A Valentine's Day essay on the Palestra from former custodian Dan Harrell

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of writing an essay on the Palestra for the Philly Love Notes project.

To my great surprise and pleasure, I got an e-mail recently from legendary former Palestra custodian Dan Harrell complimenting the piece. Dan also sent along an essay on the Palestra that he wrote last year, before he formally retired from Penn's athletic department.

(Though as any of you who go to Penn games know, he's still in the building plenty often.)

Harrell submitted his writing to a few publications, but it never saw the light of day.

I asked Dan if I could post the piece here, and he said I could. I've placed it below word-for-word - no editing except for a few paragraph breaks to make the text easier to read.

When you're done with Dan's essay, you should check out Mike Jensen's column from last May on sneaking into the Palestra and other local sports venues. It includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Palestra with Harrell.

Mike's piece was recently recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors in their annual awards, winning Top 10 honors for Explanatory Writing among newspapers with circulations above 175,000.

Here, in public for the first time, is Dan Harrell'"The Other Woman."

I don't know many, if any, married men ever admitting to having 'another woman' in their lives. I guess I am the exception. I have been told by my family they are well aware of my love of another woman simply when I speak of her or take them to visit her.

She is tall and picturesque. She is 'American as Apple Pie' with a wonderful Greek name. She is the most loyal friend a youngster and this old man could ever have. She stands by, tall and proud, through good times and bad, win, lose, or draw. She is literally a tower of strength.

The 'other woman' in my life is a building on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Her name is The Palestra. Although she is a few years older than me, she being 'born' in 1927 and myself in 1943, I have had a lifelong 'crush' on her since she first took me into her embrace when I was fourteen years old.

She was given her name by University of Pennsylvania Greek professor Dr. William N. Bates. A Palestra in ancient Greece was a rectangular enclosure attached to a gymnasium where folks could come watch the athletes compete against each other.

Why do I portray a building as a woman? From my days in the Marine Corps I remember how the sailors referred to their ships as 'she' or 'her'. To the sailors, and the Marines on board to guard her, their ship is everything important in life, a home, a shelter, a provider.

The Palestra, after having adopted me at fourteen, when I went to my first game there, never forgot me. Years later when her little boy was in trouble and needed help she opened her arms and welcomed me home.

It was in 1989, after being out of steady work for nearly three years, I was getting desperate, pretty frustrated, and mostly drunk. It was by some miracle that I was reintroduced to my childhood 'crush' by some friends at the Teamsters Union who sent me to Penn to work as a janitor.

Little did the Teamster business agent know the power of his words when he said to me 'Yo, It's only a janitor's job ... but some guys go down to Penn and find a home'. How could he have known I was going back home to a dear friend?

She supplied an opportunity for me to earn enough to house, feed, and educate my family. For my daughters the Palestra has been in their lives since they could first shoot a basketball. She again became an inspiration and a source of constant encouragement. All she asked in return was loyalty and love.

There are all kinds of men in the world who do not hesitate to announce, when talking about women, that they are a leg man, eye man, or whatever. For me and my dear Palestra it has always been her eyes, her heart and arms.

Her eyes take form in the big gothic steel gray windows on the east side of the building along both sides of the score board. When her windows are opened she looks down not with a feeling of authority or superiority but with a tender guiding light. With her eyes she shares the colors of all our loves. Some days her eyes are a bright blue or green in the morning and later in the evening a beautiful dark brown.

When the conditions are right, and 'Mother Nature' cooperates, she will share these colors in the form of sunbeams that will guide you across the Palestra from memory to memory as the day goes by. She creates a sundial that, while marking the passing of the day, reminds one also of the passing years.

She first shines on Section 213 where at fourteen years of age I first nestled in her arms with my best friend and classmate Fred Durso on a cold March evening in 1959. We were there to watch our beloved West Catholic High School play Overbrook for the Philadelphia City Basketball Title.

Overbrook was a co-educational Public school and to our shock, and pleasant surprise, they had girl cheerleaders. As West Catholic was an all boy's school this was the first time we saw girl cheerleaders. Our biggest concern was not the game, it was our 'impure thoughts'.

According to our Catholic faith we were committing at least a venial sin. Did we have to go to confession for going to a basketball game? At half-time of the game Fred asked me, quite seriously, 'Do you think we'll have to say ten Hail Mary's for penance?'

From Section 213 the light slowly drifts to Section 113 where I sit for every Penn Women's Basketball game with granddaughter Santina. The sunbeam then drifts a little way up the sideline in front row of section 115. Santina always points with pride, and a smile, to that area and proudly proclaims 'That's where my mommy practiced.'

It is at this very spot that my daughter Erin shot hundreds of practice shots at six o'clock on many a summer morning getting ready to participate in Penn basketball camps when she was playing grade school basketball at Our Lady of Loreto. The skills she learned at the Palestra carried her through high school and on to Neumann College.

Just before getting to where Erin practiced the sunbeam settles on Row 1 Section 114. From his seat here Dr. Joseph Pandolfi held court for every Penn men's basketball. 'Doc P' as he was affectionately known was Penn's team doctor in the 70s and was a true 'God Father' to all Quakers.

A short time later the sunbeam finds the stairway between sections 119 and 120. This is where Temple Coach Jim Maloney had turned around one day to say 'see you later'. He has just finished helping his son Matt, who played for Penn at the time, with his jump shot. He died in 1996. I think of him every time the sun hits that spot.

By mid-morning the glow will reach the door to locker room 2. Locker room 2 is the Penn men's basketball locker room. With all the fond memories I have of this room I never enter it without thinking about the morning of Sept. 11th 2001. It was here I watched the terrible happenings of that day.

When the news of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center I was all alone and it all seemed so distant and unattached to the Palestra and me. However, as some of the players drifted in to watch the tragedy it occurred to me that it had everything to do with us. Later that day I found a little three-by-four inch American flag and hung it in locker room 2. It is still there.

"I didn't stop playing basketball because I got old, I got old because I stopped playing basketball"

Just outside locker room 2 the light from the sunbeam will fall on the area which, at 8:00am every Saturday morning during the basketball season, makes the Palestra is my favorite place to be. On these Saturday morning's for over twenty years I have driven to the Palestra, game or no game, to let in my favorite group of basketball players -'The Saturday Hoopsters'.

'The Saturday Hoopsters' are a group of former Big 5 and local players who come to the Palestra every week just to play the game they love in the building they love. A number of them bring their children who take to the Palestra like a playground.

The 'Hoopsters' roster has changed over the years. But, as they say 'Names and faces may change but the players remain the same.' It is simply the best day of my week. I have my twenty-four ounce Wawa coffee, my Inquirer cryptogram, and I am with over twenty of the greatest 'young-at-heart' men I know and their children. All children of the Palestra.

As the hue of the sunbeam proceeds down from locker room2 and along the north side of the stands many friends come back to life for me as the light passes through. 'Old Man Dunphy,' Coach Fran Dunphy's, dad in 102, Doc Mitchell in 104, Claire Cavanaugh's dad, who never missed one of his daughters' Penn games, in section 204.

And sprinkled all around. Philadelphia basketball guru John Hardnett,dear friends Joe McFadden and Mike Fitzpatrick, Coach Dan Satffierei, and Coach Jim Boyle.

I can still clearly see and hear long time scorekeeper Bob McKee, and public address announcer John McAdams. John for decades greeted every crowed with, "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the University of Pennsylvania Palestra, college basketball's most historic gym." All of them now are part of the spirit of the Palestra.

All I need to do when there is no game or crowd is to sit where I have sat in the past and those old players, games, friends and fans will materialize in front of me. I just need to give my mind and heart a chance and they will appear. This is in reality is the Palestra whispering in my ear and filling my imagination with visions of the past.

Many folks think that the Palestra is not alone when I leave her at night. They believe there are many spirits of folks who love her and the games played here so much they never leave. I believe they are right.

The Palestra's heart is her playing floor, the court. The court keeps her young. Here she creates new memories every time anyone of any age walks on this fabled piece of wood. This wood that enshrines her heart is as alive today as it was when growing in some forest far away. The court is a spiritual place in the center of the Cathedral, the Holy Grail, The Synagogue, and Mosque, for all of us children of the Palestra.

Her arms are the rows and rows of red and blue bench's that surround her heart, the court. In these seats she holds you and draws you close to her bosom. Her long slabs of wood that have no backs. There is no first class section, no executive boxes, and no luxury suites. She holds you so tight and with such warmth that you never notice any discomfort. She encourages you to cheer and cry with your team.

From these benches you become part of the team, part of the band, part of the game. You become her voice, you become part of her heartbeat.

Like every close couple, The Palestra and I have our special day of the year. That is always a Tuesday evening during the basketball season when Penn plays Princeton. You just need to walk in the Palestra the day of the Princeton game and you will know it is a special day. Princeton is coming!

You feel like the building is breathing on you with anticipation. You feel it because the Palestra is alive on this day more than any other.

Playing Princeton is like having a wicked witch, dressed in black and orange from the Pineys of New Jersey, coming to cast evil on my beloved Palestra. I hate Princeton! On this night I want my sweetheart looking her best. I happily make sure her lockers are cleaner, her floor is cleaner, and her backboards are cleaner. She is glistening and is more beautiful than ever.

Whether we win on lose to Princeton affects the Palestra and all who she shelters for days, and sometimes years after. If we lose there is a genuine sense of loss that hangs heavy from her rafters to her locker rooms that only time can heal. A win over Princeton and all is right in the world.

For twenty-three years ours has been an intimate love affair. For twenty-three years we have shared each other from the early morning, before the sun had risen, until late at night after a game, when it was once again just her and I. In between we just shared each other with all those who came to play, coach, officiate, cheer, cry, and listen to her heartbeat.

Now I find that in a few days I will be saying 'see you later' to my beloved Palestra. I will be retiring from Penn.

As for the Palestra, she will continue to tend her inner garden. She will rest this summer. Come September, as always she will rejuvenate, welcome back the returning upperclassmen and embrace the wide-eyed freshman. Once again, there will be hope, anticipation, and laughter in her bricks. She will once again share herself with all.

As for me, I know she will not forget me. She adopted me at fourteen, saved me at forty-six and made me her son forever. As long as I see the sun rising in the East I know there will be a sunbeam, guided by the Palestra's eyes, to lighten up a million memories to those that love her.