Wheeling as it was 50 years ago, a self-described "farm boy from Kansas," and the Ironmen, a professional football team in the friendly city - how do they meld?
Among the memorabilia of my late husband, Bill Van Horne, I found a heart-warming letter about those times.
Darryl Lesser, who played with the Ironmen, wrote to Bill concerning a 10-year reunion of the team in 1979. If follows:
June 25, 1979
I just received you paper on the Ironmen Reunion and have enjoyed reading it. As I read the clipping, I distinctly remembered the first time I saw Wheeling. The week before I had been cut by a Canadian League football team, two days before their opening game. I had flown back to my home in Topeka, Kansas, heartbroken and dejected. Five days later I received a call from Lou Blumling asking me to come to Wheeling to try out for his Ironmen team. After much discussion with my family and friends, I decided to make one last try at professional football.
I flew into Wheeling the next day, and the drive from the airport was one experience that will stay with me always. Having no transportation into town, I was offered a ride by a passenger on the flight. He said they would drop me at the Ironmen office. As we started down the mountain, along the river, I was in complete awe of what I saw. The steel mills and foundry with the coal smoke bellowing from the large smoke stacks, giant piles of coal being pushed by large caterpillars into the burners, tramways of coal going from coal mines to steel mills was overwhelming to a farm boy from Kansas.
The smog that hung over the valley and clung to the stone buildings was something I had never before witnessed. The first two days I thought it was just a cloudy day, and it wasn't until we started up into Oglebay Park that I realized it was smog.
The first month was pretty rough, as I just couldn't see how I would adjust to these surroundings. Everything seemed to be closing in on me, because I had come from the wide open plains where there was lots of breathing room.
However, I still had the great desire to play football, so I made the best of it. I scrimmaged Big Joe Pabian for one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, during training camp at West Liberty. I remember lying in bed between practices and wondering two things: one, would I make the team; and two, if I did, would there be enough left of me to play out the season. Somehow I managed to do both.
That year I secured a job with Bill Linton in Warwood, driving a truck. It wasn't much of a job at first, and I also had the distinct impression that Bill really didn't think too highly of me. I did the very best I could on the job as it was important to me to keep busy and active during the day when I wasn't practicing. As the weeks went on, it became more than just a job. The Lintons became my family, and they offered me a place to stay, food to eat, and the closeness and love of a real family. Their home became my home away from home and they became my second family.
The second year they took me in again until my fiance, Elsie, and I were married. You may remember that Elsie was flying for an airline out of New York, and I was playing for the Ironmen. We played a game in Little Rock, Arkansas on a Saturday night. My family drove down from Topeka to attend the game and on Sunday we all drove together to Abilene, Texas, where Elsie and I were married on Monday. We then flew back to Wheeling so I could be at practice Tuesday evening.
By the end of the second year, we had made many friends and were starting to understand the community and its contributions to the rest of the country.
The third year we came to Wheeling to play ball was to be my last year for the Ironmen, and was to be the greatest and most lasting of all memories to me. As you know, apartments are not the easiest thing to find in Wheeling, or at least there weren't in 1969. I came a week early to find us something, but the week had gone by and my wife arrived and was eight months pregnant, and I still had not located a place to live. Thanks to the assistance and generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Nichols of Elm Grove, we found an apartment. They were just great to all three of us and we still correspond with them.
I had told Lou Blumling the previous year that I was an electrician by trade, so he arranged an interview for me with Howard Allen of Elm Grove Electric. I was not very optimistic about receiving work as I was sure no one would hire someone in the electrical field for just a four-month period. However, following the interview I was hired and went to work the next day. With the baby coming, it was a very much appreciated job. Howard didn't just give me a job, he took a special interest in me, and he made me feel I belonged in Wheeling. The Allens have also become our very dear friends.
Football season was over and I had called home to Topeka to see how electrical work was there, and they said it was slow. Howard said he would like it if I stayed a couple of months longer, so we did. It was in those last weeks that I really knew just how much this area had become a part of me and how much the friends I had made meant to me, although when I left, I had no idea that the Ironmen would fold and I wouldn't be playing the following year.
New York picked up my contract that year but it just wasn't the same. They offered me a substantial increase in salary, plus a super job, but I just couldn't force myself to go. Later that year, my brother and I bought my father's electrical business in Topeka, and we are now well established and our business is growing day by day.
My wife and I often talk about the good times and people we met and enjoyed while we lived in your wonderful city, and every time I hear the song "Country Roads," I think of driving through Oglebay Park and the road to West Liberty. Our son, Michael, was born in Wheeling, and it will always hold a special place in our hearts.
We are looking with pleasure to our return to greet old friends and renew friendships with former Ironmen teammates. We will see you all very soon
Sincerely, Darryl Lesser
I telephoned Lesser for permission to use his letter. I also talked to his wife who is retired from the Kansas Bar Association.
They were delighted to reminisce about various Ironmen and recently went on a cruise with the Don Donatellis.