Harry Gilcrest's lasting legacy still felt in Ravenna today (with gallery)

By Tom Nader | Sports Editor Published:

Ravenna High School's football stadium is now the home of local corporate sponsors, who helped cover the payment of upgrades at the athletic complex that featured the installation of new blue football turf. The Ravens will host their first game on that field on Friday.

On the south end of the stadium, though, you will find the name of Harry Gilcrest, whom the field is named after.

Gilcrest did not, nor did his family, pay any money for his name to appear at the field. Instead, it was the school district's decision to honor Gilcrest in a dedication that took place in 1971, and was led by former Superintendent Jim Coll, that renamed the old Ravenna football field on North Walnut Street in honor of the influential coach and teacher.

When Ravenna's new football stadium on North Chestnut Street was completed for the 1999 season, it was determined the field would be called "Coaches Field." That name stuck until 2002, when then-Superintendent Tim Calfee played a tape recording from the 1971 dedication at a school board meeting that clearly stated that all future Ravenna football stadiums should be called Gilcrest Field. The meeting eventually ended with a 4-1 vote by board members to change the name back to Gilcrest Field.

Only one member objected, Debbie Davison, who only did so because her vote was to name the entire stadium after Gilcrest -- not just the field.

WHO WAS HARRY GILCREST?

Gilcrest was born in 1911 in Kent, where he was raised on his family's celery farm. He graduated from Kent Roosevelt High School in 1930 and Kent State University in 1936, when he was voted as The Most Popular Man in the Chestnut Burr.

The better question in regards to Gilcrest, though, or at least the one that would lead to a more succinct answer, is who wasn't Harry Gilcrest?

Gilcrest, who died in 1997, was a championship-level coach that led the program through the 1940's, 50's and 60's.

Gilcrest also coached at Aurora for five years, but made his name with the Ravens, who he lead to multiple titles, including back-to-back Metro League crowns in 1964 and 1965. The '64 team went unbeaten for the season. In total, he coached for 35 years and his innovation, which featured the introduction of the single-wing offense at a time no other team was running it, is marked by the fact that the current Ravenna offense still has a group of his plays in their playbook.

Gilcrest was a first-class musician that formed his own band, Gil Crest and The Orchestra. They had the ability to delight audiences, with Gilcrest leading the way with his merry trumpet performances. It was through music that he met his wife, Thelma, during a performance in Conneaut in the 1930's. He turned down a recording contract with RCA, one that was eventually accepted by Duke Ellington, because Gilcrest didnt' want to leave his family to accommodate the touring responsibilities a music career would bring.

He was an Olympian archer, acting as captain for the United States, and he taught the sport in his free time at the Ravenna Archery Club. Former player John Keegan recalls a story when teacher Don Toth came to the district and one day called Gilcrest to the gymnasium for an impromptu archery challenge.

"Toth took three shots and placed them all inside the circumference of a quarter," Keegan said. "Gilcrest took his three shots and all of them would have fit inside a dime. Coach handed Mr. Toth the bow and walked out of the gym."

Gilcrest was an inventor, creating the Gilcrest Bandage Cutter, which found international success. It is said that he got the idea for his cutter after watching his daughter take off her sock with a toothbrush. The gears in his mind start turning and eventually the cutters were being mass produced by Goggler Machine in Kent as an effective way to safely remove athletic tape after athletic competition.

He was an industrial arts teacher that had the ability to prepare high school students for the workforce immediately after graduation if that was the path they chose. He constructed the Ravens Roost press box, which sat overhead of the home stands at the old Ravenna Stadium, and his own home that overlooked the Cuyahoga River. And in his 35 years as a teacher, he never missed a day of work.

He was a master pscychologies and disciplinarian that commanded respect, but also "knew when to kickstart someone or when to put his arm around someone," former player Bruce Ribelin said.

GILCREST'S INFLUENCE

Of all the things that Gilcrest was and is lovingly remembered for, the one thing that still shines the brightest is his role as an influential man that changed people's lives. Most especially the students he taught and athletes he coached, but he also had a profound impact on his own peers and even his opponents.

Trust that he wanted to win -- and wanted to badly -- but understood that sometimes winning on the football field wouldn't tell the whole story. He knew that if he could turn young athletes into me that would become great husbands and fathers, the Ravenna community would win not just the Ravens.

"I'll tell you one thing, he saved my life," said Ribelin, who played for Gilcrest from 1964-66.

"When I was a junior in high school, I wasn't studying as hard as I should be," Ribelin said. "Coach came to me and said that there were some scouts from Saint Louis University here to see me, but that if I didn't start cracking the books hard, then I wasn't going to go anywhere."

Ribelin said that a couple of days later, Gilcrest walked him through AC Williams, a metal company in Ravenna, and asked him, "Is this where you want to be for the next 50 years?"

"He wasn't putting down anyone that worked there or the company, but he saw that I wasn't living up to my full potential," Ribelin said.

GILCREST'S IMPACT STILL FELT

The stories of Gilcrest's coaching and teaching styles have been told so many times that they have become legend.

Their impact hold true, though, just as they did so many years ago, establishing a legacy that still helps carry Ravenna football today.

"He epitomizes what Ravenna football is all about," Ribelin said. "The tradition that is still here today, coach Gilcrest had a huge part in that."

"He made me love to play the game, made me look forward to everything because it was fun," Keegan said. "He made it fun, he realized that it was supposed to be fun.

"Deep down, though, I don't think he wanted to make football players out of us. I think he wanted to mold us into men, good men," Keegan said. "I think he had the game in perspective."

In school, fitting in fun was a different story.

Keegan said he had him for study hall and was warned by his mother to stay on the straight and narrow in Gilcrest's classes.

"The first class I had with Coach was actually study hall," Keegan remembered. "On the very first day, he told us that we were going to do two things. First, he said we were going to study. Second, he said we were going to breathe, but if the breathing got too loud, then that would be cut out."

When Keegan was hired to become the head coach of Streetsboro High School in 1980, he said the first person he went to for advice was Gilcrest.

"I asked him what I should do," Keegan recalled. "He looked at me, and very simply, but sternly, asked me, 'Were you paying attention when you played for me?' I told him, 'Yes, I believe I was.' Coach told me, 'Then just do what we did'."

And how would a blue-collar, no-nonsense man's man truly feel about the team's new blue turf? Some seem to think that he may be above us all cringing at the sight of it.

Keegan and others are not so sure about that.

"Harry was a disciplinarian, but he was really a progressive guy," Keegan said. "I think he would really appreciate the uniqueness of that field, and I think he would smile at the enjoyment that the kids get from it."

When the Ravens run out onto the field on Friday, having just pulled their jerseys over their pads and strapped on their helmets, my hope is that the players will pause and capture a glimpse of the sign that reads Harry Gilcrest Field. Within that moment, appreciate that the name attached to the wall is more than just a collection of fiberglass letters. They are the community's public payment back to a coach that lived and breathed to create a better Ravenna football team, better school system and better people.

Email: tnader@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9443

Twitter: @Tom_Nader

Facebook: Tom Nader, Record-Courier

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.