CENTAUR SEASONS, DAVID BROOKS OF THE NEW YORK TIMES, AND LOOKING TO THE FUTURE…
Posted on Feb 15, 2013
A recurring exercise of CENTAUR SEASONS has been my attempts to describe the unique energy that was Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales back in the day, the place tiny and brand new, the school itself as much concept as college. Everything then was promise and potential, our coin of the realm. Even as we knew – or maybe because we knew — we weren’t going to be around to spend any of it on whatever it was that was coming next.
Which only added purpose to all that promise and potential.
So I was surely delighted to see that David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, borrowed from some of this thinking for one of his recent columns. He wrote about neither basketball nor (alas) the Allentown College of Francis de Sales Centaurs of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Mr. Brooks wrote about what he terms “present-ism.” How the country and its public institutions, its corporate entities, its citizenry seem too willing these days to mortgage the future on behalf of the here and now.
When, in fact, , he says, the country reached the heights of what it is today by “sacrificing the present for the sake of the future.”
Having attended Allentown College in its nascent form, I have learned the value of looking to the future.
Wrote Mr. Brooks in his Tuessday column, under the heading CARPE DIEM NATION: “In his novel, ‘Giants in the Earth,’ Ole Rolvaag has a pioneering farmer give a visitor a tour of his land. The farmer describes the beautiful home and his large buildings. The visitor confesses that he can’t see them. That’s because they haven’t been built yet, the farmer acknowledges, but they already exist as reality in his mind.”
CENTAUR SEASONS a few months ago addressed that same “reality” in its very first post — and in an uncannily similar manner.
“ ‘Here’s the story I always tell.’” The speaker is Jim Van Horn, a member of Allentown’s first graduating class, in 1969. Four years before, a teenager in search of an education, Jim had visited the not-yet-built, not-yet-opened campus in Center Valley, Pennsylvania. I’m quoting Jim here in these following paragraphs from that first post, College of Cornfields.
“‘We were in the Brown Farm House with Fr. Paul, the admissions director, looking out into the valley where the school was going to be. … I think Wills Hall [the priests’ residence] was built and the academic building was being built. That was it.’ The rest was holes in the grounds or nothing at all.
“ ‘Brown Farm House has a bay window and we’re looking out and Fr. Paul is saying, Here is where they’re going to build this building, and this one over here and this one and this one.’
“That farmhouse still stands. Look out that window today and you’ll see a gleaming glass-walled university center, a science center. Up the far hill rises yet another new facility, still being built, grandest of them all. But back then everything was covered in cornfields or still unearthed.
“ ‘I looked at him,’ ” says Jim. “ ‘And then Fr. Paul said, “Believe …” ’
“ ‘And I said, “Okay!” ’
“As did the rest of us when we showed up on campus.”
There is much to be said for thinking forward, looking to the horizon. At Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales that’s about all we did, because that was about all we could do. When I arrived on campus in September 1970 the school had graduated only two classes. The Centaur basketball team was about to tip off just its third season of intercollegiate play. Since there was little to look back on, we had no choice but to look ahead.
It made for rare opportunity.
“We weren’t pioneers in the woods cutting down trees to build homes,” said Tony Mazzeo, a fiery redheaded gaurd two years ahead of me. “But we were certainly pioneers in lots of respects. There was nothing there. Whatever we had, we had to do ourselves. And I think people just thought, Well, this is what we have to do, nobody is going to hand it to us.”
It also likely attracted to Center Valley, Pennsylvania (the lost-in-the-cornfields actual location of the school) a particular kind of kid.
“I think it is very important that the people who were at the school then” – were at the school then, said John O’Connell, the manager and stats guy for the team my senior year. John was a freshman that season, the 1973-74 school year, the last of the years that I have dubbed the CENTAUR SEASONS. As such John arrived at an interesting moment. The next year a new student union building would begin moving the school into whatever it was that it was going to be next. But there was still right then much to observe of the school’s beginings.
“There were a lot of movers and shakers,” John said. And it was immediately apparent, he said, that the place fostered this sort of thing in its students, placed high value upon it.
“I just remember there were a lot of people there then trying to help the school along – getting a college radio station going, something — and benefit the community, or put the school in a better light within the community. It just seemed there were a lot of people there with a real sense of purpose.
“I can’t say they were driven to do this, but I think they realized that part of the experience of being at the school right then was that you could stand out by doing something good for the school. I really do think that it was a time at the school where if not for the people who were there then – if they had decided to go someplace else, some other college – I think the school may have turned a different way and shut down. ”
Mr. Brooks’s column is about the big issues confronting the country. CENTAUR SEASONS is about the hard-to-define uniqueness of a school with (come to think if it) about as many students as the number of representatives currently sitting in the U.S. House – 435. Can the lessons learned at that tiny place be applied to larger ideas. Why not?
Bob Koch graduated in the school’s first class, in 1969. Intense, dedicated, enthusiastic — Koch was a legend by the time I got there two years later. He co-captained the school’s first intercollegiate basketball team, one that endured a 3-14 season and absorbed losses of 21, 42, 22, 26 and … 70 points.
Yet Koch – and the team — brought it every day. “Anything less than the commitment to work would not have been tolerated,” Koch told me not too long ago, still pointblank about it after forty-plus years. “We made the best of it. I don’t think any of us were ever looking backward. I can’t remember any of us bickering. I never heard guys complain, that ‘This sucks,” or that ‘This is pathetic.’ ”
What Koch and his teammates did was see opportunity – play some college ball! — and seize it. “It was a great thrill to be part of that program,” Koch said. “To realize that even though it’s not successful in terms of wins and losses, we started the program and we knew the team would get better.”
Uh, yea-uh, as kids might say today. The Division III DeSales University Bulldogs are 19-and-5 heading into Saturday’s final regular-season game, against Eastern College, at home in Center Valley. (The school’s name and mascot changed in 2000, a story for some other time.) There have been eight seasons of at least 20 wins in the past 10 years, two deep runs in the NCAA D-III tournament.
I’d like to think that all of us who went to the school back then seized our moment in the manner of Bob Koch. I’d like to think that we understood what a singular opportunity we’d been afforded. To get something going, get it off the ground, get it flying right for the next crew. Who knows if we did, really. I mean, we were just kids.
But I do know it’s something we realize now – and are grateful for it.
“We had a sense of ownership at Allentown College,” says Walt Pfiel, a Centaur his sophomore year when I was a freshman. “We were invested in the place in a way that I’m not sure kids are today, in college anywhere. They expect things to be provided for them. And there is something missing there, because of that.”
For Christopher Cashman, there was nothing missing, not even then.
“What did I take away from the experience?,” he asked me before I could ask him. Cash was a year ahead of me, a thoughtful sort. He had a very successful first three years on the team followed by a senior year wrecked by a devastating ankle injury.
“Despite what you could say was the low profile of the basketball program – even on our own campus – the beauty of it was that inevitably [Athletic Director] John Compardo would walk into the locker room and in his own special way ream the hell out of us and talk to us about pride, and about the importance of teamwork and putting our individual needs on the shelf.”
(Speaking of legendary, “Coach” Compardo, as we called him, was a legend of the highest order. He came to the college after an incredible high school coaching career and only burnished his reputation with his devotion to the college.)
“Coach was the conscious of athletics at Allentown College,” Cash said, continuing, “and almost in a pleading way he’d try to make us understand that this wasn’t just some barnstorming tour. That this was important, and that at some point in our lives we’d look back and say to ourselves that we were proud of the time we spent on the basketball court at Allentown College. Or if we couldn’t do that, that we’d see it all as missed opportunity.”
I don’t think we missed our opportunity at Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales. And Mr. Brooks is certainly hoping the country doesn’t miss its chance either. Here is where our experience in Center Valley and the country’s current situation go their separate ways. Had we missed out back then, well, bad on each of us. If the country misses out now, well, bad on ALL of us.
But what might happen if the country does seize the opportunity? A final lesson from these CENTAUR SEASONS.
“If you look back on all that happened 40 years ago, it’s as close to a miracle as I’ve ever been associated with,” says George Kelly. George was on the first first basketball team at Allentown College, a squad of guys who took their lumps in an Allentown city industrial league during the 1968-69 season. George, a deacon in the Church, has long worked at the college and is currently the school’s director of institutional research.
“If you had said to the people who were there then, ‘Now listen, when you come back in 40, 45 years, this place is going to have thousands of students and it’s going to have 27, 28 buildings. And they’re going to build a new road right through the railroad tracks and there’s going to be an athletic complex with a soccer field right in the middle of the campus and it’s all going to tie together,’ they would have said to you, ‘You’re Crazy! You are absolutely crazy!'”
Except that’s what DID happen. And it DOES all tie together. And you were only crazy if you DIDN’T believe.
Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS: A ‘memory blog’ of the basketball beginnings of a half-good, half-bad, all-new college team.
Once, I was a Centaur.
I played basketball for Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales in Center Valley, Pa. I was on four of the school’s first seven teams, was MVP senior year and in 1974 graduated in the fifth class.
My junior year I kept a diary: A History of the Events of the 1972-1973 Allentown College B-Ball Season, as Chronicled by, and With the Personal Memoirs + Occassional [sic] Philosophizing of the Author, One Stephen J. McKee. One-hundred-forty-five hand-writ pages. (Yes, I was an English major.)
But it occurs to me now: Were I today a “Bulldog” playing for “DeSales University” (both mascot and name changed in 2000), my private “History” would be not a diary but a blog.
So starting November 30 “…Personal Memoirs…” will be re-imagined as CENTAUR SEASONS
A blog before its time, posted 40 years after in real time.
Meanwhile, beginning on September 24, here at CENTAUR SEASONS the preseason has already tipped off, with stories, interviews and reminiscences of the people, the place and the purpose of those early years of Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales.
Check back often. Sign up for CentaurSeasonAlerts. Email CENTAUR SEASONS to friends.
We were not a bad team, we Centaurs. We just weren’t very good. Winning was always the goal, if never exactly the point. How could it be, with victories so few?
Back then Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales was a couple of buildings in some cornfields. Our commitment to the school’s basketball program was far greater than was the school’s commitment us. So what? We got to play college ball – and paid for the privilege! In return, we got to be part of a team, wear the red and blue, be Centaurs. And we got to create a place that was, right then, as much concept as it was college, making itself up as we went along.
What we got was a once-in-a-life-time chance.
All we had to do was keep showing up -- next practice, next game, next season. And so we did.
Welcome to CENTAUR SEASONS.×