"Casey Gildea"

"I will say what I think to be right today, even though it contradicts everything I said yesterday."

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By Joe Zagorski
THE COFFIN CORNER: Vol. 8, No. 10 (1986)


(by Jack Yalch, Valley Gazette, October 2003)

Outspoken "Casey" Gildea was the miners' hero, a role model for kids and a battler for 50 years.

The more I think about the seemingly endless list of achievements attributed to the late James H. "Casey" Gildea, having been an esteemed citizen of Coaldale, the more I feel he packed more into one lifetime than most folks could pack into two, or even three.

Gildea, a legend in his own time, was a United States Congressman, a fearless outspoken newspaper editor and publisher, plus a football coach and a champion without peer to a legion of Panther Valley anthracite miners, when coal was king.

A slogan often seen on the front page of his yesteryear newspaper, the "Coaldale Observer," was indeed a perfect example of how unique his character was.

"I will say what I think to be right today, even though it contradicts everything I said yesterday," Gildea wrote.

He constantly targeted the powerful Lehigh Navigation Coal Company then headquartered in Lansford, during his relentless crusade to improve working conditions for the thousands of men employed in the network of Panther Valley mines.

A staunch Irishman and an equally staunch Democrat, Gildea used his newspaper to promote the cause of the Democratic Party.

Virtually nothing within northeastern Pennsylvania's civic, social or industrial realms, escaped his editorial pen.

He rose to prominence in the Schuylkill County political arena, then waged a fiery campaign that won him a seat in the Congress of the United States.

It was overwhelming support at the polls from the miners that sent Gildea to Washington. With their backing, he was able to overcome a huge Republican majority in his district.

His outstanding record as a congressman earned Gildea a second term.

During the Great Depression, when 12 million people nationwide were left jobless, a multitude of unemployed miners in need of help made Gildea's office their first stop, because they knew he would come through.

Gildea was chairman of the Panther Valley Industrial Association, head of the Panther Valley Recreation Commission and he founded and was the driving force behind the Irish-American Association.

In addition, he headed the local draft board during World War II, was president of the Tamaqua District War Price and Rationing Board and became the first chairman of a regional drive undertaken to sell War Bonds.

His spartan efforts were recognized by the U.S. government and thus, he was awarded a bronze medal for distinguished service.

Gildea fathered the storied Coaldale Big Green football team, then molded the lineup of players into rugged gridiron professionals who made the long, hard climb from the streets of Coaldale to prominence in the East.

As a newspaper editor and publisher, Gildea knew no bounds.

'He would rail just as vociferously about a bad call made by an umpire during a Coaldale Church League baseball game, as he would against the U.S. Secretary of Defense's policy on Formosa," the late Dick Hoben, a former editor of the Lansford Evening Record of bygone days, said.

Gildea's David and Goliath wars were his trademark for some 50 years.

Himself an accomplished swimmer, Gildea frequently loaded a dozen or more Coaldale youngsters onto a truck and treated them to a refreshing dip in the Hauto Dam.

Football and boxing were his favorite sports. However, for relaxation, Gildea turned to swimming.

A role model to the kids of Coaldale, he stressed physical fitness and moral excellence to them all the time.

By Joe Zagorski
THE COFFIN CORNER: Vol. 8, No. 10 (1986)

James H. "Casey" Gildea was not the type to take everyday life as it came. No, not he. Skinny and balding, he was a scholarly kind who actively pursued all the avenues of his being. In his hometown of Coaldale, PA, locals described Gildea as "the man to look up to" and "the guy who always got the job done."

Such praise was warrented. Gildea was born for his community. Always modest and easily accessible, he walked down the same coal-begrimed streets everyday and loved every minute of it. Everyone greeted him. Conversations bloomed. He was involved in all the town's affairs. He combined generosity with straightforward cander. He was Coaldale's man of action.

As the publisher of the Observer, Coaldale's daily newspaper, Gildea knew the whys, wherefores, and whereabouts of all the goings-on in the whole anthracite region.

Naturally, he was the leader in promoting local sports.

Shortly after World War I ended, a multitude of energetic young men found themselves back in the coal mines and missing the exhilaration they'd known in combat. Gildea believed that more fights could be fought on battlefields of a different kind. He sponsored, managed, promoted and supported many seasononal sports activities, including baseball and basketball teams. But, perhaps his greatest success came when a new sports frenzy took hold throughout the anthracite hills right after the war – pro football.

Coaldale's pro football team – the Big Green – was formed by Gildea, with a roster of mostly local talent. Nearby towns favored importing ringers for their teams, but Gildea preferred searching his own sector of the coal region for players. He came up with some gems.

Two of the best were James "Blue" Bonner and Jack "Honeyboy" Evans. Both were Coaldale natives, both were built like ironmen, and both could really punish Coaldale opponents.

Joe Devire, a journalist covering the Big Green in 1924, said of Bonner, "He is the most colorful player in independent football circles, built like a warrior, one of the most feared athletes on the gridiron. Bonner never went to a college, but he has played against stars of great colleges and has shown them things about football that they never knew existed."

According to Gildea, "Blue hit men so hard that they just didn't get up. He seldom used his hands to tackle, but used his hips and body, just like he blocked. When he ran the ball, his legs went up and down like pistons, almost touching his chin."

Bonner wasn't a dirty ballplayer, Gildea insisted. He played within the boundaries of the rules, but he used intimidation as a weapon. Some referees believed he went too far and was indeed as dirty as the field he played on and tossed him out of games. Usually, whenever Bonner was absent from the lineup, the Big Green lost.

"I remember we went down to Atlantic City one year," said Gildea, "and their mayor issued an official proclamation barring `Blu' from entering the city on the day of the game. Boy, did we get a laugh out of that one."

One player on Gildea's squad who banished laughter from Coaldale's foes was Jack "Honeyboy" Evans. On the field, "Honeyboy" was anything but sweet.

"Jack was a very strong and very stubborn man," remembered Gildea. "Miners who worked with the big center recalled how he would draw together two loaded mine cars, his muscular arms like a giant vise, so the cars could be coupled."

Evans and Bonner were prime examples of Gildea's success in finding and winning with local talent. Les Asplundh, a former All-American punter out of Swarthmore College, was the exception.

"For weeks on end," Gildea recalled, "we had seen this fellow playing against us on several different teams. I guess you could call him a football gypsy because – as we later found out – he went from team to team, taking any offer that was better than the one he already had. He was such a good player that he was usually the deciding factor in many of our defeats. I decided that I had to do something about it."

Gildea met with the 6'3", 215 pound Asplundh and gave him a huge contract with bonus clauses.

Bill Dimmerling, a patriarch of the Pottsville club, one of Coaldale's fiercest rivals, lauded Asplundh: "He was a great kicker and punter. He could kick the ball a...mile. He was a big son of a bitch and he could kick like a bastard!"

Bonner, Evans, and Asplundh combined their unique talents to form the heart of one of the most successful teams in anthracite history. They coached themselves, copying plays and formations from other teams they'd played for or against.

Gildea explained: "I believed that with the kind of players we had on our roster that they should be able to compete without a designated coach. I handled all of the scheduling, recruitment, and details by myself. All they had to do was play the game ... and win."

The Coaldale Big Green did win indeed. They brought home three consecutive coal region championships in 1921, '22, and '23.

“Casey" Gildea went on to become a U.S. Congressman. At 97 he is believed to be the oldest living former member of that glorious legislative body. But his fondest memories?

"Boy! Those days with my team! That was the time to be alive. I've never forgotten the excitement of watching coal region football, the spectacle of it all. It was the greatest time for me."