Special Guest Columnist, Dan Lovallo. "A Night to Remember". The story behind the naming of the Connie Donahue Gymnasium at Torrington High School.
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER
By Dan Lovallo
Has it really been 20 years, since the Torrington High School Gymnasium was renamed the Cornelius E. Donahue Gymnasium? Has it been 20 years, since Torrington was the center of the sports universe, one cold January night?
As we enter another season of high school basketball, Donahue’s image looks down from the wall, behind the backboard at the gymnasium’s western end. It is part of a building in which the late, great coach, who died nearly 14 years ago, not only spent many hours, but helped to plan, 50 years ago. One wonders, if many people who attend and play games in this still marvelous facility, even know of Donahue.
His legacy runs deep. An inaugural member of the Connecticut Coaches Hall of Fame,
Donahue not only was a star athlete at THS, he went on to captain the 1933-34 UCONN basketball team, before returning to his high school alma mater to teach and coach.
In 36 years at Torrington, Donahue coached basketball, baseball and football, while also serving as the Director of Athletics. His basketball teams won 11 NVL titles, while capturing the state championship in 1944 and earning runner up status in 1948. In baseball, his teams won 10 NVL championships, including the 1939 state title. He had a profound influence on many, including this correspondent, who served as the manager of his last high school baseball team and counted him as a dear friend, until the day he died.
Still Donahue had his detractors, and on occasions when his supporters, including me, urged the Torrington Board of Education to name the gym in his honor, we were reminded “Torrington didn’t name buildings after people.”
When THS Athletic Director Robert Frost, died suddenly of a heart attack and educators moved to name the outdoor sports complex in his honor, the effort to pay proper homage to Donahue gained renewed life. As a sports columnist for the Register Citizen, I wrote a piece, in January 1989, urging the board to rename the gym after Donahue. He was still in relatively good health at age 80, despite losing a kidney as a college athlete.
This time the idea caught fire. Lou Moscaritolo and Tony Turina, Donahue proteges as players and coaches, were encouraged. And letters of support - this was in the days before email- poured in from around the country. Bob Zuffelato, who played basketball under Donahue at THS, coached college basketball at Boston College, and was at the time, Director of Player Personnel for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, wrote, “Since graduating from Torrington High in 1955, I have pursued a teaching and coaching career and have come to realize what Connie Donahue meant to me and our community. Please put aside any silly policy about naming buildings after people. You are honoring an institution.”
In another letter, Gustavo “Gus” Broberg, Jr. wrote, “with the possible exception of my parents, no other person played a larger role in guiding me in my early years and rarely does a week pass, without my thinking how grateful I am for his guidance and caring. Although I have had many instructors throughout the years, I will always think of him as ‘My Coach’. Broberg, who starred under Donahue at THS, became an All American at Dartmouth, where he was known to have been the inventor of the “hook” shot in basketball. He turned down a contract from the New York Yankees to serve in World War II, where he lost an arm, fighting for his country. Later, his son, Peter, would pitch in the major leagues, while Gus, a lawyer, opened a law practice in West Palm Beach, Fla.
That did it. This time the board of education could not say “no.” Dedication ceremonies were scheduled for January 5, 1990. All that was left was to plan a fitting tribute. The planning committee, of which Moscaritolo, Turina and I were members, went to work. One of us even got the bright idea, newly named Major League Baseball Commissioner Francis T. “Fay” Vincent Jr. should be invited. After all, his dad grew up in Torrington and both he and Fay knew Connie.
Three weeks before the event, we dashed off a letter to the Commissioner’s office, believing we had a better chance at winning Lotto. Within days, during one of our committee’s planning sessions no less, the phone rang in Athletic Director Lou Moscaritolo’s office. It was the baseball commissioner‘s office. “The commissioner would be honored to attend,” his secretary said. Turina, who would be the only coach other than Donahue to win a state basketball title at THS, Moscaritolo and I, were waiting for the “but…”. Except there was no but. The MLB commissioner wanted to remember his roots.
The ceremony itself, before the Torrington-Holy Cross varsity basketball game, went off without a hitch. The gymnasium was packed. Other dignitaries, including former
Connecticut men’s basketball coach Dee Rowe and Broberg were in attendance. Proclamations from President George H.W. Bush, Governor William A. O’Neill and Congresswoman Nancy Johnson were read. Mayor Delia R. Donne proclaimed the day “Connie Donahue Day” in Torrington. And Donahue’s image, behind the backboard, was unveiled. The event was televised on the local cable-TV access station. ESPN, Hartford and New Haven TV stations, and newspapers from around the state, also added coverage.
“The things you honor Connie Donahue for are good things,” said the baseball commissioner. “They stand you and your school in good stead.”
After the event and all the accolades, Donahue said, “I just wondered if I was the guy they were talking about.”
Yes, he was, on a night Torrington was the center of the sports universe, 20 years ago.