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Happier Than Ever in Happy Valley

by on May 25, 2017 9:22 AM

At my age, time flies whether you’re having fun or not. But my last 12 months have surged by with an unusual rapidity, partly because of the enjoyment I’ve gained from writing this column since last May.  

Of course, it’s not really the writing that’s brought me so much joy. It’s the people I’ve met. Having lived elsewhere from 1974 to 2013, I had a lot of reacquainting to do, and this column has provided the impetus that I needed.

If I wasn’t writing this column, would I have taken the time to sit down and chat with Emma Gunsallus, the gracious greeter who has worked at The Corner Room for 58 years?  Would I have been motivated to track down JeMarc Boliver, a Philipsburg resident who reported the sighting of a mountain lion (perhaps a real “Nittany Lion” in central Pennsylvania)?  Would I have scheduled an interview with Jeff Byers, the radio voice of Penn State’s NCAA champion wrestling team?   

Yes, it’s been meaningful for me to chronicle State College and Penn State throughout the last year. But which memories are the richest? And which stories are still unfolding? Let’s walk our way through some memorable columns from the last 12 months:

The Corner Room: Emma Still Greeting; Lots of Good Feeding

Some things never change at The Corner Room, and one of those unchanging factors is Emma’s omnipresent smile. After 58 years, she truly is an icon within the icon. “She has cut down to working four days a week,” says John Briggs, the restaurant’s general manager, “but she still plans on being at The Corner Room during football weekends.  People still come in and give her kisses or friendly hellos before or after their dining experience.”

Some things have changed, however, at the intersection of College Avenue and Allen Street. As for the menu, Briggs and his staff are still serving “great home cooked meals at reasonable prices,” but Baja salmon has proven to be a hot new addition. As for the employees, Brenda Marshall — second only to Emma with 39 years of service — moved to western Pennsylvania last fall to be closer to her husband’s family.

Mike Archer: Top Flight Coach Lands Job in Canada

I played years of baseball with Mike Archer — Teener League, Centre County Junior League, high school ball for State High. He was a star catcher; I was a mediocre first baseman. But I always knew Arch was a savvy sportsman — in baseball, basketball and football — so I wasn’t that surprised when he emerged as an outstanding coach. After graduating from the University of Miami where he played safety, Mike coached at his alma mater, then went on to LSU where he served as an assistant before landing the head coaching job in 1987.  His four-year record was more than respectable at 27-18-1, but not good enough for Tiger fans.  So he returned to the world of an assistant, serving with the University of Virginia (two stints), the University of Kentucky (two stints), North Carolina State and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  

Mike wore no head phones in 2016, having lost his job at Virginia when head coach Mike London was fired. But I was pretty sure that the pride of State High (Class of 1971) would find a significant role in football for 2017. And it happened. While talking to Mike in early April, he surprised me by saying, “I’m going to be coaching with the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League.” And I’m sure he’ll do well as the Argos’ linebacker coach. No matter that the CFL plays on a 110-yard field with 12 players on a team and only three downs per series — Mike will figure it out.


 

Mike Archer instructs Virginia linebacker C.J. Stalker. Photo provided by University of Virginia

State High Wrestling: Catching up with the Homer Barr Family

I’ve been around a lot of coaches in my life—my own coaches and those who worked with my three sons in baseball, soccer, lacrosse and wrestling. But having interviewed several State High wrestlers from the early 1960s, I can truly say I never heard of a coach quite like Homer Barr — a man who was so tremendously successful in competition and so highly revered as a role model. To put it in a nutshell, how many coaches could win 64 straight dual meets (as Barr did from 1957 to 1962) while always remaining cool, calm and collected?  

But in 1966, Homer left State College to become the head wrestling coach at the University of Massachusetts. He was successful there in building a victorious team, until a brain tumor took his life in 1975 at the age of 48.

Because of the move to Massachusetts and the untimely death of Coach Barr, many of Homer’s State High wrestlers lost touch with the Barr family. And that’s why I was so glad to hear from Jim Barr, Homer’s third child and oldest son, after my column was posted on Dec. 8.

The grown-up Barr “children” include Candy (yes, Candy Barr), Ginger, Jim and Peter. They are all married, and they have a combined total of 14 children. Homer’s wife, Blanche, lives near Ginger, in Massachusetts.

As for the most predictable question, Peter didn’t choose to compete in wrestling, and Jim won about half of his high school matches while achieving greater success in football. (He was a starting offensive lineman for Amherst College.) But wrestling was never far from the Barrs. When one of Homer’s future sons-in-law visited the family, Homer actually picked up the young man with a fireman’s carry and tossed him onto the living room couch! As for Blanche, she had watched the sport ever since Homer was a star grappler at Clearfield High School, so she was the one — after Homer’s death — to attend Jim’s matches. “She knew the sport so well,” says Jim, “that she was always telling me moves to make or yelling at the ref.”

Today, Jim and his wife, Beth, live in Portsmouth, Va., and he works in marketing for “BibleWorks,” a producer of Bible study software. Old friends and former State High wrestlers can contact him through [email protected] or at (757) 627-7014.



Newlyweds Homer and Blanche Barr. (Photo provided by Jim Barr)

Jeff Byers: The Maestro Brings Us Wrestling Thrills

When I interviewed Jeff Byers for a February column, I actually felt the radio announcer for Penn State wrestling was speaking rather boldly when asked about the Lions’ chances for a sixth NCAA team championship in seven years. “If they stay healthy,” said Byers, “they’ll win.”  Well, they didn’t stay healthy, but they did win. Although the Lions lost third seeded 125-pounder Nick Suriano to injury, they still posted 146.5 points while Ohio State (110 points), Oklahoma State (103) and Iowa (97) trailed far behind.

For Byers, the chance to call five consecutive individual titles for Penn State represented a series of ecstatic experiences. Hey, Jeff, how about Vincenzo Joseph’s pin of two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez? “I would be hard-pressed to pick a single more spectacular moment in Penn State wrestling history,” says Byers, the Lions’ broadcaster since 1990. But then he also mentions Bo Nickal “moving up a weight class and taking down a two-time national champion.”

He applauds Mark Hall—“this is a kid who really wasn’t sure if he should come out of his redshirt season, loses his first match at Iowa… and the fact that he won a national title as a true freshman is very inspiring.”

And of course, Byers can’t overlook the team’s top stars, noting that “Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf, just with the way they wrestle, are inspiring.”

Can it get any better than this, wrestling fans? Not only does Penn State capture a team title and five individual titles, but we get our radio coverage from a true talent, a man I described as “The Maestro at the Microphone.”  And to show you his good humor, he even chuckles over that label. “A lot of my friends have been having fun with it,” he says, “and I’m getting a kick out of it. People ribbing me over ‘The Maestro’ and tying it into the Seinfeld episode.”


 

Jeff Byers interviews Mark Hall after a victorious performance in Rec Hall. (Photo by Jennie Yorks)

State High Boys’ Track Team: Another Trophy in the Case

Despite decades of dominance under Jackson Horner, State High’s legendary track and field coach, the Little Lion boys never won a state title. That is, they never won such a title until last May. Then, under first-year head coach Steve Shisler, the Lions put together enough clutch performances to edge Downingtown West by one point for the PIAA championship. I saluted Shisler’s crew this March, when they opened their 2017 outdoor season. But how would they do this year after graduating a large group of outstanding performers?

Well, if this season was supposed to be one of “rebuilding,” the construction project went quite well.  Last Friday, the Little Lions captured their District 6 title by nipping Altoona, 185.5 to 180.  

“The team feels really good about being able to defend the district title,” says Shisler. “It's the first time in more than 20 years that the State College boys team has defended the team title.”  

Meanwhile, the girls’ team continued its dominance by winning 11 of 18 events and capturing a twelfth straight District 6 crown. Both boys and girls qualifiers will compete in the state meet this Friday and Saturday at Shippensburg University.


 

State College's 4 x 800 team celebrates its "800 High" victory. From left are Owen Wing, Alex Milligan and Nick Feffer with Tony Degleris turned away from the camera. (Photo by David Beyerle)

State High vs Bellefonte Rivalry: Still Alive in Our Memories

My April 6 column focused on the “lore behind the war,” reporting on the pranks that accompanied the annual Iron Kettle football game. But after posting that story, I gleaned lots of additional material.

For example, I learned that a particular gene for mischief may run in State College’s Breon family. Just a few days ago, I talked with Betsy Breon Williams, wife of State High’s former head coach Jim Williams, and I heard her story from the 1958 Iron Kettle game. Betsy and her friends decided to celebrate the Little Lions’ 34-0 win by joyfully driving around Bellefonte that night, taunting the residents of our county seat. But Red Raider fans retaliated by throwing tomatoes, temporarily blinding the driver and causing him to hit a telephone pole on Bishop Street.  

Meanwhile, Betsy’s cousin Barb Breon Anthony also participated in some antics on the night before the 1970 game. She was a key player in the infamous painting of huge lion paw prints on Benner Pike from State College to Bellefonte, and for her efforts she was hauled into the Bellefonte police station. But Barb would still say the evening was worthwhile. She’s still chuckling over her father’s mock anger, and she’ll never forget the 44-12 win by State High’s inspired team (including quarterback Mike Archer).


 

Iron Kettle games, including the 1954 contest, were often played on Veteran’s Day.

Kevin Dare: Reflecting Further on a Pole Vault Tragedy

No other interview could match the impact on my mind and heart that was made by my February conversation with Eric Dare, brother of former State High and Penn State pole vaulter Kevin Dare. Kevin died after a tragic fall during competition at the 2002 Big 10 Indoor Track and Field Championships, and my column sought to remind the community of his outstanding life on the 15th anniversary of his death. This column achieved double the readership of anything else I had written all year — because so many still cherish Kevin’s memory and care so deeply for his family.

Indeed, people like the Dares are an inspiration to all of us. Eric and his parents have suffered greatly, yet throughout these years they have channeled time, energy, passion and finances to improve the safety of pole vaulting and to provide scholarships for Penn State athletes. May all of us learn from their courageous example.


 

 

Eric Dare stands before a painting that shows the athletic pursuits of his late brother, Kevin. The painting was done by Matthew Rice, a Penn State football teammate of Eric.



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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