LEAVING A LEGACY
Mention high school football coaches in western Pennsylvania and one of the first names that comes to mind is James K. “Jimmy” Russell.
“He was, and still is, such a vital part of our community's history,” said Brian Charlton of the Donora Historical Society. “His is a never ending story, and we are deeply grateful to his daughter for this newest addition to the Jimmy Russell collection here.”
Judy Russell Smith recently presented the Historical Society with eight large scrapbooks tracing significant parts of her father's coaching career at Donora High School (1931-64) and Belle Vernon Area High School (1965-68). The collection includes vintage photographs of players and coaches, newspaper clippings, personal notes and playbooks.
“It is such a valuable resource, a wellspring of information about a man who was a legendary figure in Donora, the Mon Valley and beyond,” Charlton said. “And it complements the many other artifacts that Mrs. Smith has donated to us regarding her father.”
Russell was the head coach at Donora for 33 years, guiding the Dragons to WPIAL Class AA championships in 1944 and 1945 and a share of that honor with Har-Brack in 1953. His Dragons won the Mon Valley Conference title six times, and it is estimated that some 200 of his players went on to continue their educations and gridiron careers on the college level. He moved to Belle Vernon Area in 1965 as the first football coach in the newly formed school district and completed his career in 1968 with a combined record of 198-146-28, one of the best ever among scholastic mentors in Pennsylvania. All but 20 of those victories came at Donora.
Among the ever-growing Russell groupings at the Historical Society is a collection of Russell's personal books, many of which he used as a revered history teacher.
Dr. Charles E. Stacey, a longtime member of the Historical Society and a former educator at Donora High School and the Ringgold School District, said the books are “very symbolic.”
“Jimmy was one of the best when it came to coaching, no question about that,” said Stacey, a teacher and principal at Donora and superintendent at Ringgold before retiring in 1993. “But he excelled equally as a classroom teacher. He was a student of history as well as a teacher of the subject. He was recognized as an expert on the Civil War and led a field trip for students to Gettysburg every spring.”
Russell's penchant for history was led by his intense interest in books and stories about military leaders. That engagement, according to Stacey, played a role in his approach to football strategy.
“(Russell) studied what the generals and other (military) leaders did in combat, how they would prepare and carry out offensive attacks on enemy forces and counter those opponents with strong defensive tactics,” Stacy said. “Look at his playbooks and you will see how that research came into play on the gridiron. Jimmy's teams were always ready for anyone. He had plays on offense and defense to counter whatever came their way.”
Tony Romantino, a standout lineman at Donora in the 1940s, offered similar sentiments to Stephen V. Russell, general chairman of the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame, in Russell's HOF biographical journal.
“Jimmy was always a teacher first,” said Romantino, who later earned his Ph.D. and is now deceased. “He used the football field like it was another classroom.”
Russell, a 1925 graduate of Charleroi High School who played for the legendary Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, became Donora's coach in 1931, two years after receiving his diploma at Notre Dame. He worked at the Pittsburgh Steel Co. plant in Monessen and coached the Monessen Olympics semiprofessional team before embarking on his teaching and coaching career.
A strong letter of recommendation from Rockne to the Donora Board of Education played a key role in Russell getting the nod over 75 other candidates. But there were doubters, naysayers who questioned whether Russell's style of coaching would work at Donora. Early success changed their minds, according to a story in a Donora newspaper after the 1933 season, Russell's third, that carried this headline: “Notre Dame-Rockne Style Of Play Works In High School.” The news clipping in the Russell collection reads as follows: “When Donora High School signed James K. Russell as head football coach three seasons ago, fans of this community and of the entire Monongahela Valley were openly skeptical as to the advisability of such a move for the simple reason that Russell learned football from the late Knute Rockne and football under that great Notre Dame mentor meant brains, speed and deception.
“High school students, the critics said, couldn't possibly grasp the intricate system.
“It can't be done. You can't teach a bunch of high school kids the tricks that even a college senior has difficulty grasping,” commented the Downtown Coaches Association.
“But Mr. Russell, with the able assistance of John ‘Moon' Clark, not only installed the Notre Dame system here but made it click as no other type of play has since Donora boasted its first football team in 1914.”
Photos of those young men who made believers out of the skeptics in Russell's early years at Donora appear in the scrapbooks presented to the Donora Historical Society by Russell's daughter. Myriad others from Donora teams of the 1940s, '50s and '60s and the Belle Vernon Area squads of 1965-68 also are prominent in the collection. Newspaper clippings of the WPIAL championship games and related memorabilia also are preserved for the ages.
Among the personal pictures featured in the books are:
• A family portrait of Russell, his wife, Ethel, and their daughter, Judy, at home. It shows Judy holding the game ball from Donora's stunning 26-7 upset victory over previously unbeaten Duquesne in 1948. Mrs. Russell, the former Ethel Fesemeyer, was a standout basketball player at Donora High School and captained the 1925 women's team there.
• A classic photo (circa 1950s) showing Russell and the Donora pharmacist, a longtime friend of the coach, meeting with St. Louis Cardinals star Stan Musial at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Musial played basketball for Russell at Donora High.
The collection also includes personal letters, notes and cards sent to Russell by grateful players and their parents and his poignant resignation (as a teacher) to Thomas Gilmer, superintendent of the Belle Vernon Area School District, on March 16, 1971.
“It's a true treasure chest of more information about a man who was a community treasure in so many ways,” Brian Charlton said of the Russell collection.
Russell was 88 when he died on May 14, 1995.
The Donora Historical Society is headquartered at Sixth Street and Meldon Avenue, Donora, and is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday or by appointment. Additional information is available at 724-823-0364 or www.donorahistoricalsociety.org.
Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.