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Joe Battista: April was Nice Trip Down Memory Lane

by on May 02, 2012 6:53 AM

April didn't just bring showers. For me, it also brought Easter with family, Blue-White Weekend with alumni and friends and the annual Hockey Coaches Convention in Naples, Fla.

That's right; we hockey people are smarter than you think.

I never set out to write a column about taking a stroll down memory lane while visiting my parents for Easter, old friends during Blue-White Weekend or being a part of history at the Big Ten Hockey meetings.

I thought I'd be writing about the NCAA "Frozen Four" which, believe it or not, was held in Tampa. It was won once again by Boston College, which made new Penn State football coach Bill O'Brien's wife Colleen happy, since she is a BC grad and avid hockey fan. That's three national titles in five years for BC, whose head coach, Jerry York, is one of the all-time good guys in College Hockey.

Easter was a great time to catch up with family and old neighborhood friends. This past Easter, on our annual pilgrimage to the Pittsburgh suburb of Penn Hills, I was definitely surprised because of the relevance it had to my past and my present. I would be willing to bet those of you with your own kids can relate in some way to my experience when I visited my old stomping grounds.

We have an 11-year-old son, Ryan, who is a fifth-grader and the last of our three kids to attend Corl Street Elementary School in State College. The school has been wonderful to our family and it will be bittersweet when the school year ends. We can't say enough great things about the teachers and staffs that have helped raise and educate our kids. They have been terrific and we will always be grateful.

So while taking a walk with my wife, Ryan, and our dog, we decided to visit Dible School, my old elementary school in Penn Hills, which held a special place in my heart.  Lo and behold the path I walked to get to school had been fenced off, and as we peered through the fence we saw that it had been reduced to rubble.  It was a bit of a shock to the system, as the school, which was brand new when I was a kid, was gone.  My friends and I didn’t just go to school there, we played baseball, football, street hockey, basketball and basically hung out there for our formative years.

We found a hole cut in the fence (which if you know Penn Hills that wouldn’t surprise you) and we walked onto the grounds and I suddenly was back at school remembering the teachers and friends who made a difference in my life. I started naming the teachers as we walked where the hallways once stood, and when we came to where my fifth grade classroom was I had to pause.

You see, fifth grade was one of those special years for me, perhaps my favorite year for many reasons.  Some of my best friends to this day were in my fifth grade class taught by a gentleman who I am proud to say was a mentor then and still a friend today.

Mr. Kologie was one of those people who as I look back on my life made a major impact in shaping who I became.  He saw something in me more than just a rambunctious kid who loved sports and mischief (and not always in that order).  He became the disciplinary figure who helped me realize I had more potential than just being a class clown.  He showed me that it was cool to do well in school and to make learning fun.

I have kept in touch with Mr. K, not as often as I would have liked, but enough that just recently he dropped off a trophy to my parents that was from my fifth grade basketball team.  I thought it was amazing that he still had it and shared it with me.  I was a scrub player but played with heart, and it was a meaningful gesture that he shared the trophy with me.

As we left Dible School, I reached down and picked up a piece of the brick that was where my fifth grade classroom would have been and put it in my pocket as a keepsake.  That is how much my time there meant to me and perhaps it was a small way of saying thank you to the teachers and classmates who made that time for me so special.

As we walked away from the school and back into the neighborhood streets, a vaguely familiar looking woman walked over to me and asked if I would mind taking a picture of her and her kids and her mom.  She didn’t recognize me right away (remember I had a big afro back in the day), but I knew from the house it was one of my old baseball teammates’ sister who had asked me to take the picture.

I cautiously said, “Cindy, Cindy Stipancic?”

She looked at me and realized it was an old friend of the family that she just happened to ask for help.  She gave me a hug, introduced me to her kids and then to her mom who was tickled to see me.  My father had coached two of the Stipancic boys and I was good friends with Chuck who was also a baseball teammate.

Small world.

It gave me the opportunity to talk to my son about remembering the people who make a difference in your life. Frank Kologie, my fifth grade teacher was one of those people. Mrs. Eve Evans, Ryan’s fifth grade teacher, has had a similar impact on him.  She’s been a great influence on Ryan, representative of all the teachers at Corl Street. Maybe 40 years from now Ryan will be able to come back to State College and show his kids the place that helped shape him.

On April 19, Blue-White Weekend kicked off for me as John Dufford, “The Grandfather of Penn State Ice Hockey” and I attended a dinner that was hosted by our construction management firm for the Pegula Ice Arena.

It kicked off what was to be an incredible weekend as we celebrated the “official” groundbreaking ceremony for the Pegula Ice Arena.  It was a time to take a step back and see just how far we had come in such a short time.
Friday was the actual ceremony to honor the Pegula’s for their magnificent generosity. In front of an appreciative crowd of 300 friends, family, alums, PSU staff, the media, and hockey players, Terry announced that Kim and he had decided to up their gift to the project to $102 million.

The crowd assembled responded with a standing ovation and the smile on my face grew even bigger than before. Seeing so many former Icers, boosters, donors and old friends who have supported the program was the icing on the cake.

After a lunch at the Penn Stater we brought the Pegulas to the Applied Research Lab to take the “virtual reality" tour of their arena.  It was fun walking through the arena with them and answering their questions.  Afterward we met with our physical plant staff, our architect, CM, and others to physically visit the site of the Pegula Ice Arena. Later that night friends and family gathered at the Pegula home in State College for dinner and to watch NHL playoff hockey.

The next day was the Blue-White Game and a chance to see a lot of friends from decades past and newer friends from my days as NLC Director and Major Gift Officer at Smeal College of Business. Saturday night was another special part of the weekend, as I attended the Lion Ambassador 30th anniversary dinner where I spoke as the representative of the 1980’s.  Once again it was fun seeing old friends and catching up on family and careers. The Ambassadors are a special group and I will always be proud to have been there at the start.  The evening ended with drinks with two of the founders of the Icer Club program from 1971, Coach Larry Hendry and his wife, and Team Captain Dick Merkel.

April came to a close with the annual American Hockey Coaches Convention and Big Ten Hockey meetings in Naples, Fla.  It was the 25th time I have attended the meetings and this one was even more special with our entry into the NCAA beginning next year for our teams.

One of our best players to ever wear a Penn State jersey, Alon Eizenman, was inducted into the ACHA Hall of Fame on Saturday morning. As he gave his outstanding speech about his career and education at Penn State, tears rolled down my cheeks. He was one of many amazing young men I had the privilege to coach at PSU, and his heartfelt words meant the world to me and my wife.

The Convention came to an end and so did the month of April.  It turned out to be a rather memorable month for me and my family and for Penn State Hockey.

It was a reminder for me to step back and remember the difference people can make in your life and how important family and friends are as you go through this journey of life.  It was an April that I will not soon forget.

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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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