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Keyser High supporter, Ridgeley grad George Earnest shares memories of Coach Tom O'Connor

Staff Writer
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Coach Tom O'Connor is pictured with Ridgeley basketball captains Tim Foley and Steve Detrick.

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

One of the people I’m so thankful to have met on this sportswriter’s journey is Keyser’s own George Earnest.  I’ve had the privilege to have many a conversation with George. In his role as one of the equipment managers for Keyser football, George and members of his family pull the equipment trailer to away games and roam the sidelines tending to the team’s needs, home or away.

The best part of conversations with George is that George has many great stories to tell. To my delight, many of those stories involve coaches and athletes from a bygone era, with many involving tales related to Ridgeley High School.  

While George has proven his dedication to Keyser High School through countless hours of work and support through the decades, he’s maintained his loyalty to his alma mater, Dear Old Ridgeley High School.  In fact, knowing I myself am the product of a long line of Ridgeley graduates, he jokes with me all the time that he’s wearing a Ridgeley shirt under his Keyser shirt.

I had heard a bit about George before I had a chance to meet him, mostly from my dad, as he talked about the fact that George would bring now deceased Coach Tom O’Connor to the luncheons for Ridgeley High School graduates, a group of men dubbed affectionately, the “Old Farts.”

George Earnest and the legendary Coach Tom O’Connor enjoyed a special friendship. In fact, as such, George ended up in possession of several personal scrapbooks of Coach O’Connor’s time spent coaching and teaching at Ridgeley, along with several other pieces of Ridgeley memorabilia.

At some point, and I’m thankful he did, George decided that he would give me these items so I may write about them, study them, and disseminate as I saw fit.  After a chance meeting one evening in the Keyser High School parking lot, George said if I was interested in the items he would run home and get them.  He left, and a few minutes later, returned with a literal treasure trove of Ridgeley Blackhawks information and items from the 1950s and 1960s.

There were pictures, there were a few trophies, there was a Ridgeley gym bag, and most interestingly, there were several scrapbooks that catalog, in the most thorough way imaginable, Coach O’Connor’s tenure at Ridgeley High School as a coach and teacher from 1954-1969.

The scrapbooks contain clippings from both the Mineral News-Tribune and Cumberland Times of what appears to be every football and basketball game O’Connor coached in over a 15-year span. They also contain articles and notes written specifically about Coach, programs from Ridgeley High School athletic banquets, handwritten notes from speeches he gave, ticket stubs from high school state tournament games, WVU football ticket stubs, telegrams from television news stations seeking interviews from star players, etc…

Coach O’Connor, a graduate of Keyser High School and Wichita University, actually began his high school coaching career at the site of a former Indian Reservation at Niobara High School in Nebraska. There, O’Connor coached Niobara’s six-man football team, basketball, baseball and track.

In a 1955 article by J. Suter Kegg, found in the scrapbooks, Kegg states that, “O’Connor began his coaching career in the fall of 1950, tutoring in football, baseball, basketball and track at Niobara High in Nebraska for three seasons. He doesn’t recall the records compiled by his teams, although he says they won better than half of their games.”

Kegg continued by stating, “Tom transferred to South Dakota the following year, coaching at Tabor High. He returned to West Virginia’s Mineral County last year to be with his mother after she lost her sight. Last year, he was an assistant in basketball and baseball to Paul Kalbaugh at Elk Garden High.”

Kegg stated that in terms of O’Connor’s own high school career, “O’Connor lettered in his last two seasons under John Shelton at Keyser, but it wasn’t until his senior year that he became a regular. He was a quarterback in the Golden Tornado’s single wing attack.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Kegg’s article announcing O’Connor as a new coach to Ridgeley High School is his description of the coach’s military service, “The new Ridgeley mentor, who succeeds Joe Virdon, spent three years and eight months in the infantry during World War II. All but four months of his service time was put in the Pacific, and Tom considers himself quite lucky, as he was wounded only once. His Purple Heart was earned during the fighting for the Kwajeleins.”

In O’Connor’s first year at Ridgeley, he served as an assistant basketball and football coach and as a teacher of mathematics and physical education. In 1956, he was named the head football and basketball coach, succeeding Chet Payne in football who left to coach at Allegany High School.

In an article announcing Ridgeley’s 1956 football team, it is mentioned that O’Connor would have to find replacements for seven starters from the year before. It also mentions, “Returning will be signal-caller Willard Abe and halfback George Earnest while tackle Eddie Justice and guard Leroy Long still have another year of eligibility.”

It’s clear from this that the friendship between George Earnest and Tom O’Connor began when Earnest played for O’Connor on the Ridgeley High School gridiron. As countless news reports and game stories throughout the scrapbooks indicate, Earnest enjoyed a very productive career on the gridiron at Ridgeley.

The scrapbooks contain countless game stories and articles detailing O’Connor’s coaching career at Ridgeley, first as an assistant in 1955, then as the head man in 1956 through 1965 in football where he was succeeded by James Fazzalore, and as the head man in basketball through 1969 until his resignation.

O’Connor resigned from Ridgeley to take a mathematics teaching position at his alma mater Keyser High School, a letter detailing the transfer from the Mineral County superintendent of schools is included alongside the sports stories in the books.

While the stories contained in the scrapbooks are many, three things of note stand out in the scrapbooks from O’Connor’s tenure at Ridgeley.

First, there are the articles detailing Ridgeley’s 20-13 football victory over Keyser at Stayman Field. It was Ridgeley’s first gridiron victory over Keyser in 10 years and the Blackhawks’ only victory over the Golden Tornado in a more than 20-year span from 1951-1971.

Once again, in an article from J. Suter Kegg, Kegg details that, “This might sound like so much malarkey but we happened to talk to O’Connor last Wednesday and never do we remember of seeing a coach, whose team was to be a definitive underdog, so full of confidence. Tom, a 1941 graduate of Keyser High, had seen his alma mater play and was sure that he had the material capable of snapping the Golden Tornado’s 32-game winning streak in the Potomac Valley Conference.”

The article also points out that at the time Keyser had an enrollment of almost 1,100 while Ridgeley’s enrollment was under 300.

The second thing that sticks out in the scrapbooks are the stories involving All-American athlete Bill Scott, a three-sport legend (football, basketball, track) at Ridgeley who was highly recruited and ultimately signed to play football at West Virginia University. Scott would go on to solidify his legend after his playing days were over as the founder, along with his brother, and longtime coaching career with the Ridgeley Rams of the Cumberland Youth Football League.

Standing 6’6” in his playing days at Ridgeley, Scott was joined by the even taller (6’8”) Mike Detrick as the other half of the Twin Towers duo that terrorized opponents on the football field and basketball court. There is a Western Union Telegram in the scrapbook sent from the WSVA-TV station requesting that Bill Scott and his teammate Phillips, along with Coach O’Connor, appear as guests on a special football recognition show. There is also a picture of the 5’8” O’Connor looking up to Scott and Detrick, the Twin Towers.

The third thing of interest that pops out in the scrapbook is an Oct. 30, 1967, newspaper clipping detailing the death of Wiley Ford paratrooper Roger Wilfong in action in Vietnam. Wilfong, 20 years old, had been married for only seven days at the time of his death.  

Wilfong graduated from Ridgeley in 1965, where he played three years of football, one year of basketball, and also ran track, all under the direction of O’Connor. O’Connor was quoted in the article as saying this about Wilfong, “He was great for morale purposes and every time he got home on leave he never failed to pay us a visit. Roger continued to follow the athletic activities of our school with much interest. He was a wonderful boy and I feel sure he was a great soldier.”

No doubt as a soldier himself, wounded in the Pacific theatre during World War II, Wilfong’s loss was felt greatly by O’Connor.

Finally, the scrapbooks detail little clippings here and there that speak to Tom O’Connor, the person, not necessarily the coach and educator.  

One note in the Hunting and Fishing section details that O’Connor and Coach Wayne Boor of Fort Hill had a particularly successful day of fishing on the South Branch near Camp Cliffside, reporting that, “The two coaches caught about a dozen bass and five of them were 17 inches or longer.”

Another note details a particularly rough encounter O’Connor had with the weather en route to school one morning, “The Ridgeley High coach, who lives in Keyser, found himself caught in a traffic snarl on the way to school this morning due to the slick conditions on U.S. Route 220. Cars were hung up on a hill at Triple Lakes, so O’Connor parked his car and started to walk. He trudged almost three miles before getting a ride to Cumberland and was only ten minutes late when he arrived at the school for his first class.”

Tom O’Connor enjoyed a life well-lived, and he impacted the lives in a positive way of both those in his charge, and those he counted as friends. In many cases, those in his charge later became his friend, such was the case with George Earnest.

I’m glad that Tom O’Connor and George Earnest enjoyed such a special friendship. I’m also glad to have a new friend in George for myself.

Coach Tom O'Connor gives instruction to his basketball team at Niobara Indian Reservation.