Yesteryear: Teachers paced quality education for Donora High School students
Everyone has a favorite teacher – an educator whose guidance and words of wisdom have remained with them long throughout his (or her) life.
For Judith R. “Judy” Smith, who grew up in Donora and now lives in San Antonio, Texas, those classroom mentors are plentiful.
“We were very fortunate to receive a quality education at Donora High School,” said Smith, the daughter of the late James K. “Jimmy” and Ethel Mary Russell. “And because of the dedication of our teachers, that excellence in learning went far beyond the traditional classroom setting. They inspired you to learn, no matter what the subject was.”
Smith came by her appreciation of teachers naturally.
Her father, a legendary football coach in Pennsylvania for 37 years, was an American history teacher and her mother taught French at Donora High and also was a classroom instructor at St. Charles and St. Dominic parochial schools in Donora for several years.
“My parents always emphasized the importance of getting a good education from elementary school through high school,” said Smith, a 1956 Donora graduate. “They believed in providing students with a solid foundation that would prepare them for college and beyond.”
Her father was recognized as a long-time student of history and the people whose efforts and achievements wrote various chapters of the subject.
He had a particular interest in the Civil War and was credited for organizing field trips to Gettysburg to “provide Donora students with an up-close and personal look at the events of that time in our country.”
“I went on that trip for the first time when I was a sophomore in high school,” Smith recalled. “My father and Edna Pipes, who also taught American history, were the chaperones. It was quite an experience, something that everyone enjoyed and appreciated. They had tour guides at Gettysburg, of course, but Dad always had additional stories to relate to the kids.
“He knew so much about the Civil War and felt it was important to impart that information. Those field trips always complemented the curriculum in school.”
Smith also has poignant memories of Ethel E. Ewing, a longtime Latin and English teacher during a 35-year career at Donora and Ringgold high schools.
“Miss Ewing was an outstanding teacher,” she said. “Her classes were interesting and challenging. Translating Latin was not the easiest of assignments but she had a special way of encouraging us to do it, to learn and appreciate the language. Many of her students benefitted from her teaching when they went on to medical or law school, where Latin was part of the curriculum.”
Smith recalled that Miss Ewing was selected for a Fulbright scholarship to study in Rome, Italy during the summer of 1953, an experience, she emphasized, that was a “benefit to her students.”
“She brought back slides and pictures of the people and places of Roman history to share in her Latin classes,” Smith said. “She wanted us to get a true feeling of the culture of those people and the landmarks of that country. She made us feel as though we were there.”
Miss Ewing was 90 when she died on May 5 at Beaver Valley Medical Center. She had been living at Passavant Retirement Community in Zelienople for seven years.
Her obituary noted that she was selected to participate in a trial course in Pennsylvania to teach Comparative Religious Literature and was an enthusiastic traveler who took numerous bicycling trips in the United States with the American Youth Hostel Group and also visited many foreign countries.
“Miss Ewing was a woman of many interests and talents,” Smith said.
“And she was always willing to share those experiences with everyone.”
Other teachers who influenced Smith were John P. “Moon” Clark and Thomas McDunn.
“Moon was the first assistant hired by the Donora Board of Education when my father became head football coach at Donora High in 1931,” Smith said. “They became lifelong friends. Moon taught English and Literature and was an excellent teacher. He had a special way of getting us to understand Shakespeare and I have always remembered those lessons. As I did with the other teachers at Donora, I used many of Moon's techniques when I taught in college and public schools in the Cleveland area.”
McDunn was a “very good” biology teacher who also directed student plays at Donora High School. That latter assignment was of significance to Smith.
“I was a member of the Drama Club at Donora and also participated in speech tournaments,” she recalled. “(McDunn) had a passion for the school plays and it was an unforgettable experience to participate in those productions.”
Smith also carries other fond memories of her formative years in Donora and the Mon Valley.
“Friday nights meant high school football throughout western Pa., and it was certainly the big thing in the Mon Valley,” she said. “Obviously, I took a special interest because my father was the coach at Donora. It was quite a thrill to go to Legion Field and see standing-room-only crowds in support of the Dragons.”
Saturday nights, she emphasized, also brought excitement because they meant going to record hops at the Jumpin' Jive Bee Hive in Charleroi.
“They had the best dances for teenagers in the region at the Bee Hive,” she said. “There were kids from all over the Mon Valley there; it was always packed. We couldn't wait for Saturday night to arrive so we could go to the Bee Hive. I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to experience those dances during their hey days.”
Smith attends DHS Class of ‘56 reunions and similar events in Donora “as often as I can” and she keeps in touch with classmates and friends through emails and other social media. She also looks forward to attending class reunions at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, where she graduated in 1960.
One friend who remains especially close is Paula (Polly) Weiss, who has made her home in Boca Raton, Fla., for many years.
“We met for the first time when we were in fifth or sixth grade,” Smith said. “Polly attended public school and I was a student at the Catholic school, so our first meeting was at her home. My father and Polly's dad, Meyer Weiss, were very good friends. Mr. Weiss owned Central Pharmacy and was an avid sports fan. Dad was going to the Weiss home to talk with Meyer and took me along.
“While the men were talking downstairs, Polly and I met in her room and we quickly learned that we had similar interests in books and plays and dramas. That was the start of a lifelong friendship. When I finished graduate school, I decided to take some time off and went to New York City, where Polly was living and working in television production, and I stayed with her. We had a great time in the Big Apple including an unforgettable evening seeing Richard Burton starring in the Broadway production of ‘Hamlet.'”
Smith also has strengthened her ties to Donora by donating myriad artifacts from her father's personal collections to the Donora Historical Society. These include numerous volumes of his history books, classic photographs of his football teams at Donora and Belle Vernon area high schools, letters and cards, newspaper clippings and similar memorabilia.
Russell died on May 14, 1995, at age 88.
“My father was a voracious reader and when he passed away, we felt the books he had amassed over the years would serve a good purpose at the Donora Historical Society, where others could share them,” she said.
Among the other treasured reminders of her father's life at his home were framed and autographed pictures of legendary University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and the fabled Four Horsemen backfield (Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, Elmer Layden) of Fighting Irish fame. Russell, a graduate of Charleroi High School, attended Notre Dame, played football there and established a strong relationship with Rockne.
“I wasn't sure about what to do with the photographs of Rockne and the Four Horsemen,” Smith said. “We thought about giving them to the Donora Historical Society or just taking them to our home in Mentor, Ohio. Ultimately, I decided to give them to Bob ‘Butch' Gaydos and Angelo Daberio. They had played for my father at Donora in the 1950s and later played at Notre Dame. It seemed more fitting to have them share further in that legacy. I'm sure dad would have approved.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.