Nothing about George Katchmer’s life could be called “conventional.”
During an era when high school basketball coaches chalked up 35 points as a good night, Katchmer’s Cherry Tree teams were averaging double that. When outsiders thought he couldn’t win football games at Newport High School, Katchmer turned a perennial loser into a perennial champion. And when he stopped coaching, he filled his free time with something far removed from sports.
Nope, nothing conventional there.
Katchmer, who was born in 1916 in Arcadia, spent only a small part of his life in Indiana County. After moving to Emeigh, in Cambria County, as a child, he returned to his home county to attend Cherry Tree High School in the 1930s. After college and a stint in the military, he later coached football, basketball and baseball at Cherry Tree for three years before leaving the area for good in 1948. So, it’s somewhat fitting that a man who did unconventional things should be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Aug. 15 — despite spending most of his life somewhere elsewhere.
But it doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve the honor.
Fact is, Katchmer, who died in 1997 at 81, was ahead of his time. His unique legacy lives on in places such as Newport High School, in Perry County, which named its football stadium after him; the Lancaster County Quarterback Club, which he created; as well as the books he authored about coaching and the clinics he started to better his colleagues.
KATCHMER WAS a standout athlete in high school in football, basketball and track. Football was where he really excelled, and he was good enough to earn a scholarship to play at Lebanon Valley College. But his real impact in sports came years later.
He had two coaching stints at Cherry Tree High School. The first lasted only one year, 1940, when he returned home after graduating from college. A year later, Katchmer was drafted into the military and spent the next 58 months in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Katchmer was discharged, with the rank of captain, in 1946 and returned to Cherry Tree. Including his abbreviated first year at his alma mater, Katchmer’s teams were a mix of success and setbacks: in football, he had a record of 11-22-2, but in basketball Katchmer’s clubs went 57-23, while his baseball teams went 14-8.
His basketball teams — nicknamed the “Little Giants” by a local fan who said the players were “small, but played like giants” — used a full-court press defense and an up-tempo offense that encouraged lots of shooting to routinely score 60 or 70 points a game. This was in an era when teams averaged around 35 points per game.
His 1946-47 squad finished 25-7, set a slew of county and school scoring records and tied for the county Class B championship with Homer City and Heilwood. One highlight that season was when Cherry Tree walloped rival Arcadia High, 98-19.
The following year, Cherry Tree went 17-5, continued to score a lot of points and won the Class C title. The five losses were by a combined 14 points.
For his success at a school with roughly 140 students, Katchmer was getting attention.
MAYBE TODAY, it wouldn’t be considered unusual. But in 1948 — when the star athlete who returned home from the war to coach his alma mater leaves town for a job three hours away — it was stunning.
On Aug. 8, 1948, Katchmer resigned to take a job at Newport High School, 30 miles west of Harrisburg. None of the newspapers at the time explained why Katchmer left Cherry Tree, but it seemed like a curious move because he had a good thing going and Newport was on hard times — especially in football, where it had scored only one touchdown in two years before Katchmer arrived.
The hard times didn’t last. Katchmer stayed at Newport six years, and his teams won nine league championships. Like he did at Cherry Tree, Katchmer built dominant basketball teams. His squad rarely lost a game, with the 1952 team going undefeated, and when he left Newport in 1954, his hoops team was in the midst of a 55-game win streak.
In football, his final two Newport teams went a combined 21-1. And like his basketball team, Katchmer’s football team was on a long win streak when he resigned, having won 17 games in a row.
Success like that draws attention, and Katchmer found a new challenge awaiting him when he was hired as the football and baseball coach — and a professor in the physical education department — at Millersville State Teachers College.
In the Sunbury Daily Item, a reporter wrapped up Katchmer’s stay in Newport this way:
“Katchmer-coached Newport High Buffaloes captured Perry-Juniata area conference championships in football, basketball and baseball with monotonous regularity during the past four seasons. Once Katchmer got his system into operation, there seemed to be no stopping the Buffaloes.”
The winning didn’t travel with Katchmer. Although he did give the school its first winning football season in 14 years when his 1955 squad went 4-3-1, the program couldn’t quite escape mediocrity. In 16 seasons under Katchmer, Millersville had six winning records, although none came during his final six years on the job.
As the baseball coach, Katchmer’s Marauders went 17-18 from 1955 to 1957 before he was allowed to focus only on football.
IN 1969, a change was needed at Millersville. Katchmer had not fielded awful teams, but he had not fielded great ones. Depending on which newspaper covered it, one said Katchmer resigned under his own volition, while another said he was pressured to quit.
Either way, Katchmer resigned with two games left in the season but stayed on to finish the season and guide the Marauders to two wins, their only victories of the season. A reporter for “The Snapper,” the university’s school paper, interviewed Katchmer after his resignation. The coach, who had a 56-72-3 record in 16 seasons, said he quit because of pressure to win despite a lack of support.
“Four years ago,” he told the paper, “I predicted that (the) Millersville football program would hit rock bottom since the standards of the college are so high and there is no letting down of the bars for athletes. There are athletes getting into other colleges (in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference) which we cannot even talk to due to our high admissions standards. We are not winning and now I’m the scapegoat, just as I had foreseen.”
Katchmer said he would not address the situation again publicly and that he planned to retire “into anonymity.” He walked away from coaching, but he did not retire. He stayed at the university as a faculty member and retired in 1979.
Millersville hired an assistant from Utah to replace Katchmer as football coach. Dr. Gene Carpenter came aboard and stayed until 2000, winning more games (212) than all the Millersville coaches who preceded him had (168).
KATCHMER HAD a lifelong interest in the silent movies of his childhood, and he spent the later years of his life writing about them. He wrote two massive books: “Eighty Silent Film Stars: Biographies and Filmographies of the Obscure to the Well Known” and “A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses” and numerous magazine articles, including a regular column in “Classic Images” magazine.
In an article in the Lancaster Sunday News in 1992, Katchmer said, “I can keep working on silent movie stars until the day I die. To me, it’s enjoyment. By researching these people, I’m reliving my youth.”
In a twist straight from a movie plot — and fitting for this story — “Classic Images” was founded by Samuel Rubin, of Indiana, whose family owned the old Star Furniture store on Philadelphia Street.
That’s a minor note unrelated to Katchmer’s coaching career, but in a way it is fitting. George Katchmer left Indiana County for good when he was barely into his 30s. But in a way, Indiana County never left him.