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By JERRY KELLAR and STEVE SEMBRAT; Times Leader Sports Writers

Tuesday, May 12, 1998     Page: 1B

WILKES-BARRE- Bishop O'Reilly's first football coach and the father of two of the school's most famous athletes died on Sunday after a lengthy illness.
    Bernie Popson Sr., 67, of Ashley, passed away at Mercy Hospital. He coached the football program at the Kingston school from 1955 until 1980, was the school's athletic director for 25 years and served as the dean of students. He retired in 1990.
    Popson leaves behind a wife, daughter and three sons. His passing created shock waves throughout the community- and beyond.
    "Wow!" a stunned Joe Pisarcik, perhaps Popson's most famous player, said from his home in Cherry Hill, N.J. "He did so much for me. He was a good man."
    Popson, said longtime friend and coaching rival Mickey Gorham, "... brought out the best in everybody. He was old school in toughness, a tough old cadet. I'm very saddened."
    "He was a helluva man," said Wilkes-Barre resident Marty Carr, who grew up with Popson and went to college with him at St. Bonaventure University. "Bernie was a great teacher, great athlete and great coach."
    Among those surviving Popson are his wife of 45 years, Mary Jo, of Ashley; and a daughter, Cathy, also of Ashley.
    Popson's youngest son, David, was one of the best basketball players to come out of the area. David went to the University of North Carolina on a basketball scholarship and later played several years in the NBA. He currently resides in Raleigh, N.C.
    Popson's eldest son, Bernie Jr., was a star running back while playing for his father. Bernie Jr., of Dallas, is an avid runner and is still active in the area sports scene.
    Popson's son James (Jay), who lives in Mountaintop, also played football for his father at O'Reilly.
    Bernie Popson Sr. was a familiar figure at a school that went through several name changes during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. The school was known as West Side Central Catholic, Kingston Central Catholic, Central Catholic and finally Bishop O'Reilly.
    "Bernie was a real black-and-white kind of guy. In his eyes, there was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things," said Dave Kaschak, who played for Popson from 1964-66 and was a coaching assistant under him from 1971-77.
    Kaschak remembered Popson as someone who was "tough as nails," but Kaschak choked up with emotion as he spoke of his mentor.
    "If he saw somebody with potential, he would work them hard to get it out of them," Kaschak said. "If you were one of the wise guys, in his eyes, he didn't have time for you."
    "There was nothing fancy about Bernie," said GAR athletic director and former coach John Rowlands, whose Grenadier teams squared off against the Queensmen many times during the Popson era.
    "He was one of the older breed ... just a hard-nosed guy," Rowlands explained. "Bernie never really got the credit he deserved for some of the great teams he had because (the Queensmen) weren't in the (Wyoming Valley) conference. But he had some great football teams."
    Popson the coach loved cliches, those adages that no matter how redundant ring true. One of his favorites was "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken ..."
    Kaschak once heard those words applied to him. Kaschak had scored five touchdowns in a freshman game and recalled that he was getting a bit of an attitude. It was Popson who set him straight.
    "He would always say to me, `How's school going?' because he knew I wasn't the greatest student," Kaschak said. "He was like a guardian to me. He made sure I did what I had to do."
    Pisarcik echoed those sentiments.
    "He was very tough, but you always knew he was with you," he said.
    An all-star quarterback/linebacker at Central Catholic in the late 1960s, Pisarcik received a scholarship to New Mexico State University, then played 12 years of professional football, nine in the NFL.
    Pisarcik said Popson was the last of a breed of coaches.
    "He was a no-nonsense-type guy, but a good motivator ... a guy you wanted to play for."
    Popson was inducted into the St. Bonaventure Hall of Fame in 1982. A graduate of Ashley High School in 1948, he went to St. Bonaventure and was captain of the 1952 football team.
    "He was the best athlete ever to come out of Ashley," said Gorham, who knew Popson for more than 40 years. "That's what they've always said about Bernie."
    In 1996, Popson was honored by the "Popson Grant," an annual scholarship program for disadvantaged student-athletes nationwide. It was established by George Bednar, one of Popson's former players.
    "I've been very fortunate in my life," Bednar said. "Everything has gone pretty well for me, and Bernie was certainly one of the contributing factors. That's why I wanted to honor him. His name will now be remembered forever with this grant."
    Popson's viewing will be from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the George A. Strish Funeral Home, 105 N. Main St., Ashley. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Bishop O'Reilly High School Bernard J. Popson Scholarship Fund, 316 N. Maple Ave., Kingston, Pa., 18704.
    Bernie Popson Sr.
    Popson's obituary -
    Page 5A
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