Greatness from the smallest of towns

I recently ordered the biography “Frank Gannett: A Biography”, written in 1940 by Samuel T. Williamson.  Growing up in a town of little over a thousand people, you’d think there would have been more history told of it would seem, without a doubt, its most famous citizen. 

Frank Gannett graduated from Bolivar High School at the turn of the 19th century (1897).  As a teenager, he was an industrious worker and small businessman in Bolivar, where he learned to hate what alcohol did to people when he bartended at the Newton House (which I believe was situated on the corner of current day Main and Wellsville Street – 2 blocks from where I grew up).  In short, Bolivar in no small part shaped his life and morals.

References are made throughout the book back to his life in Bolivar, where he was friends with two others I never heard of – Dougherty and Jones.  Both went on to major league baseball careers –  Jones as the manager of the Chicago White Sox, and Dougherty as one of Jones’s best players on the White Sox.  Who knew?

The book is written in a style of reminicent of a book I read by a Rochester newspaper writer written about the same time – 1940 ish – of his travels on foot through the Genesee Valley from the river source in Genesee, PA to its terminus in Rochester. I’m not sure if the simple descriptive and introspective style makes this book about the newspaper magnate interesting to me, or the fact that I share the same roots with the subject. Probably both.

Growing up, the town hero was (and still is) Bob Torrey, who played fullback for Joe Paterno at Penn State in the mid-1970’s, then 3 or so years in the NFL. Everyone in my generation knew of Bob, but I dare say few or none knew of Gannett. Most idolized Bob, but few, if any, had thoughts of following him. His combination of size, strength and speed had as much to do with random genetics as they did with talent. All the hard work in the world won’t make you a Division 1 football player if you don’t have the body for it.

Gannett’s story is different, though. Like those that came after him, he graduated from an excellent school system that taught the 3 R’s well and had a town of hard-working families that cared about each other and their town. Gannett took this same education and small-town pride to heights not seen until perhaps Lance Shaner and his success in hotels and oil.

I wonder how graduates from Bolivar would feel if they knew greatness was bred in their hometown – a greatness they all could achieve? Would they think they could achieve anything when they left high school and shoot for the stars, rather than leaving that for what they thought were smarter or somehow more advanced or advantaged people from the big city? Who knows. I do hope when I send this biography back to Bolivar when I’m done reading it that the school will include it in its curriculum, as well as the contemporary history of Lance Shaner. Heroes seem better when they live down the block.

Mark Stopha
Alaska Wild Salmon Company
4455 N. Douglas Hwy
Juneau, AK  99801

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