Ray Nunamaker – A Teacher at Heart
By: Ross Nunamaker
I’m Ross Nunamaker, son of long-time Nazareth Wrestling head coach and teacher, Ray Nunamaker. My father arrived in Nazareth right out of college in 1963. I wasn’t born until after the 1971 season, so the early years of the program and his coaching career I’ve only experienced by talking to people, listening to stories, reading notes and programs, and seeing pictures.
Being the son of a coach who served the same, small community for so long, provided me with a very different perspective, but it was normalcy for me. He was dad and coach. The backdrop to pretty much everything in my life was wrestling, our extended family.
The year my oldest daughter was born, 1997, my father retired from coaching at Nazareth. He taught another four years until he retired from full-time work.
He and my mother bought a winter home in Tucson, AZ. You couldn’t keep dad away from wrestling, though. He first contacted the head coach of Sunnyside HS to see if he could stop by the room. Sunnyside is in South Tucson and known for wrestling having won 30 state championships in the state’s largest class.
When introduced as the former coach of Nazareth, PA, one of the wrestlers put his hand up and said, “I know Nazareth wrestling.” Surprised, dad asked how? The wrestler had replied that he went on a recruiting trip to NC State and Joe Caramanica, from Nazareth, was his ‘host’. My brother, Ryan also went to NC State. When dad returned to Arizona after the Christmas holiday, he brought the wrestler shorts, t-shirts, and all kinds of NC State gear that he had at the house.
Sunnyside was close to an hour drive from his own home, so after that first season, he connected with a more local team, Ironwood Ridge. After dad joined the team they soon won three straight state championships. They moved up to the biggest class for the 2015-2016 state tournament and dedicated the season to my father. During that tournament the team kept his Hall of Fame jacket on a chair in the stands and left the seat empty so the kids would see he was there with them. They won the state title that season and Sunnyside finished second. The team called dad, “Their secret weapon.”
It was in 2014 when dad was diagnosed with a Glioblastoma Multiforme brain tumor. He passed away eleven months later on July 28, 2015. A Celebration of Life was held in his honor in August at Nazareth High School in the gym that had been named for him.
Ever since his diagnosis I’ve thought a lot about him and why he meant so much to so many different people. I spent a fair amount of time here mentioning the coaching he did that most people from the Lehigh Valley are unaware of in Arizona. Fifty years spanned the time when he began at Nazareth and last coached in Arizona, yet he connected with his wrestlers, staff, parents and community in a special way throughout. Whatever it was he did, it was timeless and worth exploring.
The Origins of Nazareth Wrestling
The first conference for wrestling in the Lehigh Valley was established for the 1950-51 season and featured six teams: Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, Nazareth, Northampton, and Phillipsburg.
At Nazareth during the 1948-49 school year Stan Skuta established a Wrestling Club, primarily for football players wanting to do something in the ‘off-season’. Skuta taught very basic fundamentals as only two boys had ever even witnessed a wrestling match – they were both transfers from Northampton. He also held an exhibition during halftime of a home basketball game. He refereed the bout and then explained to the crowd who won and why.
Nazareth formed its first team in the 1949-50 season under coach Skuta and it was comprised of roughly 25 boys. They had nine matches on their schedule, lost five to previously established teams, defeated two junior varsity teams, one established team, and one other first year team.
Coach Skuta coached the team for five years and posted a 19-26-1 overall record. During those five seasons, the team finished 6-3-1 during the 1951-52 season and 5-5 during the 1952-53 season. In his final season, team captain Harold Wilson became the school’s first state champion.
Coach Joe Amorosa took over as head coach for the next seven years with a 19-55-1 record. The best season record was 5-5 during the 1958-59 season. Coach Bruce Hayne was the head coach for two seasons with a 5-15 record.
Ray Nunamaker Arrives in Nazareth
Throughout this time the legendary Andy Leh served as Athletic Director as well as football, basketball, and baseball coach. After the 1962-63 season, Nazareth was seeking a health & physical education teacher.
Two Penn State University graduates drove from State College to Nazareth, together, to apply for the position. One, was Ray Nunamaker.
Nunamaker took up wrestling in the 10th grade at North Hills HS in Pittsburgh, following in the footsteps of his older brother Jay, then a freshman wrestler at the University of Pittsburgh. His senior year, Nunamaker advanced to the finals of the District 7 tournament at 103 pounds.
He went to Penn State as a mechanical engineering major at the age of 17. He did not go out for the wrestling team, but he did enter an intramural tournament and caught the eye of legendary coach Charlie “Doc” Spiedel.
Coach Spiedel took an interest in Nunamaker and thought he would be a good teacher and coach. Nunamaker switched majors and wrestled the next three seasons for the Nittany Lions. While he didn’t start he finished his senior year winning the Metropolitan New York AAU Tournament. Prior to that, in 1960, he had an opportunity and did try out for the Olympics, which were held at Rec Hall. I do not know how he did in that tournament.
It was coach Spiedel who suggested Nunamaker consider the position at Nazareth. During that visit Nunamaker was interviewed by Mr. Leh and had a chance to see the town. While he liked the small-town atmosphere, the other person who came with him did not.
Mr. Leh’s son recalled, “I clearly remember speaking with my father in the Spring of 1963 and he excitedly told me, “Nazareth just hired a young man from Penn State as the wrestling coach. I believe he’ll elevate our program for years.”
Mr. Leh hired Ray Nunamaker and Nunamaker took over the program for the 1963-64 season. Coincidentally, he would hold the position for 34 years, the same number of years coach Speidel led the Nittany Lions. Speidel’s tenure was interrupted by World War II when he left his coaching position to serve in the military. He returned to Penn State in 1947 and ultimately posted a 191-56-13 record and claimed the 1953 NCAA championship title.
In “A Century of Penn State Wrestling” published in 2008, coach Nunamaker wrote, “I learned that the Penn State wrestling experience wasn’t all about wins and losses. More importantly I learned how the wrestling coaches should treat their wrestlers. I was on the team from 1959 to 1963. Although I was never a ‘starter,’ I was always made to feel an important part of the team. I remember coach Speidel stopping me on the mall one day between classes to show me a move. It was uplifting to me to know that he would care enough to take the time to do that. I doubt very much if I would have been a wrestling coach if it had not been for the influence of Charlie Speidel. He changed the direction of my career (I was in mechanical engineering) by suggesting that I would make a good teacher and coach. He was instrumental in getting me my first and only coaching job at Nazareth High School, where I stayed for 34 years and was able to build a state and national power. Doc’s concern for his wrestlers impacted me and how I treated my wrestlers.”
Coach Spiedel, wrote of coach Nunamaker many years after sending him off to Nazareth, “Always knew he was a champ – even if just a champ coach like myself.”
1963 – 1964: Coach Nunamaker’s Inaugural Season
In 1963 wrestling wasn’t a ‘popular’ sport. Most people didn’t understand the sport. Despite that, 23 boys comprised the 1963-64 team. The season opened with a new coach, who intended to instill a new way of thinking about the sport for his wrestlers, the students, teachers, and the community.
Ken Herceg, class of 1988, retold a story his father Jim, class of 1964, told, “The team was not used to working hard at practice. This was unacceptable to Coach Nunamaker and one day, using a bit of reverse psychology, Ray stormed out of practice and told the team to come get him when they were ready to train like champions. The guys looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and went home.”
Nazareth’s first scrimmage was against Dieruff, who was not on the ten meet season schedule, but did go on to win that year’s District XI title. Both teams competed in the Lehigh Valley Interscholastic League. The league had three conferences and Nazareth was in the Lehigh-Northampton Conference. Nazareth opened the season against perennial power Easton.
Nazareth’s captains were seniors Lon Werner and Tom Rinker. The team defeated Easton 33-26 to open the season. They then lost four straight matches to Phillipsburg, Hellertown, Parkland and Bethlehem.
At 1-4, the team rallied and won the next five matches to finish 6-4 and give Nazareth its first winning record since the 1952 season. Jim Herceg was named the team’s outstanding wrestler with a 7-3 record and Carmen Pezzuto advanced to the District semi-finals.
Following the season, coach Nunamaker gave consideration to what would make his program stronger and more competitive.
He outlined several approaches to the school’s athletic committee. He wanted to establish an intramural program under the Borough’s Recreation Committee for out of season training. At the time, most students interested in wrestling were only able to learn by joining the team in high school. This program would expose younger students to the sport. Along these lines, he wanted to start a junior high program, but acknowledged the challenge was available facilities.
He wanted to attend the National Wrestling Coaches Association clinic at Wildwood, NJ. This clinic was a key to developing coaches in the 1960s. For many years Nunamaker attended along with Dieruff’s Dick King, Hellertown’s Charlie Bartolet, and Liberty’s Frank Gutierrez, among others.
His other focus was on helping people better understand the sport itself. He requested free tickets to meets for wrestlers’ parents so they could attend and support their sons. He wanted to have a parent’s night before the season to explain the sport, scoring, weight control, and how team trials would be conducted to determine the line-up. He wanted an assembly before the Easton match to serve as both a pep rally and to help everyone better understand the sport and how it was not “Pro Wrestling”.
Finally, he saw the need to compete in a holiday tournament and to have weight equipment that could be shared with Football, Track and Physical Education classes.
1964 – 1965 Early Improvement
In his second year at Nazareth, coach Nunamaker’s team improved to 9-3. Nazareth lost three of its first four matches to Northampton, Phillipsburg, and Hellertown, but again defeated Easton. The team also avenged prior year losses to Parkland and Bethlehem.
Nazareth had four District XI semi-finalists in Bruce Stimmel, Tom Konya, Carmen Pezzuto, and Tom Fehr. Fehr became the first of fifty District XI champions coached by Nunamaker during his career. Fehr went on to be a Regional runner-up, but only the champion advanced to states.
At the end of the season, coach Nunamaker thanked the Athletic Council for having purchased a new Resilite wrestling mat, which cut down on injuries, but needed to be better utilized. The mat was not only used for wrestling, but for physical education classes and was wearing fast.
He also noted that the weight program was a great success as was the extension of the intramural program into the junior high with coach Joe Drust.
Promotion and education about the sport remained a key concern. A film was created including clips from the Nazareth vs. Wilson match to help people better understand the sport. The Parents’ night was held with all parents being invited by a personalized letter. Parental complimentary tickets were asked to be continued, as were tickets for the wrestlers to attend basketball games.
The last item might seem counter-intuitive, but coach Nunamaker always encouraged his teams to support other sports teams and as a teacher he always took an interest in his student’s activities. Throughout his time coaching wrestling, he also coached Track & Field and Cross Country. In the process he had a state champion in track and led the school’s first Girls Cross Country team to a District title in 1977.
After retiring from coaching wrestling, he took on the role of Middle School Golf coach, it might have been his favorite job.
1965 – 1966: League Co-Champions
In his 3rd season with the Nazareth Blue Eagles, coach Nunamaker’s squad improved to 11-2, 8-1 in the league, which made them co-champions with Hellertown and Wilson. The captains were Ron Klein and Ricky Metz.
Nazareth’s two losses came to Phillipsburg and Hellertown. Easton had dropped Nazareth from the schedule that season.
Ron Klein advanced to the District finals, but lost a 6-4 decision to Allentown’s Danny Layton at 168lbs. The team finished in 7th place in the tournament.
Despite not having a strong District tournament, six wrestlers recorded at least ten wins during the season: Jim Hahn, John Davis, Gail Smith, Ron Klein, Chuck Surowski and Jerry Scheweitzer.
In his report to the Athletic Council, coach Nunamaker wrote, “If a program can be evaluated by the caliber of men that it turns out, I feel we have a very well developed program. These men were not only fine wrestlers, but also gentlemen. In my opinion the wrestling program has arrived at Nazareth.”
1966 – 1967: League Co-Champions and Best School Record
Year four of coach Nunamaker’s tenure, 1966-67, saw the Blue Eagles improve to 11-1-1, with the single loss to Phillipsburg and the tie to co-league champion Hellertown. Carl Peters and John Davis were team captains.
Bob Bowers defeated Easton’s Barry Snyder to claim the District XI title, while Kim Albert lost a 9-4 decision to Hellertown’s Tom Huber.
Pete Topping went undefeated during the dual meet season (finishing 9-0). Four wrestlers recorded at least ten wins: Tony Laurito, Bob Bowers, Art Metz, and John Davis,
Coach Nunamaker wrote, “It is the coach’s opinion that the wrestling program is very sound. This year we had our largest turnout to date: 84 candidates. The squad was eventually reduced to 48 members. This figure includes 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. Our biggest problem is a lack of adequate training space. This condition will be alleviated to some extent next year with the addition of a junior high wrestling room.
The caliber of wrestling has also improved. This year’s team had the finest record in 17 years of the sport in Nazareth. The wrestling team ended up with an 11-1-1 record having shared for the second year the Lehigh-Northampton League Championship with Hellertown.
A very valuable addition to our program this year was Biff Stannard. Whenever Biff missed a day I wondered how we ever got along without him. He gives his time willingly and has a sincere interest in working with kids. I feel very fortunate that we have a trainer like Biff Stannard on our staff.”
1967 – 1968: Coach of the Year and District XI Champions
The 1967-68 school year marked coach Nunamaker’s 5th season at Nazareth. It was a remarkable school year for Nazareth in general.
According to the yearbook longtime coach and athletic director, Andrew S. Leh retired that year, “Andy Leh coached football, baseball, and basketball at Nazareth for 42 years and 1,114 games. He was 281-140-7 with 6 undefeated seasons and 12 league titles in baseball; 160-73-18 with 3 undefeated seasons and 10 league titles and co-titles in football; and 221-214 with 2 league titles in basketball.”
The yearbook went on to say it was the greatest sports year in school history with track, football, basketball and wrestling all claiming league titles. What a tribute to Mr. Leh.
The wrestling team led by captain Pete Topping, held its own and represented by going 13-1, the team won the Lehigh-Northampton League (11-0 conference record) and claimed the school’s first District XI title (read about the season across the Valley here).
Again, the single loss in wrestling was to Phillipsburg, led by coach Thad Turner, who became a lifelong friend of coach Nunamaker.
The win over Hellertown was the first in school history.
Nazareth put five wrestlers into the District finals and claimed four champions: Joe Laurito, Jeff Duelley, Terry Rissmiller and John Doto, while Art Metz lost by one point to Easton’s Barry Snyder to finish 2nd.
In his excellent book on District XI Wrestling, Wrestling Country, Scott Barr wrote.”The team title was once again the story as the 1968 tourney unfolded Nazareth and Easton were locked in a two team struggle that would not be decided until the final 30 seconds of the final round. The Blue Eagles’ John Doto clinched the team title when he took down Phil Noto with 30 seconds to go in their bout. The takedown and win gained the first team crown for Nazareth. Ray Nunamaker was voted Coach of the Year. Neither the team nor Nunamaker, however, would repeat their feat for another 19 years!”
An amazing nine team members recorded at least 10 wins during the season: Rich Albert, Elwood Faust, Craig Reimer, Terry Rissmiller, Pete Topping, Wil Theimer, Carmen Cortez, John Doto, and Colin Petz.
The First Five Years: Personal Observations
In five years my dad took a team with one previous winning season and an overall school record of 43-92-2 over 14 years and transformed them into a team that posted 50 wins against 11 losses (5 to Phillipsburg) and 2 ties. These early teams won or shared three league and one District championship.
Without question there were internal traits of my father that contributed, along with his externally focused efforts.
From his end of season reports, it was clear that his external focus was on:
- Educate students, teachers, administration, parents, and the community about the sport
- Ensure there are proper facilities and training options available to potential athletes in and out of season and push those options to lower grade level candidates
- Promote the accomplishments, but moreso the character of his wrestlers
Knowing him as a father and coach, then seeing him as a grandfather to my daughters, there are so many different traits he possessed that definitely contributed to his success as a coach. First and foremost, he was a teacher at heart.
If someone was interested in something and he could teach them about it, he would. If there was a kid at a clinic from a rival school and he took an interest, my dad would work with him. If we were outside with the kids, he’d help them with whatever we were doing.
He never saw teaching someone as a threat. He was very open with his knowledge. He enjoyed sharing it and seeing it put to good use by others.
The second key trait was his enthusiasm and dedication. Driven would also be a good descriptor. I think one of the biggest differences with my father was that his enthusiasm was childlike in its way. This part definitely showed itself more later in his career than it did earlier.
He could be very intense, but he could also laugh. While wrestling was a sport he loved, he also really enjoyed playing games – and he never wanted to lose. He understood that you couldn’t always be wrestling and practice couldn’t always be the same.
Finally, he realized early on that if you took a genuine, personal interest in an individual that individual will most often reciprocate. In his “Inside the Nazareth Wrestling Room” video series he talks about not only taking an interest in a wrestler during the season, but outside of it as well. He noted you shouldn’t only worry about a student’s grades while they are on your team, but throughout the year. You should attend other events of the student be they in the sports or the arts.
He also took an interest in others who supported the program as well as the students in the school in general.
After my father was diagnosed with the brain tumor, I added him to the prayer list at my church. Many knew my father as their teacher in school from many years ago. One person, stopped me and shared a story. She was in high school at the time. My father was a new teacher and didn’t have her in class, but it was then a pretty small school and you knew most people. Tragically, her father died unexpectedly in a car crash on his way back to work after going home for lunch. My father sent her a card and included a personal message. Forty plus years later she told me how much that message meant to her at a time that was very difficult for her.
While I have met and known many of the wrestlers from my father’s teams, I had never met Colin Petz until very recently. Colin contacted me to see if it would be okay if he could visit my father. This was after he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. On a Sunday afternoon, Colin stopped by my parent’s house. Joe Drust was there as he so often was during the eleven months my father was ill. And Ron Miller, who graduated in the mid 1980s and happened to be in the area, was there as well.
Colin was a member of the first District Championship team, and it was hard not to tell stories about that special team. It was great to hear Joe and Colin tell them. And then, Colin looked at my dad, and he told him something along these lines, I’ll never forget when you asked me where I was thinking of going to college. I never thought about it. I was from a family of working people. It never occurred to me that I could go to college.
I think I mumbled something about not being sure. You looked right at me and said I have a former teammate from college that is now the coach of Columbia. Would you be interested? I said yes, but honestly had never heard of the school before. I only knew the local ones like Lafayette, Lehigh, and Moravian that you might see in the newspaper.
Long story short, Colin went to Columbia and became a doctor.
There were so many relationships my father made with not only his wrestlers, but their families and the students in the school, whether he taught them or not. And at five years he had hardly gotten underway. He would go on to coach a second generation and was truthfully not that far away from a third generation.
He also had a strong bond with his coaches. Early on, his coaches were fellow teachers and he didn’t know them, because he was new to the area. Later many of his former wrestlers came back to Nazareth to coach with him at all levels. He also brought coaches in from other schools. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he hired Rich Israel, Rocky Chunko, and John Rodriquez – all alumni of arch rival Hellertown. In the mid-1980s Darwin Brodt of Easton joined the staff and was the head coach of the junior high program. His teammate and good friend Greg Shoemaker joined the staff not too long afterward.
Rocky Chunko was teammates and good friends with Don Rohn. It was that relationship that led to the birth of the Nazareth vs. Northampton rivalry that began in the mid-1980s when Don became head coach of Northampton after a successful couple of seasons at Hazelton and ended when dad retired following the 1997 season.
Nunamaker and Rohn were fierce competitors and the rivalry was unmatched, but they also had tremendous respect for one another and were good friends.
This relationship was similar to my dad’s with Thad Turner. Turner was his nemesis at Phillipsburg. Nearly half of dad’s losses in his first six years were to Turner’s Phillipsburg teams. Despite that they fast became friends and Turner even helped him build his program. They remained friends on and off the mat throughout their lives. In retirement they visited different wrestling rooms to observe practice and played golf together on a regular basis. Turner even took dad to medical appointments when he was sick.
Looking back, it is hard to believe that my dad didn’t know anyone when he arrived in Nazareth, because growing up it certainly felt like he knew everyone. His first apartment in 1963 was above the old Star Janitor Supply across the street from the YMCA on Main Street in Nazareth.
In June of 1969 he married my mother, who was from Nazareth, and in his wedding party was Joe Drust. Joe was dad’s first assistant coach and lifelong friend. Joe had been sick for years with a rare disease, but amazingly, during the eleven months my father was ill, Joe seemed to have recovered. Joe lived near my parents and would regularly stop by to watch sports, talk, and simply be very good company.
Joe was an assistant coach, helped set-up development teams, and officiated wrestling for years. He taught at Nazareth throughout his career.
After my father passed away, Joe became sick again. After several months in the hospital he returned home. I vividly remember visiting him one day. As I was ready to leave, Joe thanked me for stopping by. I thanked him for being there for my dad when he needed it most and that applied at the beginning and the end. Joe passed away on Christmas day.
One final story, for now and Joe would love this one as he so enjoyed his classic Corvette,growing up I listened to my dad speak a lot. He spoke at practice, banquets, meetings, you name it. One of my favorite speeches of his was based on the question, “How will you know when you’ve made it at Nazareth?”
For context, my father was a huge fan of sports in general. He loved watching competition and participating. In 1969 Nazareth’s own Mario Andretti won the Indy 500. Mario lived on Market Street, which was right across from the elementary school and a few doors down from the high school. After he won that race, the town held a parade for Mario and renamed the street, “Victory Lane.”
My father was at the parade watching from Center and Broad Street (I still have some slide pictures he took that day). He would also come to meet Mario and had his children in school.
So here is the final story…me paraphrasing dad’s story:
I’ll know I made it in Nazareth when they have a parade for me. It will start at the school and loop up through town. The sidewalks will be full of people. They’ll be waiting in anticipation and cheering wildly as we approach. I’ll be sitting on the back of a convertible alongside Mario Andretti waving to everyone and smiling as we pass.
The people will be chanting, “Nunny, Nunny, Nunny!” The noise will be over-whelming. Yet, if you listen closely, you can hear a faint question over and over again as the parade moves along.
It is the women in the crowd and they are whispering to one another as we approach, “hey, who’s the good looking Italian sitting next to Nunamaker?”
And that is when I’ll know that I”ve made it here in Nazareth.
Well, I’ve written a lot here and hardly covered much, but I hope this provides some insight into those early days of my father’s tenure at Nazareth along with the traits that helped him produce the results his teams did over such a long period of time.
Very special thanks to Ross Nunamaker for writing this wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his father and providing great insight into his Dad’s early years coaching and keys to Nazareth’s success over the years. For more information on Coach Nunamaker and his thirty-four years coaching the Blue Eagles, you can visit Ross’ website: Ray Nunamaker – Hall of Fame Wrestling Coach, Husband, Father, Grandfather, Friend and Mentor. To view a video of Coach Nunamaker explaining his “Circle of Success”, please click: Circle of Success.