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Civic support began early for stadium

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Gary Cramer of Bellmar High School rambles down the sideline at Bellmar Stadium as he returns a punt 53 yards for a touchdown in a 43-6 victory over Mary Fuller Frazier (Perryoplis) High on Monday, November 11, 1963. Cramer was a sophomore with the ‘63 Hurricanes, who posted a 10-0-0 record. The picture was taken by John Hurrianko, longtime photographer at The Valley Independent, and is part of the archives collection of Jesse Cramer.
Milton Dupree celebrates with fans in the stands at Bellmar Stadium after scoring five touchdowns in the final game of his career at Bellmar High School in 1959, a 50-7 victory over Scottdale The 1959 Hurricanes were 10-0-0 but missed the WPIAL Class A playoffs because of insufficient points in the Gardner Rating System.
Norm Luce (left) and Pete Duda, members of Bellmar High’s unbeaten 1963 football team, reminisce at a reunion of that team in 2011.

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A solid spirit of unity and pride has prevailed in the operations of the nearly century old athletic stadium in Belle Vernon.

Symbolic of community support was a contribution in July 1948 by Belle Vernon Local Number 16 of the Federation of Glass, Ceramic and Silica Sand Workers at the American Window Glass Co. in Belle Vernon. That monetary gift, according to newspaper reports, was to be used for the purchase of “one of the most modern electric scoreboards in the district” at the new Vernon High Stadium.

Acting on a recommendation from the union's executive committee at a meeting at the Italian Hall on Market Street, Local 16 members overwhelmingly approved the project. Previously, the group made a cash donation to the Greater Belle Vernon Community Foundation for the stadium and playground program. However, it was decided that a permanent piece of equipment would be given for the stadium as an additional civic donation.

Local 16 president Mervin Sterner said several union members planned to donate their time and labor to help with installation of the new scoreboard in preparation for the opening of the 1948 season.

Cramer notes in his history of the stadium that youth organizations have been using the field for more than 50 years.

That tradition began with the Belle Vernon Area Midget Football League in 1961 and also has included the Belle Vernon Blackhawks, Vernon Baseball and Belle Vernon Area Youth Baseball/Softball.

Original teams in the Belle Vernon Area Midget League in 1961 were the Belle Vernon Vikings, Fayette City Bulldogs, Washington Township Redskins and Lynnwood Eagles. Belle Vernon, Washington Township and Fayette City remain in the league today along with the LaGrange Eagles, Yough Silver and Yough Green.

A youth traveling football team, the Belle Vernon Blackhawks, was formed in 1963 and used the stadium for home games until 1969.

Vernon Baseball was founded in 1965 and played its games there through 1990. A new league, Belle Vernon Area Youth Baseball/Softball Association, was formed and expanded the use of the stadium to T-Ball, Mustang and Bronco baseball as well as girls softball.

Randy Jesick, a 1960 graduate of Bellmar High School, recalls playing baseball at the site even before the 1960s.

“When I started playing baseball in 1951, we played in the stadium at the end where the diamond is now,” said Jesick, a longtime resident of Indiana, Pa., and chairman of the Journalism Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Belle Vernon had two leagues — the Midgets for ages 9-11 and the Juniors for those 12-14. I played six years and maybe all except for the last one or two seasons were in the stadium.”

The main caretakers since youth sports began using the field have been Jim Cramer and Val Iacoboni, 1961-70; Bill Brewer and Bob Lenhart, 1971-77; Jesse Cramer and Jim Cramer, 1978-95; Jesse Cramer, 1996-99; and Jesse Cramer, John Fiorino and Jason Zadrozny, 2000 to the present.

“There have been hundreds of volunteers who have devoted countless hours to the maintenance and upgrading of the stadium,” Cramer said. “The aforementioned men were in charge of overseeing the stadium and organizing the work and volunteers.”

Cramer recalled that in the late 1950s a group of men from the East Belle Vernon Athletic Club launched a fundraising campaign to buy blocks to build a press box, concession stand and field house.

“The field house was razed several years later when the land outside the fenced-in area was sold to a developer,” Cramer said. “The present field house was built at the opposite end of the stadium.”

When the youth leagues were formed in the early 1960s, the East Belle Vernon group assisted in the care of the stadium along with the school district until the school district returned the facility to Belle Vernon Borough in 1965. Since that time, he said, there has not been any tax money used to maintain or upgrade the stadium.

“All monies for those projects came from nonprofit fund-raisers and two grants — one in 1985 from the state Department of Community Affairs and the second from state Rep. Ted Harhai for the purchase of a tractor and replacing portions of the bleachers,” he said.

A major setback occurred in 1983 when an arsonist set fire to the original concession stand, burning the building and its contents to the ground, Cramer said.

“We had no insurance and again called upon volunteers to rebuild the stand with blocks salvaged from the fire and a number of donated items to replace the contents,” he said.

In 1986 the group received the old scoreboard from Belle Vernon Area High School to replace the original one, which had been out of commission for several years. The second scoreboard also faltered in 1989 and was replaced with a new one through the generosity of Maggie Hardy Magerko of 84 Lumber. That scoreboard has been in use ever since.

In June 1990 Cramer and others involved with the stadium issued a call for volunteers to help with another restoration project. Cramer, Belle Vernon Borough councilman Dave Lazzari, chairman of parks and recreation, and Ed Weightman, led an effort to seek grant money to offset the cost of materials.

State Rep. Richard A. Kasunic (D-Dunbar) delivered the funds in the form of checks for $7,500 from the Legislative Initiative Program and an additional $7,500 from the state's Recreational Improvement and Rehabilitation Act.

The state funding, Cramer pointed out at that time, would pay only for materials. The actual work would require “a lot of elbow grease” on the part of volunteers.

“This is everyone's field — it was yours when you were playing on it and now your children are playing on it,” Cramer said in 1990. “Taking care of it can't always be left up to ‘the other guy.' We all have to pitch in.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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