Upstate N.Y. Sports Lore: John Siedlecki … A legacy of coaching and education

Former Johnstown football coach John Siedlecki, right, talks with players. (Photo submitted)

Former Johnstown football coach John Siedlecki, right, talks with players. (Photo submitted)

Long before the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame was established in 2012, Fulton County’s most notable athletes and sports figures careers were capped off with “testimonial dinners.”

Johnstown led this initiative in the 1930s-70s, and in 1961, such an honor was bestowed upon long-time Johnstown coach and educator John P. Siedlecki.

Born in 1913 in Deferiet, N.Y., John Siedlecki was the oldest of 11 children born to Polish immigrants.

Upon graduation from nearby Carthage High School in 1931, he enrolled at Clarkson University, where he lettered in football, basketball and baseball between 1931 to 1935. At 5-10 and 175 pounds, he was considered a triple-threat athlete.  A Clarkson profile described him as “one of the most determined athletes to ever attend the school.

In football, his aggressive style of play, coupled with his ability to punt, pass or run, made him one of the most dangerous men on either offense or defense. He was one of the best sophomore backs in the country in 1932 and finished third in the race for Eastern scoring honors, led Clarkson to a No. 1 ranking in the New York State Small College Conference with a 6-2 record and earned All-America honors.

In 1934, he was the captain of the football team that won the NYS Conference Championship for the second time in four years. He also scored the winning touchdown in their 1934 game against arch-rival St. Lawrence University and solidified the status of that squad being considered the best team in Clarkson football history. He was a guard/forward on the Clarkson basketball team in 1934/35 that won the New York State Conference Championship. He also starred on the baseball diamond as a catcher and was captain of the Clarkson baseball team in 1935.

Siedlecki graduated from Clarkson University in the spring of 1935 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration. That summer, he would catch for the Deferiet A.C. baseball team in the New York State semi-pro league.

In the fall of 1935, he began his coaching career as an assistant with the Clarkson football team. He then went to work for the St. Regis Paper Company from 1936-37. During that same time period, he attended graduate school at St. Lawrence University and was an assistant coach for their football, basketball and baseball teams. He also continued to play for the Deferiet A.C. baseball team in the summer and became their player/manager for the 1936 season.

In 1937, he began receiving offers to play baseball and football at the professional level, including an offer of $100 per game to play for the New York Football Giants. Instead, he chose to take a teaching position with the Johnstown School District. According to his son Jack, “my Dad once told me that although playing sports professionally intrigued him, he calculated that he could make just as much being a teacher and coaching on the side. Thus, he chose to instead enter the world of education full time.” This is a decision that would pay big dividends for the students and athletes of Johnstown.

He started at Johnstown High School in the fall of 1937 as an instructor of mathematics and social studies, and as an assistant varsity football coach behind Cornelius Moynihan and James MacFadden. During this same time, he continued to pursue studies at Clarkson, Syracuse University and St. Lawrence University, graduating with a master’s in education degree from St. Lawrence in 1942.

In 1944, Siedlecki took over the football program as head coach. Over the next 19 seasons (1944-61), he led the Johnstown football program to a record of 88-38-11, nine conference championships and undefeated seasons in 1954, 1956, 1960 and 1961. What made his success on the football field that much more impressive was that from 1958-67, Johnstown competed in the former Western Conference, which matched them against much bigger capital district schools. His score sheet against rival Gloversville was 12-3-4. In addition, he coached basketball (1941-51), baseball (1952-58) and track (1945-47). He was also basketball official and active on several sports related boards including; head of the Adirondack District Board of Approved Basketball Officials, president of the Western Conference Association, chairman of Section II football for NYS public high schools and chairman of the State Public High School Athletic Association.

His academic career would also lead him into school administration.

From 1937-49,  he was a guidance counselor at Johnstown High School, and from 1958 to 1962, in addition to his regular teaching duties, he served as director of athletics and Vice-Principal of the high school. He was also the district’s treasurer from 1955-62.

“I remember John laying out the weekly payroll checks on his living room floor during off hours from school to keep up with the duties of district treasurer,” long-time Johnstown educator and coach Milt Zoellner said. “Multi-tasking by all district administrators was definitely part of the job.”

In February of 1962, he stepped down from his responsibilities of coaching football to become the principal of the Johnstown High School at the age of 49. He would lead the Johnstown High School in that capacity for the next eight years, retiring in 1970.

After the 1961 football season ended and word got out that Siedlecki would be stepping away from his role as a varsity football coach in favor of becoming a building principal in early 1962, the people of Johnstown put together a huge banquet in his honor to celebrate his storied career as a Johnstown coach and teacher, and to thank him for all he had done for the students of Johnstown.

“John Siedlecki Day” in Johnstown by Mayor Donald B. Bellinger on Dec. 6, 1961, and a testimonial dinner took place at St. Anthony’s Church Gymnasium on Nicholas Street. More than 500 people attended, including former and current; students, athletes, co-workers, opponents and local dignitaries. A talk was given by New York Giants star defensive tackle of the day Dick Modzelewski, who much to his families delight, corresponded with Siedlecki’s parents in Polish.

During the event, many testimonials of praise were given, with each one bringing the guests to their feet with ovations. Much to Siedlecki’s surprise, his admirers in the community had secretly collected donations and presented him with a set of keys to a brand-new 1962 Dodge Dart as a thank you for what he had done for the community of Johnstown as a teacher, coach and administrator.

According to Siedlecki’s daughter, Joanna (Fratangelo) Steenburgh, “I was a freshman in college and it was our families first new car. It was also the first car we had with a radio and the entire family was thrilled with it.”

The thumbnail sketch of Siedlecki in his testimonial dinner program stated, “Our guest of honor has made a tremendous contribution both scholastically and athletically to Johnstown High School. As a coach and as a sports official he has been acquainted with a host of people in the Capital District Area and his judgement, ability and exemplification of high ideals and sportsmanship have won for him the admiration of all who have had the privilege to have been associated with him.”

Less than a year after retiring from education in 1970, Siedlecki entered local politics. As a Democrat, he won his first 2-year Fulton County Supervisors term in 1971 and was re-elected in 1973. He also served as Chairman of the county board’s education committee and as a member of the county officers and buildings, social services, natural resources and reapportionment committees. And in 1974, he was the associate general chairman of the Johnstown Community Chest.

Siedlecki married his high school sweetheart from Carthage, Dorothy J. Hall, in August 1938 and brought her to Johnstown where they resided at 109 E. Third Avenue. They and had four children; oldest son Peter (who passed away at age 7), son Julius Alexander Siedlecki (named in honor of his two brothers Julius and Alexander who were killed in WWII), daughter Joanna (Fratangelo) Steenburgh, and youngest son Jack Siedlecki.

In addition to his family and his storied athletic and academic careers, Siedlecki also was an active member of St. Patrick’s Church, the Knights of Columbus and served on the board of directors for the Johnstown Public Library and the Johnstown YMCA.

Siedlecki passed away in 1975 after a short illness at the age of 62.

The “John P. Siedlecki Memorial Scholarship” was created shortly after his death and is still active today. It is given by the JHS Student Council to a deserving senior (based upon leadership and services both in and out of school) planning to further their education beyond high school.

In 1992, Siedlecki was inducted into the Clarkson University Athletic Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural induction class and is still considered one of the greatest all-around athletes to ever attend that university.

Only one of Siedlecki’s children actually got to play for him when his son Alex starred on his last team that went undefeated in 1961. But, his love of the game of football, coaching and teaching still lives on today through all of his descendants. His son, Jack, starred at JHS, Union College and for the Glove Cities Colonials, before going on to become a head coach at the college level. Over 21 seasons he enjoyed a 127-70-2 record leading Worcester Polytechnic, Amherst College and Yale University. He was recently called out of retirement to be the offensive line coach at Holy Cross University for the 2016 season. His grandchildren Jackie, Kevin and Amy Siedlecki have all coached at the high school or college level as well.

Jackie coached an undefeated softball team at the Fay School in Mass., and was an assistant volleyball coach at the Guilford High School in Connecticut.

Kevin is currently the lacrosse coach at the Daniel Hand School in Madison, Conn., and has amassed a record of 123-45 since 2009. In that time, his team won the Southern Connecticut Conference Championship 4 times and was the runner up 3 times. He was also the Connecticut Class M State Coach of the Year in 2015 and is an assistant coach for Division II Southern Connecticut State University.

Amy coached lacrosse for two seasons at Wesleyan University in Middletown Conn., one year at Daniel Hand with brother Kevin, and for several years ran a club team called the CT Cardinals, where one of her players this past summer was Kaitlin Serpa of Johnstown.

Grandson John Siedlecki played two years of football for Niskayuna High School and is now a physician in Richmond, Va., where he specializes in sports medicine. While not a coach, he has spent the last 18 seasons on the sidelines of the Trinity Episcopal High School (Richmond, Va.) football games as the team doctor. His great-grandson Jack Fitzgerald currently plays inside linebacker for the Hartwick College varsity football squad. He also holds the JHS single game rushing record in a Johnstown-Gloversville game, when he ran for 191 yards in the 2015 contest. He also rushed for two touchdowns and threw for a third to lead Johnstown to a 20-0 win.

Siedlecki’s great granddaughter Grace is currently a sophomore at JHS where she plays both soccer (captain) and basketball.

In addition to his sports and coaching legacy, three grandchildren mentioned above (and his son Alex) are either currently teachers or have taught at some point in their careers. His daughter Joanna was also an elementary teacher her entire career in Amsterdam and Johnstown, and his granddaughter Susanne Fitzgerald is presently the head of the language department at Gloversville High School and teaches Spanish. Grandchildren Andrea (Siedlecki) Townsend is an attorney in Atlanta, Ga., and Michael Fratangelo is an CPA/forensic accountant for the FBI in Albany.

According to son Alex, “the things that everyone learned from my Dad were honesty, integrity, hard work and the value of an education, and throughout his life he focused on those things. The example he set through his strong emphasizes on getting a college education lasted all through the generations of the students and athletes he taught, as well as his own family.”

A special thanks to Bill Pollak, Jim Underwood and the Greater Johnstown School District Museum for their help in providing resources to research and write this story. Those who are interested in learning more about Johnstown football history, may visit the museum at Knox Field, or purchase a copy of “Johnstown Sir Bills Football — A Comprehensive History.”

Released in the fall of 2016, the publication was written by Johnstown’s Robert Osborne and chronicles pictures, statistics and scores from every JHS football game dating back to 1924. It is available through any current JHS football player or coach as a fundraiser for the JHS program.

Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com or at 725-5565.

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