Coaching Was HIs Life

Football season is in full swing. There are games on TV every weekend, and here in Fulton, when the Red Raiders are playing at home, the high school’s athletic field bleachers are full. Football has long been an important sport in Fulton, and our team has had some influential coaches to lead them. One was Roger Neilson.

When Roger came to teach and coach in Fulton, in 1966, he already had a passion for football. It began when he was a standout player at his Penn Yann, New York high school and the East Stroudsburg Teacher’s College. A stint in the Army put his devotion to football on hold, but by 1957, Roger was Coach Neilson for Pulaski’s Blue Devils. While teaching and coaching there, he earned his master’s degree in education administration at SU.

In 1961, Roger left Pulaski to teach and coach in the state of Virginia, first at the College of William and Mary, and then at Hargrave Military Academy. But by 1966, he was back in Central New York: Fulton had recruited Coach Neilson.

Joining Roger in his new hometown were his wife, Nancy, and their two boys, Tom and Jim. Recently, I talked with the two Neilson boys about their father. What they shared about Roger as a coach they’d learned firsthand, as the brothers spent several years as water boys for Fulton’s football team. While putting out water for practices and setting up dummies for tackling, they got to watch their father in action.

“Dad was a huge student of the game,” Jim remembered. “He studied innovative techniques and tried them out with his teams. One strategy he had was the ‘no-huddle offense.’ Nowadays it’s common, but not back then. He’d call plays at the line, using language the other team wouldn’t understand. Our guys would go to the line with this code and the other team wasn’t prepared.”

My brother, Ed Farfaglia, was quarterback for Fulton in 1970 and he recalled Coach Neilson’s code: “We called those ‘audible plays.’ If coach called the color red, that meant the play would go to the right; blue meant to the left. Numbers would mean which player—the fullback, etc.—would carry out the play.”

Coach Neilson wasn’t just teaching youth football strategies; they also learned appropriate responses to life’s challenges, as his son Tom recalled: “One time, the team was getting ready for a big game and the players weren’t practicing hard. The day before the game they were goofing off, and Dad said, ‘I’m going home. See you tomorrow. I hope you put more effort into the game.’ This impacted the team, and the boys stayed on the field, practicing another two hours without their coach. And they won the game.”

Because of those character-building lessons, Tom said his Dad’s teams admired their coach. “After he’d retired, I heard that a Fulton player said Dad changed his life and had put him on a different path.”

Former Fulton football player Vondell Smith told me this story about Coach Neilson’s inspirational leadership: “The Raiders used to have a Father’s Day game. All the players’ dads would put on their sons’ jerseys, sit in a certain section of the bleachers, and get called out on the field to be recognized. When I was a senior, my dad couldn’t make it to the special day and I was feeling pretty sad. When I got to the game, Coach Neilson asked if my father was coming. I said no and he said, ‘Well, I’m your dad today.’”

Roger’s influence also was felt by the team’s cheerleaders, including Beth Knight:  “I remember Coach Neilson as very kind, polite and sincere. On bus rides back to school after away games, Coach asked if everyone, including us cheerleaders, were all set. He wanted to make sure no one would be left at school.”

How players, cheerleaders and fans felt about Roger even made it into the 1969 Fulton yearbook, when student Bill “Chili” Runeari memorialized him with a poem entitled “Coach Neilson Walks on Water.” Here are a few stanzas of the 32-line poem, which focused on a game against Fulton’s rival, The Oswego Buccaneers:

“The Syracuse papers may call us scrappy,

but they’ll agree we’re really snappy;

and the Buccaneers sure won’t be happy

when Coach Neilson walks on water.

 

The Buccaneer coach is really sick,

cause the Raiders are really pourin’ it on thick;

another score by Tricky Vic

when Coach Neilson walks on water…”

 

Even after Roger retired from coaching in the early 1970s, his interest in the Fulton team remained strong. “On game day,” his son Jim said, “he’d be in the booth with headphones on, communicating with the coaches on the field.”

After ending his teaching career in 1986, Roger and Nancy moved to Seven Lakes, North Carolina. There he got to spend time enjoying his other passion, golf. “Dad had a long retirement living near Pinehearst, the unofficial golf capital of the United States,” Jim said. “He played three or four times a week and ended up with three holes-in-one.”

But football was always number one to Roger. Eventually the Neilsons moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, where Jim lives, and father and son spent many afternoons watching games. “We took in all the Clemson games together. During the 2012 season, Clemsom was undefeated.  Dad’s health was failing and we ended up watching them play while he was in the hospital. During one game, he fell asleep while Clemsom was losing. When Dad woke up, he asked ‘How did they do?’  ‘They won,’ I told him. Dad fell back asleep and he died the next day. His last words were wondering if his team won or lost.”

As we look back on one of Fulton school’s most influential role models, let’s remember how coaches like Roger Neilson taught young people in Fulton a lot about life through his love of football.

 Roger Neilson, a former Fulton Schools teacher and coach, is remembered for his winning ways with football.

Roger Neilson, a former Fulton Schools teacher and coach, is remembered for his winning ways with football.

The Gift of Music

A few months ago I wrote about the Fulton High School band’s 1972 trip to Vienna, Austria. It was a memorable time for those students and for Fultonians. It was also a career highlight for the man who made that trip possible: Richard Swierczek.

As the band’s leader, Dick spearheaded the historic trip. I enjoyed writing the article recalling it, and apparently Dick enjoyed reading it. Shortly after the column ran, I received an email from him thanking me.

Dick and I corresponded back and forth, and I learned more about the man who provided Fulton youth many music opportunities. At 92 years old, now living in Chatham, Massachusetts, Dick hasn’t forgotten his time in Fulton. Here’s more of his story:

“I’m very proud of the fact that I grew up in one of the two or three Polish neighborhoods in Fulton.  My grandparents Stanley and Hanna Witowski’s home was on West First Street, across from the current Polish Home. They had fourteen children, losing four to influenza.

“My mother, Mary, and father, John, both worked at the Woolen Mills, and when Dad got close to retirement he bought a house and grocery store in Granby Center. Mom was to run the store, but she got very sick and was unable to do so. The store ended up burning to the ground and I’m not sure Dad had insurance on it. This greatly affected our lives and we ended up having to move back into my grandparents’ home.”

It was while living with his grandparents that Dick was introduced to music.  “Back in those days,” he recalled, “every home was expected to have a piano, whether or not anyone could play it. When my mother bought one, none of us could play, but my grandfather believed nothing should go to waste and he taught himself by picking out Polish melodies. We would stand around the piano and clap, dance, laugh and sing.

“My grandmother had a beautiful silvery voice and she’d sing Polish songs. As long as she knew no one was listening, she’d sing. I used to sneak into the kitchen to listen and that was the beginning of my musical life.”

Dick may have inherited his musical aptitude from his grandparents, but his family also provided music-related opportunities. “On Saturdays, Edwards Store in Syracuse sponsored the WFBL Children’s Hour,” Dick said. “My mother made sure I listened every week. Also, my Uncle Ed was hooked on classical music and he introduced me to the New York Philharmonic’s live broadcasts.”

When Dick got to high school he became friends with another Fultonian who loved music: Jack Walsh.  When they graduated from high school in 1943, Dick expected to be drafted the following year, “but Jack suggested we go to Potsdam’s music school. It wasn’t expected that anyone from my Polish community could go to college; tuition was $100. But I approached my parents with a plan. If they could cover the tuition, I’d work my way through.”

At Potsdam, Dick immersed himself in music education. Though he was drafted after his first year, he returned to the college two years later, graduating with a music degree.  After teaching five years at various New York State schools, in 1954 Dick was hired in Fulton as an elementary-level band teacher.

“I was hired by Mr. MacDonald, superintendent of Fulton schools. There was no schoolwide music program to speak of and his intention was for me to build one up from the younger grades. To introduce myself to the children, I carried one of each band instrument into fourth through eighth grade classrooms. I demonstrated each instrument and gave every student a chance to try them.”

Dick developed a unique method to teach children music. Using an instrument called a flutophone, sort of a primitive clarinet, he taught them the basics of playing a song.

“By my second year of teaching, we were ready for our first elementary band concert,” Dick recalled. “The gymnasium was filled with parents and all fourth grade classes in Fulton.  After students played one or two short pieces they’d memorized, I announced an “all request” portion of the program. As long as I knew the song, I could lead it. I held my hand up to show the children what fingers to use and we were able to play a few songs. The music program took off from there.”

By the time Dick retired in 1985, Fulton was recognized throughout the state for its premier music education.  He hired other music teachers, including Carol Fox, which Dick told me was “the best decision I ever made.” Carol and others worked to support Dick’s goals and soon Fulton became part of the state’s School Music Association. Through that organization, talented Fulton youngsters participated in music festivals held at the county, sectional, all state, and Eastern United States divisions.  This all led to the Austria trip.

Fulton students weren’t only learning music, but also some valuable life lessons. “I worked out a system with Don Distin, Director of Athletics, who had developed a marvelous sports program. In many schools, music and sports were at odds with each other for students’ time, but not at Fulton. Our students got to participate in both programs. If there was a time conflict, Don and I got together and solved the problem.”

Dick eventually branched out beyond youth programs, developing the Fulton’s Men’s and Women’s Chorus and spreading music throughout the city. But, to me, his greatest contribution to Fulton was the gift of music he gave to our youth. A story he told me is one shining example:

“After I’d left Fulton, a boy I’d taught wrote me a letter as an adult. While driving in his car, a piece of music came on that he said was so beautiful. ‘I pulled over the side of the road to appreciate it,’ he said.”

I wonder how many Fultonians have Dick Swierczek to thank for their lifelong love of music?

 Dick Swierczek, former Fulton School’s music educator, recently talked with me about his contributions to our city.

Dick Swierczek, former Fulton School’s music educator, recently talked with me about his contributions to our city.

The First Day of School

No matter how long it’s been since I was a student, there’s still something about the end of summer and the beginning of autumn that makes me think of school. It doesn’t have anything to do with back-to-school sales or remembering to watch out for school buses on busy streets. It’s about knowing that the start of a new school year could bring an important change to your life.

I’m not alone in that thought. As I learned from working with the Fulton Public Library on their Memoir Project, lots of us have vivid memories of our school days. In the five years since the library has been asking people to share their recollections of life in our city, many have focused on their first day of school. To honor the start of this school year, I’m revisiting some of those memories in this column.

I’ll start with Julia (Judy) Smith, whose introduction to education took place in a one-room schoolhouse. Judy grew up on the Silk Road in Fulton, and she and her siblings attended the nearby Ludding School. Here’s some of what Judy saw on her first day at Ludding:

“The school bell was on the roof and our teacher, Mrs. Downing, used a long rope to ring the start of our morning. As we walked in the door, we hung our coats on hooks and put our boots on the floor. Before class started, Mrs. Downing took roll call and led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. We sat in desks like the ones on Little House on the Prairie.  They were fastened to the seat in front of us and had inkwells in them. I didn’t have pigtails, so I didn’t ever get my hair put into an inkwell.

“The school had a potbelly stove, which burned wood for heat. There was no inside plumbing, so we had to use the outhouse—and, boy, it was cold in the winter! There was also a well for water, and in order to wash our hands or get a drink, we had to pump the well’s handle.”

Not all of us had the unique experience of a one-room rural schoolhouse, but we all had our first day as a kindergartener. For those of a tender age, our neighborhood schools could look pretty intimidating. Here’s Fultonian Paul McKinney describing what he saw on his first day of school:

“Of all my memories of Erie Street School, my first day of kindergarten was the most exciting.  Back in the early 1950s, preschools were rare and many school districts didn’t even offer kindergarten as an option.  So, for a five-year-old, going to kindergarten was a big deal.  After all, we were going inside that imposing yellow brick building that sat majestically on the corner of Sixth and Erie Street.  And, to boot, we would be there for half the day, away from home, with a bunch of other kids we might not even know.  Yikes!  Some kids even cried!

“We were finally going to see the inside of this place the older neighborhood kids talked about all the time. Walking in a straight line through those huge double doors facing Sixth Street and seeing those imposing oak steps ahead was overwhelming to a five-year-old’s eyes. Those worn oak stairs seemed to go straight up in the air forever. There had to be a hundred – maybe a million – of them.  Then there was the smell of fresh paint on the walls and the sparkle from the glistening oak floors.  All of these fused together with a faint scent of chalk dust in the air to form my first impression of Erie Street School.”

After graduating from kindergarten, the start of each school year became almost routine. We learned what to expect: sharpened pencils and a full ream of paper, new clothes and sneakers. But there were times when one person made the first day of school something special. For Sue Martin, who had a long career as a Fulton educator, meeting her second grade teacher made all the difference. Sue attended Phillips Street School, which had an end-of-the-year ritual called “Moving Up Day,” where students would meet their teacher for the next school year.

“I was completely swept away by my teacher for second grade, Mrs. Mary Robarge,” Sue wrote. “First glance told me she was a kind woman because she didn’t just smile at her pupils, she ‘smized,’ – that is, she smiled with her eyes.  Just the way she looked at us let me know that here was a teacher who was going to give me the keys to the kingdom of knowledge.  It was as if the world was now seen in Technicolor, instead of mere pale shades.  

“I must admit it was Mrs. Robarge’s jewelry that hooked me.  She wore earrings with seed pearls, rhinestones, and aurora borealis crystals.  What seven-year-old girl could resist such beautiful accessories?  Paying attention to the earrings, pins, and necklaces she wore became a daily assignment for me, one I took to heart quite seriously.”

It was more than Mrs. Robarge’s jewelry that made such an impression on Sue. She was also influenced by how her teacher taught:

“Mrs. Robarge’s class was always a safe haven, where never a cross word was spoken by her.  I don’t recall anyone being reprimanded for ill behavior, as she brought out the best in each of us.  Along with our assigned classwork, we received encouragement and respect on a daily basis.”

This week, in every classroom of our Fulton schools, teachers are making impressions on their students. Like our Memoir Project writers Judy Smith, Paul McKinney, and Sue Martin, every boy and girl will be wondering what the new school year will be like for them. With the right teacher, and with the right attitude, this could be the greatest school year ever.

 Erie Street School, once one of Fulton's neighborhood schools, where each September children learned what the year had in store for them.

Erie Street School, once one of Fulton's neighborhood schools, where each September children learned what the year had in store for them.