Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Frank Sinkwich

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Frank Sinkwich, Unknown author / Public domain

I was the second generation to grow up on the West side of Youngstown. My parents grew up on the same street where I live and went to high school together at Chaney in the late 1930’s. I remember dad talking from time to time about the great Frank Sinkwich, who played under one of Chaney’s legendary coaches, Chet McPhee. Sinkwich won the Heisman Trophy in his senior year with the Georgia Bulldogs. He went on to a brief pro career.

Sinkwich was born in the town of Starjak in Croatia October 10, 1920 (the same year my parents were born). The family moved to Youngstown two years later, where his father Ignac operated a grocery store. When they first came to Youngstown, they spelled their name Sinkovic’. By 1940, the Sinkwich’s owned a family restaurant. The Wikipedia article on Sinkwich attributes his competitive drive to growing up playing football on the streets of the West side, “I learned early in neighborhood pickup games that I had the desire to compete. When people ask why I succeeded in athletics, I always tell them that I didn’t want to get beat”

Sinkwich was one of the great players to come out of Chaney but was nearly overlooked by the college scouts. Georgia Bulldog assistant coach Bill Hartman had visited Youngstown to recruit another top pick who committed instead to Ohio State. Hartman supposedly was refilling his car at a local service station when an attendant told him about a good player who lived down the street. He met Sinkwich’s dad on the front porch and persuaded Sinkwich to visit Georgia. The rest was history.

As a freshman, he led a team known as the “point-a-minute” Bullpups to an undefeated season. Sinkwich plead with Head Coach Wally Butts to be a fullback but Butts wanted him to play halfback, a position where he would both run and pass. Butts said of him, “He acquired, through hard work and endless practice, the ability to pick the open receiver better than anybody I ever saw.” In 1940, his first year on the varsity squad, UPI named him to the All-Southern First Team. In 1941, his junior year, he set an SEC record with 1103 rushing yards, in addition to 713 passing yards. From the third game of the season on, he did this with his jaw wired shut when it was broken in a previous game. He had a specially designed helmet. He led Georgia to a 40-26 victory over TCU in the Orange Bowl with 139 rushing yards and 243 passing yards and three touchdowns. He was a potent double threat.

The big year was the 1942. He had 795 rushing yards and 1392 passing yards (an SEC record at the time) for a total of 2187 yards. That year, he led the Bulldogs to a 9-0 victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl, scoring the winning touchdown with two sprained ankles. He was a unanimous All-America choice and was awarded the Heisman Trophy. In three years, he rushed for 2,271 yards, passed for 2,331, and accounted for 60 touchdowns—30 rushing and 30 passing. He was the very first pick in the first round of the NFL draft, being picked by the Detroit Lions.

His first two years looked like the beginning of a stellar career. In both 1943 and 1944 he was named All-Pro, and MVP in 1944. Then he went into the service, and while playing for an Air Force service team, he suffered a serious knee injury that basically ended his career. He tried to return to the pros in 1946 and 1947, but was never the same and retired. He briefly tried coaching, with positions at Furman and at the University of Tampa, and a semi-professional team in Erie, PA in 1949.

After this, he returned to Athens, Georgia where he operated a successful beer and wine distributorship. Apparently, he never contemplated returning to Youngstown after his years in the South. He was reported to have said, “I’m from Ohio, but if I’d known when I was 2 what it was like down South, I would have crawled here on my hands and knees.” He died October 22, 1990 in Athens after an extended battle with cancer. Vince Dooley, then athletic director at Georgia said of him, “We’ve lost one of the great legends in football history. He was not only a great player but a wonderful person and citizen of Athens”

In addition to the Heisman, his greatness was acknowledged both in life and after his death. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954 and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1967. He was inducted into the University of Georgia Circle of Honor in 1996 and his jersey was retired, one of only four Bulldog players to receive th8s honor.

Frank Sinkwich was one of the great football players to come out of Youngstown, and out of Chaney High School. As he said, the streets of the West side gave him his competitive fire. But then Youngstown has always been a football town.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Michael Kusalaba Library

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Michael Kusalaba Library, Photo courtesy Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. Used with permission.

Those of you who have followed this blog know that I grew up on Youngstown’s West side, and that I am a bookish sort of person. Some of this was due to a mom who was a reader and to inspiring teachers. A good part of this was also due to the hours I spent at the West Side Library as a kid. I wrote recently that when I think of going to a happy place in my mind, the most likely place I would go is a library.

One of the rites of passage in my life was getting my own library card. When I was growing up, the card was printed on cardboard, with your name typed on it by the librarian after completing a handwritten application. I felt a little more grown up when I received that card! It had to be renewed periodically, if you had no overdue books. Having overdue books felt like a sin. I wonder if my Catholic friends ever brought that up at confession!

It was a wonder, though, to walk up Mahoning Avenue the half mile or so from my home on N.Portland and go to my favorite sections, which tended to be sports, science and science fiction, and military history. It was the era of the space program and many of us were fascinated by rockets and space. I’d pick out as many books as you were allowed to check out (I think the number was six) and walk up to the check out desk, present my card, and the librarian would use this photo device and scan my library card and the book’s card, stamp the due date in the book, and I had an armload of books to read!

Later on, we learned how to use card catalogues, and how the Dewey Decimal system worked, and other reference resources so we could find information for reports and papers we needed to write for school. It was another rite of passage when you were allowed to use the “adult” part of the library.

So much for library memories. On trips back to Youngstown, we’d drive past the West Side Library, and apart from new signs, it looked the same from the outside. That is no longer the case. The old West Side Library served its last patrons on April 30, 2016 and was torn down to make way for a sparkling new, larger library on the same site.

A West side neighbor, Michael Kusalaba, and his family helped make that possible. Kusalaba grew up nearby on N. Maryland Avenue (I never knew him) and like me spent many hours at the library growing up, and throughout his life. He had a successful career with Ohio Edison and served as a trustee with the CASTLO Community Improvement Corporation. Before he passed in 2009, he established The Michael Kusalaba Fund with the Youngstown Foundation. On October 9, 2015, the Youngstown Foundation announced its largest gift to date, a $1.68 million gift for the construction of a new West Side library from The Michael Kusalaba Fund. Fittingly, it was decided that the new library would bear his name. The total project was budgeted at $3.775 million, the remainder coming from funding set aside for this purpose. The library operates debt-free.

The new library will open next week on February 14, a Valentine’s Day gift to the West side, and all of Youngstown. A formal dedication will follow on February 24. The new library is larger, at 11,514 square feet. It includes children’s, teen and adult areas, a casual Community Living Room area,  public meeting room, multimedia collections, a Technology Hub, with public access computers and other digital technology. There are self check-out and patron assistance kiosks. It also sounds like there will be an outdoor reading area and a courtyard for public events. A recent gift from the Slanina family sponsored the Community Foyer. Sponsorships of other areas of the library are still available.

The library will be open 10 am to 8 pm Monday through Thursday and 10 am to 6 pm on Friday and Saturday. It will also serve as the base for the library’s “Pop Up” mobile outreach throughout the county.

Michael Kusalaba was a leader in community development and a lover of the library. This facility, which bears his name, will hopefully inspire more new development on the West side. It will also be a place where a new generation of West side children might discover the joys of reading and discovery, and residents of all ages can gather for community events and pursue lifelong learning. I can’t wait to see it myself.