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Joe Battista: An Evening with Walter Bahr

by on July 05, 2012 6:00 AM

In the midst of all the drama around "the trial" and fighting off the verbal assault from my anti-Penn State "friends," my wife and I enjoyed a fun reminder of why we will always be thankful that we are Penn Staters and we live in State College.

With all the graduation ceremonies, weddings, and summer parties these past few weekends, we have been reminded that the people of this area and the alums themselves are what really makes Happy Valley a special place.

Last Saturday we attended a pig roast hosted by Chris and Eve Bahr at their home in Boalsburg. We have been friends with the Bahr’s for a long time and that friendship grew when our sons, Jonathon and Dieter, attended daycare together. The boys played youth soccer for many years until Jonathon’s interests turned toward computers, while Dieter followed his family’s tradition to become a standout soccer player (he will play college soccer at the University of Delaware this fall).

As I loaded up my plate with meat from the roasted pig and grabbed a cold beverage to battle the summer heat, I saw a familiar face sitting in the shade. It was my old racquetball instructor, better known in these parts as former Penn State legendary men’s soccer coach, Walter Bahr.

He is one of this area’s true gentlemen and a local treasure. The next few hours were a treasure as I sat and talked with Walter while friends and family would occasionally join in.

Few too many people are aware of Walter’s role in the history of American soccer. Walter grew up In the Philadelphia suburb of Kensington in a neighborhood that was mostly made up of Irish and German immigrants who made their living working in the textile mills. They learned the value of hard work and determination and, most of all grit.

Walter was a long time captain of the U.S. national soccer team and a member of the 1950 U.S. World Cup soccer team that upset England 1-0 and was the subject of the feature film, "The Miracle Match." If you have not seen the movie, it is available on DVD and is a great way to spend a night at home with a family-friendly movie.

Walter is best known locally for his career as a soccer coach at Penn State, where his teams were always among the best in the NCAA. He also is known for being the father of two former Penn State soccer players, NFL kickers and Super Bowl champions (Chris and Matt Bahr), for being a presence at the State College Elks Club and, perhaps most importantly, as the spouse of local women’s athletics trailblazer and businesswoman, Davies Bahr.

Our conversation actually started that night when I asked him what happened to “his” Germans against “my” Italians in the European playoffs?  I was obviously trying to get a rise out of him and he took the bait.

“The German coach played right into the Italian’s hands. Italy controlled the middle. Mario Balotelli just dominated the game.” 

Of course, he has forgotten more about soccer strategy than I will ever know. He said the problem with too many soccer teams is that they don’t have a "Spielmacher," or a playmaker. 

Coach was also quick to remind me that Spain dominated Italy 4-0 in the title game.

My own story with coach Bahr begins in 1979 when I was a sophomore at Penn State and I took a racquetball class and, low and behold, coach Bahr was my instructor. 

He was quite an athlete and an outstanding racquetball player in his own right. I was a pretty brash young guy who hated to lose at anything and played with the same pace no matter what the sport, hard and gritty.  Well, let’s just say I lacked a certain “finesse” in the court, and when you put a hockey player in a confined space with a stick or racquet, something bad was bound to happen.

Coach Bahr told my wife and his daughter-in-law Eve that, “Joe was the only guy I ever threw out of racquetball class. If he couldn't outhit someone he would try to outwork them and inevitably run them over or whack them with his racquet. He intimidated some of the kids with his style, and I had to teach him a lesson.”

As everyone laughed at my expense I did have to remind coach Bahr that I did win the class tournament, including an upset victory over the reigning PSU open division racquetball champion. He said it was because the guy was just trying to get out of the court in one piece.

During the course of the night, a few good tales were told that included a few gems from the coach.

My wife, Heidi, and Eve Bahr have enjoyed a long friendship which has been reignited recently as the two of them enjoy pushing each other at spinning class at the State College YMCA. When the ladies brought that up to Walter he said, “Spinning class? You mean like stationary bikes? Spinning is like putting a gold watch on a dead man's wrist, it's a waste of time.”

Davies stopped by to tell the story of how Walter took her to see Harry “the Hat” Walker of Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 ... for their honeymoon.

Then she told us that when Walter was invited to play golf at legendary Oakmont Country Club for the first time, he gladly accepted but added, "This is like taking a ukulele player to Carnegie Hall."

What came out so eloquently throughout the night was just how genuine Walter was and how humble. 

He told us that he missed a lot of the people he worked with at Rec Hall, including guys like John Franks. He wasn’t a top administrator or public figure. He was the guy in charge of laundry, the team bus driver, the guy who managed events at Rec Hall. He described John as one of the many people who did their jobs and did them well with the main purpose of helping others.

As the evening came to a close Chris and Eve were saying their goodbyes to their guests and starting to clean up.  There was Walter "coaching” Chris and reminding him of things that needed to be done to store the leftovers and clear the tables and chairs. 

Chris simply said, “Dad I know, 'Relax, would ya?' ”

Walter then turned to me and said, “Did I tell you that Chris was un-coachable?"

What a special evening with a great coach and teacher.

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From ice hockey to Intercollegiate Athletics and Smeal, JoeBa has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities. Battista was an influential player in the effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley. He is now Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Buffalo Sabres.
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