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Last Donora open house inspires warm memories

| Saturday, June 25, 2011

DONORA — Slowly, the alumni walked through the halls of the 81-year-old school building as if they were looking for something.

And in their journey Friday afternoon, they found it — memories of the schoolhouse where classes were held for the last time just two weeks ago.

As visitors entered the now-closed Donora Elementary Center, there were photographs of each school staff for each year since it became an elementary school in 1980.

The event was open for current students and their families as well as graduates of the school.

The staff and students are moving to Ringgold Elementary South, which will be housed in the newly renovated Carroll Middle School building.

The last day on June 8 was solemn, Donora Elementary Center Principal Ross Ference said. He said the community, including the staff, was very committed to the school.

Teachers have packed for the move. Ference said the event was held Friday because it was a couple weeks removed from the emotional last day of school, and before the move begins.

"Today, we're here to commemorate the legacy of Donora Elementary School and Donora High School," Ference said.

Dr. Charles Stacey graduated from Donora High School in 1949. He was the last principal at the high school in 1979. He later served as Ringgold School District superintendent.

"I taught here for 15 years. I was federal programs coordinator, and my office was over there," Stacey said, pointing down the hall near the school's entrance.

"It breaks my heart that they're closing this school. I have a lot of memories here."

Stacey suggested the building continue to be used for education, possibly as a branch location for California University of Pennsylvania or a community college.

"It would be a shame for this building to go the way of so many other schools, to rot and then ultimately be razed," Stacey said.

Stacey said the school's charm was in the students — byproducts of working-class families in Donora.

"They were instilled with the belief that to get ahead in life, you have to work hard and that begins with a good education," Stacey said.

Stacey then pointed to a mural above the auditorium entrance. Painted by art teacher Earl Gilpin in 2008, it depicts six alumni — Major League Baseball stars Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Sr., football greats Art Galiffa and Deacon Dan Towler, federal judge Reggie Walton, and Marquette NCAA basketball championship team member Ulice Payne.

"What other small school could produce a group like that?" Stacey asked.

Opened in 1930, the school still contains the original brown and beige octagon tile. When it was constructed, the auditorium ceiling was built higher because a balcony was planned. However, money ran short and that plan was scrapped — along with designs for a two, t-shaped wings on one end of the building.

"It's sad that this school is closing — there are a lot of memories here," said Josephine Bentz, Class of 1956.

"We're having a reunion this year, and I have to tell them to make a ride by here."

Bill Bandalo stood inside the gymnasium, recalling his small taste of fame more than 50 years ago.

Bandalo was a bench-warmer for the Donora Dragons in 1960 when they hosted South Hills.

"I had my shoestrings untied," recalled Bandalo, who said the clock was winding down.

"I wasn't going in."

But that changed in a minute — or a minute and a half — when playmaker Butch Ramey fouled out.

"Coach said, 'Bandalo, go in,'" he recalled of the moment in the dying 90 seconds of the game.

After tying his shoes, Bandalo entered the game. Fate placed the ball in his hands at mid-court. The self-proclaimed worst free throw shooter was fouled and placed at the line with his team down 55-54. He banked in the first shot — and then duplicated that feat with the second. The Dragons won.

"Some people say his best accomplishment was tying his shoes," Stacey said as both men laughed.

Bandalo recalled the end-of-the-year senior play — an annual event. The whole community came out to see it.

Walking the halls Friday, Bandalo said, "Memories — memories of a nice period."

A Monessen native, John Kerekes served as a student teacher at the school. His first day there, the principal's secretary took him to his class. They eventually married.

"We're sad to see it close," Marjorie Kerekes said. "Beautiful memories ... ."

Clyde Horton played center on the Dragons' football team. After graduating in 1952, he played at the University of Miami.

From the second floor, Horton looked down at Legion Field.

"I remember running out the tunnel onto that field," Horton said.

Kerekes recalled when a Veterans Day parade downtown was followed by a football game at Legion Field.

"This building's in good shape for its age," Horton said.

Peggy Anderson was a majorette, graduating in 1964. She retired this year after 13 years as a teacher's aide in the special education program.

"I did lunch duty here every day, and I thought that's the same place where I went to all of my proms," Anderson said.

As she helped greet visitors, Anderson saw many people she hadn't seen in years. It was a testament to what the school meant to Donora, she said.

"It's the heart and soul of Donora — it's the beacon on the hill," Anderson said. "With them closing it, it breaks everyone's heart."

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