A local legend is among six men who will be inducted into the Whitehall Athletic Hall of Fame later this evening at Whitehall High School.
Ambrose Gilligan will headline a class that includes John Millett, John Neary, Paul D’Amico, Edward “Ebba” St. Claire, and Anthony “Tony” Barber.
Gilligan, Neary and St. Claire will all be inducted posthumously.
This year’s class was announced earlier this year and the inductees will be enshrined alongside Clint Taft, the first, and until now, only member of the Whitehall Hall of Fame.
Collectively, the men span nearly a century of involvement in Whitehall athletics and there are very few kids who grew up in the community and stepped foot on a ball field or playground that didn’t know at least one of them.
Known affectionately as “Gilly,” Gilligan was a highly renowned coach, teacher and principal in Whitehall.
Gilligan was a teacher and a coach at Whitehall High School when the school was located on School Street and games were played alongside the canal where the Rec. Center is located today. Fans didn’t cheer for the Railroaders, they cheered for the Maroons and up to 12,000 people would show up to cheer them on.
From the beginning of 1938 until the end of 1941, Gilligan’s teams won 27 consecutive football games and outscored their opponents by an average margin of 20 to 2. In 1939, Gilligan’s team didn’t allow a single point. To this day, no Whitehall team, and there have been some great ones over the years, have been able to match that record.
“He was a great motivator,” said Jack Layden Sr., whose aunt, Helen, was Gilligan’s first wife. “He was very kind and had a gentle side, but he could be firm when he needed to be.”
A 1921 graduate of Whitehall High School, Gilligan was an accomplished athlete, serving as captain of the football team and starring on the basketball court. Following high school, he competed in several sports at Union College before graduating in 1926 as class president.
Upon his graduation from college, Gilligan returned to Whitehall and became a teacher at the school, and eventually a principal.
He gave up coaching in 1942, but continued to be a presence at practice and games, stopping by to give out advice and cheer the team on.
Tony Scrimo, who played for Whitehall in the 1950s, remembers Gilligan stopping by the field to encourage players.
“When I started playing, I remember Ambrose would come down and offer his expertise,” Scrimo said. “He was my principal my entire school career. He was a legend as a coach and a principal.
“Ambrose was a pillar in the community.”
Gilligan was a grand knight of the Knights of Columbus, an exalted ruler of the Elks and a member Our Lady of Angels Catholic church.
“He was very active in the community and was very much respected,” said Layden. “He was a role model for the kids. I think that was his greatest accomplishment.”
Although Gilligan died 32 years ago, his influence lives on. The athletic fields at Whitehall High School bear his name and the Gilly Room at the Skene Manor helps perpetuate his legacy. He undoubtedly left his mark on the rest of this year’s hall of fame class, as every member either played for him, or played for someone who played for him, including John Neary.
Neary was a first generation Irish-American whose father worked along the canal before settling in Whitehall. Although Neary started school late, by the time he reached high school he was a three-sport athlete who played for the Maroons under Gilligan from 1928 to 1930.
“My dad loved sports, but he was especially interested in baseball,” said Pat Norton, Neary’s daughter. “My understanding was that he could throw a mean fastball and could hit the ball so high that you couldn’t see it.”
There was a quote in his yearbook that read, “Perhaps we might not be able to boast of our excellent baseball team if it weren’t for Neary’s trusty right.”
After graduating from Whitehall, Neary played semipro baseball for the Albany Senators and he later passed his enthusiasm for the game, and sports in general, to countless youth as Whitehall recreation director, a role he served from 1947-1965.
“He loved being with kids and making them more active,” Norton said. “The kids followed him like the pied piper.”
Millett said he can remember Neary spending hours hitting balls to kids.
“When I was a lad he hit baseballs to us for two to three hours at a time,” Millett said.
During the summer Neary would umpire one or two games a day, organize games and activities for children and maintain the Rec. Center and all the fields.
During the winter he would shovel off the tennis and basketball courts and spray them down with water to create a skating rink, often receiving help from local youth, including (Tony) Barber and Scrimo.
“He was always there for the kids. He was the type of guy who went above and beyond,” Scrimo said.
“His legacy at the playground stands on its own merit,” said James Watson, Whitehall superintendent.
Norton said he would have been thrilled and humbled by the induction.
“It fantastic he’s been considered,” she said. “He would have been very pleased to have been inducted with Ebba.”
Edward “Ebba” St Claire
St. Claire was born in 1921, the year Gilligan graduated from high school and played football for him from 1934-1938. He also participated on the track team, but where he really shone was on the baseball diamond.
His Legion baseball team won the state championship and the team earned the right to play at the dedication of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1939.
The year before, the Pittsburgh Pirates awarded St. Claire $3,000 for his promise to sign with them in the future, and after earning his degree from Colgate University he did just that, landing with their Single A team in Albany.
The time with the team was short-lived as he volunteered for the Army and spent 18 months with the ski troopers during World War II.
After leaving the army, he worked as a teacher at Ausable Forks, and played semipro baseball in the Pony League before earning a trip back to Albany. After stints with a few different teams, St. Claire eventually became the backup catcher for the Boston Braves for three seasons.
In 1954, he was sent to the New York Giants in a trade that landed the Braves Bobby Thomson, the man who had hit the “shot heard around the world” in 1951.
After retiring from baseball, St. Claire returned to Whitehall where he spent many hours volunteering for the betterment of the Rec. Center and youth athletics. He also served on the Whitehall School Board.
Millett was a student at Whitehall when Gilligan was principal and Taft coached and their tutelage served him well. Despite all their accomplishments on the football field, it is Millett who holds the school record for wins with 195, third most in Section II for football.
During his five decades as a coach, Millett’s teams compiled 13 league championships, four Section II championships, finished second in Section II four times and was second at the Regionals once. He won more than 60 percent of the games he coached and had three undefeated seasons.
And that was just football. His track and field teams won six Section II titles and he won a league championship with both the girls basketball teams and softball teams.
In his nomination, Farrell Prefountaine wrote “John’s extended service to Whitehall Central School and his records in coaching both boys and girls sports is just reason for his induction.”
After graduating from Whitehall High School, Millett received his degree from Cortland and coached for a time at Granville High School before becoming physical education teacher and head football and track coach at Whitehall.
Beside phys. ed., Millett was the director of athletics for five years and driver’s education teacher for 44 years.
He said it “feels good” to be recognized by the hall of fame committee.
“I enjoyed coaching immensely. It’s hard to pick out a single year, they were all good,” Millett said.
“He had an outstanding career as a teacher and coach,” Watson said.
Anthony “Tony” Barber
Paula Steves says sports were always part of the life of her father, Anthony “Tony” Barber, and his support of athletics ensured that sports played a prominent role in the lives of the young men and women who grew up in Whitehall.
Barber was a standout baseball, football, basketball and track athlete at Whitehall during the late 1940s. He was part of a track relay team that still holds a school record and played semipro football for two years, but it was his involvement with athletics later in life that left the most enduring impact.
Barber was the founder of the Whitehall Athletic Association and has been a tireless advocate of sports in Whitehall.
In the 1970s the budget was voted down and sports were going to be eliminated but Barber and a few other residents started the athletic association to save them.
“They ran the athletic programs all year,” Steve said. “From organizing the schedules with Section II, hiring the officials and making sure there were chaperones and ticket takers.”
“He helped keep sports afloat,” said Millett.
Over the years, the Athletic Association has raised thousands of dollars through various fundraisers. The concession stand trailer that sits by the high school football field was and still is run by Barber, and the portable lights the youth league uses were purchased and donated by the Whitehall Athletic Association.
“Sports have always been part of his life,” Steve said. “He never missed any games. He was always there.”
Paul D’Amico may have been the greatest athlete Whitehall has ever seen.
Keith Redmond, athletic director at Whitehall High School, said D’Amico was known “as the Jim Brown of Whitehall” for his prowess in multiple sports.
“He was an outstanding athlete,” said Scrimo, who was D’Amico’s pulling guard on the football team in the 1950s.
D’Amico played football, basketball, baseball and track from 1954-1958.
He was a star running back who used his speed to outrun defenders and received the Harrison K. Bird trophy as the most valuable player his senior year.
But it was in track that D’Amico excelled.
He set a number of school records during his time at Whitehall, many of which still stand today.
He set the record for the 100-yard dash at 9.9 seconds and the 220-yard dash with a time of 21.5 seconds. He also holds records in the 180- and 220-yard low hurdles.
His exploits earned him a scholarship to Nebraska, where ran a 9.7 100-yard dash and equaled the school record in the 60-yard dash with a time of 6.2 seconds.
After college, D’Amico entered the Army and earned the rank of specialist fourth class before receiving his honorable discharge.
In 1962 he joined Avis Rent A Car and worked his way through the company. While there, he helped organize the Avis Challenge Cup, a tennis tournament that featured Arthur Ashe and Bjorn Borg, among others.
After leaving Avis, he operated a sports store that catered to schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference and later became a branch fleet manager for Diamond Engineered Space which was later bought by General Electric. He retired in 2000.
“Paul was an outstanding athlete and a great ambassador for Whitehall,” Watson said.
Each of this year’s inductees will have their names and accomplishments enshrined on a plaque that will hang on the hall outside the high school gymnasium.
Speaking of this year’s hall of fame class, George Armstrong, town supervisor and a member of the hall of fame selection committee said “They were all outstanding people who contributed greatly to the young people of the community. They dedicated many, many years of service to Whitehall.”
Their induction was long overdue.”