UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: Wemple & Avery — Why we stand for the National Anthem

The Gloversville World War II Memorial is pictured. (Photo contributed by Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame)

In 1956, when Saxy Marshall and his group of football volunteers set up a local Pop Warner youth football league in Gloversville, they named it the “Wemple-Avery Little League Football Incorporation of Gloversville”. The league was named in honor of two former Gloversville standout athletes Donald Wemple and Bart Avery, both of whom were killed in military action in World War II. But who were Wemple & Avery?

Donald Lester Wemple was born in Gloversville in 1917 and grew up at 28 East 8th Ave. He was a standout student-athlete at Gloversville High School where he earned nine varsity letters and won the prestigious “Laurel G” award as an honor student. Upon graduating in 1935, he went on to play football for Division I Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. He was a four-year starter and captain of the 1938 squad playing for College Football Hall of Famer Andy Kerr. Wemple was considered one of the best ends in college football and earned an invite to play in the prestigious East-West Shrine Game on January 1, 1939 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. This annual event was a college all-star game (Eastern U.S. college players vs Western U.S. college players) that served as the NFL Scouting Combine of the day, in which dozens of professional scouts attended practices leading up to the game to evaluate players.

Upon graduating from Colgate in the spring of 1939, he earned a spot on the intercollegiate all-star team as one of the top 40 players in the country the previous season. They competed in eight pre-season games against NFL teams to raise money for charities, while providing the NFL teams with their tune up games leading up to the start of the season. From Aug. 22 through Sept. 15, Wemple and the College All-Stars traveled 3,000 miles and competed against eight NFL teams, with the biggest game coming on Aug. 30 at Soldier Field in Chicago. This game was referred to as the “College All-Star Football Classic” and pitted the college team against the defending NFL Champions. This game was against the 1938 champion New York Giants and Wemple caught a late fourth-quarter pass from future Pro Football Hall of Famer Sid Luckman for a first down in front of a crowd of 81,456 fans on National Television, as NBC aired the game.

Wemple then returned to Gloversville to enter the business world and continued to play football for the semi-professional Johnstown Olympics (the forerunner to the Glove Cities Colonials). He was then signed to play for the NFL Brooklyn Dodgers in 1941 and played in all 11 of their regular season games. On the final day of the season, Dec. 7 against the New York Giants, the game was interrupted with an announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As fans were exiting the Polo Grounds following the game, more announcements were made telling active military personnel to report to their stations.

Wemple had mysteriously missed an October football practice at Ebbets Field to report for examination for his voluntary entrance into the Army Air Corps and was placed on reserve. He was then activated on January 13, 1942, and became an Aviation Cadet at Maxwell Field in Montgomery Alabama. After completing 70 hours of solo flight training in Florida, he was transferred to Cochrane Field in Macon GA. Around this same time, Wemple and another former Gloversville High School graduate Dave Smukler (NFL 1936-39 with the Philadelphia Eagles) were named to the All-Army Football Team. The team was put together to play the New York Giants NFL team on Sept. 12, 1942, for a benefit game to raise money for the Fresh Air Fund and the Army Emergency Relief Fund.

Wemple never competed in that game as he was sent to the China-Burma-India Theater to pilot flights of supplies from India to China and achieved the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. On June 23, 1943, as he was traveling over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains known as “The Hump,” when his plane was shot down by enemy fire near his intended landing field in China. Trying to land the plane with only one engine operating, he fell short of his landing field and was badly hurt. One of the first U.S. soldiers to reach the wreckage was his Colgate football teammate and 1938 co-captain John Lucy. Because of his large size, the rescuers had difficulty in removing Wemple from the wreckage. One rescuer asked him “How are you?” “How do you feel?”

Wemple opened his eyes, half-smiled and said “I am all right now, coach, put me back in the game.” He then took his last breath, sighed and died in the arms of his former Colgate teammate. Wemple was accorded full military honors and was buried near his base in India.

Bartle A. Avery was born in Gloversville in 1920 and grew up at 124 Kingsboro Ave. He was one of the best athletes to come out of Gloversville High School in the 1930s, excelling at football, basketball and baseball. He captained the GHS teams in both football and baseball. On the baseball field, he was both a standout pitcher and hitter, often times striking out 10-plus per game and batting over .400 each season. Legendary GHS coach Duke Miller once described him as “calm and cool headed on the mound.”

After graduating from Gloversville High School in 1938, he attended the University of Alabama where he starred for the Crimson Tide in football as quarterback and played basketball and baseball. Alabama was college football’s Division I national champions in 1941 and went on to win the Cotton Bowl on January 1, 1942, beating Texas A & M. While he had led the team at quarterback all season, Avery did not play in the Cotton Bowl, as he had a fractured toe. With the specter of war during his college years, Avery focused on military studies.

He married his college sweetheart Ellen Bealle Daniel of Tuscaloosa, Ala., in November of 1943 in Gloversville. Days later he voluntarily enlisted in the Army. After basic training, he graduated from Officer’s Candidates School at Fort Benning, Georgia as a Second Lieutenant in April 1944. Two months later, while assigned to Camp Clairborne in Louisiana, he received word of his older brother Lieutenant Milton L. Avery’s death when the B-24 bomber he was co-piloting was shot down over Hamburg Germany in June of 1944. He had been a part of the 15th Air Force in Italy. In November, Bartle was sent to Europe to serve with the 335th Infantry Regiment, 84th “Railsplitters” Infantry Division, attached to the 9th Army. Back home in Gloversville, his wife, Ellen, gave birth to their baby daughter on Christmas Day 1944. However, Avery was nearly 4,000 miles away seeing action at the Siegfried Line in the Geilenkirchen sector, the Battle of the Ardennes, the Roer River Crossing and the breakthrough of the Rhine. Avery quickly established himself as a battlefield hero by making five different trips with a motor vehicle through an area covered by German shellfire (all in one day) because all other means of communication had been broken.

For those acts, he received a Silver Star for bravery and meritorious service. In another act of great courage, Avery single handedly unsnarled a traffic tie up while under heavy German fire and received a shrapnel wound to his hand. For this act, he was awarded both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, along with a promotion to First Lieutenant. By the end of March, and countless other acts of bravery and heroism, he was promoted to Captain. On April 6, 1945, during a final push against the Germans, Avery was also killed during a battle in Germany, just 11 months after his brother Milton. On April 23, a requiem Mass was held for Bartle at the Trinity Church at 31 Spring Street in Gloversville. This was the same site where Bartle and Ellen had been married less than a year and a half earlier. In his place, Ellen held their four-month old daughter who whom would never get to meet her father.

While the local youth football league in Gloversville no longer carries the names of these two great athletes and soldiers (the name was mysteriously changed to “Little Huskies” in the 1970s), Wemple lives on through the “Donald L. Wemple Trophy” that is given each year to a Gloversville High School student who is a “Laurel G” academic winner, participated in at least two sports and exemplifies the qualities of leadership, character, scholarship and athletic ability that personified Wemple’s life. The original trophy can be viewed in the trophy cases at the Gloversville High School. He would be one of 21 former NFL players killed in World War II, all of whom are recognized in the “Football’s Wartime Heroes Exhibit” at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Following the end of the war, both of the Avery brothers bodies were returned to Fulton County and rest at the Ferndale Cemetery in Johnstown. In 1945, a stained-glass window in memory of both brothers was commissioned at the Trinity church in Gloversville. While the church is now home of the Shoeleather Express Dance Hall, the “Avery Window” is still part of the building today.

Bartle was one of 300 former Crimson Tide football players to serve in WWII, and one of 13 who gave their lives. He is featured in a 2010 book published by the Paul W. Bryant Museum about Alabama football called “When Winning Was Everything.”

A copy can be viewed at the Fulton County Museum in Gloversville. And just across the street from the Fulton County Museum on the northern end of Kingsboro Avenue is the “Gloversville WWII Memorial” that pays tribute to the honor & memory of all Fulton County residents who served in the Armed Forces for the United States. There is also a K.I.A. section that memorializes the names of Avery, Wemple and the other 189 Fulton County men who were killed in the war.

These two great men were made up of the brave fiber that Tom Brokaw referred to in his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation.”

Both men left the game of football in their athletic prime with the prospect of fame and fortune ahead of them in the NFL, to voluntarily enlist to fight for democracy. Their sacrifices & services to our country are what enable us to have the constitutional freedoms we all take for granted each and every day in this country. In fact, these two men and the ultimate sacrifices that they made are just a few of the tens of thousands of reasons “why we should stand for the National Anthem!”

Wemple & Avery have been nominated for induction into the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame. Dates and locations of the inductions will be announced in the coming weeks.

A special thanks to all who helped with the research for this story; The Pro Football Hall of Fame, Colgate University (Lisa Diehl and Ryan Dowgin), The University of Alabama (Brad Green and Olivia Arnold), SUNY Cortland (Fran Elia), Bart C. Avery (nephew of Bartles A. Avery), Michael Oathout (great nephew of Bartles A. Avery), Jim Ellis (The Leader-Herald), Michael DeMagistris (Gloversville High School) and retired Marine Colonel Robert J. Smullen for his assistance regarding the military history.

Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at , email; [email protected] or call 518-725-5565..

By Paul Wager

Leave a Reply