EAST NORRITON — As Mark Twain said, "the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
There's no doubt that the "really great" who were honored at Presidential Caterers on Tuesday at the 18th Annual Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame banquet have inspired countless legions of athletes to achieve their own levels of greatness.
The fact that 38-year-old Charlie Heavey's years of influence were cut tragically short in the summer of 1955 didn't matter.
The memory of the St. Matthew High School football coach lives on.
That was in evidence not only by the fact that he was being memorialized with the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame's Lifetime Achievement Award 64 years after he was fatally injured during a violent thunderstorm as he was driving home on Conshohocken Road, but in the more than 20 of his players who turned out on Tuesday evening.
Some of them hadn't seen one another since high school.
Heavey, a graduate of La Salle College, had coached at St. Matthew for 12 years, beginning in 1943.
Win Dougherty, class of 1951, remembered being overseas at the time of his former coach's death.
"But I had spent a lot of time with Charlie. He was my political science teacher at St. Matthew's and he was very instrumental in securing a basketball scholarship for me to La Salle University," said Dougherty, who felt that Heavey's recognition was long overdue.
"I think an organization such as the Hall of Fame puts too much emphasis on records and not enough on extra curricular activities. Charlie was more than a coach, more than a political science teacher, he was a mentor, a confidant and one heck of a guy. He really was."
In his program notes, Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame board member Tony Leodora recounted the horrific circumstances that took Heavey's life that August night in 1955:
"Charlie Heavey, the 38-year-old football coach at St. Matthew High School in Conshohocken had just completed the first day of preseason football practice," Leodora said. "He was headed home via Conshohocken State Road, a road noted for flooding during rainstorms. His car stalled in the high water. A pole with high voltage power lines fell on the back of his car. Heavey stepped out of his car, into ankle-high water and immediately was electrocuted."
Leodora further noted that the death of the popular football coach was widely reported, including a heartfelt tribute by legendary Times Herald sports editor and close friend of Heavey's, Red McCarthy, who wrote: "There are coaches who are admired and respected. At St. Matthew's Charlie was more than that. He was loved: loved by the boys who played for him, loved by their parents."
Leo Wisniewski, St. Matthew class of 1950, was the last person to see Charlie Heavey alive the night he was killed.
Wisniewski, now 88, remembered how, if not for a problematic sofa bed that the two men couldn't get to function, Heavey, a bachelor, would have stayed over at Wisniewski's Swedesburg apartment that night and would not have ventured out into the violent storm.
"I was a student, a player and a coach with Charlie," Wisniewski said.
"I was married and coaching with Charlie; that's why he was at my apartment that night. I told him to stay over, and we had a sofa bed but we couldn't figure out how to open the damn thing. I didn't want him to go out in the storm, but Charlie said 'I'm going.' He waved goodbye and that was it."
As the program indicated, after founding the football program at St. Matthew in 1944, Heavey went on to carve out a 63-35-6 record as well as a special place in the hearts of the young men he coached ... men like Wisniewski, Dougherty, Tommy Maloney, Al Cianciulli, Dan Stauffer and Tom ("Chop") Prokop.
"The first string had a disagreement with Charlie once. Charlie didn't say anything, but come the weekend, he sent the second string out. So he fixed them," Wisniewski said, laughing.
"He was a good man. tough but fair," noted Prokop, who had graduated the summer Heavey died. "We were all linemen. No running backs in this group. And we're proud to say that. We wore leather helmets back then. No face masks for us, just plain old leather helmets."
Archbishop Kennedy graduate and alumni historian Dan Sheedy spearheaded the nomination of Heavey to the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame..
"I'm the representative of 20 or 25 other Heavey guys, who are not in the computer age, whose records have been lost. So these guys are slightly younger than my father's generation," Sheedy said. "Donnie Stemple, a volunteer coach honoree a number of years ago, was one of my coaches growing up at St. Gertrude. In a certain sense, I belong to a whole tradition of coaches who these guys honor. And then I met the Heavey guys, and that was all she wrote. The board explained to me that there's two or three criteria they pick to select a coach for the Hall of Fame. Because Charlie Heavey's period was so short and didn't line up with that of other coaches, who coached for a longer period of time at bigger schools, the board had to look at other factors ... the loyalty of his players, the fact that it was 1950. He didn't stop coaching because he wanted to; he died. Because Archbishop Kennedy went out of existence and merged with Kenrick, a lot of information got lost and Charlie never had a representative. And if you don't have someone to speak for you, you get forgotten. But these guys never forgot him. They just didn't know the process. So the board looked at the all the factors and said, 'Charlie Heavey is a deserving person.' I didn't know Charlie Heavey. I read all the Times Herald stories about him and I think Charlie would have wanted to be in the coaches portion of the Hall of Fame. Charlie was a coach. And that's why he ended up at St. Matt's — because they gave him a job."
Wisniewsk said the banquet was a special night for every player who was lucky enough to be coached by Heavey.
"When we found out that Charlie was being honored we knew we had to be here," he said. "We figured we owed him that much. I think Charlie's looking down on us saying 'thanks, guys.' "