'Bulkeley Boys' made history 70 years ago this week
Seventy years ago this week. Think about that. Seventy years. And yet all the shapes and forms of Boston Garden, the victorious train ride home and 6,000-person victory celebration at Ocean Beach endure vividly for Don Burns, forever known as one of the "Bulkeley Boys."
Yes, it was 70 years ago this week that the Bulkeley Tigers, knowing their high school would close a few months later, all but closed the place with an exclamation point, winning the New England high school basketball championship at the Gah-den.
"We got off the train and there were thousands of people waiting for us," Burns, now 85 and living in Milford, was saying over coffee earlier this week. "Then there was a caravan through the middle of town that ended up at Ocean Beach with 6,000 people. An unbelievable experience. I've been through a lot of things in coaching and athletics. I was 15 years old then. It's still the greatest highlight of my life."
Burns was the point guard on the team that defeated Westerly, Bridgeport Central and Quincy, Mass. in Boston to finish 24-0. The cast and crew included coach Bill O'Brien and players Burns, Jack Malone, Ken Shepherd, Gene King, Art Quimby, Joe Campagna, Harry Traystman, Jim O'Connor, Dick Philopena, R.V. Sullivan, Larry Shay, Moose Morgan, Ken Willoughby, Ray Burke and Ed Glynn.
Burns' mother kept a scrapbook of all the old articles from The Day, many written by the great Dutch Nauta, that have become de facto history class. They went from this modest gym and its four rows of bleachers at Bulkeley — where the Regional Multicultural Magnet School is now — to the Garden, where The Day reported more than 13,000 fans watched them beat Westerly.
This team and this time perhaps best illustrates New London's everlasting affection for local sports. Fans even brought signs to the games, including one reading "Penicillin Kids," alluding to how some of the players had a touch of the flu during the tournament.
"We actually came close to losing in the regular season before any of the tournaments," Burns said. "We were playing Windham and we were down two very late. Joey Campagna got fouled and was going to the line. O'Brien was actually walking off the court. They had to bring him back. Joey made the two free throws and we beat them in overtime."
The Bulkeley Boys won the state championship and faced Westerly on March 14, 1951.
"That was a big event," Burns said. "Westerly's very close to New London and at the time lot people who worked at EB lived in Westerly. You can imagine what they was like. When I dribbled out on that court the first time, I thought 'wow.'"
Bulkeley won 65-63.
Two days later came Bridgeport Central, whose best player was Frank "Porky" Vieira, who would later star at Quinnipiac and become the legendary baseball coach at the University of New Haven. Burns later became the basketball coach at UNH and became friends with Vieira.
"The big one was the Central game.," Burns said. "They were favored. Porky was a legend at the time. Unbelievable shooter. We held him to 12. At New Haven when we were both there, we used to talk about this game. Porky would say, 'I don't know how you bunch of farmers from New London could ever beat us.'"
They defeated Quincy on March 18, 1951, before hopping the train back to the 06320.
"Quimby and King were the big scorers. I was more of a passer," Burns said. "I started off with the JV that year. After two games, O'Brien brought me up. I started every game after that."
Burns, who would eventually work in the insurance industry, stayed in sports long after his time at Bulkeley. He played at UConn with Quimby, later coaching the freshman team there. He coached East Catholic to two state titles, at New Haven for eight years and then as an assistant at Yale.
Burns graduated from what was the new New London High School in 1953, but not before winning another New England championship there. Burns helped author the only two banners hanging in Conway Gym today that aren't green. Bulkeley's is orange and black and New London's first New England title has a gold background.
"We knew Bulkeley would close a few months after we won," Burns said. "It was a sad thing. Bulkeley was an icon around here. Probably every lawyer in New London went there."
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro