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Erie Veterans Stadium ceremony to honor past, present

Construction crews at work building Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium in 1924.

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By ED PALATTELLA | Erie Times-News | Published: October 12, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — It is dedicated to the local soldiers and sailors who fought in World War I, but Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium is also very much a place that students helped build and have called their own for 95 years.

The stadium's dual identity will be apparent on Saturday at 6 p.m., when thousands of students and community members are expected to attend the rededication ceremony for the landmark that opened on Armistice Day, now Veterans Day, on Nov. 11, 1924.

The crowd will hear praise of military veterans from the lead speaker, retired Erie County Judge Michael E. Dunlavey, a retired two-star general in the U.S. Army Reserve and veteran of the Vietnam War.

And after the rededication ceremony, the crowd will watch the Erie High Royals football team play their first game at the stadium since it got new artificial turf and other improvements in a $2.6 million renovation project.

"We are hoping to bring the community together," Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito said. Saturday's events, he said, will recognize the stadium's "past, present and future."

The scene on Saturday is set to resemble the events that unfolded at the stadium during the dedication ceremony on Nov. 11, 1924.

An estimated 15,000 students and community members attended those festivities, which honored World War I veterans, and then they watched as East High School defeated Central High School 21-0 in the first football game held at the venue that encompasses an entire city block at 26th and State streets.

Speakers included such national luminaries as Brig. Gen. Leroy Eltinge, who received the Army's Distinguished Service Medal for his actions during World War I, and William "Big Bill" Edwards, a star football player at Princeton University in the 1890s and the first president of the inaugural American Football League.

The scene in Erie made an impression.

"With the blue skies of the heaven as its canopy, and the proof of civic pride in its walls, Erie's monster new stadium stands out today (as) a monument to the progressiveness of a city, a memorial to its soldier citizens and a tribute to its hero dead," the Erie Daily Times reported on Nov. 12, 1924, a day after the dedication.

"Yesterday fifteen thousand representative citizens bowed their heads in reverence as the great oval was formally dedicated with a few words of prayer, a number of appropriate addresses and a gridiron struggle that will go down in the annals of Erie school history as one of the city's finest examples of educational sportsmanship.

"And in its dedication," the newspaper article continued, "Erie's new stadium watched the gamut of human emotions stressed, from a tear at the opening ceremonies to a wild frenzy at the program's close."

Origin of a project

Students and military veterans were linked to the project from the start.

The development of the stadium coincided with the Erie School District's growing realization of the importance of physical education for its students. The district appointed its first head of its Department of Physical Education in 1914.

Even before then, in 1913, the district created its first high school athletic field. It was built in the area of Cranberry and West 22nd and West 24th streets, near where the now-closed Roosevelt Middle School opened in 1922.

"As the number of high schools increased and athletic activities of all kinds grew, steadily the desire for a stadium naturally followed," according to a 1970 history of the Erie School District by Frank S. Anderson.

Students pushed for the creation of a stadium to be near their new Academy High School, which opened in 1919 just south of 26th and State streets. On Dec. 2, 1920, a committee of eight Academy students presented the Erie School Board a student-led plan to raise money for the project. The students said they would take the lead due to the Erie School District's strained finances related to other construction projects.

The new Academy is a joy to be in, "but the scene is incomplete and will be until a plan for a stadium is carried out," student Jennie Nopio told the School Board, according to the Erie Dispatch. "Such a structure would be beautiful, attractive and useful, but we know it is impossible for your board to carry out the plan on account of the extensive school building program which the growth of the city made it necessary for you to undertake."

Another student, Charles O'Hern, told the board that the stadium could be used for public gatherings and other events. He appears to have come up with the idea to use the structure to honor military veterans. O'Hern, according to the Dispatch, "declared it might serve as a war memorial and city advertisement to the world."

Student Dorothy Gordon was among the students who expressed confidence that they could raise at least $5,000 – about $64,000 in today's dollars – among themselves and the Academy faculty to contribute to the project. "We may fail," she said, according to the Dispatch, "but we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by the attempt."

The Erie School Board had already come out in favor of the stadium, but "lack of funds has deferred any action," the Dispatch reported in its account of the students' presentation.

Two years later, the School Board appointed a committee of citizens to "to raise funds by public subscription for the construction of the Academy Stadium," according to Anderson's 1970 history. The committee raised $133,351, which is the equivalent of $2 million in today's dollars, and the School Board in May 1924 approved the construction contracts.

The construction cost $150,000 – about $2.3 million in today's dollars. Of the $150,000, the school district spent about $15,000 – about $389,000 today – to grade the 4.21-acre site and into install "thousands of feet of drain tile," according to the history.

In today's dollars, the $150,000 allocation is close to the $2.6 million total cost of the current renovation project, which included $434,000 for new turf to replace the 12-year-old artificial surface, which covers 83,500 square feet. The stadium first got artificial turf in 1995, with the first replacement occurring about 11 years later.

A ceremonial site

The stadium, which now seats 10,000, has undergone a number of other improvements over the years.

In 1937, the school district and the federal Works Progress Administration, created during the Great Depression, spent $60,000 on improvements and repairs. The federal government contributed $44,000 of the amount, according to the 1970 history.

The stadium got lights in 1931, new floodlights in 1940, a new scoreboard in 1976 and underwent its last major renovation in the mid-to-late 1970s, according to Erie School District records.

The Erie School District celebrated the completion of those renovations with a rededication ceremony scheduled for May 28, 1979, which was Memorial Day. Rain postponed the ceremony, including a 65-unit parade, for two days.

The ceremony, which "several thousand people attended," according to the Erie Morning News, featured fireworks, marching bands and the playing of "Erie Veterans Memorial March," which was written for the occasion.

The stadium for years had been known as Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium. But during the rededication in 1979, the Erie Stadium Commission, which oversees the facility for the Erie School District, formally gave the stadium its name, according to the commission.

The new turf is the most visible result of the latest renovations, but the project also included repairs to the stadium's concrete steps and other areas; a new roof and other improvements to the press box; and the painting of the stadium's walls. All the work is part of the Erie School District's $80.8 million districtwide project, largely funded through a bond issue, to fix the infrastructure of its buildings. Ticket sales, rental fees and other revenue from the stadium's operations paid for the new turf.

On Saturday, the stadium's updates and history all will be on display, said Polito, the superintendent. He said representatives of E.E. Austin & Son, the Erie construction company that built the stadium in 1924 and is still in business, are scheduled to attend the rededication. And he said officials will unveil a plaque that Erie High vocational education students made for the occasion.

The metal plaque depicts the logo that was at the center of the stadium's field with the 12-year-old turf and that is at the center of the field with the new turf.

The image shows, back to back, a soldier wearing a military helmet and football player wearing a football helmet. The image is yet another example of the dual nature of Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium – a place, newly renovated, meant for students and to remember soldiers and sailors.

"It is a stadium that the community can be proud of," Polito said.

___

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Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito, left, and Neal Brokman, the Erie School District's executive director of operations, attend a pep rally at the newly renovated Erie Veterans Memorial Stadium.
JACK HANRAHAN/ERIE TIMES-NEWS/TNS

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