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Bunardzya’s work as journalist transcends the ages

It was Henry Brooks Adams, the prominent American journalist, historian and academician of the 19th and 20th centuries, who said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell when his influence stops.”

The same, some will tell you, can apply to newspaper writers – people like John Richard Bunardzya – who chronicle the people, places and events of our daily lives. Their skills and efforts and commitment to the profession are an important link to history. Their influence is not diminished by time.

I mention John Bunardzya because many people have asked why he was not featured in the series of stories leading to the closing of Charleroi Stadium.

It was not an oversight; rather, anyone who knew him or benefited from his presence will insist that the man deserves more than just a passing acknowledgment.

When Bunardzya retired in October 1980, the event marked the end of one of the longest and most colorful newspaper careers in the history of this Mid-Mon Valley and beyond. For nearly 45 years he produced thousands and thousands of words that remain valuable and enjoyable reading to this day.

John left The Valley Independent offices quietly that sunny afternoon 30 years ago, a little grayer than when he started his career in October of 1935.

But he left with a treasure of memories and the knowledge that he provided residents of the Valley with countless hours of enjoyment through his writing in several area newspapers.

He left, too, with the knowledge and satisfaction that he had influenced the lives of so many people, including those who aspired to follow John in his chosen profession.

Those memories flooded my mind and my tears when John died at age 81 on July 28, 1999. They continue to guide me each time I sit at my keyboard. I was one of those guys who got his start in the business because of John Bunardzya’s consideration, guidance and support. I was blessed to learn the ABC’s of the trade from John and then had the good fortune to work for him and with him for 21 years.

As a student at California Community High School, I was introduced to the power of words by my English teacher, Arthur Cairns, a gentleman and a gentle man who encouraged me to study my Word Power vocabulary textbook diligently and to “write, write, write.”

Bunardzya strengthened my passion for the written word and taught me how to put the words together so readers would enjoy them.

John had a true command of the English language. He wrote in such a way that you couldn’t wait to read his stories and columns. He could make you laugh, he could make you cry and, above all, he could make you think.

Versatility is the mark of any good newsman, and John touched all bases in a career that began with The Herald-American in Donora and continued with The Charleroi Mail and The Valley Independent.

His kaleidoscopic status included roles as sports editor, general news reporter, copy editor, writing headlines and preparing layouts. For a number of years, he compiled the popular “Out of the Files” column for this newspaper.

Through it all, he built a reputation as one of the best in the business. He was, at times, a controversial figure — mostly because of his work for 28 years as a sportswriter in this hotbed of athletes and athletics. He built a reputation as the “dean” of sportwriters in this neck of the woods, but there was so much more to the man.

Not everyone agreed with John, nor did he see eye to eye with everyone else. But he was a man of strong convictions and integrity. He wasn’t afraid to take a stand on issues. He ruffled some feathers along the way, but he was respected here and many other places. He was often discussed — and cussed — by those who followed his writing. But he survived and prevailed because there were always those who recognized his abilities and offered respect — whether they agreed with him or not.

Much of John’s recognition came because he assisted so many young athletes in their quest for a college education through a scholarship.

“He went to bat for me when no one else would,” one young man who was a so-called borderline athlete – that is, not a blue chipper – said many years ago. “I didn’t make any of the all-star teams, but John got me into a smaller school and I received my college education thanks to him.”

Others recall with gratitude the stories Bunardzya wrote about them.

In a recent note to John’s son, Vance Bunardzya, Tom Runfola, a 1964 graduate of Bellmar High School, remembered such an incident.

“Our Vernon Junior High (football) team was playing Perryopolis and we were ahead when (coach) Jack Flora began emptying the bench,” Runfola recalled. “I was an untested eighth grader and was nervous as hell. I was only 5-4 and weighed 85 pounds.”

Perryopolis had a big fullback who cruised around left end on the opposite of the field where Runfola was playing. It was Runfola’s first play of the game and all he could see was the Perry runner as he “cleared the line and was past the other defensive halfback in open field with a convoy of blockers; a sure touchdown seemed an easy 50 yards away.”

“I came flying across the field and it was quite a sight,” Runfola said. “My shoes were two sizes too big, my entire uniform and pads too big and flapping in the wind. Even my helmet with no face mask was so big that it would twist around in front of my eyes sometimes. I could hear the wind whistling through my helmet and my heart was thumping. I avoided one blocker, jumped over another who came in low and moved in for the tackle. Somehow, I managed to drop this giant kid with good form and he fell like a ton of bricks. I bounced up, looked up and saw we were right in front of the bleachers where the high school team, Bap (Manzini) and the other coaches were waiting to take the field after the game.

“Your dad was sitting by my older brother, got all the information about me and gave me a great write-up in The Charleroi Mail,” Runfola told Vance Bunardzya. “I was thrilled and honored to get the attention. Your dad’s kindness burned that day into my psyche forever.”

Vance Bunardzya also has some poignant personal memories of his father and Charleroi Stadium.

His earliest recollection goes back to 1955 when he was 10.

“The Charleroi Merchants baseball team of the Mon Valley League used to play their home games in the stadium,” he recalled. “Dad was the business manager of the Merchants and took me to the games. Many times I saw George Zuraw hit towering home runs over the right field fence and into the river.”

John also gave Vance a job when they went to the stadium.

“I was assigned to hang the numbers on the scoreboard that stood behind home plate,” Vance said. “I was paid 50 cents after the game and went immediately to (Earl) “Mr. Nick” Nicholson’s concession stand for those delicious french fries he served in a conical-shaped cup. They cost 25 cents and I usually spent all my “earnings” by the time I left with my dad. I can still taste those fries today.”

Vance’s first introduction to football at the stadium came in 1956.

“I was 11 years old and sat in the press box with my dad and got to know all the guys in there – Al Ferrari, Bill Cominsky, Dom Guzzi and Frank Buscanics,” he said. “Dom and Frank were two of the friendliest and most gracious men I have ever met. That year I also had the pleasure of watching the player my dad called ‘the greatest Cougar of them all,’ Myron Pottios, who absolutely dominated the football field from either side of the ball.”

Vance’s last vivid memory of Charleroi Stadium goes back to October 25, 1965, when he was 20.

“Even though John Bunardzya lived in Belle Vernon, everyone knew he was a Cougar at heart and bled red and black,” Vance, a Bellmar High graduate, said. “When I started understanding athletics and rivalries that went with them, a father-son, Belle Vernon-Charleroi rivalry developed between my dad and me. Charleroi played Bellmar throughout the 1950s and ’60s in basketball and baseball but never football, and Charleroi came out on the winning end many more times than not. And my dad had a way of reminding me of who won and who lost.”

After the Bellmar-Rostraver merger created Belle Vernon Area, the schools were going to meet in football for the first time in 1965.

With only two seconds remaining in the game and his team trailing by one point, Gary Cramer kicked a 12-yard field goal to give Belle Vernon Area an historic 16-14 victory.

“Joe Grata covered the game for The Valley Independent but my dad was in the press box that night,” Vance said. “I was sitting about three rows down. When the ball split the uprights, I turned around and looked toward the press box. My eyes caught my dad’s eyes and not a word had to be spoken.”

The press box at Charleroi Stadium was a second home for John Bunardzya, as were similar accommodations at stadiums throughout the Mon Valley and western Pennsylvania. He plied his craft in those quarters and wrote endless chapters in this region’s history.

In doing so, he helped – as noted above – countless athletes of all abilities get recognition.

College coaches respected John’s judgement and opinion and were willing to take a chance on anyone he recommended

It’s important to point out, by the way, that John did not play favorites. It made no difference where you went to high school; he was willing to do whatever he could to help you attend college.

That benevolent attitude extended far beyond the athletic world. It was not unusual for John to find ways to help people in need. He would pick up the telephone and make a few calls or simply reach into his own pocket. He did it quietly and unassumingly because he believed it had to be done.

“John was always willing to help anybody,” recalled Bob Petriello, sports editor of The Brownsville Telegraph for nearly half-a-century and a close friend of John Bunardzya. “He was a hell of a good guy.”

To list the people he helped over the years would take more space than we have to offer today. That list, however, does include a guy named Paglia who got his start in the newspaper profession because of John Bunardzya’s consideration on a hot June day in 1959 when he hired me as a sportswriter at The Charleroi Mail.

His guidance continued and our friendship, which I valued beyond words, grew over the years.

His retirement in 1980 left a void at The Valley Independent and in the newspaper profession. His death in 1999 left a void in our hearts.

I’ll remember John Bunardzya in many ways — for his wit and wisdom, for his warm and knowing smile, for his kindness in word and deed.

John’s work as a writer and newsman did not go unnoticed. He received numerous awards and accolades during his career. All were deserved.

In a way, he was much like those educators Henry Brooks Adams defined nearly a century ago. John was a teacher and a mentor whose influence transcends the ages.

One editorial quality dominates my thoughts when I think of him and treasure reading his work.

John Richard Bunardzya was one of those newsman’s newsman who could edit your story or column and make it better. I wish he were here to do that today.


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