By Evan Lips
NEW HAVEN >> The football field at James Hillhouse High School derives its name from a beloved educator and athlete who died in a 15-foot plunge after tumbling through a school window, apparently in a failed effort to breathe in fresh air.
The date was Aug. 9, 1948.
Emmons J. “Chick” Bowen, New Haven High School’s assistant principal, broke his neck in the fall. But medical examiner Dr. Marvin M. Scarbrough did not attribute Bowen’s death to a broken neck.
Scarbrough ruled that the immediate cause of Bowen’s death was traumatic pneumonia.
According to Scarbrough, Bowen had “been nervous as of late” and had on frequent occasions been spotted by faculty and students running to the nearest window to get a breath of fresh air.
“It may have been on just such an occasion that Bowen suffered such a dizzy spell as he opened a window and fell out,” Scarbrough told the Register the day after Bowen’s death.
There were more questions surrounding Bowen’s death than answers. Prior to that fateful August day, a panel comprised of three members of the Board of Education was tasked to investigate rumors that Bowen had been “subjected to negative abuse” at the school.
Their investigation never yielded official findings.
Months later, on Oct. 20, Superintendent of Schools Peter J. van Heiningen announced the athletic stadium planned for nearby Beaver Pond Park would be named Bowen Field.
Now, some 66 years later, Bowen Field sits idle. It’s the height of the fall football season, yet the gridiron has remained untouched for nearly two full years. The field has not hosted a home game since 2012. The discovery in the summer of 2013 that elevated levels of toxic PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) in bleacher caulking joints and exterior locker room paint effectively shut down the field. Lower levels of the chemicals were later discovered in the track ringing the football field.
Last month, school officials announced a state-funded $4.8 million remediation plan. The polluted portions of the complex will be trucked away to a landfill in Oregon, Ohio, just east of Toledo and the Maumee River.
The remediation plan is part of an overall $11.6 million renovation project that will bring nighttime football games to Bowen Field. The goal is to have the facility ready in time for the Nov. 26, 2015 Elm City Bowl Classic, the Thanksgiving Day rivalry game between Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross high schools.
This is not the first time that there’s been a prolonged period of autumn silence at Bowen Field.
Historical records show just 13 years after it opened, crumbling sections of concrete bleachers prompted the city to close off portions of the field to spectators.
“A SHOWCASE AMONG SCHOOLBOY STADIUMS”
The seating plan was ambitious. In June of 1955, the city began a project to build a football stadium at already-used Bowen Field capable of accommodating 18,000 fans. There would be a paved parking lot, large enough to fit 1,200 cars. The project called for a foot bridge over one of the streams flowing into Beaver Pond.
The location of the field is one of the lowest points between West Rock and East Rock.
As a June 12, 1955, account in the Register states, “The beauty of the field is its compact layout with parking, baseball, football, track, locker and shower facilities all available in a relatively small area.
“Part of the old lagoon, much of it now filled in and the rest of it diverted, may be seen skirting the parking lot and passing behind the football stadium behind the practice field.”
The biggest goal of the project was to have spectator stands made from concrete installed and ready in time for the 1957 football season.
In July of 1955, Joseph N. Rice, Inc., submitted the winning $82,000 bid to construct the grandstand at Bowen Field. The city received just two bids. Rice’s bid managed to edge an $86,000 bid from Thomas Construction of East Haven. Rice had a history of completing city projects, including the English Shelter atop East Rock Park in 1953.
In April 1968, just 13 years after completion of the Bowen Field bleachers, crumbling concrete forced city officials to warn patrons about the likelihood of closing the stands. Records indicate that the concrete had reportedly started “flaking” and “at least one portion opened up with gaping holes.”
A description of the situation appeared in the pages of the Register that month:
“Where the sections should be joined and solid, viewers from beneath the stands can look through daylight on the other side. Repairs have been made, new coatings of concrete spread over broken spots but eroded by apparent existing rot of the old material. The area of Bowen Field has become a major attention-getter this year. This not only includes the stands but areas of the recreation complex as well. For example, because the facility was constructed on a former dump and marsh land region there continues to be some land settling.”
On May 3, 1968, City Parks Director Alphonse Cukierski recommended completely tearing down and replacing the concrete stands, a job he said would take about six months and cost upwards of $250,000. Park board member Andy Salperto recommended that the city sell Bowen Field to the state.
The lead in the Register’s coverage:
“Bowen Field — which only 10 years ago was a showpiece among schoolboy stadiums — is virtually falling apart.”
The Joseph N. Rice construction company, formerly located in the city at 60 Peck St., was never held liable.
According to Cukierski, the company was “no longer in business.”
COACH: “IT WAS RIDICULOUS TO PLAY UNDER THOSE CONDITIONS”
There was a day in September 1968 when Hillhouse football coach Dan Casey nearly sent a spectator into a live game.
It was the season opener versus Bridgeport’s Kolbe Cathedral High School. Banned from using the bleachers, fans stood on the sidelines to take in the action. Watching the game from the end zone, according to Casey, gave spectators a poor vantage point, meaning the sidelines swelled with both fans, players and coaches.
“It was ridiculous to play under those conditions,” Casey told a Register reporter after the game. “There were so many spectators in the bench area that once I turned around and almost sent one of the fans in to play at right end. It was impossible to maintain any kind of bench discipline. Our substitutes wanted to watch the game too and they had to stand and fight with spectators for viewing space.”
Casey later that season decided to transfer all but one of the team’s remaining home games, with the exception of a game versus Ansonia, to West Haven’s Quigley Stadium.
In May 1969, a year after Cukierski declared the concrete bleachers at Bowen Field to be unsafe, the Board of Aldermen approved a $375,000 package to replace the stadium stands.
NEW DIGS: FIBERGLASS SEATS USHER IN THE 70s
Following the board’s approval of stadium renovations, city officials made the painful announcement that Bowen Field would be unavailable for the 1969 football season. The project not only called for replacing the bleachers but also the cinder track.
According to a Register account detailing the new plans, “the benches, initially, will be made of fiberglass and colored with the school colors of the three city high schools (Cross, Hillhouse and Lee) and Southern Connecticut State College.
“The stands themselves will be tilted on a higher angle than the original stands but there will be no loss of seating capacity.”
By July 1970, a “rejuvenated” Bowen Field was ready once again to host football games. Ahead of the Sept. 19 home opener against North Branford, City Parks Director Carl Nastri remarked that he hoped the new fiberglass bleachers “would last a lifetime.” The seats were installed by the R.A. Civitello Construction Co. C.W. Blakeslee of Branford poured the new concrete foundations.
The seats, however, were all colored burnt orange.
Nastri said the seats were guaranteed to last at least 10 years.
THE 1980s: LOOK WHAT WE’VE GOT IN NEW HAVEN
Roughly 15 years after Nastri’s guarantee, spectators such as Mary C. Bonadies of Hamden began complaining about shards of fiberglass breaking off the seats and sticking to people’s clothes.
Bonadies did not mince words in her Nov. 21, 1985, letter to the editor, chiding the city’s “Look what we’ve got, New Haven” jingle.
“It is obvious that the health and safety of the spectators is of little concern to the ‘Look what we’ve got New Haven’ promoters,” Bonadies wrote. “After being seated for less than 15 minutes people were experiencing some discomfort from the minute pieces of fiberglass which penetrated their clothing.
Less than a year later, in February 1986, Parks and Recreation Director Bob Sheeley announced plans were underway to improve locker rooms and bathrooms at Bowen Field. Sheeley also said he made a capital budget request to rebuild spectator seating and track areas.
“This is all part of a master plan to bring this place up to snuff,” he said. “We’ll redo the entire locker rooms — floors, ceilings, shower stalls, coaches’ offices — everything will be brought up to code.”
In 1987, a Register columnist called out then-Mayor Biagio “Ben” DiLieto’s stewardship of Bowen Field:
“Bowen Field continues to be a public eyesore and an embarrassment to apparently everyone except Mayor DiLieto and his aides. DiLieto pays only lip service to the stadium’s plight and fails to understand what a terrible image the city is giving out-of-towners attending a Bowen Field event. One visiting coach called the stadium “a dump.”
In 1988, Southern Connecticut State University coach Rich Cavanaugh also expressed frustrations with the field. The university, which used the field for home games, was in the process of trying to construct its own facilities.
According to Cavanaugh, he employed a specific strategy whenever football potential recruits came for a visit.
“I used to wait for a snowstorm before I’d take any recruits to show them where they were going to play,” he said. “Then it didn’t look so bad.”
Southern Connecticut State University opened Jess Dow Field in 1989, ending its association with Bowen Field, the same year several much-needed renovations were completed.
Sheeley, in a September 1989 Register story, expressed optimism that the field would “shine once again.”
He acknowledged hearing the complaints but his work to compel the city to address them appeared to be paying off.
“I knew there were things wrong with Bowen Field,” he said. “I knew it was a major problem. It was a priority item when I took over the job (from Carl Nastri) and it continued to be a priority item.
“Now we’ve done something about it. It’s still not complete, but now we can look at Bowen Field and sense that it’s going to become the beautiful park it was when I was growing up.”
The football field received a re-sodding treatment, including a combination of fescue, bluegrass, rye and rebel grass. Workers erased the graffiti vandals had inflicted upon the stands. The locker rooms received a $175,000 face-lift although the Board of Education was still unable to provide enough lockers for the entire Hillhouse football team.
The re-sodding and replacement of bleacher seating cost more than $250,000.
A review of Register stories from the 1990s shows much of the complaining about Bowen Field’s conditions did end. State money poured in to help pay for a new automatic irrigation system, scoreboard and fences. Ahead of the city hosting the 1995 Special Olympic World Games, the state funneled $175,000 to repair the track at Bowen Field. In 1997, a new Little League field was installed near the football field, and more parking.
According to state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesman Dwayne Gardner, the public may never know exactly who was responsible for bringing toxic PCB material to Bowen Field.
“PCBs were a frequent additive to older building materials such as paints, caulks, mastics, flooring, roofing, etc.,” Gardner said in an email Friday. “They made these materials more durable and this practice continued until it was banned in 1978.”
Gardner concurred when asked if the city will likely never find out how the toxic chemicals arrived.
“Correct,” he wrote. “It could have been part of construction, remodeling, routine maintenance and painting, etc.”
It’s just the latest problem for a public sports venue that’s seen more than its fair share of hard times.
Bowen Field has also experienced the bizarre.
On Oct. 28, 1962, the homecoming football game for Southern was disrupted at halftime when a hot dog truck’s propane gas tank exploded. The blast injured 14 spectators, according to records, and sent a fireball into the crowd.
Thomas Lyden, the city’s deputy fire marshal at the time, said there appeared to be “no gross negligence” on anyone’s part.
No one was ever blamed for the accident, including the owner of the lunchwagon.
As for Emmons J. “Chick” Bowen, it is also likely no one will ever know the results of the Board of Education investigation into allegations he had been subjected to “negative abuse” at New Haven High School.
Harold V. Krick, the chairman of the Board of Education at the time, told the Register that Bowen never publicly complained about any abuse to any other faculty or staff.
Bowen is buried at Saint Lawrence Cemetery in West Haven, located near the West River off Derby Avenue. Bowen’s memorial at the field bearing his namesake reads thus:
“A Christian gentleman, an inspiration to youth.”
Call Evan Lips at 203-680-9367.