Teacher, war hero Joe Sheff remembered by former player

  • The Franklin County Fair, shown here in 1959, was the site of Turners Falls-Greenfield track meets, including the 1943 meet. STAFF file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2020 3:56:56 PM

As Turners Falls’ George Bush read the Recorder last week, he was transported back to his high school days.

Reading Dominic Poli’s article about Army 1st Lt. Bernard James Lovett Jr., a Greenfield teacher who was killed during the Vietnam War, Bush recalled his own story about a local high school teacher who suffered the same fate during World War II.

In 1943, Joe Sheff was drafted and wound up in the 45th Division of the U.S. Army. A biology and chemistry teacher at Turners Falls High School, he was also the head coach of both the varsity basketball and track teams, as well as an assistant football coach.

Bush said he had Sheff as a biology teacher during his freshman year of 1940-41, and played basketball for him as well.

The Turners Falls-Greenfield sporting rivalry was alive and well in those days, and as the 95th Franklin County Fair approached in the fall of 1943, the two schools were set to battle in track and field competition as part of the festivities.

Bush said students got a day off from school for Fair Day, though Sheff was not around to coach his squad against Greenfield that year. According to an article in the Recorder, with the headline, ‘Sheff Leaves Turners Falls To Enter Army,’ he was deployed to Italy one day before the event was set to take place.

“The Turners Falls track team will be minus its regular coach and one of the finest coaches of sports ever to come to the Powertown when it clashes with the Greenfield track team in the annual fair meet tomorrow morning,” the article read. “Coach Joe Sheff will be Private Sheff of the nation’s Army. Sheff had been selected to serve the nation and was to leave this morning for Fort Devens.”

Sheff, who attended William & Mary College before finishing his degree at Mass State College, had led Turners to seven wins in 10 track meets against Greenfield, including five in a row entering the ’43 contest.

“Asked which team would win this year’s meet, Coach Sheff said, ‘If they don’t win, Turners Falls will have a debt to pay when I get back,’” the article continued. “I am confident my boys will go out there and give the best they have and see no reason why they should not bring the bacon.”

Sheff, who coincidentally was stationed along with Bush’s brother, Lou, in Italy, was killed in action in May, 1944.

The football field at Turners Falls High School was named in his honor in 1948, and a monument was erected there.

When the old high school burned down in January, 1987, the new high school was built on Turnpike Road and a grammar school was built at the site of the old school.

“The school merged the words “Sheff Field” to become Sheffield School, and the monument was moved to the front of the building,” former Recorder columnist Jason Butynski wrote back in 2013. “The large grass field next to the school is actually where the old high school stood.”

As for the 1943 track meet that Sheff missed? Despite graduating 15 of 16 lettermen from the previous year’s team, Turners captured a 56½-38½ victory on Sept. 15, 1942.

“Turners Falls Wins As Schools Fill Fair Grounds,” read the headline in that day’s Recorder.

It was the sixth straight fair victory for the Powertown, which survived muddy and wet conditions to hand Greenfield a loss in front of bleachers full of fans and well-wishers.

“Fighting with the spirit and zest they have been taught by their former head coach Pvt. Joe Sheff, the Powertowners overpowered Greenfield,” the article read.  

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