MERIDEN — Former Meriden business owner and sportsman George Hamrah and one-time Maloney High athlete and Wilcox Tech coach Rob Janiga have been selected as this year’s Sportsmen of Distinction and will be honored at the 34th annual Meriden Sports Reunion Dinner at the Elks Club March 24.
Hamrah, who will be 93 in May, owned the Hamrah Linen Shop on Colony Street. He said he’ll never be known for athletic prowess, but he’s led a rich life as a sports fan. The legend of Babe Ruth hooked him as a Yankee fan, a love affair of over 80 years that was enhanced by a personal relationship with pitcher and fellow Naugatuck native, Frank “Spec” Shea.
“You’re talking to the world’s worst athlete,” Hamrah said. “The basketball coach at Naugatuck High School asked me to come out for the team. Six games into the season, he told me to turn in my uniform. I was a poor performer.”
But following sports locally was already a passion. He has an array of autographs from baseball’s golden years. His avid interest allowed him to become acquainted with luminaries from Connie Mack, whom he met at the inaugural Gold Key Dinner in 1940, to current UConn All-American Brianna Stewart.
He has programs from many of the Gold Key Dinners, with autographs from Dodgers Hall-of-Famer Gil Hodges and legendary broadcaster Mel Allen among others.
“Sports were big then and they had some great people,” Hamrah said.
He was also an ardent fan of the New York Football Giants and college basketball. He recalled attending NFL games between the Giants and the Washington Redskins, quarterbacked by Sammy Baugh, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Steve Owen was the Giants’ coach,” he said. “Can you believe the Steelers had a player named Max Kielbasa?”
He attended a college basketball doubleheader when NBA pioneer George Mikan was playing at DePaul.
“I saw Holy Cross/Manhattan and DePaul/St. John’s at the Garden,” he said. “Holy Cross had great teams in those days. I remember watching them get back on the train to Worcester after the game.”
He rubbed elbows with many of the great sports writers of the day.
“I remember Dan Parker from Waterbury was the boxing writer from the New York Mirror and he would always take on the Philadelphia boxing mob — Blinky Palermo and Frankie Carbo,” Hamrah said. “He used to attack them all the time. It’s a wonder they didn’t kill him.”
In later years, Hamrah became friendly with Yale president and baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and attended an honorary affair for him at Yale’s Woolsey Hall.
Hamrah has also had a lifelong connection with the Meriden Kiwanis Club. He gained citywide notoriety by appearing in the club’s annual vaudeville-style parody, the Kiwanis Kapers.
“I have no talent. I can’t sing, but I’ve been in the show for 62 years,” he said. “We did Sonny and Cher, the Captain and Tennille, and I was always the woman.”
Hamrah attends UConn women’s basketball games, where he has befriended parents of some of the Huskies’ greatest stars, most prominently Stewart, Tina Charles, Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird.
“Last year, in Nashville, I met Brianna’s father. We really hit it off,” he said. “I brought him a collection of articles written about her that I put in a book and he sent it back with her autograph.”
Hamrah served in the U.S. Army in New Guinea and the Philippines in 1943. He was named Meriden Sportsman of the Year in 1982 and is a member of the Meriden Hall of Fame in the business/commerce realm.
Now a resident of Southington, Hamrah was recognized last April with the Community Partnership Award from the Meriden Chamber of Commerce.
Rooted in his family’s humble days in the Hobart Street neighborhood, Janiga has been all about giving back.
He was a successful athlete in his own right at Maloney and Southern Connecticut State, but his service to the youth of Meriden through teaching and coaching at the Boys and Girls Club and Wilcox Tech have inspired generations.
“I was a pretty good athlete. I played in two sports (football and baseball) in college, but this award is based on my body of work in trying to influence young people’s lives,” he said.
“That 14-to-18 age group is a very vulnerable age and I strive to help them survive and have a good life.”
His father played on Meriden High’s undefeated New England Basketball Tournament champions coached by Frank Barnikow. His uncle Teddy was captain of the UConn basketball team prior to World War II.
After college, Janiga returned to Meriden to work at what was then just the Boys Club.
“The Boys and Girls Club was, and is, a very special place,” he said. “It’s the pre-eminent youth organization of its era.”
He managed to squeeze in some coaching within the framework of his position and was smitten.
He was recruited by the late Maloney football coach Robbie Szymaszek as an assistant, which he did in 1977-78. He also coached baseball with current Platt athletic director Rich Katz from 1978-83.
“There was an opening at Wilcox Tech in 1984. Both Robbie and Rich said if you want to coach, you should become a teacher. I became certified, started at Wilcox in 1985 and I’ve been here ever since,” Janiga said.
Longtime Platt football coach Tom Ryan offered him an assistant’s slot, but Janiga felt compelled to coach at Wilcox. Wilcox didn’t have football yet, so Janiga took the reins of the cross country program.
“In those years (1987-93), we had two All-New England and three All-State runners,” he said. “We were very competitive.”
He also coached the baseball team from 1989-91, but stepped down to spend more time with his young daughter Mae, who became a premier soccer player at Holy Cross-Waterbury.
In addition to Szymaskek and Katz, the lengthy list of people who inspired Janiga reads like a Who’s Who in Silver City Sports: Ed and Ben Zajac, John Skubel, Norb Fahey, Herb Kenny, Ed McGee, Boys Club founder Gary “Tex” Burt and Bill Papallo, to name a few.
Upon his arrival at Wilcox, Janiga was further encouraged by Joe Schiopucie and Richard Pasinski. He attributes his continued motivation to current Wilcox cross country and baseball coach Dave Cronin among others.
“These nice relationships were a marvelous experience, an education in themselves,” said Janiga, a two-time Teacher of the Year at Wilcox. “The people I’ve worked for are as good a group to work for and coach under that you can imagine.”
His involvement with the Boys Club Cuno Camp, in itself a major factor in inspiring his career, was the source of a story that advanced his desire to give back through sports.
“We went to Quinnipiac College for our first football camp. I was in line at the cafeteria wearing the Cuno Camp t-shirt when Burt Kahn came up to me and told me he used to work there,” Janiga said. Kahn was a legend as Quinnipiac’s basketball coach and athletic director.
“Every morning that week, we would sit and have breakfast together. He didn’t know me from Adam and, after just two days, he was asking me if there was anything he could do to help.”
Janiga’s fondness for local sports history is what he says makes this award so special.
“Guys like Terry Bongiovanni and Donnie Bradley were like legends to us,” he said.
“Hearing of the stories of my father and uncle, you wanted to grow up and be in their shoes. It’s a rich history — and not just Meriden, all the towns.”
For details on the March 24 Meriden Sports Reunion and to buy tickets, call Patsy Papandrea at (203) 235-5413.
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