Ernie G’s was jammed.
I cannot recall if the guys playing were my friends Tony Alu and Joe Leone, who call themselves The Tompkins Street Duo, or my friends Tony Alu and Dave Grundmond, who call themselves The Duke and the Dauphin, but I do recall the crowd. You could hardly move in the little tavern with the great food on Main Street in Avoca.
Mary Kay and I squeezed ourselves in far enough to be standing near a table where Jon McHale and his lovely wife Cathie were enjoying the bar’s legendary pizza. As usual, we had a nice chat which would have gone on longer if Jon had not pointed out an open stool at the bar and we rushed to grab it while we could.
A while later, with me now standing on the opposite side of the bar catching up with a few friends, I spied Jon working his way toward me through the crowd. He pull me close and said into my ear, “I just want to tell you I hear great things about your teaching all the time. So, if you ever think about retiring, don’t. You do a lot of good down there.”
By “down there” he meant the community college.
They were kind, thoughtful words and they meant a lot at the time, but little did I know how much they would mean in just a matter of days.
Jon said those words on a Friday night. That Monday he died. Suddenly, unexpectedly and shockingly, Jon McHale died. He was 68.
Guys like Jon McHale aren’t supposed to die, particularly not at that young age.
Jon McHale was the epitome of physical conditioning. One of the best athletes of his generation, Jon gained the nickname “Jumpin’ Jon” after a photo of him leaping over a would be tackler to score a touchdown in a St. John’s High football game appeared on the front page of the local paper.
The handle suited him. He was a Jumpin’ Jon from the depths of his soul. He was intense, sometimes too intense, and brash, sometimes bordering on crude, but he was nothing if not dedicated, nothing if not sincere.
Jon spoke his mind. You got the truth from him, point blank. He had no time for or interest in sugar coating.
At his viewing, Cathie stood next to his coffin and told me more about the previous Friday night at Ernie G’s. “We were ready to leave,” she said, “and Jon said, ‘I can’t go yet until I tell Eddie Ackerman something.’ ‘Jon,’ I told him, ‘look at this crowd. It’ll take you an hour to get over to him.’ ‘That’s okay,’ he said, ‘I have to give him a message and it can’t wait.'”
I got chills when she told me that and I got chills just now as I wrote it.
Jon McHale will be memorialized this coming Friday, April 17, when the swimming pool at Pittston Area High School is renamed the Jon McHale Aquatic Center. It’s an appropriate honor. Jon was Pittston Area’s first swimming coach. He didn’t know much about swimming and was the first to admit it. But he knew something about training and motivating athletes. He also knew that if he didn’t step up, there would be no team.
Jon coached the swim team, quickly dubbed “McHale’s Navy,” from 1970 through 1974 and compiled a record of 57 and 12. But his contribution to the program goes far beyond the team’s record. He’s the one who got it going. He’s the one who accepted the challenge.
Jon also distinguished himself as a boxing official. He is much better remembered as a teacher and coach but the boxing ring is a place where he distinguished himself and officiating is something of which he was very proud.
The dedication ceremony is scheduled for 6 Friday evening in the lobby of Pittston Area.
Ernie G’s was jammed.