Jaywalking: Greenfield ready to bid farewell to Nichols Gym

Last modified: 4/27/2015 4:01:37 PM
After 57 years of serving Greenfield, the Carl “Ump” Nichols Gymnasium will feature its final high school basketball game tonight when the Greenfield girls’ basketball team hosts Hopkins Academy at 7:30.

The gymnasium will be demolished after the new year and a parking lot will be paved over the plot of earth that has held the gymnasium since it was built in 1958. The new gymnasium at the high school is located where the old main office used to be, basically in the space between the new building and the auditorium, which is being renovated but is not being torn down. Is that hard to picture? If you walk in the front door of the new building and walk straight ahead, you will basically walk into the gym.

I spent Monday afternoon in Nichols Gymnasium with Greenfield athletic director Mike Kuchieski. He was running the final gym class of the day, and because today is a half-day of school, it was one of the final gym classes ever in the gymnasium. After the holiday break the gym classes will be moved into the old auto shop. Students will be able to use the exercise and weight rooms during gym class, and those in the auto shop will do things like ping pong and bowling. When it warms up, classes can move outside to Veterans Field and the tennis courts. The cafeteria will also be renovated during this time and students will eat lunch in the old wood shop.

Kuchieski has been busy going through all the old storage in the gymnasium and the locker rooms. He has turned up some gems. Among the best items he has come across; a framed picture of the 1909 GHS baseball team, a 1939 wooden plaque made out of the goalposts at Turners Falls, which commemorated Greenfield’s 13-6 win over Turners Falls on Thanksgiving, Jim Merrigan’s certificate of participation on the 1981-82 varsity basketball team, and a program from Greenfield’s 1985 Western Mass. Division II basketball tournament game against Wahconah. He has also found all sorts of old warm-ups and jerseys from years past. He showed off some of the treasures, including maybe the best of all: a chest that former Greenfield boys’ basketball coach Bill Beauregard used to bring to every game to store the warm-ups in. The chest, which kind of looks like a treasure chest, is still filled with the old warm-ups and probably holds a lot of memories of its own.

Nichols Gymnasium opened in September of 1958 when the “new” high school opened up. For those that don’t know, let me give you a little background on the man for whom the gym was named. According to my Franklin County historian Mike Cadran, Nichols came to Greenfield from Framingham, via Athol High School. He coached the 1917 Athol baseball team to the Franklin County League title. In 1919 he came to Greenfield and coached football, basketball and baseball. Nichols was at the school from 1919 until 1959 and he coached the basketball team from 1920-1943.

Nichols was a legendary football coach in the area and finished his career with 176 wins and eight Western Mass. titles. His basketball coaching record was not as stellar, but the gymnasium was named in his honor nonetheless. Ump passed away in April of 1959, while visiting a sister in Framingham. He was remembered for his generosity when it came to his students. According to one thing I read while researching this article, Ump and his wife Gladys “had the largest family in town — even though they had no children of their own — because they took an interest in every kid at Greenfield High School and lots of other kids in Franklin County and western Mass.”

Two months after Nichols passed away, his sister was given a plaque in his honor and the plaque was placed in the gymnasium. Ump never coached in the gymnasium, but from that day on his name was linked to the gym. The plaque could still be seen in the lobby on Monday afternoon, adhered to a post just outside the gym in the old main lobby.

The gymnasium has seen a lot of things other than high school basketball games in its days. Many people may remember watching the Harlem Wizards in the gym, or a semi-professional team called the “Greenfield Green Giants.” There was even something called “donkey basketball” in the gym, where people would shoot from the backs of donkeys.

The first coach in the gymnasium was legendary boys’ basketball coach Dan Dyer, who coached the program from 1946 until 1978. One of the best basketball players to ever come through Greenfield High School, Mark Donoghue, shared some stories about Dyer. Donoghue can remember when he was about 12 years old and would walk over to the high school to watch games.

“It was the thing to do in town,” Donoghue said. “You dreamt about being out there. The 1966 team, those guys were like Gods.”

Greenfield had some powerhouse teams during that time with players like Steve Kelleher, Danny McDonald, Rick Sibley, Billy Bush and Pete Hanley. Donoghue would leave his mark on the program during the early ’70s before going on to play collegiately at Dartmouth and UMass. Donoghue can remember getting called into Dyer’s office when he was a sophomore, where the coach had some important advice for Donoghue.

“He told me, ‘I don’t care how good of a basketball player you are, you won’t go anywhere without good grades,” Donoghue said.

When Dyer retired following the 1977-78 season, a man named Bill Beauregard took over and would spend the next 17 years coaching in Nichols Gymnasium, where he guided the Green Wave to three WMass titles and won back-to-back WMass championships in 1993-94, and 94-95. The 93-94 team may have been the best ever to play in Nichols Gymnasium, as it featured three future Division I collegiate players — Ross Burns (UMass), Alphah East (Quinnipiac) and Angelo Thomas (Maine).

I called Thomas on Monday, hours before he was to guide his own team, Hopkins Academy, to a game against Frontier. Thomas reminisced about his playing days, and the memories he has in the gymnasium. He said he could remember being a freshman at Greenfield and playing a home game against a stacked Amherst squad that was featured as the WHAI Game of the Week. Greenfield upset Amherst that night, and Thomas was asked to go on the air following the game. At that time, games were still broadcast from the press box in the gym. The booth is located above one of the entrances and access to it is up a rickety pull-down ladder that is inside one of the closets in the gym. Thomas said he remembered struggling to climb the stairs and then remembers doing the interview with Marty Tirrell, who called the games back then.

But of course what both Thomas and Donoghue most remember about playing in Nichols Gymnasium is their teammates. Nearly every former athlete says that what they miss most about their playing days is being with the guys, and without either man being prompted to talk about their teammates by me, both did so anyhow. Donoghue said that he sees some former players around the holidays and when they get together, they always end up talking about their playing days, swapping memories over a beer.

“Those stories, that’s what Nichols Gym is to me,” Donoghue said.

Thomas elaborated on that. He said that many of his best memories may not be exactly fit for print, but involved high school guys goofing on each other. He said that nowadays, when his players get done with practice, they change and go home. He can remember spending a lot of time with his teammates in the locker room after practice, just hanging out and having fun before going home to do homework.

“The best memories for me are the ones about the camaraderie in the locker room,” he said. “We used to sit around and B.S. and joke with each other. You know how they say, ‘If those walls could talk,’ well those walls would have some stories to tell.”

The gym holds even more special memories for Thomas. He scored his 1,000th point in the gym, and, more recently, his son Grayson took his very first step in the gym.

The most recent long-term coach to call Nichols home was Scott Thayer, who retired prior to this season after guiding the Green Wave since 1997. Thayer coached some very good teams during his time there, winning a WMass title in 2000, and he said that while the gym may not have been the newest or warmest, it was special.

“It’s kind of like the parallel to old professional arenas like the Boston Garden,” Thayer said. “It wasn’t the greatest place to go, but it was great to play basketball there. I can remember playing Mohawk during Tim Burns’ junior year and fans were showing up at 4 in the afternoon. That was one of the first games that Tim ever dunked in.

“Nichols was always dusty and musty, but it was a great place. It was always loud. I was thinking about it today. It’s kind of sad that it’s coming to an end.”

Like Thomas watching his son take his first steps, Nichols has some special personal meaning to Thayer, who met his wife Erin while coaching at the school. Erin Thayer (formerly Erin Suchanek) said she remembers watching her father play against the Harlem Wizards in the gym.

“If I had the money, I’d buy the gym and bring it home,” Scott Thayer said laughing.

I could probably contact every basketball player that ever donned the green and white uniform and get a story from them all. That’s what is so great about sports. Every field, court and rink holds memories to those that played on them. Nichols Gymnasium is no different. And while the gymnasium will be demolished in 2015, the memories of all those men and women to play on that court will forever live on.

And next fall a new gymnasium will open at the school. Kuchieski said he is not sure what the gym will be named, or if it will even have a name to start. It may no longer be Nichols Gymnasium. That’s probably OK, because Nichols Gym will always be remembered as the old gym. The new gym will produce new memories to future players.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com

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