Stark stood tall among athletic leaders in region
Standing 5-6 and tipping the scales at 132 pounds, Clarence George Stark was not the biggest football player in Monessen High School history.
But no one played with more heart.
“By all accounts, (Stark) was a tough son of a gun when he played in high school,” Jack Leslie Young of Shepherdstown, W. Va., said of his uncle. “He didn't back down from anyone, no matter how big they were. Those qualities were reflected later when he coached at Marion and Uniontown high schools. His teams were always well prepared – physically and mentally – to take on any opponent.”
Scholastic sports followers in southwestern Pennsylvania were shocked and saddened by the sudden and untimely death of Stark on April 28, 1959. The Fayette City native, who was serving as a history teacher and faculty manager of athletics at Uniontown High School at the time, was only 47.
Young's cousin, Margaret Evans, recalled that fateful day several years ago in her recollections of the well-known Stark family of Fayette City.
“While living in Uniontown we received a call early one morning that Uncle Clarence had died of a massive heart attack,” she said. “It was just unreal to me. He was only 47 years old. He died too young.”
Stark, the son of George and Sarah Louttit Stark, was born Sept. 15, 1911, at the family homestead located about two miles outside of Fayette City. He had seven siblings – an older brother, Harry Stark, who died at age 6 in 1913, and sisters Luella, Margaret, Mary “Mame,” Jean, Sara and Lois Eleanor. Lois, who married Clarence William Young of Fayette City, was the mother of Jack Young and his late brother Bob.
“The sisters adored Clarence,” Margaret Evans said.
Because families had more options as to where their children could attend high school in those days, Stark enrolled at Monessen High School.
“He attended Brownstown Elementary School, which was located about a mile from the homestead,” Young said. “It is my understanding that many of the Stark children, as well as others from Fayette City, traveled via train to and from Monessen to attend high school. They would walk about a mile or two to Fayette City to catch the train in the morning and then reverse that trip at the end of the school day.”
As a senior in 1929, Stark was only one of 10 players with previous varsity experience on Coach Preston Ditty's Monessen High football team.
Ditty described his Greyhounds as “light and inexperienced” as they prepared to face Waynesburg in their season opener on Sept. 26. The biggest players were quarterback Al Shuster and tackle Gail Finley, each listed at 172 pounds. Among Stark's other teammates touted by Ditty as possible starters were center Kenneth Cotton (134), tackles Wallace Hough (149) and John Olchak (145), guards Ero Niemi (145) and Alvin Nuttilla (150), fullbacks William Jobas (6-1, 165) and Golderino Dustolfo (130), halfback John Barton (131) , ends Henry Bush (135), Ralph Rosenthal (149) and John Lynch (125), and a promising 17-year-old running back named James “Rab” Currie.
Monessen struggled through a 5-3-0 campaign and was the “not-much-of-a-chance” underdog to Charleroi (8-1-0), coached by Steve Stepanian, in their season finale Thanksgiving (Nov. 28) morning – the game started at 10 a.m. – at the old Ball Park in Charleroi.
Ditty's crew, however, stunned their cross-river rivals by battling to a 6-6 tie before several thousand fans who braved chilly temperatures. The Monessen Daily Independent called the outcome “a moral victory” over the “weight of the Charleroi Huskies.”
Stark displayed his familiar toughness as he passed, ran and kicked his way to an outstanding performance. Playing quarterback in Ditty's single-wing offense, he completed passes of 40 and 20 yards to Currie, scampered 40 yards on a punt return, returned a kickoff 30 yards, dashed 30 yards on a play from scrimmage and handled the punting and kickoff duties for the Greyhounds. Another pass to Currie, this one for 14 yards, appeared to be a touchdown but Monessen was offsides on the play and the score was nullified. Bush accounted for Monessen's lone touchdown and George Zuraw hit paydirt for Charleroi.
In addition to Zuraw, described as a “bruising 175-pound fullback,” others giving Charleroi a size advantage that season were tackles Joe “Tiny” Wiehl (210) and Armand Niccolai (180), Jim “Toots” Fillingham (170), Joe “Soapy” Slavonia (170), Hal Buckner (165), Roy Hancock (170) and Joe Kistler (180).
Stark continued his education at California State Teachers College (now California University of Pennsylvania) and graduated in 1933 with a degree in education. He later earned his master's degree from West Virginia University.
His first assignment as a history teacher was at Marion High School in Fairhope. While there he also served as football coach.
“Unc's teams at Marion were very successful and he earned a reputation as an excellent coach,” Young said.
Dennis Scullion, the son of Don and Helen Scullion Backstrom, told Young that his father (Don) was an equipment manager for several of Stark's Marion teams.
“My father recalled that a number of the Marion players also worked in the coal mines to help with family expenses,” he said. “He said it wasn't unusual for a school bus to drive by the mines on the day of a football game with a message from Coach Stark to the foremen to ‘please let the boys off to play in the game.' Dad said the players on Uncle Clarence's teams were big and strong and tough.”
Stark left Marion in 1942 to accept a teaching and coaching position at Uniontown Joint Senior High School. He put those careers on hold when he entered the U.S. Navy in 1943 and served as a lieutenant during World War II in the Atlantic Theater of Operations. He was honorably discharged in 1945.
He resumed his coaching duties at Uniontown in 1946 and his assistants were John Kruper and Albert (Abe) Everhart.
Kruper went to Uniontown on Aug. 10, 1946, after serving as football and basketball coach at North Belle Vernon High School. He was a standout player at Fayette City High School in 1931 and 1932 and established himself as one of the greatest athletes in Lock Haven State Teachers College history by earning 13 varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball and track. His first coaching assignment was at Ellsworth High School.
Stark continued as Uniontown's coach in 1947 before being succeeded a year later by W.K. (Bill) Powers. Kruper was retained by Powers as an assistant coach, as were Everhart and Max Evans. Everhart later gained acclaim as head coach of Uniontown's highly successful basketball teams.
Stark was named faculty manager of athletics following the resignation of Guy Eberhart and held that position until the time of his death in 1959.
As an athletic administrator, Stark gained considerable respect from his counterparts throughout the region. He was president of the Fayette County Coaches Association in 1943 when he and Uniontown faculty manager of athletics John Madore drew high praise for coordinating the successful undergraduate basketball tournament at Lafayette Junior High School.
“He was generally credited with cementing the fine athletic relations which exist between Uniontown High School and Mon Valley schools,” sports editor John Bunardzya of The Charleroi Mail said about Stark.
“A former president of the Fayette County Coaches Association, Stark was instrumental in organizing that group and was one of its most active members.”
Young said he often read and heard a lot about “the great job” Stark was doing at Uniontown High in the late 1940s and 1950s.
“He was widely respected for his professionalism and contributions to the students and to the community,” Young said.
Stark was married to the former Laura Virginia Tomer, daughter of John Jacob and Ella May Shepler Tomer of Webster. She was a teacher at Craig Elementary School in Uniontown at the time of her husband's death. They were the parents of a daughter, Virginia (Ginger) Stark.
“Aunt Virginia was very interested in music and was a good piano player,” Young recalled. “She was a very gracious lady, always very pleasant and kind to my brother Bob and me. I cannot remember her ever being upset or cross. She always had a smile on her face and welcomed us into her home.”
Virginia Stark died at age 76 on Jan. 21, 1989.
She and her husband are interred at LaFayette Memorial Park at Brier Hill near Brownsville.
Ginger Stark graduated from Uniontown High School in 1960 and attended Indiana State College and California State College, where she received a bachelor of arts degree music education in 1983. She is retired from a career as a music teacher and now lives in Brownsville.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media. If you have memories to share or story ideas contact Ron Paglia at email@example.com or c/o The Valley Independent, Eastgate 19, Monessen, PA 15062.