By JENNIFER HILL • The Freeman’s Journal & HOMETOWN ONEONTA
COOPERSTOWN – On Sunday, fire trucks and throngs of people up and down Main Street greeted the state champion CCS Hawkeyes’ boys’ basketball team with sirens and cheers.
It’s a given now: When a CCS team wins the Class C state championship, the fire department breaks out its fleet and people pour out onto the streets to celebrate the top athletes’ victories.
But this special ritual wasn’t always around, and how it started 20 years ago was no accident. In 1999, CCS girls’ soccer team tied Cold Spring Harbor in the finals at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta to become a state co-champion, the first in the school’s soccer program.
That same year, Gary Kuch, now Otsego town justice and Clark Scholarship Foundation director, was both CCS’s principal and Cooperstown fire chief.
As principal, Kuch saw what an important moment it was for the girls’ soccer team to play in state finals, not just for the school, but for the community as a whole.
“I asked businesses and people in the community to donate money, and I used it to have seven buses take school children to the game,” he said. “It was a big deal.”
“More people than just parents watched that game,” Kuch said. “There were a lot of people there.”
Kuch went to the game as well. As he watched the girls tie and become state co-champions, he put his fire chief’s helmet on.
“I started calling – assistant chiefs, drivers – to set up a parade for the girls,” Kuch said. “They were such a tremendous act and a class act. I wanted us to appreciate them.”
“It was more challenging to do it back then without cell phones,” he added.
Village firefighters leaped into action. They readied the fire trucks, including the 1952 vintage Mack that carried some of the boys Sunday, plus the hook-and-ladder. The flurry of action at the firehouse and a few well-placed calls brought out the crowd.
“It spread like wildfire,” Kuch quipped.
When the girls arrived, six firetrucks were waiting for them and townsfolk had lined up alongside Main and Chestnut Streets, holding signs they had already drawn up.
“People had made signs before we got there,” Kuch recalled. “The fire department already had a sign at the station and signs on the trucks.
“Everyone just stopped what they were doing. They came out of restaurants – diners and staff. Out of businesses, homes, and they watched. Main and Chestnut streets were packed,” Kuch said.
The girls climbed on to the trucks, with some sitting in the old Mack’s bucket seats. Fire department volunteers stood on the trucks to make sure they didn’t fall off. The trucks drove off down Chestnut Street to people’s cheers.
Kuch left his position as principal in 2009 to become Worcester Central superintendent, but his colleagues at the school continued the tradition.
“Unbeknownst to me, the fire parade was a cool idea,” Kuch said. “Firemen love parades.”
Like the fire truck parade for the girls, the one for boys’ basketball team’s huge win featured the Old Mack and the other CFD trucks. But for the boys, fire trucks from the Town of Hartwick’s and Fly Creek’s departments joined in the parade, too since those towns are now part of the Cooperstown School District.
“It was nice that it was a community-wide effort,” Kuch said. “Even Milford, our competitor, had signs for the team.”
“We share facilities with Milford and other small towns, and sometimes share players. We celebrate their achievements,” he added.
Kuch recalled the looks of disbelief and excitement on both the girls’ faces in 1999 and the boys’ on Sunday, March 15, 2019, when they saw the fire truck parade and the cheering crowds.
“It was pretty cold outside on Sunday. I was cold,” Kuch said. “But the boys were in their jerseys, and I don’t think they felt cold at all.”