You Don’t Mess with Uniontown
By Al Owens
If I’d been around when they printed that Declaration of Independence, I would
have given those guys in Philadelphia a good tongue lashing. They could have
picked any day except July 4th, 1776 to declare our independence from the King
“Mr. Jefferson, I gotta tell you, you don’t mess with Uniontown. Henry Beeson is
establishing my hometown today, and all you people are thinking about is
throwing off some despot. I don’t want to sound too harsh, but can you and Mr.
Franklin wait a day or two?”
To be honest, national events have always messed with Fayette County history.
Like, when Uniontown’s Terence Jackson got featured in the April 5th, 1982
edition of Sports Illustrated. He’d just high jumped 7 feet, ¾ inches. That was
an amazing feat for a kid who only stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall. That would have
been one of those noteworthy national sports stories if it hadn’t been for that
Michael Jordan butting in. He’d led his North Carolina Tar Heels to a College
National basketball championship that week. So Jordan and his teammates appeared
on the front page – not Jackson.
History can also produce great irony. I just happened to be watching the 11
o’clock news on WTAE-TV November 21st, 1963. That night some guy from the
Republican Party of Allegheny County claimed, “The four Kennedy years would be
known as the four empty years in American politics.”
A little over 12 hours later that statement would be obviously proven wrong.
President Kennedy was assassinated - and nobody has claimed his presidency was
without consequence since.
When the Uniontown Red Raiders won the school’s first state basketball
championship in 36 years on March 24th, 1963, the story got upstaged,
nationally, by another sporting event that took place in New York City.
Emile Griffith and Benny “Kid” Paret fought for the Welterweight Championship of
the World. Paret had publicly questioned Griffith’s sexual preference. Griffith
retaliated in the ring, by knocking Paret unconscious, and continuing to pound
him while he was lay helpless on the ropes.
Those of us in Uniontown who’d been ecstatic about that Red Raider championship,
watched a man kill another man in a boxing ring just a an hour or so later.
Paret would eventually die from that beating.
Just two years later on March 9th, 1964, the Uniontown Red Raiders battled
Midland for the WPIAL basketball championship. Uniontown won in overtime on
their way to their second state championship in three years. But the folks in
Detroit didn’t care. They were busily rolling the very first Ford Mustang off
the assembly line that day.
The dedication of the Doughboy in downtown Uniontown took place on November 2nd,
1936. That was the same day the BBC in London aired the very first
“high-definition” TV broadcast. The following day Franklin Roosevelt won the
presidency in a landslide over Alf Landon.
They started building the Panama Canal December 30th, 1880. The following day in
Uniontown, Pennsylvania George C. Marshall was born.
The noted actor Errol Flynn died on October 14th, 1959. The following day The
Duchess of York (Sarah Ferguson) was born. The day after her birth George C.
The State Theatre in Uniontown may have gotten a bit upstaged by events in
Europe. It officially opened on October 30th, 1922. That’s two days after the
first coast-to-coast broadcast of a football game, which was the same day Benito
Mussolini took control of the government in Italy.
Talk about getting a hometown event getting pushed aside. Consider this.
Uniontown’s Ethelbert P. Oliphant was a longtime friend of Abraham Lincoln. On
April 5th, 1861 Oliphant did what a lot of friends do, he asked Abe Lincoln to
help get him a job.
“Dear Sir, give me the Judgeship of Nebraska if you can.” Lincoln, knowing you
don’t mess with Uniontown, replied immediately to that rather strong request.
On the same day he fired off a memorandum of recommendation: “Ethelbert
Oliphant, of Uniontown, Pa. is an old acquaintance of mine; and I wish, if I can
make it reasonably convenient to give him a place. He prefers a Judgeship in
All of that on April 5th, 1861. Unfortunately for Ethelbert, just a week later,
President Lincoln had other concerns. On April 12th, the Confederacy shelled
Fort Sumter and the Civil War got in the way.
By the way, that wasn’t the only time a U.S. President had his duties
interrupted by the events of the day. On September 10th, 2001 President George
W. Bush announced the kick off of “Putting Reading First” week in Jacksonville,
Florida. The following day, some would say, he did put reading first – when he
got word of the attacks of September 11th, he kept reading “My Pet Goat”.
On December 31st, 1961 The Marshall Plan expired after the distribution of 12
billion dollars thanks to Uniontown’s George C. Marshall. The following day, the
Beach Boys had their very first performance together, and Uniontown’s Sandy
Stephens and Bill Munsey helped the Minnesota Golden Gophers trample the UCLA
Trojans in the annual Rose Bowl game.
But I guess the most fascinating example of local history getting obscured by
national and even international events, features Uniontown native Virginius E.
Clark was born in Uniontown in February of 1886. By 1922 he’d become an
aeronautical engineer. He was so accomplished he developed an application for
aircraft that was used well into the 20th century. So important was his
invention, they named the Clark-Y airfoil after him. Virginius E. Clark is
considered one of the true pioneers of aviation.
He created that airfoil while working at the Dayton-Wright Co. in Dayton, Ohio.
Dayton, Ohio? Wright? Yep! He worked for the company once headed by the Wright
brothers – and in their hometown.
Clark’s death on January 30th, 1948 may have been overshadowed by the death on
the same day of Mahatma Gandhi in India. But even if Gandhi hadn’t died that
day, Clark’s death may have been diminished by the death of an noted American.
Orville Wright died that day at the age of 76.