The History of the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame
The Blair County Sports Hall of Fame held its first induction dinner on April 18, 1987 at Penn State’s Adler Gymnasium.
In what unquestionably brought the biggest stage of sports legends ever assembled at one time in Blair County, the Hall of Fame inducted Ed Flanagan, Galen Hall, William “Skip” Hughes, Pat Malone, Mike Reid and Wade Schalles in its first class of inductees. Presenters included Chuck Knox (Flanagan), Dave Robinson (Hall), Red Mihalik (Hughes), Tom Irwin Sr. (Malone), Steve Smear (Reid) and Bob Bubb (Schalles).
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was the featured speaker. The event packed a capacity 725 people into the Adler Gym, and it drew rave reviews.
“Years from now, when people talk about heavyweight events,” Altoona Mirror Sports Editor Jim Lane wrote the next day in his column about the event, “you can bet this one will rank at the top.”
Here is How the Hall of Fame began:
Neil Rudel of the Altoona Mirror contacted Dave Andrews, then the chairman of the highly-successful Altoona Rotary Basketball Tournament, which drew top-ranked national teams and large crowds annually to the Altoona Fieldhouse to compete with local teams.
Having been impressed with the job Andrews did with the Rotary, Rudel advanced the concept of having a Blair County Sports Hall of Fame and, during a lunch at the old Keg & Butcher Block in Altoona, asked Andrews if he’d like to be involved. Andrews shared the enthusiasm, and advised Rudel: “The first person you want to talk to is Steve Sheetz.”
A meeting was set and took place at Andrews’ home in October of 1985. Sheetz agreed to be the president. Andrews would be the vice president, Rudel the secretary and Bernie Dembert the treasurer. With the fledgling Hall’s Executive Committee set, the following were invited and accepted to serve as members of the original Selection Committee: Don Appleman, Jim DelGrosso, Merle Evey, Dan Hoover, Mike Irwin, John Ketner, Jim Lane, Terry Lingenfelter, Cem Maier and John Stultz.
Each represented a different part of the Blair County community and would be tasked, along with the Executive Committee, with nominating, researching candidates and sorting through the many letters of recommendation the Hall of Fame received.
Criteria was established to include the following:
- The individual was born or lived in Blair County.
- The individual has attained national, regional or statewide recognition in his or her sport.
- The individual must be retired from his or her sport a minimum of two years.
A press conference was held at the Sheraton in Altoona to announce the Hall of Fame’s formation and its first class. Interestingly, the first banquet was scheduled to take place at the Sheraton, which had a capacity of 350, but as interest in the Hall of Fame grew, the venue was switched to the more spacious Adler Gymnasium on the campus of Penn State Altoona.
The evening sold out quickly and got the Hall of Fame off to the rousing start for which it had hoped since it was in the planning stages for nearly 18 months. The induction speeches were thoughtful, moving, funny and inspirational. The presenters were humorous while paying tribute.
Paterno, just four months removed from the Nittany Lions’ second national championship, wrapped up the night by tracing his deep roots to Altoona and Blair County, telling stories of how the first player he ever recruited (Otto Kneidinger) was from Bellwood-Antis, entertaining the crowd and hailing the Hall of Fame.
“It’s been a great night,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a dinner where there’s been better people honored and a better expression of thoughts.”
Paterno, who told stories about Reid and Hall, both his former players, wasn’t alone in his praise.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Sheetz said.
Reid said, “I think we’ll all agree the real star tonight is the Hall of Fame for now we have something to bring all this wonderful tradition together.”
A new tradition was born, indeed, and it included some special touches. The dais was black-tie. Each inductee received a silver plate engraved with their picture. Local artist Jim Steiner drew a caricature of each inductee, and through 2014, he had drawn all 85 inductees, which are hung at the ceremony and provide a unique backdrop that adds to the evening’s atmosphere.
Popular Pittsburgh sportscaster Stan Savran was invited to serve as the Hall’s first master of ceremonies and, we’re proud to say, he’s enjoyed it so much and been so well received that he’s continued in that capacity through all 16 banquets.
From the beginning, a Friday night reception was included for the inductees, their families, the Hall of Fame committees and corporate sponsors to help enhance the spirit of the weekend. That takes place at Scotch Valley Country Club.
The Hall of Fame began as an annual event but after its fourth-straight induction (1990), Sheetz recommended the switch to an every-other-year format. He felt the organization was well established “and would become an even bigger event to take place every two years,” and he was right.
Sheetz stepped down as president after the 1994 banquet — his sixth — and gave way to Andrews, who held the presidency from 1995-2014. Andrews’ tenure saw some significant growth in the Hall of Fame, including the establishment of the Hall’s first Board of Directors, creating a partnership with the Summit Tennis & Athletic Center to serve as home to the Hall of Fame’s memorabilia, adding a Community Service Award (which began in 1998) and inducting team starting in 2004.
The Hall’s first Board of Directors, in addition to the Executive Committee, consisted of Pat Dandrea, Jim Gregory, Lee Hite, Joe Irwin, Steve Kasun, Jenny Moran, Bob Pennington and Sue Condrin-Shields.
In 1996, Andrews coordinated the enhancement of the Hall’s scholarship program with Reliance Bank, and the Hall has now awarded more than $125,000 to deserving student-athletes. Even though the Hall recognizes inductees every two years, the scholarship program remains annual.
Under Andrews’ leadership, the Hall of Fame also moved from The Casino at Lakemont, which hosted six banquets (1990-2000) after the first three at Penn State Altoona, to the Blair County Convention Center.
The Convention Center expanded the Hall of Fame’s drawing ability even more as crowds of 900-plus became regular, with a high mark of 1,100 in 2012, when the guest speaker was Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 2012 banquet also marked the Hall of Fame’s silver anniversary, and 20 past inductees returned to be recognized.
A fundamental change took place in the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremony beginning with the 2008 when the presentations were put on video tape. The reason for the change was two-fold: It helped to better manage the length of the evening and provided more flexibility in retaining a presenter. In its early years, the Hall of Fame brought in a “who’s who” of presenters that were eager to come to Altoona to spend time with the inductee they were introducing. Many were coaches, teammates or great friends.
The list of presenters included Oscar Robertson (Jim Curry), Phil Simms (Brad Benson), Bobby Riggs (Bill Parsons), Chuck Knox (Ed Flanagan), Jack Ham (John Ebersole), Dave Robinson (Galen Hall), Abe Lemons (Johnny Moore), Billy Conn (Dick Conlon), Frank Kush (Donn Kinzle), Tommy Henrich (Tom Irwin), Leon Hart (Blaine Earon), Rollie Massimino (Doug West) and Jim Baron (Mike Iuzzolino). Foge Fazio (Troy Benson and Ralph Conrad) and Don Nehlen (Mark Raugh and Jim Merritts), both came here twice.
But as the Hall of Fame added the scholarship program, Community Service Award and team inductee, expanding the ceremony, it was felt a videotaped presentation would be in the Hall’s best interest, and it, too, has been well received.
Andrews was honored at the 2014 banquet, and the torch was passed to Rudel, who became just the Hall of Fame’s third president since the organization’s inception.
After Paterno, the Hall of Fame maintained its tradition of inviting a guest speaker to help dignify the evening, and, indeed, some of the biggest names in sports history have graced the Hall dais. That list has included:
Terry Bradshaw, Bob Knight, Dick Vitale, Joe Theismann, Mary Lou Retton, Bobby Bowden, Jim Boeheim, Chris Fowler, Steeler greats Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger and new Penn State football coach James Franklin.
Through 2018, the Hall of Fame has held 18 banquets and enshrined 90 inductees and 9 teams.