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SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Klyap made himself a star, then helped others

by on May 17, 2017 10:39 AM

• EDITOR’S NOTE:   This is the fifth of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: John Riggle.

Jim Klyap was a pudgy little kid.

He was 5-foot-5 and 205 pounds as a seventh-grader, and when a basketball coach found out how much he loved the game and wanted to play, he was told he was too fat and too slow.

That blunt criticism didn’t sit well with the youngster, so he did something about it. Jim Klyap made himself into a basketball player, the best one in Indiana County by his senior year at Purchase Line High School. More than that, though, that path he set out on as a youngster to make himself into an athlete launched a lifetime endeavor to provide opportunities for students and children through sports and recreation programs at his alma mater and beyond as a longtime teacher, athletic director, coach and mentor.

“I’ve had a lot of good experiences. Probably the best one gave me all this inspiration when I was this fat little kid and made Player of the Year in Indiana County,” Klyap said. “That’s what I try to tell kids: Never say you can’t do it, because you can if you try. It’s the power of the mind, I guess, more than anything.”

 

Jim was the only child of Jack and Maggie Klyap. The family lived in Commodore, and Jim’s father and grandfather made their livings in the coal mines. Little Jim was imaginative when it came to keeping himself entertained. During the winter, he did pushups and honed his dribbling skills in the cemented basement at home, forced to stay low so he wouldn’t hit his head on the ceiling. When the weather was nice, the thud of a ball against the house was a constant when he worked on his fielding and throwing.

By the time he entered high school he was a pretty good athlete who was becoming a fundamentally sound basketball player and prolific shooter, the result of all those shots he fired up at dawn when he stopped at the hoop at the community center on spring and summer mornings on his way to work on a nearby farm to pick strawberries and bale hay.

It was one of those summers, between his freshman and sophomore year, when he grew a few inches and shed 50 pounds. A couple years after that, as a 5-foot-10, 155-pound senior in 1961, the kid once deemed too fat to play basketball led his team to the Indiana County championship and earned recognition as Player of the Year.

The story in the March 29, 1961, edition of The Indiana Gazette announcing Klyap as the Player of the Year stated, “Despite all the scoring prowess, Klyap is regarded as the ideal team man. He can handle the ball well and plays a terrific defensive game. In a tight spot Coach (Jim) Hoy could count on Klyap to come through with an important rebound, basket or defensive play.”

 

Jim's parents were determined that their son would earn a college degree, and he went to IUP, where he played two years of basketball. Upon graduation, a teaching degree in hand, he had three job offers: one in Florida, one in Virginia and one at his alma mater. Then one more offer came in.

The job at Purchase Line paid $4,400 per year. Informed by an uncle employed by the R&P Coal Co. that he could earn more than $16,000 with the company, and because of his college degree, have opportunities for advancement, Jim approached his mother with the idea.

“She said there’s a suitcase upstairs. Pack your bags. And that was the end of that,” he said.

Not quite. Maggie drove her point home, her voice firm but full of care.

Klyap recalled the conversation: “She said, ‘Look at your grandfather.’ He worked on his hands and knees all day and walked hunched over. And she said, ‘Your father has black lung.’ My grandfather was one of the survivors of the Sample Run explosion, and my dad was in a couple explosions in Ernest and got his legs broken, both of them. She said, ‘I didn’t go to work so you could work in the mines, and you’re not going to work in the mines.’ So I ended up at Purchase Line in ’66.”

The decision, though, didn’t come without some thought of leaving the area.

“My basketball coach, Jim Loy, in ’61 when I graduated, I told him I’d like to teach and coach,” Klyap said. “He said it’s a rewarding profession. … When I graduated I had three job offers, and I was going to go to Florida, because, wow, it was like $500 more than Purchase Line. Bill Scott, who was my football coach, said, ‘You don’t want to do that. You said you always wanted to coach here.’ So he talked me into staying at Purchase Line.”

For parts of the next five decades — 46 years — Klyap remained a fixture in the school district. He coached early in his career — basketball, football and track and field — and his 1974 basketball team finished 21-1, which remains the best record in school history.

 

Klyap hit the ground running in his first year as a teacher. He taught at the elementary school — spelling, health and social studies — and he organized a track meet for the kids on the field at the old Montgomery Township High School.

“The principal said, ‘Why don’t I just give you a whole day?’” Klyap said. “So we had a full day of activities for boys and girls.”

And thus began Klyap’s proficiency for organizing and overseeing successful athletic and recreation programs in the Purchase Line community and as far away as Montana — but more on Big Sky Country later. The boy who once had to entertain himself now had plenty of playmates, and he taught and coached and mentored them, occasionally pulling one or two aside for one of those talks like his mother gave him when he thought about working in the mines — firm but caring — and the opposite of what the chubby little kid heard from a coach — encouraging, not criticizing.

Dave Small became one of Klyap’s disciples, a 1980 Purchase Line graduate who returned to his alma mater to teach woodshop and coach football.

“Mr. Klyap cares about the individual,” Small said. “He would pull you aside and encourage you. I wasn’t a big guy, and he’d say it’s not your stature as far as size and it doesn’t matter how big you are as long as you play hard and do the best you can, and if you do that good things will happen to you. Just don’t think because you’re not a 6-footer that you can’t play. That meant a lot to me, and I wanted to try hard and be better. He wouldn’t let you think you can’t do it, and that was important, especially for a teenager coming through school. That meant a lot.”

Jody Rainey went to high school at rival Penns Manor and graduated in 1987. His first teaching job was at Purchase Line, and he coached boys’ and girls’ basketball. He has spent the last nine years as the principal at Homer-Center High School.

“He’s probably one of the best mentors I ever had,” Rainey said. “When I really got to know him was when I started teaching at Purchase Line. The first day I walked in, the first person I saw was Jim Klyap. He was my mentor teacher. He taught right across the hall. Jim cares so much about kids, and he loves and bleeds Purchase Line. He instilled the passion for kids and doing what’s right for kids. As a mentor, he instilled that in me, and I carry that with me today. It’s about the kids, and that’s all it’s really about. There are other distractions, but you put the kids first, and that’s one of the things he taught me.”

 

Klyap took over as the athletic director in 1979. During his tenure, Purchase Line added baseball, softball and cross country to its varsity lineup. A baseball field was constructed, the football field was renovated, and an all-weather track was built. Purchase Line teams thrived in the cyclical way small-school programs do. The football teams won four conference championships and a District 6 title. The boys’ basketball team won a couple conference titles and a district crown. The track and field and softball teams also won conference championships, and track and field athletes garnered a slew of medals at district and state meets.

“Jim’s a very dedicated and hard-working individual,” John Bomboy, a former longtime AD at Marion Center High School, said. “He takes a lot of pride in his work and he wants to make sure it’s done and it’s done right. He added a number of sports at Purchase Line and did a lot of work in the Appalachian Conference without much notoriety. He was a worker. He was the one who pitched in and helped out.

“Along with all that, all the new regulations were coming along. We worked with Title IX as it progressed, and changes in sports medicine were really something that started to take off. The position of AD really evolved and grew leaps and bounds in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Steve Woodrow, an Indiana graduate who teaches and coaches basketball at Purchase Line and coached under Klyap, eventually succeeded him as AD. In a two-year interim, however, the position lacked leadership.

“He was very organized,” Woodrow said, “and if you’re going to be a person involved in athletics and running teams and different programs and so forth, you have to be very organized. Right now I’m sitting in his office and I see four filing cabinets that I haven’t yet gone through. Trust me, his influence is still around.”

Cullen Stokes, a United graduate, sought Klyap’s advice when he became a young AD at his alma mater in 2011.

“Jim is the kind of guy you went to as a young AD for advice because he would always help you out because he had seen those situations,” Stokes said, “and I used his experience and wisdom to get through things. He was a great mentor for me as young person getting into athletics, and I don’t know how I would have survived without guys like him and John when I first started.”

 

One of Klyap’s biggest hits was the Little Dragon Saturday Basketball Program, which attracted more than 100 fourth- through sixth-graders once a week to the high school gym. He didn’t just roll out a rack of balls and let the kids play. They first had to learn the fundamentals. The eight-week program culminated with Little Dragon Night.

“Everybody wanted to play in that,” Klyap said of an event that packed the gym. “The first six weeks were fundamentals, nothing else. You had to earn your way to the basketball.”

Klyap was a man ahead of the times, too. He invited the first African-American basketball official to referee a game at Purchase Line, and he put together an all-female crew that became the first in the state to work a boys’ basketball game. As a teacher, he invited special-needs students into his classes long before mainstreaming was part of the educational lexicon, and he traveled in Pennsylvania and other states conducting dropout-prevention programs.

As a District 6 representative to the State Athletic Directors’ Delegate Assembly, he introduced the motion to make cheerleading a PIAA-sanctioned competition. One night he packed the high school gym by bringing in Sean Miller, then a little boy from Pittsburgh who is now the head coach at the University of Arizona, to perform his popular and entertaining dribbling routine. The junior high tournament he founded when he was the coach remains the longest-running event of its kind in the county.

He also helped found and remains president of the Red Dragon Sports Foundation, the school’s hall of fame, and he was inducted in 2009.

“I got close to the kids, but there was always that separation,” Klyap said. “They still call me Coach today. I’m on the Red Dragon Foundation, and one of the girls, she was a cheerleader, and she calls me Mr. Klyap. That’s something that makes you feel good. I always talked about respect to the basketball team or football team or the kids. One thing I said was, ‘Think about how you want people to treat you. That’s how you have to treat them.’”

Klyap still teaches on occasion as a substitute at Purchase Line and Penns Manor.

“Why do I still sub? People who are retired ask me that,” he said. “I still have that connection with kids and enjoy going over there and talking to the coaches, whether it’s Purchase Line or Penns Manor. I just enjoy being a part of that.”

He doesn’t sub to conduct a study hall, instead bringing an enthusiasm to the classroom.

“I went to the beauty shop the other day,” his wife, Dorothy, said. “and we were sitting and talking and I mentioned my husband was subbing at Penns Manor. I never saw this lady in my life, and she said, ‘Are you talking about Jim Klyap?’ She said he had her granddaughter’s class and she thinks he’s just the best. She said he just doesn’t have study hall, he works with them, and she wishes he was there every day. Things like that make you proud.”

 

No story about Jim Klyap is complete without more than a mention of Dorothy. Jim and Dorothy knew each other in high school but didn’t date until afterward. They married in 1967 — they will celebrate 50 years of marriage in July — and raised two children, Jim Jr., who lives in Montana, and Bridget, who is the assistant to the special needs coordinator in the Purchase Line School District. They have touched other lives as de facto grandparents, uncle, aunt and friend.

When Jim was coaching basketball, he required his players to wear either red or gray V-neck sweaters, depending on whether the Red Dragons were home or away, along with a necktie. Some of the kids couldn’t afford ties, so Dorothy made them. She also sewed the legendary “Terrible Tails,” the Red Dragon tails fans waved at games, and the cheerleaders converged on the Klyap home to stuff them. The tails sold for a dollar apiece, with proceeds going to the Pep Club. Dorothy also tailored the suits Jim wore to school. Jim even served as the cheerleader adviser, and of course, Dorothy made their uniforms.

“Jim and Dorothy are personal friends of me and my wife, Chris,” Rainey said. “You don’t know Jim if you don’t know Dorothy. Jim is a good family man, too, and he and Dorothy raised two kids who are great people in their own right, so that is certainly a reflection of Jim and Dorothy as parents. Jim does more than talk the talk; he certainly walks the walk.”

Dorothy always pitched in to help however she could and held down the fort while Jim was off either coaching or on the road somewhere in the conference or District 6 serving as a game coordinator, scorekeeper or helping however he could in any capacity. These days, he’s the greeter for visiting teams and officials for IUP’s home basketball games at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.

When a crisis struck the family and Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2010, Jim stuck by her side. She has been cancer-free for seven years.

“She’s come through a lot with some medical problems and Jim has really been tremendous supporting her through it all,” Bomboy said. “It’s mutual support. They’re a wonderful couple.”

 

There's a little bit of the Klyaps’ hearts in Montana. Actually, it’s a pretty big part. That’s where their son, Jim, or J.B., has lived for the past 22 years. Father and son first traveled there in 1992 for a fishing trip. While at Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park, at the urging of J.B., they filled out applications for summer employment with the National Park Service. They were interviewed by phone in November and offered jobs in December.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to go that far because I was working basketball camps in the summer and stuff like that,” Klyap said. “(Dorothy) said, you’ve got to go, and she made me go, and we packed up the car and stayed the summer. That was ’93. I worked 17 summers.”

The sprawling park, with 5,000 employees, had a recreation program, but it was loosely organized. “Jim Sr.,” as he came to be called at the park, pulled everything together. Dorothy eventually joined in the summer fun and also worked at the park.

“They had a recreation program, but it was like recess,” Klyap said. “Everybody made up their own rules. There were 5,000 employees at six different locations, and in the playoffs at the end of the year, there were arguments because everybody had different rules. So I made a set of rules for the whole park. Basketball, softball, volleyball, we had all kinds of stuff, and they never had that kind stuff. I took people fly-fishing. It was great. I’d come back to school every year fired up because I spent the whole summer fishing or enjoying myself outdoors. It was one of the better experiences I ever had.”

His son worked five summers, got a teaching job and then managed a ranch before starting his own business in Bozeman, H20 Outfitters, which offers guided fly-fishing, vacation planning and ranch and property management.

The Klyaps now make the summer trip to visit their son, as well as friends they made over the years, although this summer’s plans are on hold because there’s too much going on with the Hall of Fame induction and 50th wedding anniversary. Jim, though, did make the three-day drive several weeks ago — for the 36th time — to look over some properties his son purchased.

“I made a lot of friends out there,” Klyap said. “I saw their kids grow up. I saw one girl, her mother carried her in when she came to play volleyball, and I saw her graduate high school.”

In other words, it was just like home.

 

Klyap's induction into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday isn’t one last hurrah in a long career. It’s just one more step in a journey for that chubby kid from Commodore whose path to become a star basketball player led him to share his wisdom for the greater good. For now, there are more fish to catch, games to watch and kids to teach.

“My mother always told me, ‘Treat those kids like they’re your own.’” Klyap said. “She taught me that respect is important, and it you want respect, you have to give respect. She said, ‘You have to respect those kids and treat them like they’re your own and try to be like a father to them, more than a teacher.

“And Mr. Hoy, he’s 87 now. He’s down at the Hershey Lodge and I still go down to see him. He still remembers talking to me and telling me that story about teaching. I attribute a lot to my mother and him and the people that influenced me and made me try to be an influence on other people.”



Tony Coccagna is a sports writer for The Indiana Gazette.
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