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Depression-era work produced Donora facility

| Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, 5:05 p.m.
Legendary Donora High School football coach James J. Russell (left) and longtime maintenance supervisor John Andras admire the plaque commemorating the renaming of Legion Field in honor of Russell. The photo is from the archives of the Donora Historical Society. Submitted

Part 2 of 2

The opening of Donora High School's new football facility, Legion Field, preceded the formal dedication of the new school in 1930.

While the stadium opened on Sept. 27, the school was dedicated on Dec. 19, 1930, but in actuality, as longtime educator Charles E. Stacey explained in Donora's excellent centennial book in 2001, “the building was never completed as originally planned.

“The building was to be a T-shaped structure, but the onset of the Great Depression created serious financial problems for the school district,” recalled Stacey, a retired superintendent of the Ringgold School District. “Therefore, the two wings on the western side of the building that were to complete the T configuration were never constructed. This explains why the facade on the rear of the building and the sides toward the rear are not finished with the brown bricks that cover most of the structure.

“In addition,” Stacey said, “the balcony planned for the auditorium was never built in order to save money. Because the building was not as large as originally planned, it was to be used exclusively as a high school.

“The junior high was to remain in the First Street School. The only major addition to the high school was construction in the mid 1970s ... a large industrial arts room was added to the rear of the building. When the high school was converted to an elementary center, this space was transformed into an art room.”

Good news

Introduction of Legion Field was good news to football fans throughout the Mon Valley.

Donora High's last game at Palmer Park, home to the football team for many years, was on Nov. 23, 1929. Some 3,000 fans watched the Dragons lose to Redstone, 8-0.

In the wake of that farewell to Palmer Park The Charleroi Mail reported that Charleroi and Donora would resume football relations after several years on Oct. 25, 1930.

“(Charleroi) Faculty manager James McConnell announced ... all negotiations had been concluded and the arrangement for the game gave Donora a definite place for Charleroi on its schedule next year,” the newspaper said. “Next season Donora will introduce a new stadium ... sponsored and built under American Legion direction there.”

The Mail said Donora had been in a “shortage position” (for opponents) for some years because of “an inadequate football field, so far as a proper park was concerned.

“The movement for and construction of the new stadium puts Donora on a par with Charleroi, Monongahela, Monessen, California and most towns in this district, so far as a field is concerned. It now permits Charleroi to resume relations with the down river town in the local array of opponents for next season.”

Legion Field became more than an adequate facility in the years that followed its grand opening.

Some of the most outstanding athletes (in various sports) in Donora, Mon Valley, WPIAL and state history played there. Some of the most legendary coaches guided their teams at Legion Field. Some of the top high school bands ever produced in this district displayed their talents on that turf. And some of the most loyal and vociferous fans packed the stadium and followed the lead of the spirited cheerleaders on the sidelines.

The last football game for a Donora team at Legion Field was played on Oct. 23, 1968. The Griffey brothers, George “Ken” and Fred, teamed up for three touchdowns and Malcolm Lomax added the others and kicked four extra points as the Dragons rolled over Braddock, 34-0.

It was the final game under the DHS banner because the Dragons and Monongahela were to merge for one Ringgold School District athletic program in 1969. Ringgold home games, however, would be played at Legion Field.

The victory over Braddock gave coach Rudy Andabaker's Dragons a 7-0-0 mark for the season and extended their two-year unbeaten streak to 16 games.

Only 1,000 fans braved a steady rain and watched Ken Griffey score three touchdowns on passes from his brother Fred, Donora's quarterback.

Griffey scores final TD

Griffey scored the final Donora touchdown in history at Legion Field on an electrifying 84-yard pass-run play with his brother in the fourth quarter. Lomax kicked the point after to become the last Dragon to score a point there and also the final point in Donora's formal football history, which began in 1914.

Ringgold played home games at Legion Field in 1986 against Schenley, Brownsville Area, West Mifflin, Thomas Jefferson and Belle Vernon Area before making its debut at the new Ringgold Stadium on Route 136 in Carroll Township on Oct. 31 against Uniontown. The Oct. 17 game with Belle Vernon Area marked the end of any Donora-related high school games at Legion Field.

Ringgold's first game at the new facility (now called Joe Montana Stadium) resulted in a 28-18 loss to Uniontown.The Rams' debut at the new site had been delayed because of final construction projects.

Mon Valley Catholic High School also played its home games at Legion Field in 1986 and closed the book on scholastic football there in a game against Springdale on Oct. 24. The Spartans played their home games at a field adjacent to the high school in Carroll Township in 1987 and 1988. The school closed at the end of the 1988-89 term.

On Sept. 1, 1989 Legion Field was renamed James K. Russell Field in honor of the successful and revered coach and teacher who had guided Donora football teams for 34 years (1931-1964).

The Ringgold School Board had approved the new designation earlier in the year as a tribute to his “many contributions to the educational system and athletic tradition of Donora High School.”

The board's proclamation also emphasized that it was Russell's idea to take pieces of sod from Legion Field and Wildcat Stadium, home of Monongahela High's football teams before the merger that created Ringgold School District, and plant them side by side on the 50-yard line at the new Ringgold stadium as a symbol of togetherness.

The sods were planted by school board president George Buell and Athletic Director Paul Zolak at the formal dedication of the new stadium on Aug. 25, 1987.

A committee comprised of Superintendent of Schools Charles E. Stacey, Zolak and school board member Richard Mongelluzzo led the planning for the Sept. 1, 1989 festivities renaming Legion Field at halftime of the game between Ringgold and Derry Area at the RHS stadium.

Russell, 82, had been a patient at Monongahela Valley Hospital for several days but was released earlier in the day so he could attend the ceremonies. Many of his former players, assistant coaches, student managers and former opposing coaches attended the event and a post-game gathering in the Ringgold cafeteria.

Addressing the appreciative crowd after receiving a standing ovation, Russell said, “Tonight ... this stadium ... I am the luckiest man in the world.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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