A group of MHS alumni helps to refurbish a tattered timeline.
The dust and blemishes on the trophies aren’t indelible, but the memories the awards provide are.
That’s just one reason five Montclair High graduates spent Monday afternoon in the bowels of the school, sorting through trophies that ranged in condition from slightly-damaged to deeply-neglected.
Another aim of the group is to allow MHS students to see a link to their rich athletic past, quite possibly the greatest high school sports program the state’s ever had.
Several hundred damaged trophies currently reside in an area of Montclair High School aptly named “The Pit,” a place where old athletic equipment and uniforms go to die. Over decades, the plaques, cups and trophies were sent there because they multiplied too quickly for the display space provided for them - a gift and a curse of sorts.
Left for someone else to worry about, the pile grew higher, damaging each trophy and its story.
The group that’s come to the rescue also has its own story, born out of observations its de facto founder made at - what else - a sporting event.
Bill Kennedy walked into the Montclair High Gym in December of 2005 to watch a relative play in Montclair’s JV holiday basketball tournament. A member of MHS’s Class of 1958, Kennedy scanned the gym’s banners, looking for reminders of his days on the school’s basketball and baseball teams.
“The banners were all from the 1970s and on, and some were given for good sportsmanship, which blew my mind,” he said. “Sportsmanship was a given in our day; but I was more concerned with the fact that there was nothing to show for more than 70 years of sports in the school.”
Kennedy spoke with Paul Morgan, the security guard on duty that day, and a 1987 graduate of MHS.
“Aside from doing security, Paul is also one of the people in charge of the equipment for the high school,” Kennedy said. “He told me where a bunch of the trophies were and gave me some phone numbers of people I could get in touch with to go check them out.”
Before Kennedy called the school, he e-mailed several of his classmates including Barbara Hurley, the daughter of legendary ex-MHS football coach and athletic director Butch Fortunato. Hurley arranged a meeting with school administrators for last April, and she and Kennedy got the green light at that meeting to look in The Pit.
“The school, including the superintendent [Frank Alvarez] and [Vice Principal] John Porcelli were very helpful in getting us started,” Kennedy said. “Once they said it was alright for us to head down there, I needed to recruit someone to help me because Barbara is still working.”
Vincent Valenti, a Class of ’57 grad and friend of Kennedy’s, got on board immediately. The pair hit The Pit this summer.
“It was disheartening at first to see the trophies in the condition they were in, but Bill and I discussed old times and memories,” Valenti said. “It helped pass the time and take my mind off the condition of some of them.”
Kennedy and Valenti spent the day organizing the trophies into decades, taking up an entire 30-foot shelf.
“It was a good start, and it helped me feel that we were getting somewhere … a first step,” Kennedy said.
The second step came when the group met again on Jan. 8, this time to arrange football films Kennedy and Valenti unearthed during their initial trip. School historian Grange Peggy Rutan Mahne-Habermann (Class of ’56) and Sandy Kennedy (Class of ’61) helped organize the films, bringing the group to five. They cataloged over 50 8mm films, all in good condition, with the hope of converting them to DVD.
“A friend of mine told me about a story The Star-Ledger ran this summer on the condition of the trophies, and I really felt a physical pain in regards to the condition they were in,” Mahne-Habermann said. “I just had my 50th reunion last year and the tie for me to the school had strengthened because of the reunion, and I sought out Bill Kennedy to see if I could help.
“It’s not just about the trophies and the movies, but if they aren’t restored, you lose something down there, and no piece of history should be forgotten.”
Monday, the group really went to work. With Mahne-Habermann and Sandy Kennedy charting each trophy Valenti read from, and Hurley doing the same for Bill Kennedy, the group wrote down the year, sport and event of each piece of history.
Each new decade showed how Montclair’s dominance shifted from sport to sport, and, in a more obscure observation, how the craftsmanship of the trophies changed over the years.
The trophies from 1900-1930 are all silver and handcrafted, but as America grew more into an assembly-line society, wood with a little medal replaced the medals. Wood made way to plastic with some wood, and the most current trophies are all plastic and compressed wood.
It’s no surprise the oldest - and, most well-made - ones are in the best shape.
For Hurley, the observations were more personal.
“My father is known by most people as a great football coach in Montclair, but that isn’t his proudest accomplishment,” she said. “What was more important to him was introducing female sports as an athletic director.
“To see trophies for the girls become more prevalent during the years my father was athletic director was very touching, it showed me he made a difference.”
The next step in restoration is securing money, something Bill Kennedy feels the group can generate through word of mouth and fundraising.
“We need money and a lot of it,” he said. “Once people know more about what we are doing and how we are restoring pieces of their high school lives, I hope they get behind it.”
A trophy guaranteed restoration is one very special to Valenti.
“Bill and I found the trophy awarded to Montclair for being the best football team in the state in 1956 by the Newark News, which I was a member of,” he said. “I told a lot of the guys about it, and I’d like to get it cleaned up for my 50th reunion in the fall.
“Maybe it will be the trophy to get the ball rolling for the entire project. They all deserve their place.”
By BRIAN SMITH
of The Montclair Times