South Fork, and Polyocsik’s Hardware was located in Sidman.Andrykovitches owned stores in Beaverdale and in Salix.Chester Zdunczyk and Curly Vrabel (pronounced Rubal) were local cops.So was Pete Bonfanti.An outsider had trouble with those names, but they rolled off our tongues as easily as Smith or Jones.

If you really enjoyed long church services, you attended a nearly two-hour mass at St. Mary’s Byzantine Church – that is if you had the endurance to walk up the steep hill to get there.A place to wet your whistle on the way home from the mine or mill? –The Slovak Citizen’s Club, Sokal, Cononie’s, or the PNA were favorites.

The Knavels (ka-navels), Gdulas, Dzuras, and the P’colas all had Eastern European backgrounds.As Dave Barry once said, they came from “countries that experienced a critical shortage of vowels.”Cousins Mike and Walter Prozialeck both HAD to be called “prozy.”Fellow teammate Dan Wegryzniak was simply known as “Alphabet.”Mike Valko’s nickname was “Greek”, even though his lineage was Slovak.

Chuck Sponsky, Rege Endler, Ed Terek and Fred Vespa made up our football coaching staff.Frank Kozar was the athletic director.George Pettorini taught biology Prostejovsky, Petrunak, Gdula and Bero were math teachers.No, they were not the starting line up for the Czech Olympic Basketball team.The administration saw Sam Plummer, Joe Madigan, and David L. Smith at the helm.In short, you couldn’t find a more sundry list of names anywhere.

If a couple wanted to book a place for a wedding reception, the Greek Hall, St. Michael’s Hall or New Germany Grove were good choices.AND if the wedding mass was scheduled late enough on a Saturday afternoon, your obligation for that weekend was satisfied, so you could sleep in on Sunday to recuperate from the celebration.

It did not matter whose son pitched in the championship game or who batted cleanup.It made little difference if the head coach was a Pollock, a Catholic, or a Democrat.Of no significance was the town he came from either – as long as he won of course.No one cared if the quarterback came from across the tracks, or across the creek.*A good hit was a good hit, whether in baseball or football.How that hitter spelled his last name or where he went to church made no difference.

Were those myriad kinds of names ever found printed on our game jerseys? Never. Half of them wouldn’t have fit.

Like most teens I took my niche for granted back then.But today, I feel blessed that I grew up in this melting pot.We lived, learned, and played together.It was an experience that prepared us well for life and for the diverse world that followed.

You see, before there were slurs, there were just nicknames.And before you learned to be angry, you learned to laugh.Before there was individualism, there was a team, melted together.Before we became politically correct, we were much more carefree.And before the world taught us to quarrel, we shared a love for the game, a love for playing and a love for each other.

* Across the tracks and across the creek were actually sections of the town of Beaverdale, PA.

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA