Editor’s note: Today is the first installment in a seven-part series profiling the Norwich Sports Hall of Fame 2012 induction class. This year’s induction banquet is scheduled for Saturday, May 12 at the Canasawacta Country Club.
By Jim Dunne
A 1954 Norwich High School graduate, John Stewart grew up a couple of houses from Alumni Field, home of Purple Tornado baseball, football, and tennis, and so was exposed at an early age to everything that had to do with sports in Norwich. Equally important to him and to all the kids who grew up in the southwest section of Norwich was the proximity of Stewart’s Store, at the corner of Elm and Conkey, where such necessities as soda pop and ice cream could be had. Since John was the son of the owners, he and his brother Kenny were the envy of the rest, who had to pay for these important sources of nutrition.
Sports came naturally to John, and he participated in all the programs provided for younger kids. Although there was no Little League in Norwich until 1950, he played on the famous Southside Bombers in the Kiwanis league, hitting .586 as an 11-year-old, and .719 with a pitching record of 9-3 when he was 12. Probably most important to John were the basketball teams at the YMCA, organized, managed, coached, and paid for by The Norwich Sun’s sports editor, Bob VanTine. As an eighth-grader, he was high scorer on the Y Juniors when they ended the season with a record of 24-2. When Norwich won the Section 3 basketball championship in Stewart’s junior year, in a thrilling 43-40 overtime final victory over a tall Watertown team, VanTine couldn’t help but reflect, “And so the dream of six years ago when the boys were pint-size court flashes has come true. The Purple has captured its first sectional title in 33 years and won the hearts of the citizenry.”
Although Stewart would be elected co-captain of the football team in his senior year, he was best-known for his talent on the basketball court. A natural athlete, he scored 94 points as a sophomore, 325 as a junior, a new school record, and then broke that with 420 as a senior, for a career total of 839 – also a record. That last record stood for 22 years, until his son, Gary Stewart, tied it with his own 839. Coincidental or deliberate, that has to be one of the most fascinating statistics in all of Norwich sports.
The 1953 and 1954 basketball teams were coached by a new young teacher named Jim Flynn, who stayed in Norwich for three years before moving back to Elmira to coach an EFA team co-captained by Ernie Davis to a Section 4 title. His first year in Norwich also brought him a sectional championship, in Section 3. In that year, the Purple started slowly, losing to New Hartford and Saratoga Springs. They would lose only one more game the entire season, finishing with a record of 20-3, the last six wins in sectional play. They also claimed the title in the newly-formed Iroquois League.