BY JEFF FALK
If Cedar Crest High School athletics in the 1960s and 1970s were a burgeoning country, then Ernie Firestone would’ve been a founding father. The mark he left on Falcon sports will live forever.
It was with great shock and grief that I learned of Mr. Firestone’s passing on Sunday morning. My daughter looked up from her eggs and replied to what must have been an audible, but unconscious grimace, ‘What happened?’
A day earlier, Firestone was killed while driving a car that attempted to cross Route 22 at Bullfrog Road in East Hanover Township. He and his wife Shirley were struck by a tractor-trailer truck in the eastbound lane of the dangerous divided highway.
Ernie was pronounced dead at the scene. Shirely, his beloved and long-time wife, was flown by Life Lion to Hershey Medical Center, where she died on Sunday.
Mrs. Firestone was 73. Mr. Firestone, a 50-year resident of Cornwall, was 75.
“The first thing that popped into my mind was, ‘unbelievable,'” said Frank Kuhn, Jr., who was a contemporary and colleague of Firestone. “I was shocked. Then I was immediately concerned for his two daughters (Wendy and Marta) and how they were going to struggle with it.”
During the 1965-66 season, Firestone founded the Cedar Crest boys’ basketball program that Kuhn would later head. Firestone had been the head boys’ basketball coach at Cornwall High School before the juncture that created Cedar Crest and the Cornwall-Lebanon school district.
“I really got to know him through athletics,” said Kuhn. “And in that vein he was extremely competitive. I knew him to be a deeply religious man. I thought he always had the best interest of the kids in his approach to dealing with them.”
Later Firestone, who taught mathematics for many years at the high school, gave up his head coaching position to become the athletic director at Cedar Crest. In the 1980s and 1990s, he coached the Falcons’ girls’ basketball program, and later came back to assist a former player, Steph Smith, who had taken over the lead position.
“He was an intergral part of what Cedar Crest athletics became,” said Kuhn. “He was inolved with a lot of decision-making and the setting up of programs. I think he had a very strong interest in athletics. I knew him as being very complex. He was a competitive person and I always admired the way he was able to channel his athletic nature in coaching.”
Firestone coached Cedar Crest Division One players Jen Nelson and Carla Munnion, who some believe is the finest female player to ever hail from Lebanon County. In 1991, Firestone led the Falcons to the District Three Class AAAA championship and the Eastern semifinals of the state tournament.
“His girls’ teams were extremely successful,” said Kuhn. “They were in the state tournament his first year. And they went a couple of times after that.”
Firestone also coached boys and girls tennis for many years at Cedar Crest.
“He was technically involved when watching a sport,” said Kuhn. “He would analyze games and make comments about the coaching tactics going on.”
A 1954 graduate, Firestone was an accomplished basketball, tennis and cross country athlete during his playing days at Lebanon High School. He was a competitor on the Cedar cross country teams that were recently inducted into the LHS athletic hall of fame.
Firestone graduated from Albright College in 1958. He attained his master’s degree in education from Temple University.
“He had an indirect influence on me,” said Kuhn. “I can remember (former Cedar Crest boys’ basketball coach) Luke Scipioni talking about Ernie. Luke would say that Ernie had a unique ability to get rid of negative emotions (brought upon by defeats) quickly – which is necessary.”
Personally, my recollections of Firestone as a teacher was of him being demanding and a bit of a perfectionist. I always assumed he expected much of his students because he expected a lot of himself.
I saw Mr. Firestone two weeks ago, at Lebanon High School, when the Cedars hosted Cedar Crest. I didn’t have much time to talk to him, but said ‘Hello’ and assumed he was doing well because he looked well.
Over the years, after he had retired from coaching, I saw Mr. Firestone from time to time at Cedar Crest athletic events. Gone was the natural tension that had originated from our coach-reporter relationship.
“I always thought he was a great conversationalist,” concluded Kuhn. “I always enjoyed talking with him. But he was opinionated. And he had a good sense of humor.”
Firestone was not a man who demanded your respect, but one who earned it.