90th Anniversary of Stadium Dedication

Poet and educator William E. Dimorier played a major role in the building of Veterans Memorial Stadium in Erie, PA. Although the newspaper accounts from the stadium’s dedication in 1924 do not mention his name, Dimorier worked behind the scenes from the landmark’s conception to completion.  

Remembering Erie’s Veterans Memorial Stadium Dedication

This oil on canvas, by renowned Erie painter, Joseph M. Plavcan (1908-1981), is on display at the Erie Art Museum.

This oil on canvas, by renowned Erie painter, Joseph M. Plavcan (1908-1981), is on display at the Erie Art Museum.

Veterans Day 2014 will mark 90 years since the dedication of Veterans Memorial Stadium in Erie, PA. After nearly a decade of dreaming, fundraising, planning, and then building, the arena was dedicated on Tuesday, November 11, 1924 to the veterans who had served in World War I.

The dedication of Veterans Memorial Stadium was scheduled for Armistice Day (now known as Veterans Day), which commemorated the World War I peace treaty between the allies and Germany. World War I was known as the Great War or World War at the time.

The stadium’s dedication was expected to gather the largest crowd of Erie citizens ever in one structure, and the Fox Film Company planned to capture motion pictures of the event.[1] General admission tickets sold for $1, and box seats went for $2.

Program Packed with Dignitaries

A week before the dedication, the day’s program was announced by Lt. Col. Thomas E. Durban, general program chairman. The program would include an invocation by Rt. Rev. John Chamberlain Ward, Bishop of Erie and speeches by Harry W. Sims, president of the Erie Chamber of Commerce; Robert E. Weschler, Erie school board president; Brig. Gen. LeRoy Eltinge, assistant chief of staff for the U.S. Army; Lt. Samuel W. Woodfill, World War hero; Capt. William H. Standley, U.S. Navy; and William “Big Bill” Edwards, who had gained fame as a Princeton guard, and afterward, as a football official, author, and congressman.

Following the program, East and Central would meet on the gridiron for the right to challenge Academy on Thanksgiving Day, November 27.[2] The late Joe Heintzel, a 1924 Academy halfback, recalled in his 2004 Erie Times-News guest column[3] that Academy was first to play in the stadium on Armistice Day, however, its first game in the bowl was actually against Cathedral Prep on November 22.

Although the Lions would not be first to grapple on the field built in front of their school, two sections of the stadium were reserved for the Blue-and-Gold Academy students.[4] Other sections were reserved for students from East and Central. In addition, special areas were designated for soldiers and sailors and also for veterans of the World War, some of whom showed lasting effects of the fight.[5]

In advance of dedication day, Allan H. MacLean, a World War veteran, serving as chairman of the military committee, issued a statement inviting every veteran to take advantage of preferred seating at the stadium dedication and football game. He urged them to assemble in Perry Square at 11:30 a.m. where a short ceremony would take place before the parade to the stadium at noon.[6]

The Erie Service Star Legion, wives and mothers of men who had served in the World War, had made a sizable donation to the stadium fund and would march into the structure together to their reserved section of seats.[7] In January 1923, these “mothers of democracy” had petitioned the school board to make the stadium a memorial to those who had given their lives for their country.[8]

Nearly 40,000 Gather for Parade, Program, & Pigskin

Skies were clear on the morning of the dedication with “a slight wintry cast in the air, giving just the right tang for a gridiron contest.”[9] At 10 o’clock, a quiet ceremony took place in the stadium, unveiling the tablets containing the dedication.

This tablet is inset in the wall of the northwest entrance to the stadium.

This tablet, in need of restoration, is set in the wall of the northwest entrance to the stadium. It says:                                                                                  THE STADIUM                                             A TRIBUTE TO THE MEN AND WOMEN         WHO SERVED IN THE WORLD WAR ERECTED BY GRATEFUL CITIZENS OF THE CITY OF ERIE

In attendance were members of the Service Star Legion and also the Gold Star mothers, who had lost sons in military service. Lt. Samuel Woodfill said, “It is a great tribute to a great cause and it has made me feel that this city has not forgotten her fighting sons.”[10]

At 11:30, divisions in cars and on foot were forming at Perry Square. These consisted of marching bands, police platoons, city and county officials, the Service Star Legion, the American Legion, U.S. Army and Navy officials, the Wayne Rangers 112th Infantry, Erie Navy reserves, veterans from the Civil, Spanish, and World wars, and several decorated war heroes. It was estimated that 25,000 people lined the route where 1,000 people paraded 20 blocks from Perry Square to the stadium and a waiting crowd of 15,000.

As the parade divisions arrived in the arena, they circled the stadium track before assembling on the field, and the bands played, “America,” directed by John C. Diehl, Erie School District superintendent. The entire stadium joined in the chorus, and their voices could be heard for miles “raised in a renewed pledge of loyalty to a nation and a home.”[11]

The Erie Dispatch-Herald published a long list of prominent figures occupying box seats, including stadium contractor E. E. Austin and his wife; Erie school board member and businessman Isaac Baker, industrialist John A. Zurn and his wife, members of Erie’s Spencer banking family, former Erie mayor Miles B. Kitts and his wife, former Erie school superintendent Henry Clay Missimer, and Academy assistant principal Susie Tanner and her sister Anna.[12]

World War Veterans Remembered

Mayor Joseph C. Williams took the podium and offered, “To those who made the supreme sacrifice and sleep in Flanders Field, we can only dedicate memorials and cherish their gallant deeds, but for those a little more fortunate who have returned crippled and broken in health, we can and we should show them that this great nation of ours has not forgotten, by giving everyone of them the best of care and a just compensation.”[13]

Williams acted as master of ceremonies, introducing each speaker in turn. One can only imagine what it was like to listen to a program alongside thousands of other people without the sound systems we have today. With an anticipated 15,000 attendees, plans had been made to install amplifiers so that the speeches could be heard “without the least effort.”[14] Unfortunately, most of the audience still had difficulty hearing, and it was concluded that had the speakers been located more strategically, the outcome would have been better.[15]

After an introduction by Mayor Williams, Harry W. Sims, president of the Chamber of Commerce, hailed stadium commission head and school board member Otto G. Hitchcock, whom he said was “perhaps as much or more responsible for Erie having a stadium than any other single person.”* Sims said of Hitchcock, who led two campaigns that raised $135,000 for the stadium, “We owe to his untiring energy and never failing courage this greatest civic accomplishment for the City of Erie in the year 1924 . . . .” He referred to Hitchcock as “the stadium builder” and then acknowledged the contributions of school children, liberal citizens, high school alumni, and the school board.[16]

Following Sims, Robert E. Weschler, president of the school board, said in his remarks, “Athletic activities of today are absolute necessities, as are playgrounds, gymnasiums and athletic fields. All of these are essential to every school system and we are fast obtaining every need.”

Army General’s Words Fit Today’s Conflicted World

The speeches that followed also expressed the importance of athletics, tying participation in sports to leadership, success, and patriotism, but the next speaker, Brig. General LeRoy Eltinge, focused on the greater ideals that brought so many people together that day. As assistant chief of staff for the US Army, Eltinge represented the war department at the dedication. He had served in France during the World War as deputy chief of staff and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by Congress.[17]

Eltinge said he was privileged to dedicate the stadium to the 173 soldiers “who in the World war gave their lives for the ideals of America.” He remarked that the United States possessed great wealth coveted by nations whose policies might not be as altruistic as its own, and recalled that American citizens went willingly to war when they learned of Germany’s disregard for human life.

The general advised that most wars are the result of emotion, and patriotism is a result of that emotion, which can result in a country entering a war unprepared. Nevertheless, he encouraged the people of Erie to continue their patriotism, because America might be called upon again to defend its interests. He also warned that “Left to the tools of self-seeking demagogues, the people’s emotions may be degraded until they lead only to disorder, injustice and ruin.”[18]

Next to take the podium was Lt. Samuel Woodfill, who had been a member of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I and received the Medal of Honor for taking out German machine guns while under the effects of mustard gas and leading his men to safety without casualties.[19] His brief remarks included, “It is most gratifying to be heralded as a hero, but I claim no honor. I merely executed my duty as a trained soldier. Heroes can only be numbered by the thousands and our greatest heroes are those unfortunate souls, more that 100,000 of them, who failed to return from across the sea.”[20]

 “Sportsmanship Is an Essential of Democracy”

Captain William H. Standley spoke on behalf of the United States Navy. Standley had served in the World War and would later become a U.S. admiral, serving as Chief of Naval Operations from 1933 to 1937.

Standley’s address first expressed the Navy’s appreciation of Erie’s role in the defense of its country and welcomed the opportunity to help honor its sons who helped to uphold the ideals of their country and democracy. “They played their part in the titanic struggle, and played it well, sinking their individualities in the great life game they were playing.”[21]

Crediting the nation’s educational system with instilling a sense of selflessness in its soldiers, Capt. Standley further asserted, “Sportsmanship is an essential of democracy.”[22] He referenced English essayist Charles Lamb’s inability to hate someone he knew and said that there were few better ways to get to know someone than through play, which a structure like the stadium would encourage.

Play begets friendship, which in turn begets neighborliness, and this begets peace. For knowledge of men is power, and knowledge is friendship, knowledge is the essence of good fellowship, and knowledge of one another, of nation as of individual, leads in the ways of peace all men should tread.[23]

“Big Bill” Links Sports to Patriotism, Success; Lauds Educators

Last to take the stage was former Princeton guard and congressman, William H. Edwards, otherwise known as “Big Bill.” After paying homage to the soldiers who had fought for their country, Edwards drew parallels between sports, patriotism, and success. He asserted that playing sports teaches young people lifelong lessons and prepares them to navigate the challenges of adulthood. In fact, Edwards believed that playing sports while one was young was a key factor in the level of success achieved later in life.

The man who can get on the team and stay on the team—will be a success in dealing with men. It will follow him through life—he will be successful in dealing with his wife and children and in positions of high responsibility in the American Republic.[24]

Teachers and principals received their own inspirational message as Edwards credited them with having the power to influence a student’s potential for success and elevating their roles to sacred status.

To the principals and teachers of these schools represented here and elsewhere as well—sacred are your positions in life. Do not feel unimportant in this great demonstration—If we are to have a bigger, better America . . . if we are to have better young men and women, you are the very ones to help—Oh so much—sacred and wonderful it is for you to be in a place where you can have the right mold and put the right stamp on a wholesome boy or girl. You ought to be happy in doing this more than any other one thing. It counts more for the world and is nearly immortal—It is worth any man’s life.[25]

East Meets Central on the Gridiron

After all of the oratory, it was time to play football. The advisory council had selected John Carney, a 20-year veteran referee and local contractor, to preside over the big game. Carney played for Central in 1905 and 1906, the latter being Dimorier’s first year in the Erie School District. An article in the Erie Daily Times described Carney as being “always in command of the game,” but off the gridiron “as approachable as any other human being.” J.C. Ainsworth, who was physical director at the YMCA, and for whom the athletic field was later named, was designated to be umpire.[26]

As the largest crowd in Erie football history looked on, East logged a touchdown in the first quarter, but Central proved to be a formidable opponent in the scoreless second and third. The next day, Jack Kastner reported the following for the Erie Dispatch-Herald:

For three quarters the East high students and backers found their boys just far enough ahead to claim a margin of victory, but always in the face of being thrown back when the lighter Red and Black uncovered unexpected strength in some quarter or other. Several times Central advanced deep in Scarlet and Gray territory, made desperate efforts at an open game in an effort to at least cross the final chalk mark of its opponents, but the agile, well-coached group under Gus Anderson’s directions met each thrust with a counter, and steadfastly beat back the challenging form of the courageous Fletcher clan.[27]

So, in the fourth quarter, East scored two rapid touchdowns and took the game 21-0, winning the right to face Academy on Thanksgiving Day. That game would end in a tie 0-0.

Citizens’ Cooperation Creates “Pride of Erie”

When the day was done and the readers of Erie newspapers sat with their morning coffee, they were presented with numerous accounts of the day from every imaginable angle. The afterglow from the momentous occasion was evident in an Erie Dispatch-Herald editorial by Robert Klins, who predicted that the day would be remembered for years to come. He wrote:

It was the first time in the history of Northwestern Pennsylvania that a city had thus gathered in popular assembly in a stadium built through popular cooperation. It was the first time that an undertaking of such proportions had ever been brought to a successful culmination in this district, and the result, viewed as a whole, was an inspiration fit for gods. The transformation of an ugly waste spot into one of the most attractive places in the State of Pennsylvania, “the Pride of Erie” and a “tribute to the men and women who served in the world war, erected by the grateful citizens of the city,” is a feat truly worth of such inspiration.[28]

And, as reported by the Erie Daily Times:

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, 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.[29]

In the 90 years following the stadium’s dedication, it has prevailed as one of the major outdoor venues in Erie, hosting sporting events, play-off games, rock concerts, circuses, band competitions, dirt-track racing, and even a presidential address by George W. Bush. The stadium has undergone renovations over the years, and although it now seats only 10,000 people instead of 15,000, it still reigns as the largest structure for gathering spectators in Erie.

*There was no acknowledgement of William E. Dimorier’s contributions to the stadium fund in the accounts of its dedication day, but the previous year’s Academe said this of him, “Of all those who have taken an interest in this project, there is one who has been untiring in his efforts to influence public opinion. There are grave doubts that this ambition would have been fulfilled if he had not taken the initiative.”
Just a few months earlier a dedication in the Academe acknowledges Dimorier again: “Those who are not acquainted with him in this field, we are sure, know him through the Stadium, and to him for his efforts in this project. We Academicians are greatly indebted.” 
In March of 1944, C. Herman Grose, superintendent of the Erie School District, penned the introduction for Dimorier’s book of poems, Rhymes and Some Reason, which included, “His contribution toward the eventual construction of the Erie Stadium is well remembered.”
And finally, Dimorier’s stadium legacy was acknowledged in his Erie Daily Times obituary. “His contribution toward the eventual construction of the Stadium is well remembered,”[30] and his hometown’s Afton Enterprise obituary mentioned that Dimorier raised $100,000 for the stadium.[31] 
When Hitchcock died in November of 1944, the Erie newspapers listed among his accomplishments that the Hays Manufacturing executive had served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, First Federal Savings & Loan, Erie Manufacturers Association, and the YMCA board of directors. They acknowledged his leading role in the raising of war funds during World War I but neither paper reported on his role in the building of the stadium.[32] [33]


 Notes

[1] “Movie Men to Film Opening New Stadium,” Erie Daily Times, November 7, 1924, 1.

[2] “Program for Armistice Day is Announced,” Erie Daily Times, November 5, 1924, 6.

[3] Heintzel, Joe. “Remembering the First Football Game at Veterans Stadium,” Erie Times-News, December 12, 2004.

[4] “Academy Hi Students to be on Hand,” Erie Daily Times, November 11, 1924, 19.

[5] “Colorful Crowd Witnessed Opening Game and Centrals Elimination,” Erie Daily Times, November 12, 1924, 22.

[6] “Veterans to be Guests at Stadium,” Erie Daily Times, November 3, 1924, 18.

[7] “Erie Service Star League at Stadium,” Erie Daily Times, November 10, 1924, 11.

[8] Erie School Board Meeting Minutes, January 4, 1923.

[9] “Ready to Dedicate Stadium,” Erie Dispatch Herald, November 11, 1924, 1.

[10] “Unveil Tablets at Stadium with Appropriate Exercises,” Erie Daily Times, 11/12/1924, 29.

[11] Pfister, 18.

[12] “Holders of Boxes at Stadium Opening and their Guests,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 1.

[13] “Mayor Praises War Veterans at Dedication,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 7.

[14] “Install Amplifiers to Broadcast Speeches at Opening of New Stadium,” Erie Daily Times, November 8, 1924, 24.

[15] “Amplifiers Give Varied Results,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 8.

[16] “Lauds Hitchcock for Stadium Project Success,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, 11/12/1924, 8.

[17] “General Eltinge, Commander of 14th Brigade, Dies at 59,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 14, 1931, 14.

[18] “Brig. General Leroy Eltinge Pays Tribute to Valor of Erie Soldiers,” Erie Daily Times, November 12, 1924, 19.

[19] “Samuel Woodfill,” accessed September 4, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Woodfill.

[20] “Woodfill Says Great Heroes Never Returned,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 8.

[21] “Capt. Standley Pays Glowing Tribute to Erie’s Naval Heroes,” Erie Daily Herald, November 12, 1924, 8.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “Be Honorable in Victory Says Edwards,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 15.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Carney Will Referee Big Stadium Tilt,” Erie Daily Times, November 4, 1924, 7.

[27] Kastner, Jack. “East Victor Over Central in Stadium Opening,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 16.

[28] Klins, Robert. “Dedicate Big Bowl to Heroes,” Erie Dispatch-Herald, November 12, 1924, 1.

[29] Pfister, Ed. “Valor of Erie Soldiers and Sailors Lauded,” Erie Daily Times, November 12, 1924, 1.

[30] “W. E. Dimorier, Former Erie School Official, Dies,” Erie Daily Times, July 12, 1951, 1.

[31] “William E. Dimorier, Teacher and Poet,” Afton Enterprise, July 19, 1951, 1.

[32] “Otto Hitchcock, Sr. Industrialist, Dies,” Erie Dispatch-Herald,” December 1, 1944, 1.

[33] “Otto Hitchcock, Manufacturer, Dies,” Erie Daily Times, December 1, 1944, 1.

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