MORGANTOWN — Let us, today, take a trip back in time, a ride into yesterday, to 1959, the last time West Virginia University made its way to the Final Four, the only time West Virginia made it to the Final Four until Saturday’s meeting with Duke comes about.
You are, you will find once you get off our time machine, far more familiar with the year than you think you are. It was a moment in time during an era you have come to be familiar with through the television show “Happy Days” and the movie “Animal House.”
Both were funny because they were so close to reality.
We will take our ride with Jay Jacobs, the Morgantown native who was a teammate of Jerry West’s on that team.
West lived in Ann Dinardi’s house on Beechhurst, just down the hill from the Coliseum, but, of course, we already have gotten ahead of ourselves because there was no Coliseum, the games being played just down the block at Stansbury Hall.
The truth is, there wasn’t much around the Coliseum then, the area not yet having really been developed.
You traveled in Morgantown on one of two bus lines or you jumped into your Edsel, which was discontinued this year as one of the great automotive failures in history, or into your Nash or Hudson, companies that merged this very same year to make American Motors.
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Life centered around High Street then. Jacobs remembers there being three movie theaters and five stores or so, one of them his father’s clothing store.
His dad carried top-of-the-line haberdashery and Jacobs remembers a really good suit went for around $75. When he was informed that a Web site said the average suit in America cost $22, Jacobs laughed and said, “I guess my dad was doing pretty good.”
You wonder why it was “Happy Days”? Well, unemployment stood at 5.5 percent, America being hard at work even though Mom was more than likely to be at home, not entering the work force. Gas was 25 cents a gallon and kids everywhere were pulling in asking for “a quarter’s worth” from the attendant who came to your car, pumped the gas, wiped your windshield and checked your tires.
That car you were driving on 25-cent-a-gallon gas cost about $2,200 — new — and a loaf of bread was all of 20 cents.
You have to put all this in perspective, though. The average income was $5,010, not quite $100 a week.
Still, as Jacobs recalled, you had money as a college kid to do what you wanted to. Some, like Bucky Bolyard, a 5-11 senior guard out of Aurora, had more pocket change than others.
“He could shoot pool,” Jacobs said.
There were two pool halls in town and Bolyard was a regular, just as Hot Rod Hundley had been before him.
“Ping pong was big then, too,” Jacobs recalled. “Bucky was really a good player and a lot of time he’d miss class playing ping pong at the ’Lair.”
Movies were king in 1959. “Some Like It Hot” paired Tony Curtis, in drag (times don’t change much) with Marilyn Monroe. Charlton Heston became “Ben Hur” and Jimmy Stewart was in a Hitchcock thriller, “North by Northwest.”
Television had a grip on America, too, but there was no remote and if you talked about something being digital you were talking about a finger or toe. Cowboys were huge on TV, “Bonanza” debuting as the first color weekly series and, of course, Clint Eastwood starring as Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide.”
Like we said, you would find some things that were familiar.
There was enough innocence that Mattel could launch its Barbie Doll that year and Etch A Sketch could hit the market.
But much of the innocence disappeared for a lot of us all when Buddy Holly’s plane went down in an Iowa cornfield.
They said that was the day the music died, but you can argue it didn’t die until last week when Johnny Maestro, who with the Crests turned out “16 Candles” that same year, died from cancer. He was 70.
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The campus buzzed with fraternity and sorority parties, many of them right out of “Animal House.”
Some of the players really enjoyed themselves, but Jerry West was more reserved.
“He came to town as a kid who had not been to places like Morgantown,” Jacobs recalled.
West had earned the nickname of “Zeke from Cabin Creek,” a name he hated. He was shy and retiring, hung mostly with teammate Willie Akers, whom he still hangs with if he can when he comes to town.
“Jerry was not the life of the party,” Jacobs said, “because he was not at the party.”
You can only guess what travel was like in 1959. In the airways, the first commercial jetliner was introduced that year, but the interstate highway system was just beginning to be opened.
“It took two and a half hours to get to Washington, Pa.,” Jacobs recalled. “And it seemed longer.”
“Six hours,” Jacobs said.
That’s why, Jacobs remembered, they thought of the interstates as “the Eighth Wonder of the World” when it came to West Virginia.
The High Street area was buzzing. John Veasey — yes, the Times West Virginian’s John Veasey — is the son of a father who had a restaurant that Jacobs remembers as “Have A Lunch.”
“It was wonderful,” Jacobs said, even though he no longer can get a free lunch for the plug.
There was Torch’s Confectionary, he recalled, and Harry Gold had a men’s story and would hand out neckties to the players. Imagine that today. He would advertise as “Harry has ’em”, Jacobs said.
Gene’s Beer Garden in South Park “was great for hot dogs,” as it still is, and The Joker on Beechhurst was a big house that had been turned into a beer saloon.
“Old Morgantown was the greatest place in the world to grow up,” Jacobs said. “Of course, my dad was trying to chase me out of town. He kept saying, ‘If you get a degree, you can go out there and earn $3,000 a year.’”
Knowing what they are paying in radio these days, Jacobs’ dad would be proud that he finally reached that goal.
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It was an era when a war hero, Dwight Eisenhower, was president. Come to think of it, it was an era when a soldier could be hero.
America cheered its first astronauts in 1959, including John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and Alaska and Hawaii gained statehood.
Athletically, Harvey Haddix pitched 12 perfect innings for the Pirates before losing in the 13th inning, Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500, the Boston Red Sox became the last team in major league baseball to integrate by keeping Pumpsie Green on their roster and Boston Celtics guard Bob Cousy dished out 28 assists as his team scored 173 points against the Minneapolis Lakers.
That gives Joe Mazzulla something to shoot at.
It was a year when America waited for the NCAA Final that would match West against Oscar Robertson of the University of Cincinnati, two of the greatest college players ever. It was a matchup not to be as Cal upset Cincinnati, then knocked off West Virginia by a point in the final.
“If I could have gotten one more shot,” West lamented recently in an unauthorized biography. “But it wasn’t to be. Those are the things, frankly, that stay with you more than the wins. Those are the things that are really wearing. My basketball career has been sort of on the tragic side of everything. It hasn’t been on the positive side. It was so close, yet so far away.”
Or was it?
We leave 1959 with this reminder of the year.
Lee Harvey Oswald went to Moscow, vowing to never again return to the United States.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.