Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Saying Goodbye To An "Old Friend"

We were born the same year, me and the "Grand Old Lady of 5th Avenue and 26th Street". It was at the mid point of the 20th Century, in a very different time in Huntington, WV. It was a heavy industry town in those days, with companies like International Nickel, AC&F, Standard Ultramarine, H.K. Porter Steel, Owens Illinois Glass, Houdaille Hershey, and C&O Rail Road employing thousands.

There was a vibrant downtown area in those days. The Ohio Valley Bus Company ran coaches all over the area out of the old "Bus Barn" in the west end. There were no malls in those days. Men wore hats (not baseball caps) to outdoor activities ranging from Industrial League Baseball games to the annual Band Festival Parade in May. Lots of Mom and Pop stores were scattered from Westmoreland to Altizer, and there were elementary schools in every neighborhood in town. No school buses ran in Huntington in those days. Most everyone walked to school. Just down the road a small but growing Marshall College was beginning to enlarge its footprint between 3rd and 5th Avenues and 16th and 20th Streets.

That was the setting when The Veterans Memorial Field House was constructed in 1950. It became the largest arena in the Jewell City, seating 8,800 for many events, and over 6,500 for basketball. It remained the largest arena in town until the "Big Red Barn" was constructed at 3rd Avenue and 8th Street in the early 70's, and the Field House was the home of Marshall University basketball until the Cam Henderson Center was built on campus.

The Field House (as it was known to all of us in the east end) played a big role in our lives. Not only was it "Herd Heaven", but it was also where Huntington East High School played its home basketball games. Highlander football practices were often held on the adjacent field. There were many warm days in the spring when my classmates and I would run the three blocks down 5th Avenue in our gym clothes, to play touch football or softball games during our Phys Ed period, then back to HEHS for our showers.

My earliest memories of the Field House go back to about 1955. Over the years I had opportunity to attend events there. I can fondly remember going there for:

  • The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus

  • Ringside seats with Walter and Ricky Hall for the Golden Gloves

  • East Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast

  • Dick Clark's "Where the Action Is" Concerts

  • "The Chaplain of Burbon Street" Bob Harrington in Crusade

  • Cabell County Junior High Basketball Tournaments

  • Huntington East High School Basketball games

  • St. Joe Invitational Tournaments

  • High School Graduation ceremonies

  • and, of course, Marshall University Basketball

Parking was always a challenge at the Field House. One often had to park on Third or Fourth Avenues, or on the numbered side streets and walk for blocks to get to the venue. Sometimes we might park on the lower end of the B&B Supermarket parking lot, but that was always dangerous. Market employees would turn away would be parkers, and if one did happen to get by, there was always the fear of being towed away. After the games it was always great to go across the street to pick up a burger at the Adkins Fat Boy or have a pizza at Gino's Pub. Many of us spent a good bit of time three blocks up 5th Avenue at Wiggins. I can still taste that spaghetti, bar b que, steak sandwiches, and steak che burgers on the curb, or inside the small dining area at Wiggins. Good times.

Besides High School graduation, there are a few special events that stand out in my mind at the Field House. I remember a great game in 1967 when we beat the Ashland Tomcats, who were at the time the top ranked team in Kentucky. Mark Dawson was deadly that night, raining down 20 footers, long before there was a three point line.

There were lots of great high school games there, and a few real donnybrooks outside after some of the games. There was always tension after the games with cross town rival, Huntington High. I remember one cold night after a game with Logan High School when a fight broke out, emptying two chartered basses that were filling up with Wildcat fans. One of our football players had some words with someone from Logan, hanging out the bus window, and the fracas was on! There were several good punches thrown by a few folks on both sides, but mostly it was just a bunch of pushing and shoving by those of us standing on the perimeter of the fight.

We watched some great players at the Field House. I was too young to remember Walt Walowac and Charlie Slack, but how well I remember those teams with guys like the D'Antoni brothers, Jim Davidson, George Stone, Bob Redd, Greg White, Randy Noll, and future NBA star, Russell Lee. There was a great triple overtime Mid American Conference victory for Marshall, over a tough Bowling Green Falcons team in 1969. And many memorable Marshall Memorial Invitational Tournaments, which came into being after the plane crash of 1970.

There were some great coaches who plied their trade there over the years, and who can forget the time back in the 60's when Marshall Coach Ellis Johnson put a pair of eyeglasses on a dog, to rag the officials?

One of my personal special memories surround the year I did radio play by play for the Rose Hill Royals. Rose Hill had a 7th grader named O.J. Mayo, who played on the varsity team, and I had the privilege of calling their games in the St. Joe Invitational Tournament. O.J. went on to become one of the most well known high school players in America, and today plays for the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA.

Yes, the Field House has seen some great events over the years. Most were happy times, but there were also some truly sad occasions such as when it served as the site of the community memorial service after the Marshall plane crash.

Over the past few years, the building has become a maintenance headache. Its aging structure was beginning to deteriorate. It recently was sold to Marshall University to make room for a badly needed new Soccer facility. So, last Friday night, the Field House played host to one final celebration. Over 100 former Marshall basketball players, and several thousand community members showed up for one last celebration.

Soon the wrecking ball will reduce the once proud structure to a pile of rubble, and eventually college soccer games will be held at the new facility at 5th Avenue and 26th Street. The Field House will physically be gone, but it will live forever in the memories of those of us who grew up with her. Good bye old friend... we won't be far behind you!

1 comment:

Gregg Davidson said...

The Fieldhouse held some very special memories for me.
Click the link below to read my story: