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History shaped school identities

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 1:41 a.m.

The Colonials. The Commodores. The Falcons. The Mustangs. The Red Raiders. The Scotties. The Vikings.

To residents of rural Fayette and Westmoreland counties, the names evoke pride in one's high school alma mater.

They are mascots that currently represent Fayette County's six public high schools, as well as those in the Southmoreland and Mt. Pleasant Area school districts in Westmoreland County.

To many parents, students and administrators currently served by these schools, those mascots might simply be names associated with sports teams. To others, they epitomize pride, recognition and accomplishment.

Whatever the case, area historians, former administrators and past teachers claim that bitter rivalries and bittersweet compromise often accompanied the establishment of the current local high school mascots.

During football season, it's hard to miss the blue-and-white pride shown by Falcons fans in Connellsville. Former principal Jerry Zavatsky pointed out, however, that the school's 40-year-old mascot has rather peculiar roots.

Prior to 1966, Zavatsky said, what is now known as the Connellsville Area School District was served by two high schools -- Connellsville Township and Dunbar Township -- each with its own mascot.

Representing the former Connellsville Township High School were the Cokers, a name Zavatsky said might have been related to Southwestern Pennsylvania's history in the coal mining industry. For reasons he was unable to specify, Dunbar Township students were represented by the Mules.

Before the merger of these two schools in 1966, Zavatsky said an intense rivalry existed between them, which created a hostile environment when the jointure was made official.

"Students who once played each other on the football field now had classes together," he said.

After the merger, students, teachers and administrators were given several suggestions from which a new mascot was chosen. After votes were counted and a decision was finalized by the newly formed district, the Cokers of Connellsville and the Mules of Dunbar became the Falcons, a decision Zavatsky said did not sit well with supporters on either side.

"Both sides were upset because they each lost their identity," he said.

In addition to losing their mascots, Zavatsky said, students from Connellsville and Dunbar also were forced to accept new school colors. The red and black that represented Dunbar and the orange and black that represented Connellsville Township were replaced by blue and white during the survey that ultimately established the school district's current identity.

Although Zavatsky could not pinpoint a particular reason behind the significance of the falcon or the school's new colors, he speculated that the late Stan McLaughlin might have influenced the district's decision. McLaughlin was a football coach at Dunbar prior to the merger, and he became the athletic director of the district shortly afterward, Zavatsky said.

McLaughlin had served in the armed forces as an Air Force pilot. The Air Force Academy's official mascot is a falcon and its colors are blue and white -- a similarity, Zavatsky added, that is most likely not coincidental.

"I could be way out in left field (about this), but I don't think so," he said.

Jointures similar to the one that created the Connellsville Area School District were not uncommon during the 1960s and 1970s. Zavatsky said the mergers were declared necessary by lawmakers in Harrisburg, who claimed they would save the taxpayers money. In fact, former district officials from five of Fayette County's schools claim their districts resulted from mergers of schools in neighboring communities.

Uniontown Area High School's mascot, however, survived the educational mega-mergers of the 1960s.

Retired broadcast journalist and Uniontown historian Al Owens, who has spent countless hours researching the history of Uniontown Area High School, said the school's mascot, the Red Raiders, has represented the district for many decades.

After retiring from a 30-year-long career in broadcast journalism, Owens said he began researching the area's history, and in the process became infatuated with the athletic history of Uniontown Area High School.

"It started to be one of those things I did in my spare time, but I started to get feverish," he said. One of the missions of his research was to discover when the school began using the mascot, which Owens has not yet verified.

"I sort of boiled it down to the mid-1930s, because that's when the name first appeared in the student-published newspaper," Owens said.

Although Owens could not specifically pinpoint the mascot's origin, an article on his Web site,, stated the name may have come from a tribe of American Indians who settled in the hills above what is now Uniontown. According to the article, a tribe of Delaware Indians led by Chief Nemacolin was driven out of its homeland by German and Scottish settlers who began settling the land. In retaliation, Chief Nemacolin ordered his tribesmen to raid the villages to secure food for the tribe.

According to Owens' article, novelist Conrad Richter referred to the American Indians as "red raiders," and was therefore credited with being the person to coin the phrase.

Owens also noted that prior to the modern rivalry between Laurel Highlands and Uniontown, Connellsville and Uniontown were bitter rivals. The Laurel Highlands-Uniontown rivalry, he added, was partially inspired by the countywide jointures.

Brownsville Area School District was another Fayette County school system that was formed from educational consolidation.

Brownsville historian Glenn Tunney said the John A. Brashear Brownies and the Redstone Blackhawks, who were bitter rivals prior to merging, joined forces to become the Brownsville Falcons in 1967. Consequently, Tunney noted, hostility between the rivals-turned-teammates flourished for months after the jointure.

"Students from Redstone and Brownsville separated themselves right within the school," Tunney said. "At basketball games, they even sat at opposite sides of the gym."

Al Trush, athletic director of the newly formed district, met with the principal and superintendent to decide on a name for the school.

"They didn't want the name to favor one way or the other," he said. The falcon was chosen as a representative symbol because it most closely resembled the Blackhawks of Redstone.

At the meeting where the mascot reportedly was chosen, Trush noted that in choosing the Falcons, the district would be duplicating Connellsville's mascot. The district decided to use the mascot regardless, he said.

Tunney also noted that the rivalries that existed between Redstone and Brownsville began to subside after the initial year of jointure, and were virtually nonexistent by the following baseball season.

Another merger, between North Union and South Union township school systems, resulted in the formation of the Laurel Highlands School District. James Tobal, Laurel Highlands School Board member, said the North Union Rams and the South Union Blue Devils merged to create the Laurel Highlands Mustangs.

Tobal said he believes several cultural influences of the time period, such as the first Ford Mustang and the P-51 fighter plane (which was called the Mustang) used in World War II contributed to the selection of the mascot.

"To go from a Ram and a Blue Devil is something special," Tobal said.

He also said some of the students responsible for selecting the mascot indicated the mustang's patriotic symbolism of the free and independent spirit of the American West as a reason for their decision, which also is reflected by the school's red, white and blue colors.

Sometime during Fayette County's school district jointure frenzy, another fierce rivalry was taking place.

Vivian Kovach, a 1971 graduate of Fairchance-Georges High School, said rivalries among the Fairchance-Georges Runners, the Albert Gallatin Colonials and the German Township High School Uhlans were brewing when the three school systems merged to form the Albert Gallatin Area School District.

Wayne Brewers, a social studies teacher who worked for the district both before and after the jointure, was unable to explain why the district maintained its identity as the Colonials. Although the three school systems merged sometime between 1971 and 1976, he said, Fairchance-Georges and German Township high schools retained their individual identities until the mid-1980s, when the F-G building became the current Albert Gallatin High School.

While divisive rivalries seemed to dominate other area mergers, the Frazier School District somehow managed to keep its original identity intact when a jointure between Perry Township and Lower Tyrone Township formed the Mary Fuller Frazier Memorial High School in Perryopolis.

John Martinak, who serves on the Perryopolis Area Heritage Society, said the historic town derives its name from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, of Lake Erie fame. Perry also is credited with inspiring the school district's mascot, Martinak said.

Prior to 1960, Martinak said Frazier was known as Perry Township High School, and its mascot was the Commodore. Since the school was renamed after Mary Fuller-Frazier in 1960, the district has retained its original identity as the Frazier Commodores.

The jointure of Hearst and Ramsey high schools resulted in the formation of the Mt. Pleasant Area High School during the consolidation era of the 1960s.

Athletic director Ron Firment said a contest among students shortly after the merger of the two high schools resulted in the establishment of the Vikings as the district's official mascot sometime during the 1960s. Firment has been Mt. Pleasant's athletic director since 1971, and said the school's mascot has been the Vikings for as long as he can remember.

"We've been the Vikings forever here," Firment said.

Like the Laurel Highlands School District, Firment said the jointure of the two high schools resulted in a color combination of red, white and blue.

"I honestly think the mascot and the colors were chosen to avoid favoritism and one-sidedness," Firment said.

Prior to the jointure, Firment said, Hearst's mascot was the Hurricanes and the Bobcats represented Ramsey.

"With colors, sometimes you get lucky, but mascots aren't so easy," he added.

An even exchange between the former Scottdale and East Huntingdon high schools resulted in a compromise that ultimately formed the Southmoreland School District in 1964.

Athletic director Dennis Zieger said that prior to the jointure, East Huntingdon's mascot was the Bulldogs and Scottdale was represented by the Scotties.

As a result of the jointure, East Huntingdon agreed to accept Scottdale's mascot in exchange for the retention of its original school colors, red and black.

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