A HERO, AND THAT’S THE TRUTH — (The Hartford Courant)

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The Hartford Courant

December 26, 1999

Author: JEFF JACOBS; Courant Columnist

It’s already Christmas Eve when I slow the car, pull to the right shoulder of the northbound lane and come to a stop nine-tenths of a mile south of the I-395 rest area.

Cars zoom past, not horribly heavy traffic, mind you, but a steady enough stream to see folks racing home to family and friends. Cars are filled with gifts, filled with holiday cheer, holiday fears.

It is cold out here, growing darker by the minute. Gusts of bone-chilling wind kick up as headlights pass. It is a barren, depressing spot to push open the driver’s side door, step out and consider a man’s life. But this is it. This is the place . . .

In 1924, Savo and Mary Dropo left Mostar, Hercegovina, in Serbia to come to a plot of rocky land about 10 miles west of the Rhode Island border. They built a tiny farmhouse on the hill above the old, condensed section of Plainfield known as Moosup. They built a barn and a smokehouse above the old mill village. They raised five children in two bedrooms. Savo worked the textile mill. The entire family, including three strapping boys, rose each dawn to work the farm.

In the end, however, the Dropo homestead would not be remembered for its milk cows, its chickens or its corn and potatoes. Milt, Walt, George, ah, the Dropo boys, would be the bumper crop. Few families in Connecticut history ever produced better athletes. No family ever had a bigger impact on its hometown.

This is the Sunday that The Courant has reserved to honor the best athletes of the 20th century in each of our state’s 169 cities and towns. Connecticut has been lush soil. In its century-ending issue, Sports Illustrated even pointed to the disproportionate number of outstanding athletes from a small state, ranking Connecticut 25th in the nation, one ahead of Massachusetts.

Athletic fame obviously does not start from the top. Steve Young, Calvin Murphy, Bruce Jenner, Floyd Little, Brian Leetch, Jeff Bagwell . . . the long roll of outstanding athletes were town stories long before they were national stories. Their fame, in many ways, is a tribute to the townspeople who supported and nurtured them. And no townspeople were as tightly woven to their athletes as Moosup and the Dropos.

Walt had one of the greatest rookie years in baseball history with the Red Sox in 1950, hitting .322 with 34 homers and 144 RBI. He later tied a major league record with 12 consecutive hits. At UConn, he had been magnificent in basketball, baseball and football. Yet many feel Milt, also a three-sport star at UConn, would have been even more successful had he not torn up a knee on the football field. Milt did win a Bronze Star fighting for George Patton in World War II.  He made millions in the family’s fireworks business.

And it would be the pyrotechnics that filled the Moosup skies on the Fourth of July, on birthdays, on anniversaries that in many ways came to define the Dropos. The Serbian custom of shooting off guns to celebrate occasions was not lost on them. The Dropos knew how to celebrate life. They knew how to share what they had. Parties at 1 Dropo Drive were legendary. Half the town showed up. The den in that old six-room house that had been greatly expanded was no ordinary den. It was The Dugout. There was enough memorabilia to fill a wing at Cooperstown.

“To call the Dropos the First Family of UConn Athletics is not only accurate,” UConn associate athletic director Tim Tolokan said,  “it’s an absolute.”

The Dropo legend has developed some curious boundaries over the decades. In Hartford, Walt is the legend. In Storrs, it’s the Dropo family. The Dropos made large contributions for Gampel Pavilion and the Alumni House. Back before UConn athletics was a money-making machine, the Dropos established the first full endowment in school history.

Yet in Plainfield, George is the one.

He co-captained the UConn baseball team to the 1955 Yankee Conference title and played minor league ball. He was one of the best ballplayers eastern Connecticut produced. He went on to coach football and baseball at Plainfield High, and was athletic director there. He became one of the state’s outstanding sports officials and refereed the first Big East basketball game, Seton Hall vs. Boston College, in 1979.

More people know about Walt’s accomplishments. What George did was more personal. He touched almost every life in his small town. And in doing so, he defined what our town list really is about.

Up and down the street where I live, neighbors tell me George Dropo stories. A kid had no lunch money? George took care of it.  Not enough money for sneakers?  Need some help getting into college?  Need a loan?  Need a job? You’re desperate?  Go see George Dropo.  He’ll help you.  He helped hundreds of folks.

“George introduced me to my wife in 1971 at the Sheraton Hotel in Norwich,” Tolokan said.

“George got me my job in 1978,” said John Schiffner, the outstanding coach of Plainfield High baseball and Chatham in the Cape Cod League. “It was Monday and they were going to hire a social studies teacher on Wednesday. Bob Schaefer [from Norwich] recommended me, but George politely told me I had no chance. Well, three coaches all resigned on the same day. George called me up and told me I had an interview. I went from no shot to social studies teacher, baseball coach and assistant freshman football coach overnight [at age 22].”

They line up in this town to tell you George Dropo’s real name.

Mr. Plainfield.   He taught 34 years in the school system, starting out as a fifth-grade teacher and serving as the high school assistant principal from 1967 until his death.

He could communicate with the jocks and the burnouts,” said my neighbor Jeff Young, who played for Schiffner. “He did anything for people, just don’t screw him over. Beloved. That’s the word I’d use.”

Dropo was on the search committee that produced perhaps the best decision in Connecticut sports history. That came in 1986, when UConn hired Jim Calhoun.

“He got me interested in Pautipaug Country Club, where I’m still a member,” Calhoun said. “He was such a wonderful guy. That’s what makes you feel so bad he got sick.”

The Calhoun book on making friends with referees is a short one, a very short one. But it was a triple-overtime game against Boston College while he was at Northeastern that Calhoun remembers fondly.

“George made two bad judgment calls near the end,” Calhoun said.  “Two weeks later, I got what may have been my only letter ever from an official. `Jim, I think I might have missed those calls. I hope you understand it’s part of the game.’  That would be George.”

Before his death, Milt was the head of the family. That’s the way it is in Serbian families. But sometimes it is the one who stays behind who becomes the most vital. George took care of mom and dad. He took care of the additions on the house. Need Walt to speak? Call George. Need anything? Call George.

“His family, Plainfield High, UConn.  Those were his passions,” Tolokan said.   “They were 1, 1A and 1AA.”

George was a proud man. He wore expensive suits, smoked big cigars and drove big cars. You knew when George Dropo was in the room, Schiffner said. He knew Ted Williams. He knew Joe DiMaggio. His office was filled with autographed photos. He knew everybody. Everybody knew George Dropo.

That’s the heartbreaking part of this story. The man who had given so much to people didn’t quite know how to ask for help himself. The death of his parents, Milt’s death, his brother-in- law’s death jolted him. A knee injury forced him from officiating. Parkinson’s disease would change his life.

“You couldn’t really notice it that much, but he thought you did,” Calhoun said.

In the months following his diagnosis, the state police records said, he battled depression. At one point, he had mentioned to someone close to him the phone wasn’t ringing as much as it once had. And when two students, Patricia Davis and Amy McNally, were killed in a car crash, Plainfield High was left mourning.

“We were still spinning out of control, when George died,” Schiffner said.   “I don’t know how some people pulled through it.”

Two weeks later, teachers who consoled students were in turn consoled by those students. On June 13, 1994, George Dropo, 60, was dead.

The state police report states he stepped out of his 1994 Cadillac Seville and into the path of a tractor-trailer. There were a few people in this small town who criticized the Norwich Bulletin for not telling more about the death. I remember going shopping one day and seeing a leaflet:   “Norwich Bulletin: Tell the truth about George Dropo.” It seemed callous.

Yet nearly six years later, many in my town want me to write nothing of his death.

The state police conclusion is what will stand:   “Although this may have appeared to be a deliberate act, Dropo was taking the therapeutic drug known as Zoloft for his depression. According to the state medical examiner, this drug has been known to cause abnormal behavior, such as confusion.”

As I stand in the bitter cold of Christmas Eve, nine-tenths of a mile south of the I-395 rest area, considering a fine man’s life, it is a conclusion I must accept.

In the hours after George’s death, a car was stopped for speeding on the southbound side of I-395. When the state trooper pulled the car over, he saw a man, eyes puffy, full of tears. The trooper asked what was wrong. The man said he was Walt Dropo. He had come to mourn his brother.

They had held a memorial service on the football field of my town’s high school that week in 1994 for George Dropo. Five hundred people didn’t show up. One thousand didn’t show up. More than 1,200 did.

And that’s how Plainfield will remember George Dropo.