At Kearney’s “Old Barn,” the doors are about to swing shut forever on the Bearcats’ rounded-roof gymnasium.
The school, which moves this summer to a new site in southwest Kearney, is holding its “Farewell Night” with Friday’s doubleheader against Columbus. Be there by the 6 p.m. start of the girls game, Kearney Athletic Director Mitchell Stine is advising, or there may not be a seat for you.
When the Bearcats go to their new home, they’ll be taking along one of the oldest unofficial spirit groups in the state — the Rowdy Section, a tradition that dates to 1969.
Bob Elliott, who helped start the group as co-sports editor of the school paper with Wayne Garrelts, shares the origins of the Rowdies.
In the middle of a winless season, he said, “a bunch of guys sat together on game nights and raised (heck) about anything and everything that would distract attention from the sobering fact that the Bearcats were probably going to lose again. It got so bad one night that school officials stopped the game to reprimand us for being so ‘rowdy.’
“Some of us knew a little bit about First Amendment rights, but most of us were just plain ticked off. The afternoon before the next game, several of us went down to George’s Market and acquired about 20 feet of butcher paper. We took the paper up to my house on 36th Street and proceeded to create a banner that said ‘The Rowdy Section Cares.’ We swore my mother to secrecy because my dad was on the school board and I didn’t want him to have a chance to stop us.
“At the game, we waited for just the right moment to unfurl the banner that I had smuggled in under my jacket. As planned, we stood in unison and let our ‘freak flag’ fly. The crowd, at first, was puzzled, but then they went crazy. I must say that this was one of the coolest things that I have experienced in my entire life. The next edition of the Kearney Hub published a photo of us holding our banner. The rest is history. The ‘Rowdies’ were hatched.”
Now much more mature, the “founding fathers” have led a fund drive for an electronic kiosk for the new school that will chronicle the Bearcats’ athletic history and will present a check to the school at halftime.
Kearney’s gym opened in 1960, the same year as those at Omaha Westside and Fremont. The only current Class A court that’s older is Lincoln High’s Earl Johnson Gym, which opened in the 1955-56 school year. Another vintage court is at Columbus, dating to 1958. That will enter retirement sometime next season, too, when that school moves to a new campus in the northwest part of the city.
The old barns — Hastings, the North Platte gymnatorium, Grand Island, the Bird Cage at Omaha Creighton Prep — all have turned out their lights. But before Kearney hits the switch, its Old Barn will have at least two more games after Friday. The Bearcats will be hosting a district semifinal in both girls and boys basketball.
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