Ahead of her time...
Even in the Roaring '20s, Jefferson's Marthella Spinneweber was a woman for the ages
By KARL PEARSON
Seventh of a series...
Most people think that girls basketball in Ohio only started officially in 1975 and that great girls players only existed after that point. They would be very wrong on both accounts.
Interscholastic girls basketball was actually played during the Roaring '20s and continued to be played right up the latter years of the Great Depression before the powers that be put it on the shelf. It took until 1975 before the Ohio High School Athletic Association sanctioned the girls game again.
Great girls players were on the scene even back in those early years. Perhaps the greatest was Marthella Spinneweber, who played at Jefferson High School from the 1923-24 through 1926-27 seasons.
She was a four-year starter for the Falcons. At 5-foot-11, she would qualify as her team's big girl, even by today's standards. She played center for the Falcons from her sophomore through senior seasons.
In an era when players were confined strictly to an offensive or defensive end of the court and jump balls were held after each made basket, Spinneweber often scored in double figures. Many times, she scored more than half of Jefferson's points. She was the county girls scoring champion in her junior and senior seasons. As a senior, she scored 83 points, averaging 16 points per game.
She helped lead Jefferson to three straight county girls championships in her final three seasons with the Falcons. She was a second-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County selection as a sophomore, earned Player of the Year honors as a junior and was a first-team selection her junior and senior years.
Spinneweber played during a period when there was tremendous girls basketball talent. Early in her career, she played against Florence Carey, a standout at Harbor High School who was among the inaugural inductees into the Ashtabula County Basketball Hall of Fame.
Searching back through the records, other names very familiar to area sports fans are listed among Spinneweber's teammates and opponents. Names like Zalimeni, Lundi, Bollman, Niemi, Vettel and Shupp leap off the pages of the scrapbooks she kept with articles from the Star Beacon and other area publications.
Her basketball prowess received more attention than just on a county level. After graduation from high school and from her collegiate studies at Ohio University and Kent State University, she moved to Cleveland and became the top player for the Majestic Radio team that claimed the city championship. She was chosen Cleveland's outstanding girls player in 1933 and was featured with a story and picture in the Plain Dealer for that distinction. She also played for Pennzoil.
Spinneweber didn't just invest her energies in playing basketball. She also shared her knowledge with girls that followed her, serving as coach at Rome High School when she returned to the county for her first teaching job. At the same time, she was a standout player for Ashtabula's Sovinto Club.
Spinneweber continued to coach when she moved to the Springfield Township Schools. In fact, she was still coaching when the OHSAA ceased sanctioning of girls sports after the 1937-38 school year.
Basketball obviously contributed to her long life. She continued in education until 1970, when she retired from Lakewood City Schools. Throughout her teaching career, she remained single, but in 1970, she rekindled an old high school relationship and came back to Ashtabula to marry Heimo Lehtinen and reside in the city's Harbor district.
She continued to live in Ashtabula even after her husband died in 1993 and maintained her own home, remaining active in all kinds of community activities and church work. She stayed there until 2007 when she went into assisted living.
Her love for basketball never waned. She maintained a keen interest in the sport, particularly focus on college basketball and the NBA.
For her efforts as one of the pioneers of Ashtabula County girls basketball, Spinneweber has been chosen as one of 14 persons to enter the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. Her enshrinement will take place March 29 at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
Unfortunately, she will not be there to receive her award. She died on Feb. 20, less than a month shy of her 99th birthday, in Mentor. Her stepdaughter, Ruth Lehtinen Erb, will accept her award.
Asked what her step-mother would think of her recognition, Ruth Erb said she would expressed a mixture of appreciation and wonder at all the fuss.
"I think Marthella would say this was a very neat thing, but why are they choosing me?" she said. "She'd have been very interested in it, and I'm sure she'd like to have some of the details."
Asked to assess her basketball career, Spinneweber would have had a succinct replay, Erb speculates.
"She was a very feisty woman. Marthella would have said, ‘I liked doing it, I think I was good at it and I did it,'" she said.
Erb said her stepmother would probably have preferred that the focus be on today's players and coaches.
"Marthella said girls players should get whatever recognition they could because she knew how hard they trained," she said. "She remarked about how exciting it must be to be able to earn a scholarship for athletic ability.
"She always paid attention to the coaches, too. She knew about their backgrounds. She was always interested in other people's lives."
This time of year would have been an occasion Spinneweber relished.
"She loved March Madness," Erb said. "She was particularly interested in North Carolina and Georgetown."
She loved the Cavaliers, too, but watched them with a critical eye.
"Marthella would say, ‘That LeBron is a pretty good player,'" Erb said. "But she'd also say, ‘He's not the whole team.'"
The early days
Even her family is unsure where Marthella Spinneweber was born or where she, her father, John, mother Harriet, brother J. Edward and sister Harriet resided. She was born March 17, 1910.
"I think she was born somewhere in Pennsylvania," Ruth Erb said. "They also lived out around Sandusky."
But soon, the family's path led them to Jefferson. Marthella showed athletic aptitude even in elementary school, according to information supplied by her family. She probably would have been considered a tomboy.
"She won the 50-yard dash at the Ashtabula County Fair when she was 11," a timeline of her life developed by the family read.
MARTHELLA (SPINNEWEBER) LEHTINEN, shown third from left in the front row,
and her 1925-26 Ashtabula County championship teammates from Jefferson.
Marthella was captain of the team as a junior and led the county in scoring.
On the court
But basketball seemed to strike a real chord with Spinneweber. She made an immediate impact on the Jefferson varsity when she entered high school as a freshman. She led the Falcons in scoring even that season.
"Her speedy floor work and uncanny ability to find the basket earned for her in one year a county-wide renown," a clipping from one of her scrapbooks said. "Among her numerous exhibitions of basketball prowess last year was the Harbor game, and also the game with Geneva in which she ran up an individual varsity, who will figure in this year's scoring for 26 points."
By her sophomore year, Spinneweber's influence on the Jefferson varsity became profound. She eventually earned second-team all-county honors in a close vote with Ashtabula's Virginia Huffman and Harbor's Lempi Jokela.
"Lempi Jokela, Harbor's center, gave Huffman and Spinneweber a strong race for the center post, but was nosed out by each," an article read. "The fact is all three of these girls are pretty much even as far as basketball playing is concerned.
"In view of the fact Jokela and Spinneweber were both potent figures on their respective squads, Jokela was shifted to forward and Spinneweber was given the center job on the second team. It was a hard decision because both girls were star centers. However, either could easily play a forward, as both are nearly equal to any girls in the county when it comes to floor work or shooting."
Apparently, Spinneweber had the respect of her coaches and teammates, too, because she served as Jefferson's captain in her junior and senior seasons.
There is every indication she had a huge fan following. That included her family.
"In high school, Marthella was very, very active in sports and we have a great many writeups about her in basketball as the Jefferson High School basketball team was county champs, I believe, the three years she was in high school," her late sister Harriet wrote in 1963.
She seemed to have a unique sense of timing, too. In her final high school game, she led Jefferson to a 50-5 victory over Geneva and scored 26 points.
Spinneweber would also have fit the profile of a great scholar-athlete. She was the valedictorian of the Jefferson Class of 1927. Her commencement speech was entitled, "The Price of Progress."
"Miss Spinneweber, next-to-the-youngest student of her class, will graduate with 18 credits," an newspaper article read.
While she was in high school, she also became acquainted with young Heimo Lehtinen.
"I think he was the trainer for the Harbor basketball team," Ruth Erb said of her late father.
Their paths diverted after high school, but apparently they kept track of each other from a distance when Marthella went of to college and into her teaching career and Heimo started his own family.
Marthella went on to study business education. She not only earned her degree from Kent State, but eventually earned her master's degree from Western Reserve University.
She began her teaching career at Rome and also helped with the girls basketball team. When she shifted to Springfield Township, she continued in that capacity, as well as assisting in other student activities. All the while, she kept her hand in the playing side of the game as well.
"She was pictured among the faculty in the years 1935-36, 1936-37 and 1937-38," V.H. Lynch, former executive head of Springfield Township Schools wrote. "Her three years were spent here in teaching commercial subjects, coaching girls basketball and serving as advisor to our own Freshman Friendship Club.
"As to her basketball coaching, the records show that girls basketball had been discontinued as an interscholastic activity. However, she organized the team just to play preliminary games to the varsity contests, winning four out of seven in 1936 and six out of eight in 1937-38."
Spinneweber always remained loyal to Ashtabula County, though.
"Even when she was in school, you used to take the bus home on weekends to see her mother," Erb said. "She even did that when she got into teaching. She didn't learn to drive for many years."
Eventually, Spinneweber ended up at Lakewood and remained there through 1970.
"When she started, Marthella taught fifth- and sixth-grade in one room," Erb, herself a learning disabilities teacher in the Mentor school system, said. "Then she taught business at Lakewood.
"The superintendent at Lakewood asked her in the middle of her time there if she would be willing to come up to the board office and be his secretary. She said she didn't want to lose her ability to go back to teaching and he assured her she wouldn't. She worked at the board office for 10 years, then she went back to the high school and finished up as a guidance counselor."
She was eventually elected to the Lakewood High School Faculty Hall of Fame.
MARTHELLA (SPINNEWEBER) LEHTINEN (seated, far right) enjoys
a family outing with many of her stepchildren and step-grandchildren. They are (bottom row, from left) step0granddaughter Kati Lehtinen, husband Heimo Lehtinen, Tommy Erb, Marthella and step-granddaughter Evelyn Erb Bognar and (standing, from left) step-grandson
David Lehtinen, stepson David Lehtinen, step-grandson Jeffrey
Lehtinen and step-daughter Ruth Lehtinen Erb.
Back in the county
Shortly after she retired from teaching, she and Heimo Lehtinen reconnected.
"When my mother passed away, she sent my father a sympathy card and they communicated after that," Erb said. "They got married about a year after my mother died. I was 22.
"They had a great marriage, especially for the first 15 years. They were married 23 years. They used to travel and do all kinds of things together."
Ruth, a 1965 Harbor graduate who is married to Tom Erb, and her brother, the late David Lehtinen, a 1961 Harbor alumnus who is in the Ashtabula Area City Schools Hall of Fame, eventually presented Heimo and Marthella with five grandchildren. The Erbs are the parents of Evelyn Bognar and Tom Erb, while David and Patricia Lehtinen are the parents of David, Jeffrey and Kathyn Lehtinen. There are also two great-grandchildren, David and Lily.
Spending time with Marthella and Heimo was a great treat for David and Ruth's children.
"My children spent a lot of weekends with Grandma and Grandpa in Ashtabula," Ruth said. "They loved to go to Lake Shore Park or just sit under a tree and read."
Marthella was incredibly active. She was a member of Harbor Topky Library and was a lifelong member of Jefferson United Methodist Church.
She also remained athletically active. She belonged for many years to the Ashtabula Monday Night Bowlers League.
"She broke her first hip bowling when she was 88," Ruth said. "Bowling was a big thing for Marthella."
She fought her deteriorating mental faculties to the end, too.
"Marthella even wrote part of her obituary," Ruth said. "After she died, I was looking around and found out she had set aside her burial dress."
As she fought dementia, she also liked to try and battle the disease with the sports pages.
"I used to come to her room and see the sports pages open," Ruth said. "She was trying to keep her mind active even then.
"She was a fighter."