Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame: Three giants, but legends all
SCHENECTADY The photo shows Lou Jordan in his Mont Pleasant High School basketball uniform, crystal blue eyes focused intently on some target out of the frame.
“He’s still my Blue Eyes,” Shirley Jordan said.
On Monday evening, Lou Jordan’s eyes nearly welled up as he began to describe the roster of Hall of Fame athletes he was joining, so he affectionately told his wife to go away while he conducted his interview, and, laughing, she obliged.
This year’s Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame class also includes bowling legend Joe Donato, who was inducted posthumously, and Severino Popolizio, a 1973 Linton High School graduate who starred in wrestling and football.
The three inductees competed in different sports, but the common thread among them was the gratification of being included with all the greats that have been inducted before them.
Speaking for his late father, Tom Donato said, “It means everything. It’s the highest honor in Schenectady sports. My dad would’ve loved this. It’s a big thing.”
“The biggest honor of it is being among my friends that I’ve known for years and people who have worked very, very hard and have gotten where they are because of the hard work, like Joe DeMeo,
Mr. [Dom] Denio, Mr. [Barry] Kramer, and many more,” Popolizio said.
“I haven’t been here for 55 years,” Jordan said. “So when I heard about it, it sounded nice and everything, but then I saw some of the videos of the previous people and looked at the people that are here, and they’re unbelievable. They’ve contributed to sports, to society, and it’s really an honor to be here.”
Jordan played basketball under Hall of Famer Ray Vacca and was named Schenectady County Basketball Player of the Year as a senior in 1955.
As a baseball player, he was good enough to have attracted the attention of the New York Yankees, for whom he participated in a tryout at Yankee Stadium, while the team was on the road, in 1956.
Jordan was also drafted 42nd overall by the Detroit Pistons in 1959 on the heels of a stellar career at Cornell.
Neither athletic pursuit became a career, though, as he chose to attend Cornell Medical College and became a renowned orthopedic surgeon. The 75-year-old Jordan is retired and made the trip back to his hometown from Virginia Beach, Va., where he and Shirley have lived since 1971.
“That was one of my predicaments. When I was doing poorly in basketball, I kind of mentally went back and kept thinking, ‘Well, I’m studying, I’m going to be a doctor,’ ” he said. “When I was having trouble with my studies and not getting good marks, I said, ‘Well, I’ve got basketball.’ Each one balanced out my failings and enabled me to continue going. I used one against the other throughout high school and college to help me get over rough spots.”
A terrific shooter, Jordan averaged 25.6 points per game as a senior for Mont Pleasant, then won the Ivy League scoring title as a senior for Cornell.
He graduated as the second-leading scorer and fifth-leading assist man in Big Red history.
Although he has no family in the Capital Region, he admitted to some embarrassment that he hadn’t been back to Schenectady since the 1950s.
“It’s interesting, when you’re young like that and you’re playing, you don’t realize the impact that you have on people,” he said. “Only later on do you understand the significance of doing well, setting a good example for kids and the city.
“I always knew baseball would go away, basketball would go away, but medicine is forever.”
Joe Donato attended Mont Pleasant before enlisting in the Navy during World War II.
When he came back to Schenectady, he launched a bowling career that included being a charter member in the Pro Bowlers Association and posting some phenomenal performances on the lanes.
Donato was the first bowler to make all five spares on ABC’s “Make That Spare.” and was the first to roll a 300 game on “TV Tournament Time.
His son, Tom, was fortunate to have witnessed those exploits.
“I was there when he shot the 300,” he said. “Everybody was going crazy. Nobody had done it before.
“He put bowling on the map, locally and nationally. He certainly deserves it.
“He was a character. He was a tough athlete and a terrific competitor, a class act and a great guy. If you knew him, there’s nobody better. A wonderful man and a great father. He had respect for everybody else, but he was a character, too. A really funny guy.”
Popolizio won almost 95 percent of his matches as a high school wrestler and was Section II champ in 1972 and 1973, when he was also the state runner-up at 132 pounds.
Wrestling for Boston University, he was 68-4-2 in dual meets and was a three-time NCAA qualifier, advancing to the quarterfinals as a junior.
“Competing was a lot of fun, but my biggest memories are that it was just a lot of fun for young kids in Schenectady, whether you were in sports or not,” he said. “There was a lot of freedom and a lot of things we didn’t have to worry about as kids, whereas now, kids have to do that.”
Like most inductees, Popolizio said he particularly relished the rivalries between city high schools.
“That was a fantastic thing, not in a sense of being enemies, but in the sense of the rivalry and the energy that Schenectady had at that time,” he said. “Of course, we all respected each other and were friends at the end of the game, but it was such an energetic thing for Schenectady to have.
“It was a great era. I loved it.”