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Connellsville circa 1960s & '70s: Just a swell place to grow up

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 5:39 p.m.
Lori Padilla | For the Daily Courier
Kirk Soxman and Ellen Faris Bessell recall growing up in Connellsville.
Gregg Patterson
Kim Schroyer Patterson
Susan McCarthy
Evan Sanders | Daily Courier
The Connellsville Community Center, located along Fairview Avenue, formerly served as the city's high school.
Evan Sanders | Daily Courier
The swimming pool inside Connellsville Community Center as it is today.
One of Connellsville's favorite entertainment spots - The Orpheum Theater on North Pittsburgh Street. This photo is from 1950.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today, the Daily Courier continues “The Way We Were,” followed by “Where We're Headed,” a series of articles tracing Connellsville's past through the eyes of residents who lived it. From the 1930s through the New Millennium, “The Way We Were” will give a human perspective of Connellsville's boomtown years as well as its hard times and will end with a flourish, focusing on good news — we hope — for the future of our town in particular and Southwestern Pennsylvania in general. The series will run throughout December.

By the time teenagers graduated from high school in the mid-1970s, disco music, lighted dance floors and slinky, shiny quiana clothes were becoming the “in” thing.

But 1970s teenagers were children during the 1960s. Those treasured memories tugged at the heartstrings of five classmates who met this past summer to reminisce about growing up in Connellsville.

They waxed nostalgic about their carefree childhood years, recalling how they gleefully roamed the city's streets and backyards until the curfew whistle shrilled them home.

“We were allowed to stay out late, especially during the summer, but we had to take time out for dinner — and be on time! Then we'd head back outside to play with our friends,” recalled Susan McCarthy, who moved back to Connellsville from Washington, D.C, more than a decade ago and now owns a successful public relations firm.

McCarthy and several of her Connellsville Area High School classmates met at the Daily Courier this summer for a trip down memory lane.

Downtown still bustled

The kids who grew up in Connellsville during the 1960s and early 1970s are the last to remember the hustle and bustle of a downtown — where all the storefronts were occupied and Saturday nights were something eagerly awaited.

“There used to be a buzzer to cross people at Brimstone Corner (the intersection of Crawford Avenue and Pittsburgh Street). That's how busy town was,” said Ellen Faris Bessell, a publicist who now lives in Richmond, Va.

The group remembered scavenging for pop bottles, which were cashed in for 2 pennies each — and promptly spent at neighborhood businesses.

“There were no chain stores (such as Wal-Mart, Target, etc.) back then. Everything was locally owned,” Bessell said.

“I remember we had a great musical culture back then. There was not only the Mozart Club, but a Junior Mozart Club as well,” said McCarthy.

“Our whole world was music when we were kids,” Bessell recalled. “My parents were singing all the time.”

It was a slower, simpler era far removed from today's technologically driven world of iPhones and the Internet. The city's many playgrounds played a major role in youngsters' lives back then.

Summer or winter, East Park — Connellsville's version of New York City's Central Park — lured kids and entire families — by the hundreds.

They ‘played' around

“My pappy (Tom Balsley) ran the film projector for East Park's summer movies, so I was a real big-shot,” said Kim Schroyer Patterson.

She remembered that the park was flooded each winter and became a giant ice rink. She has a good reason to remember the icy activity — her first date with her husband (and classmate) Gregg Patterson involved ice skating together at East Park the winter of 1971.

Both became teachers. Gregg has worked for Highmark Blue Cross / Blue Shield for many years. The Pattersons now live in Harrisburg.

Tom Faris, father of Ellen Faris Bessell, was an art teacher who conducted East Park's summer program.

“Dad taught the kids arts and crafts like plaster molds and pot holders,” said the now Virginian.

“Physical-fitness competitions were held every summer,” said Kirk Soxman, a banker from Philadelphia whose father was Dr. Don Soxman, a longtime local cardiologist who retired in the 1980s. “The different parks would compete against each other.”

Recalling The Orpheum

When they weren't at the playgrounds, kids could cut the rug at Friday night dances at the Youth Center on Arch Street (now District Justice Ron Haggerty Jr.'s office).

Or, they could take in a movie downtown. By the 1960s, the Soisson Theatre was closed, but there still was the Orpheum —albeit rundown — on North Pittsburgh Street.

McCarthy remembered paying 35 cents to see such blockbusters as The Beatles' “Help!” and “A Hard Day's Night.”

As for the movie house's condition, she wryly put it this way: “Well, we never actually saw any rats — but we kept our feet up, just in case!”

Connellsville Area High School's 1970s graduating classes were the district's largest ever — the largest was the Class of 1977, when more than 600 seniors received diplomas. Although the longtime friends fondly remember the high school days, elementary and junior high were the most nostalgic.

McCarthy attended Cameron Elementary School in fourth grade, next to Carnegie Free Library on South Pittsburgh Street. “It was such a beautiful Victorian building.” she recalled. Cameron Elementary eventually was demolished; there is a basketball court on the lot today.

Connellsville's current junior high building on Falcon Drive started out as Connellsville Joint High School; it became Junior High East in the late 1960s, when Dunbar Township and Connellsville Joint school districts were merged. In the early- and mid-1960s, junior high students hit the books on East Fairview Avenue in the building that now houses Connellsville Community Center.

High school ‘amazingly' modern

Constructed in the early 1900s, the massive brick building — which started out as Connellsville High School — was amazingly modern for its day — a large auditorium (now renovated as the Edwin S. Porter Theatre, named for an early movie director from Connellsville); a full-sized gymnasium; and even a swimming pool.

“I can remember like yesterday walking down from pool's upstairs locker room; there was a spiral staircase (which still stands),” recalled Soxman.

There were no co-ed gym classes back then, and the boys took full advantage, sometimes swimming butt-naked, according to Gregg Patterson.

The group stressed that walking to school was the norm back then for city kids — and walking from school-to-school. Cameron Elementary students were sometimes privileged to take a dip in the junior high pool — and in any kind of weather.

“We'd walk there — even in the winter. Lots of times, I can remember my hair freezing on the walk back,” Bessell said.

The group cackled as they remembered junior high science teacher Walt Egnot's daily warning: “No Walt'szing at Walt's!” — a mom-and-pop store and dairy bar on East Fairview Avenue below the school. The business was a popular hangout for kids.

Not only were teachers strict, so was the school-dress code.

No jeans for them!

“We had to wear dresses or skirts until we were in ninth grade,” said Kim Patterson. “No jeans for us. That didn't come until late in high school.”

McCarthy interjected.

“If teachers thought our skirts were too short, we had to kneel down on the floor. Brother, you better hope the skirt touched the floor or you were in big trouble,” she said.

Even the boys had wardrobe anxiety back then.

“If they couldn't put a golf ball in their pockets, those pants were too tight!” McCarthy exclaimed.

Kids who grew up in the ‘60s were the last to cheer for the Connellsville Cokers and wear the traditional orange and black. By the time they reached high school, they had switched to royal blue and white and the Connellsville Area Falcons were in full flight. “It was just a wonderful time to grow up in Connellsville,” said Kim Patterson, referring to those years as her “sweet memories of childhood.”

Friday: 1970s teens' memories: From JFK to ‘Tricky Dick'

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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