It stands to reason a high school must have a pretty good athletic program for a father to drag his young son across not one, but two major highways to see a game.
That’s exactly what Bill Hamilton used to do with his elementary school-aged son Eric back in the mid-1960s; so the future Trenton State/College of New Jersey football coach could watch Bordentown Military Institute teams play.
“I remember my dad walking me across Route 206 and 130 by Town and Country Diner to go to the BMI fields just to stand and watch some of the football and baseball games,” Hamilton recalled. “It was a little scary crossing over—I’d never do it today!—but it was worth it.”
In those days, BMI was as much a fabric of Bordentown City as fine dining on Farnsworth Avenue is today. Sports was a major reason, but there was more to it.
“It was a presence in Bordentown, it was part of the culture,” said Hamilton, a 1971 Bordentown High graduate who was famous for football and also playing guitar with Apricot Lampshade, one of the town’s most popular garage bands. But unlike many long-haired rock-and-rollers of the time, Hamilton had respect for the military tradition.
“If you were living in Bordentown, you were exposed to the presence of not only an academic institution, but the whole pomp and circumstance; the parades and dress uniforms on Sundays, all that stuff,” Hamilton continued. “My Sunday School teacher was Paul Hartpence, the legendary track coach. Every Sunday we heard BMI stories about athletes and exploits and things that happened. It was a different atmosphere.”
An atmosphere that is still recognized by graduates every two years. The latest biennial alumni celebration will be held Oct. 26-27, when a cocktail reception will be held at the Bordentown Yacht Club Friday night followed by the graduates marching from the Consolidated Firehouse to the cadet statue on Park Street. The monument stands in a small park where the hallowed institution once stood in all its glory.
BMI is unique, in that it is still remembered fondly and vividly by area residents despite shutting its doors 45 years ago. The school was open from 1881 to 1972 before merging unsuccessfully for one year with the Lenox School in Massachusetts. With the Vietnam War still raging, anti-military school sentiment ran high and BMI shut down in 1973.
Since then, only memories remain. They are enough to keep the school’s image alive.
Few institutions that have been dormant for so long, have the staying power in the minds of so many. Part of it has to with the big-time athletic names that played for the Cadets.
Leading the list is NFL Hall of Famer Floyd Little. Then there is two-time All-Star Chris Short, who won 83 games with the Phillies from 1964-68 and still owns the franchise record of 15 strikeouts in one game. Former Phils and Cubs manager Lea Elia was another baseball star, along with Trenton Thunder owner Joe Plumeri.
Other football entries included Eagles All-Pro Stan Walters, the Giants’ Tom Longo and the Bills’ Paul Costa. While he didn’t make it to the NFL, Doug Palmer did go on to become the mayor of Trenton. Former assistant coaches Steve Libro and Bruce Martz became highly successful head coaches at North Brunswick and Ewing high schools, while graduate Jay Luisi became a South Jersey icon as Buena’s coach.
The legacy goes deeper than that, however. Ron Hoehn is a 1966 graduate whose personalized license plate is BMI 66. He is the son of a BMI legend, as has dad Robert, known more commonly as Doc, was a teacher and the school’s athletic director/football coach/basketball coach from 1938 until his death in 1960.
Doc remains one of the true symbols of what the school stood for—hard work, integrity, honesty and success.
He amassed records of 94-56-12 in football, including five undefeated teams, and 190-140 in basketball. His contributions went beyond numbers, as was stated in a memorial tribute article written in the 1960-61 Yearbook. The passage concluded by saying “If it is true that ‘Any man’s death diminishes me,’ it is doubly so for the BMI family in the loss of ‘Doc’ Hoehn. As coach, teacher, and friend, he left a heritage for us all to live up to—a future for which we are well trained, and the will to succeed.”
Although Doc passed before his son got to BMI, Ron was still the recipient of the gifts his dad instilled in others. The younger Hoehn attended from 1962-66 but sometimes wished he went to Bordentown High rather than BMI because the football team was so good, he could only make the JV team. Over four decades later, those thoughts have changed.
“I feel like the foundation of my whole life was BMI,” said Hoehn, who has been a high school football official for over 40 years and a driving force behind the Delaware Valley Chapter of the National Football Foundation. “I grew up across the street. I virtually lived on the campus as a little kid. When I got the honor to go there after my dad passed, I probably didn’t realize then, how important that was. But I considered that more important than my college experience.”
Hoehn is not the only grad to feel that way.
“The pride is in the foundation,” he continued. “A lot of the guys hated the school when they were there. They didn’t like wearing the uniform. But invariably the guys come back and talk about the foundation that school provided for them in whatever they went on to. They had excellent coaching. Excellent teachers. It was just ingrained that we were gonna excel whether on the field or in the classroom.”
A big reason for the athletic success was the enrollment of post-graduates; many of whom came to BMI to gain the structure that was needed in college athletics a lot more than today.
“We had PGs, which helped; and they emphasized that every kid there had to do some sport,” Hoehn said. “They had gym classes but insisted you participate in one or two sports. So everybody was going out for something.”
Hamilton added that, “The school is legendary, especially because of the athletic prowess that went along with it. If you were a good athlete, probably in football more than anything else, you went there to make sure you had the discipline you needed and the academic background to go on to the next level. It was basically a prep school in that respect, and it prepped you to play ball.”
Part of that prep came from Doc Hoehn and his staff, which included Al “Stump” Verdel. A former minor league baseball player, Verdel served as Hoehn’s assistant, and their wives became close friends. Verdel’s son, Al, became friends with Ron Hoehn and the two have served as officials together for over 30 years. Verdel also coached Notre Dame High before Chappy Moore arrived in the 1970s.
Although he didn’t attend BMI, it was always a part of Verdel and he still refers to it as if he did go there.
“It was a unique school, a small school; but we competed with some of the better schools in the country,” he said. “We didn’t have the greatest facilities there, with an old cemetery type setting. But there was a lot of spirit and a lot of good people that I came across when I was just a little kid, who were influential in me growing up. I was only five but the guys I knew were a great bunch of guys. I got a chance to see some pretty good players. Chris Short was over my house one time.”
The biggest name among BMI athletes is Little, who rushed for 6,323 yards and 43 touchdowns in nine years with the Denver Broncos. Little led the NFL in rushing in 1971 and in touchdowns in 1973. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame after being named a three-time All-American at Syracuse.
Little played for the Cadets during Hoehn’s first two years at BMI, and the memories are indelible about the person as much as the player.
“I remember how everybody rallied around him all the time,” Hoehn said. “He was an amazing athlete. He did football, basketball, track, and was a definite leader. Everybody looked up to him. He got promoted to be an officer, which was big for someone who was there for only two years. But he was so well respected, not just because he was a football player but he was a gentleman and he was just a leader all around. He wasn’t aloof, he could talk to anybody.”
Little actually returned to Bordentown in 2010 when the Cadet statue was dedicated.
“We were all marching, and he was sitting in the back of a car waving to everybody,” Hoehn said with a laugh. “Having him there was quite an experience.”
Considering how long ago the school closed, a good amount of alums still return for the reunions.
“At our last one,” Hoehn said, “maybe about 15 Cadets made the march.”
“One guy had his uniform,” Hoehn said with a laugh. “The rest of them are like me, they couldn’t fit into their uniform if they tried.”
They may have outgrown the clothes, but not the memories. The stories will be swapped again later this month when the parade culminates in the mini-park, located where the entrance to the Old Main Building on campus once stood. The rest of that area was replaced with Kings Gate condominiums, while the dormitories are now private residences and businesses.
One of the more unfortunate chapters in the BMI story was the school’s closing. Dr. Harold Morrison-Smith served as headmaster and president from 1932-1968. One of Smith’s great talents, according to Hoehn, was contacting alumni when the school needed help. But when anti-war sentiment began chipping away at enrollment, his replacement did not have that knack.
“During the last four or five years a new guy came in and he didn’t know how to reach out to the alumni,” Hoehn said. “The alums supported Dr. Morrison-Smith to no end. Had the alumni known the school was in danger of falling under they would have come forward. There were a lot of people who thought so highly of the school, and it was definitely disappointing. A lot of people were outraged they didn’t know about it, or they would have done something about it.”
Nothing lasts forever, however, and when the merger did not work out, a glorious era ended.
But the men of strong character it produced, be it in athletics or other areas, continue on.
“The older I get,” Hoehn said, “the more I appreciate the education that I had at BMI. I think we all feel it was more about the school, then just being an athlete.”