OCEAN CITY-SEA ISLE MEMORIES with Joe LaRosa

This is second in a series of stories by former Cape-Atlantic League athletes about high school sports in the past – told in their own words. This time, two-sport athlete Joe LaRosa – together with three-sport athlete Steve Libro – remembers the challenges of getting home for Ocean City High School athletes who lived in Sea Isle City.

The recent article by Ken Weaver of Strathmere brought back some memories of being a student-athlete from Ocean City High School who happened to live in Sea Isle City.  First let me say that these notes aren’t to relive old gridiron exploits…I was mediocre at best. It is merely an attempt to share the unique circumstances living in Sea Isle and attending high school in Ocean City created. I am a proud graduate of OCHS, Class of ’71.

Joe LaRosa in 1971

Well into the 1930s Sea Isle City students were transported to and from Ocean City by train.  My father (Class of ’36) took the train, as did seven of his siblings.  In fact, my Uncle Rodger (Class of ’37) made an almost fatal mistake one day on the train by drinking water from the on-board water cooler.  That drink resulted in him contracting typhoid, losing half of his body weight and hovering near death for about a week.  It seemed that the water in the cooler had not been changed in a very long time.  By the time his youngest brother was in high school, the train had been abandoned and students were finally being transported by bus. 

Throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, any high schooler from Sea Isle was on his own (unfortunately there were no “hers” at this time) to find a way home after practice or a game.   Sea Isle City did not provide a late activity bus until the 1970-71 school season if I remember correctly.   For me, that meant three years of finding rides home after school.  My parents both worked, and an early evening trip to Ocean City was usually not an option.  Remember…this is a time way, way, before cell phones, so even getting a message through was almost as difficult as getting home.

Getting to school was another interesting event.  For my first three years of high school I did not ride in a school bus.  Remember the train that took my aunts and uncles to school?  Well, when the train line was abandoned, Public Service (the forerunner to NJ Transit) provided a bus to connect train riders from Avalon, Sea Isle, and Strathmere to the rail station in Ocean City at 51st Street.  Each morning, after dropping off the train commuters, the bus would double back to 44th and Landis to pick up Sea Isle’s OCHS students who lived between First and 44th Streets. A regular school bus owned by local entrepreneur Lonnie Peterson would transport the students from 93rd to 45th Streets.  The gray, Public Service bus would pick up the same children at the end of the school day and drop them off at the various bus stops in Sea Isle. (First stop…Cod Fish; Second stop…Mary’s Flying Market; Third stop…Fish Alley.)

The Public Service bus was interesting.  The bus driver would start his run after 5:00 AM driving from Avalon through Townsend Inlet, through Sea Isle, and through Strathmere picking up commuters along the way to catch the morning train to Philadelphia/ Lindenwold.  After that, he would double back to Sea Isle to pick up the OCHS students.  After the last student was dropped off at school the driver was on his own until the students were again picked up at the end of the school day. Then, it was a few more hours of waiting until the bus driver picked up the returning commuters at the train stop.  The bus (with the same driver) usually passed through Sea Isle after 7:00 PM, heading towards Avalon.  I never thought about it back then, but that was a very long day for the bus driver.  The bus and the characters who rode it to school would make for another very interesting story.

For students staying after school or competing in sports, getting home was when the fun began.   Before I share my experiences, I asked student-athletes from the 1950s about their experiences.  Steve Libro, Class of ‘58, played football, basketball, and baseball for all four years at OCHS. Steve was selected to the OCHS Team of the Century in baseball, went on to a strong football career at TCNJ, where he is in the school’s Hall of Fame. He then was an award-winning football coach at North Brunswick High School where they named their football field after him.

Steve shared his OCHS experiences – “There were no late buses in those days , we did the best that we could to get home. We bummed rides with Sea Isle people who worked in Ocean City, hitchhiked, rode with people who had their license. The police helped, they sometime would take us to the Strathmere bridge and the Sea Isle City police would meet us. Our coaches sometimes would drive us home, and the coaches would often take us to the 51th street Railroad Station and we hopped the train connection bus to Sea Isle. Our coaches were really good about making sure we had a ride. Coaches Fenton Carey and Dixie Howell were really great guys. I was lucky ,I could always call my father and he would always come and get us, especially after night basketball games.”

My own experiences mirrored that of Steve Libro.  In the late 1960s hitchhiking a ride was not as taboo as it is today, although at times it did make for some interesting rides.  Hitchhiking was also complicated when Daylight Savings Time ended and it was dark.  Even the people who would normally pick you up would pass by, as it was dark and quick identification was not easy.  There was a person from Sea Isle who worked at a food market at around Fourth Street in Ocean City.  He could usually be counted on for a ride home.  Nothing was more deflating as walking home in the dark and seeing that person speed by you, not being able to recognize who you are.

While you were hitchhiking you always had to be alert for your safety.  A couple rides come immediately to mind. 

One night I was hitchhiking home alone from Ocean City during one of the warmer months and a car stopped.  As I get in I see that the driver is a classmate who I have known since childhood.  We were in the same grade, but I was “Catholic”, going to St. Joseph’s School; he was “public”, attending Sea Isle City Public School.  We were not especially close, but in a small town everyone was considerate of one another. After I got in he recognized me.  Alternate lifestyles were not out in the open back then as they are now, and this person was “cruising,” looking for people who shared his interests.  The minute I got into the car I knew that had I wrecked his night, and insisted that I get out and get another ride.  He was more insistent than me and most importantly, he was from Sea Isle.  There was an unspoken bond. I’m sure that he had walked all the way home a few times before.  After repeatedly telling me not to apologize to him, he drove me all the way home, right to my front door.  He wasted well over an hour and a half of his time giving me a ride home.  The ride home was absolutely uneventful. Unfortunately, this person died in the mid 1980s.  He was a very good and kind person.

My other incident worth noting was one early afternoon after practice when I was hitchhiking home.  It was getting dark. At 11th and Asbury a man came out of a storefront and offered to take me home.  The store was on the southeast corner of the intersection and was called Bennie’s Market.  The store owner was a former Sea Isle resident, Mr. Bennie Mazella, who was a friend of my family.  He immediately recognized me as he looked out of his store window.  I did not remember him a little bit.  Anyway, he was insistent that he take me home, but he was also insistent that he call my parents to see if it was okay.  After finally tracking down my dad who had just gotten home from work they spoke, I seem to remember it was in Italian, but I can’t be sure as my father rarely spoke the language unless he had to.  After chatting with my Dad for a few minutes Bennie closed his store early just to drive me home. Bennie has since passed away and the market was closed.  His recipe for bread is still very much around as the business with new owners moved south one block and is now known as Bennie’s Bread.

Being an athlete at OCHS and living in Sea Isle City certainly required more sacrifices on the student’s part than those who lived in town.  Most of the coaches, teachers and other athletes were unaware of what it took to for us compete as Red Raiders. That may be part of the reason that only one Sea Isle City resident has been inducted in to the Ocean City High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Lauren McHale, Class of ’98, was an outstanding athlete in two sports and absolutely deserves her place in the Hall.  However, it is difficult to believe that in the 100 years that Sea Isle City students have been competing for OCHS that she is the only resident worthy of induction.   It is time to consider the contributions of athletes such as Johnny Lepore back in the 1930s, Rocky Morano, Ed “Buddy” Adamczyk, Dan Libro, Steve M. Libro, Steve A. Libro, George Town, Dave Farina, Charlie Dalrymple, Mike Baldini, and Terry Tracey, just to name a few and with my sincere apologies to those who did not come immediately to my mind.  I believe that the athletic achievements of the students that I mentioned may have been lost to time, just faded away.  Incidentally, that is how my OCHS athletic career ended on Thanksgiving Day, 1970. 

Mario “Chip” Conti grew up next door to me in Sea Isle.  By the time high school rolled around, he had moved away with his family off-shore to Seaville.  His athletic heroics were accomplished as a resident of Upper Township.  We were childhood friends and, most importantly, we both were having great games. Mid-way through the final quarter Ocean City was very well in front of Pleasantville.  We went into a defensive huddle and “Chip” called out the play.  We both looked around and then at each other and laughed, as by now Coach Slaveski was freely substituting underclassmen and those who did not play much throughout the year.  We were the last two starters.  As we looked and laughed at each other Chip called a time out.  We both substituted out for each other and walked off of the Ty Helfrich Field together, still laughing.  I believe that was the last time either of us played any “official” organized sports.

In addition to a great career in education, with success as an author and radio host, Joe LaRosa was a longtime lifeguard.

By my senior year, the Sea Isle City School District started an after school activity bus.  Owned and driven by local residents John and Blanche Mazurie, the bus signaled an end to walking or hitchhiking home in the dark.  John was Sea Isle’s Fire Chief and Blanche was very active in the community, so they knew all of the children.  In fact, they were family friends with most of our parents.  Because they were part of the community they understood how hard it was to find a late ride home.  This knowledge was extremely helpful if practice ran long, as if they knew you needed a ride home they would not leave until you were aboard. 

Ahhh… the joys of a small town.

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