In May 1970 Bob Beem was elected president of the Fort Hill Pep Club, an organization that was supervised by my mother, Colleen Burke, an English teacher at Fort Hill, and had as many as 200 members in any given year.
The Pep Club, for lack of a better description, provided pep and spirit for all school activities, most notably sporting events, producing the signs and decorations fans would see at the stadium and around the school in support of the Fort Hill athletic teams. They took buses to away games and organized fundraisers, working countless hours after school to make the place red.
Beem wasn’t on the job too long before he and Pep Club vice president Joe Simms approached my mother with an idea, for to know Bob Beem was to know a man who always had an idea or a plan. The Pep Club, Beem and Simms told my mother, had plenty of money in the bank and, as most teenagers do, they wanted to spend it on something nice, new, shiny and large. But it wasn’t a car.
“They wanted to buy letters for a sign that would say ‘Home of the Sentinels’, ” my mother said. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh, for the locker room? For the door over the locker room?’ and Bob said, ‘No, we’ll show you.’
“So we walked down through the gym and out to the stadium at the top of the steps, and he pointed to the gymnasium wall that overlooks the stadium and said, ‘Up there. On the building,’ and I said, ‘Are you nuts?’”
Beem again pointed out that the money was there because he had already begun pricing the letters.
“This is what we want to do with our money, Burke,” he said. “ ‘Home of the Sentinels’ in big letters right there.”
To this day, many of my mother’s students from the late 1960s and early ’70s still call her “Burke”.
“I couldn’t imagine,” my mother said. “I didn’t know how much this would cost, but I was sure we wouldn’t be allowed to put anything like that in the stadium. But I went to see Mr. Scarcelli, told him about Bob’s idea and asked if we could do it, and he said, ‘Hell yes we can do it. It’s our building.’ ”
Robert Scarcelli was the interim principal at the time, filling in for Mr. Edgar Reynolds that school year, before becoming the Fort Hill principal permanently in the fall of 1971.
As for Beem, he spent the entire summer prior to his senior year working on this project, dropping by our house quite frequently with catalogues from various sign companies.
“He was determined to see this through,” my mother remembered. “He talked to a local labor group and somehow convinced them to put the letters up for us. God knows how he did that, or what he claimed to have on them, but with Beem, one never knew. When he wanted to do something, he got it done. Now, of course, they’re not the same letters, but it’s still there and I think of Bob every time I see them.”
Having literally left his mark on his school and on what is now called Greenway Avenue Stadium, Beem graduated from Fort Hill in 1971 and served in the United States Navy from 1972 to 1978. Prior to enlisting, however, he still had a major contribution to deliver.
The day before Thanksgiving 1971, 10 inches of snow covered Cumberland, putting in peril the playing of the annual Turkey Day football game between Fort Hill and Allegany, a notion that did not appeal to Bob Beem.
“I was grading papers about 9:30 Wednesday night when the phone rang,” my mother recalled. “It was Bob and I remember thinking ‘Now what?’ He said he and some other kids were at the stadium trying to keep as much snow off the field as possible so they could still play the game. Was that all right?
“I went up to the stadium, and it was Beem, the Lamberts, the Coxes and all the kids from Browne’s and they were working their (tails) off trying to keep the field as clear as possible. I thought, ‘Oh, dear Father, these children have lost their minds.’ There was no way they were going to pull this off, but you could never convince Beem he couldn’t do something. So I walked over to the Lattimers’ house and told Coach Lattimer what was going on and he said, ‘We’ll try it,’ and Bob took it from there.”
Beem called the local radio stations who broadcast the plea for help, and the number of shovelers increased each hour to approximately 300 by sunrise.
“Bob kept calling people and more people came,” my mother said. “Then he got plows there, and then the City sent a plow. When you see pictures and videos of Homecoming and Turkey Day, they always show that and it was Bob’s idea to begin with.”
The field was successfully cleared and the game was played, but for Beem and his fellow Fort Hill fans, no good deed would go unpunished, as Allegany won the Turkey Day Game, 18-14, to conclude a 10-0 season. The manner in which the entire community pulled together to ensure the game would be played, though, remains one of the grandest moments in the history of the rivalry as well as the city of Cumberland.
“He did memorable things,” my mother said of Beem, “big ideas you didn’t think could come about. And he had a little bit of scamp in him. He was mischievous, but it was good mischievous. That was Bob.”
One time my mother did not appreciate Bob’s mischief came in the fall of 1970 when Fort Hill played Bishop Walsh in a big City League game. My mother had been in Baltimore all week with my father, who had undergone back surgery but she came home for the weekend to check on my brother and me and, as it turned out, Mr. Beem and the Pep Club.
As soon as my mother walked into the stadium, one of Beem’s creations drew her eyes like a magnet, as in front of the Fort Hill stands blared the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace, Bishop Walsh is in second place.”
“I thought I was going to have a stroke,” my mother said. “I looked at that sign and from across the field I found Beem. He was putting up another sign, but he happened to look up and straight at me. Our eyes met and he ran.
“I tore the sign down and tracked him down. He was hiding behind Mr. Reynolds, but I found him. And he was all lovie-dovie saying, ‘Now Mrs. Burke, there’s nothing wrong with that sign. I’m Catholic and it doesn’t offend me.’ and I said, ‘I’m not Catholic and it offends me and that’s all you need to know.’ ”
Mom didn’t stay mad at Bob for long. He could test every ounce of patience you had, but it was hard to stay mad at Bob Beem, who died of lung cancer on Nov. 8 at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg. He was such a kind-hearted person there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you, and there was no height too high for him to try to reach with his friends.
“Bob had big ideas,” my mother said of her former student and Pep Club president of 43 years ago. “He acted on those ideas, and the results are sort of like his monument.”
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at email@example.com