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Russell Bethel

Love...  And basketball
Russell Bethel and his wife, Grace, shared a passion for sports and for one another

By KARL PEARSON
Staff Writer

Seventh of a series...

One of the best things an educational administrator can have on their resume is that they have had a wide range of experience in various aspects of the business. It's never a bad thing that they have a background in sports.

By those standards, Russell Bethel was well equipped for the roles he took on during a career that spanned nearly 40 years in a variety of school systems. As a teenager, he was a fine all-around athlete at Kingsville High School, particularly in basketball, before his graduation in 1936.

He went on to Kent State University and graduated in 1940 fully intending to begin his teaching career, but instead ended up in a job in retail job until World War II intervened. It was not until he returned from service in what was then known as the Army Air Corps in 1946 that Bethel was really able to begin his teaching career.

Along with immersing himself in teaching, Bethel's abiding love of sports quickly led him into the coaching realm to New Lyme Deming School. In that setting, he was the coach, working not only with the basketball squad, but the baseball and track teams.

In each instance, he made his school into the scourge of the old Buckeye League that involved the small high schools in the county like Rock Creek, Dorset, Williamsfield, Rowe, Orwell and Spencer. He was part of a run of seven Buckeye League basketball championships in eight seasons, with his part starting in 1947.

With the small size of the high school classes at New Lyme Deming, Bethel quickly rose through the ranks to not only shoulder teaching duties, but serve as the school's superintendent. After several seasons as the coach of those sports, the weight of his duties became so demanding that he had to set coaching aside, stopping as the basketball coach after the 1951 season.

It was a profoundly sorrowful occasion when Bethel had to walk away from coaching, according to his youngest child, Sally Bethel Murphy, who still lives in the Akron area.

"My dad won awards in all the sports," she said. "He really enjoyed coaching. He always said that was one of the really happy times of his life."

But he got one last shot at the coaching ring, at least for basketball, quite by accident. It turned out to be a bolt from the blue for Bethel and the Rangers, who literally blazed a path through small-school basketball in the area in the 1953-54 season, paced in particular by two players, Richard Scribben and Frank Zeman, whose legends almost disappeared into history before it was brought to light by some of their old teammates and the investigative work of Star Beacon Sports Editor Don McCormack. Bethel's knowledge and his flexibility in adapting to the fast-paced style of play Zeman dubbed, "fire-engine basketball," helped that team produce perhaps its greatest season.

Most of that team only knew Bethel as a teacher and authority figure. They appreciated that he didn't try to reinvent the wheel when he took over as their coach. They actually found a somewhat lighter side to him.

"I know he liked coaching," Scribben, now 74, said. "He was an honest person and well-liked. He was a very fair-minded person."

"I only knew Bethel for one year," Zeman, who transferred to Deming from Jefferson for his sophomore season and only played for Bethel as a senior, said. "He was an easy-going guy. We were all like a family and were all pretty close. He tried to do the same things with us that the coach before him (Ray Rathbun) tried to do with us."

Alex Olah was another key player for that team, and several other Deming teams during his high school years and probably had a much closer relationship with Bethel than most of his teammates, for a variety of reasons.

"I had Mr. Bethel all my years in school," he said. "He was like a father to us. He wasn't rough on us, but you didn't have to push us.

"He was a well-liked man all over Ashtabula County. He was easy to get along with. You couldn't have met a better man."

As much as Bethel's skill as a player and a coach might have been admired, those who observed him probably appreciated him for his work as a humanitarian, especially for the underprivileged families in his school district, even more.

"I know the Olah boys and my sister had free lunches at school when Mr. Bethel was there," Alex Olah said. "He was a good Christian man."

"Times were hard back then," Scribben said. "Mr. Bethel was a church-going person and he would often get donations from different people to help other families. A lot of people don't realize how he helped the less fortunate with things like heat or food."

Basketball was the sport that truly resonated with Bethel, despite his love for the others.

"The only sport he ever really talked about was basketball," Sally Murphy said.

As it turned out, the 1953-54 season was Bethel's last season in coaching. That, along with a gradual move into higher levels of administration that took him away from students and into situations with adults that he found far less satisfying, was something that ate at him in nagging little ways for years afterward until he retired in 1979 from his position as the superintendent of the Canal Fulton Northwest school system.

"The farther my father got away from working with kids, the less he liked education," Murphy said.

Just because he was away from coaching, though, didn't detract from the interest Bethel and his wife of 60 years, Grace Day Bethel, maintained in sports, particularly in basketball. In fact, when she played at Kingsville High School, Grace Day was as much admired for her basketball skills as her future husband in the days before the Ohio High School Athletic Association suspended girls atheltics.

"I think the day they put sports on television was one of the happiest days of their lives," Sally Murphy said. "Every Sunday after dinner was a sports day."

When Russell Bethel died just one day after Memorial Day, 2001 at age 83, LeBron James was still a high school player at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, but living in that area, Bethel was aware of the young man's skills. Grace Bethel lived until 2007 and got to see James become the star he is for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"My dad would have loved LeBron," Sally Murphy said firmly. "I know my mom loved to watch LeBron."

Were he to have the time to check out Bethel's accomplishments, and being the basketball historian he is, James might well have appreciated what Bethel gave to the game and his community. His achievements were enough to earn Bethel admission into the Class of 2010 of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on March 28.

"I think Mr. Bethel definitely deserves it," Olah said. "He was a great coach and a great man."

Being the low-key person he was, his daughter believes her father would have enjoyed his recognition, but wouldn't have made a big display of it. He would have enjoyed the chance to get together with his old players and rivals, especially the latter, because he enjoyed the collegiality of the coaching profession so much.

"(Coaching) was just a real fun time in his life," Sally said. "He would have been happy to just be a coach his whole life, but he knew he wouldn't have been able to support his family that way."

Growing up

Russell Bethel was born Dec. 3, 1917, just months after the United States entered World War I, in Greenville, now a community of a little more than 13,000 residents located about 35 miles north of Dayton. It is the county seat of Darke County and is the site of the Treaty of Greeneville in 1795, which opened up settlement of the Northwest Territory, from which Ohio came.

The Bethel family moved to Kingsville in 1929. Bethel's father was the Baptist minister in Kingsville.

"My grandfather and great-grandfather were ordained ministers in Kingsville," Sally Murphy said. "My great-grandfather, my mother's grandfather, James Gray, was a circuit rider in Ashtabula County."

Bethel grew up just a short way down the street from Kingsville High School. Just a little farther up the street lived Grace Day. She lived with her grandparents, James and Susan Gray.

"When my dad moved into the parsonage, he used to run out of the house and go and pull her hair when she'd walk by on her way to school," Sally Murphy said with a laugh. "My mother took piano lessons from my father's sister. She called (Bethel) a real pest."

Grace Day was no pushover, so she must have enjoyed the attentions of her future husband, even when she was younger. She would go on to become equally adept as a player as Russell Bethel in the days when the OHSAA still allowed girls to play interscholastic sports. In fact, she earned second-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County honors in her senior season of 1935, three years before the OHSAA shut down girls sports and was not to permit them again until 1975. In the same season, Bethel earned first-team all-county honors.

"My mother would say, ‘We played our games before the boys, and we drew as many as they did,'" Sally Murphy said.

Her mother never lost her competitive fire, although the avenues for female athletes closed shortly after she left high school and eventually her attention turned to becoming a wife, mother and teacher. Grace Bethel was a far more outspoken person than her husband, according to her daughter.

"She was very competitive," Sally Murphy said. "My dad didn't talk much about his playing and coaching. Mom was much more verbal. Dad would say that he always came to see her play."

Russell Bethel was no slouch as a player. Among the many items his wife saved from their exploits was a picture of him with Kingsville's league champions in 1933, his freshman year. That squad went 12-6 and won the Ashtabula County league and county tournament titles for coach Charles Fish Jr. Bethel scored 102 points that year to rank third on the team behind Gordon Brocklehurst and captain Raymond Pickens.

"Mom used to keep all of their playing stuff and Dad's coaching memorabilia in her cedar chest," Sally said.

After Kingsville

When his career at Kingsville ended, Bethel followed Grace to Kent State University. Little more than six months apart in age, her birthday had fallen within the parameters that put her in the Class of 1935, while his put him in the Class of 1936.

Grace got a two-year degree at Kent, which was all that was required to teach elementary school in that era. Russell went the full four years at KSU, earning a degree in education.

With her degree, Grace actually began her teaching career in the Warrensville Heights school system. It was Russell's intent to follow suit once he finished in 1940, but he ended up working at a Woolworth's store until they were married on April 15, 1941, then taught at Deming for a brief time that year. When the U.S. entered World War II on Dec. 8, Russell went soon after into what was then known as the Army Air Corps before it became the Air Force, actually joining up in 1942.

Eventually, Russell headed off to the Pacific theater, while Grace moved back to Kingsville with their relatives. Bethel ended up in the Philippines in 1943, using the training he had received at Kent State in physical education to work in the physical training of the troops there. He achieved the rank of staff sergeant and was even awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service.

Bethel did come back to the U.S. while the war was still raging and eventually to Kingsville for brief periods. Their first child, Susan, who now lives in Washington, D.C., was born in 1943.

He was released from the service and came back to Kingsville in January 1946. Soon, the Bethels set up a home in Cherry Valley, where their second daughter, Julie, who now resides in Durham, N.C., was born.

With the Rangers

Russell Bethel went back to work in the Deming system when he returned, teaching science. He got into coaching almost immediately and had the Rangers operating at a tremendous clip in all sports despite working with teams that included not much more than 10 players at any point. Years later, most of the students there became part of the Pymatuning Valley school district in the early 1960s.

The Bethels lived in Cherry Valley for a while, then moved to New Lyme to a home near the school and what was then the Presbyterian church, of which they were members, near the intersection of Route 46 and Dodgeville Road. In fact, Russell Bethel taught Sunday school there, with boys like Olah among his students, while his family lived in the community.

The Bethel family continued to grow. In 1951, a son, Russell Jr. arrived, but he died in infancy. Sally was born in 1952, followed by Robert. Tragically, Robert was killed in a car crash when he was only 9.

It didn't take long for those in the know to recognize Bethel's skills not only as a teacher and a coach, but also his organizational gifts, and he quickly rose to the position of principal and superintendent of the little school. It became apparent that something was going to have to give, and coaching was the matter that was set aside after the 1951 season, with the Rangers still operating at a locomotive's pace.

Somehow, despite all his duties, Bethel found time to return to Kent State to earn his master's degree, which he finished in 1949. He did so when he was advised that he need the degree to move forward in educational administration.

Susan Learmonth followed her parents in their love of education. She works as a special educator for infants and toddlers. She presented her parents with two grandsons and a granddaughter.

She remembers accompanying her father to some games, particularly those played on the weekends, although at her relatively tender age, she recalls little of watching Russell Bethel working with his teams.

"I remember going to some of the games with him and a little about the gyms we were in," she said. "I used to sit across from him with my friends.

"I just know he was very close to his kids. In fact, he used to have the kids over to our house. My dad was very fond of the boys."

She actually recalls some adventures after games with her father.

"I remember going with him to take the money they collected at the gate to the bank that night," Learmonth said. "Many times, he'd pick up hitchhikers along the way. Looking back on it, that was probably pretty dangerous. You probably wouldn't do that now."

The coaching reins were handed off to Rathbun, who came to the area from Rhode Island. Bethel's Rangers had played basketball at quite a rapid pace, but Rathbun cranked them up to a racehorse style.

The new coach presented quite a different approach to the Rangers.

"Rathbun brought the kind of basketball they played on the East Coast, which meant really pushing the ball and playing fast," Scribben said. "He was the kind of guy who liked to rant and rave a lot, too."

That definitely resonated with the Rangers. They picked up with Rathbun where Bethel had stopped. But the new coach's run only lasted for the 1951-52 and 1952-53 seasons before he encountered some off-the-court issues that forced him to resign. Sally was born in 1952 while Bethel was out of coaching.

That special season

It had to be like manna from heaven for Bethel, though, who stepped up and took the job for the 1953-54 season. It turned out to be his best as the Rangers recorded 22 wins, including 18 straight at one point, built around the scoring punch of Scribben and Zeman. That squad also included brothers Bill and Glenn Fisher, Chuck Schultz, Olah, Larry Carr, Clark Sherman and John Lobdell.

Bethel didn't try to rein in the Rangers much. Because he didn't the Rangers often topped the 100-point mark, ringing up scores like 115-52 against Rock Creek and 111-78 against Williamsfield.

With games played at that pace, Zeman and Scribben, who are now members of the ACBF Hall of Fame, also became the first Grand Players, or 1,000-point career scorers in Ashtabula County. To this day, Zeman still ranks fifth of all boys scorers in the county with 1,338 points and stands 12th of any player of either gender. Scribben's 1,208 points still has him 12th off all male players and 27th overall.

Actually, Bethel approached the frenetic pace with a sense of humor.

"I remember he asked Frank and Richie one time if they were ever going to run a play," Olah said with a laugh.

He may have let the Rangers run, but he refused to run up the score. That still doesn't necessarily sit particularly well with at least his two stars.

"We averaged 88 points a game that year," Zeman said. "We tried to do the same things we had with Coach Rathbun, but Mr. Bethel never let us play the whole game. We'd get up by 20 or 30 points and he'd take us out of the game. That was the only thing I didn't like about him. But I think he wanted to let the other kids play, too."

"Mr. Bethel didn't like to run up the score on anybody," Scribben said. "He didn't think that was really fair. He didn't want to humiliate the other team or show them up. He was a fair-minded person.

"He really believed in fair play. He didn't want you to be a showoff."

The players found Bethel's calmer approach a pleasure.

"He was a lot quieter than Coach Rathbun," Scribben said. "Occasionally, he'd get a little hot under the collar and his face would get red, but that was about it."

The luck of Bethel's special team ran out in the county Class B championship when it dropped an 85-71 decision, ironically enough, to his alma mater, Kingsville, at what was then known as Edgewood High School and is now Braden Junior High. The Kings were coached by Ed Batanian, another ACBF Hall of Famer, who was in just his third season as a coach and led them to a 22-5 season behind Ron Hanson, the Kingsville Hawk, who is also in the ACBF Hall of Fame. As a true sportsman, Bethel is shown in a Star Beacon photo smiling and shaking hands with Batanian despite the loss.

Scribben went on to earn third-team Class B All-Ohio honors from United Press International, while Hanson was an honorable-mention selection.

On to other matters

That special season turned out to be Bethel's coaching valedictory. By the time the 1954-55 season came, the Bethels had moved out of the community after he took the job as superintendent of Beach City schools, which is now part of the Navarre school system and calls Fairless its high school.

The family home was in Jackson Township, near Massillon. Susan and Julie are Jackson High School graduates. Julie, now Julie Purcell, went to Duke University and still lives in Durham, N.C. and presented the Bethels with two grandsons. She also followed the path of her parents, actually in two aspects. She is an ordained Methodist minister, specializing in family therapy and pastoral counseling.

Bethel became a hot property in the world of educational administration. After several years at Beach City, he was tapped as the first supervisor of instruction for all of Stark County's schools, a position he held until 1968. From there, he changed his focus back to managing just one school system, taking over as the superintendent of Canal Fulton schools, with its high school of Northwest, until he retired in 1979.

Sally Murphy is a graduate of Northwest. She, too, followed the educational path, serving now as a teacher at Woodridge Intermediate School in Peninsula. Sally and her husband, Mike, are the parents of a son, Ryan. There are also two step-children among their brood.

Actually, Grace Bethel got back into education once her children were old enough to function without her at home and retired after her husband in 1986. She taught kindergarten until she was 69.

"She used to say when she walked into the school building, it was like home," Sally said.

One of Grace's students, Joe Concheck, was of particular interest when he became a member of Eldon Miller's basketball team at Ohio State. She must have made a distinct impression on Concheck.

"They had a special recognition one night at Ohio State and he brought my mother down on the court and introduced her to everybody as his kindergarten teacher," Sally said. "That was really special. My mom and dad were always huge Ohio State fans."

Russell never lost his love of competition. Early in his administrative career, he was advised by a colleague that to be effective in his field, he needed to take up golf. He did so with fervor, learning the game on his own and eventually recording a hole-in-one in his later years that Mike Murphy witnessed.

"He didn't see it go in, but I did and I told him it had," Murphy said. "I don't think he believed me until we walked up on the green. He looked around for it and finally found it in the hole."

Golf became a passion for Bethel and his grandson.

"He used to love to play golf with Ryan," Sally said. "He would have loved to have a son to play with. I think in a way my son became his son. He and my mother were so happy when Ryan told them he was going to Ohio State."

Along with the Buckeyes, the Bethels loved all the Cleveland teams. It never wavered for Grace after Russell died in 2001.

"My parents used to go to League Park (long-time home for the Indians) on dates," Sally said. "Mom used to watch sports all the time even after Dad died. Once Oprah (Winfrey) was over, it was sports, 24-7.

"Mom loved (Indians center fielder) Grady Sizemore because she thought he looked like Ryan. She always followed Russell Branyan because of his first name."

The difference in the Bethels' personalities shone through even while watching sports on TV.

"Dad never got upset about anything," Sally said. "I never saw him lose his temper. Mom would yell at the TV all the time."

The Bethels maintained their love of Ashtabula County, too, and made it their final resting place. They are buried in the cemetery at Lulu Falls off Route 193 in Kingsville.

"I used to drive them up to their class reunions in Kingsville when they couldn't anymore," Sally said. "Mom came up with me even after Dad died. And they and Alex Olah kept in touch."

There is a part of Sally Murphy that wishes her parents could actually be on hand for her father's induction. But she has the sense Russell and Grace will be smiling from their lofty perch, each from a different perspective.

"My mother would be the one who was really happy about it," she said. "Dad would have been happy to see other people, his old players and coaching friends.

"But he was very low-key about those things. He just loved basketball and coaching."