By Jim Raykie
Editor, The Herald
---- — I sat with the Brothers Cardamon - Jim and Vince - at Farrell’s E.J. McCluskey Gymnasium during the recent Sharon-Farrell basketball game.
When the Cardamon family moved to the Shenango Valley from Mount Lebanon in the late 1950s, older brother Jim already had graduated, but Vince entered Farrell High as a sophomore.
Throughout the years, he has proudly said that the move was a life-changing event for him Ð that the Farrell experience for his three years until he graduated in 1960 provided unforgettable and some of the best times in his life.
He’s not alone in that sentiment. Before the game started, Vince was telling fans around him that it hardly seemed like more than 50 years since his days at Farrell High, particularly mentioning the gymnasium as he surveyed the surroundings.
Throughout the years, the gym has experienced some cosmetic changes - bleachers were removed from behind the baskets, the ceiling was lowered, the stage was remodeled, and coats of paint have been added here and there.
But for the most part, the gymnasium remains much the way that alumni remember it - year to year and generation to generation.
Thinking about this, I snapped a photo of part of the gym with my smartphone at halftime, and uploaded it to Facebook, saying in the post that it was especially meant for the many Farrell High grads who have been away from the area for a while and for others who haven’t set foot in the gymnasium in decades.
The comments were as I expected, but ran much deeper. At least three of the Farrell grads who responded said that when they first saw the photo, it brought a smile and brightened their day.
It was a simple photo of a gym, nothing fancy. But it evoked the emotional ties to that gym that decades later still live within every one of the grads, despite the miles and the years. Gyms will be gyms, but Farrell’s was a special place for us.
It was the place where a special coach, Edward J. McCluskey, and special players left the championship residue of sweat, hard work, dedication and determination.
Much as the players did, when we as students stepped on the floor for high school dances of all kinds, we felt history and tradition. That’s what separated it from other dances in other gyms.
When Farrrell grads think of the gym, of course, basketball comes to mind. In seven of the classes, it was the source of excitement and pride as the Steelers captured state championships. In other years, it was a series of near-misses, but WPIAL and Section 3 titles nonetheless.
When the annual tour is offered to inductees of the Farrell Alumni Hall of Fame, it is at the gym where they choose to gather to have an informal group photo taken.
Second on the list would be the old high school cafeteria, but since it’s no longer intact, the “E.J.” is always the hub for reminiscing.
The “sanctuary” at the gymnasium (not a public place) is what Farrell students and players have called “the hole” for decades.
It’s a long, narrow opening with an angled ceiling that runs under the permanent seating, and stretches from one end of the floor to the other. The angled I-beams on the ceiling form the support for the concrete stands.
About a third of the hole was where Coach McCluskey gathered his players before and after games as well as during halftime. The rest was used for storing old uniforms and other basketball equipment.
To this day, it’s an eerie feeling (in a good sense) when I visit there. It reeks of the tradition. It’s the place where McCluskey and his players gathered, where games were turned around at halftime, where the emotions that spilled from victory as well as defeat permeate the air. It’[s a “Hoosiers” moment, but in real life, not something of Hollywood.
Clara (Burns) Jones, a fellow 1970 alum, posted: “Put a smile on my face as soon as I saw this!” Another Farrell alum, Ramona Catrona Miller, added: “What a great picture. Brought a smile to my face and so many memories to my heart!”
It’s more than a gym. If you ask them, thousands will tell you why. To many, all of this may sound a little over the top. But as my friend Lou Falconi has said many times, “To really know it and feel it, you had to have lived it.”
Jim Raykie is the executive editor of The Herald and writes this column on Mondays.