By: Greg Gulas | Picture Courtesy of Jamie Hall Facebook.
If you have ever had the opportunity to witness in person a Youngstown State University men’s or women’s basketball, women’s volleyball or football game, or when the Youngtown Pride played in the World Basketball League in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, you’ve undoubtedly seen John Bartholomew, AKA “Super Fan.”
From his seat or perch in front of the YSU Pep Band in Beeghly Center or near the railing at the South end of Stambaugh Stadium, he rooted for his favorite team – the YSU Penguins and Pride!
A fixture at nearly every home hoop, net or grid game, “Supe,” as he was affectionately called by those who knew him or witnessed his actions, was once a card dealer in Las Vegas with a wife and stepson who owned his own limo service.
A car accident in 1974, however, stripped Bartholomew of everything, forcing him to return to Youngstown to hopefully heal.
The guy who had a memory for numbers and was one of the casino’s most delightful and dependable employees with their gambling public, never returned to his former self.
His wife and stepson impatiently left and returned to Las Vegas, for lack of a better term not caring if he healed, causing Bartholomew’s world to be turned upside down.
What came naturally to him prior to his accident became a challenge in his everyday life. He grew a beard and dressed in either Penguin or Pride attire as he started going to games, becoming a fixture at most every one of their home contests.
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‘Super Fan’ passed away in early March, missing the last several YSU basketball games and a run by its men’s team that would have brought a smile to the eyes of the guy whose persona was to call plays, argue with officials, albeit silently when there was a bad call or provide a thumbs up to a spectacular play.
A native of the city’s South Side, Supe was misunderstood in those early days but later embraced as his story began to trickle out.
One person, Joe Conroy, the former YSU women’s volleyball coach who later became the University’s intramural director (he has since retired), took it upon himself to keep an eye out for Bartholomew, going so far as to make sure that he was eating right, his living conditions were that of a normal person and he was receiving the government aid for which he qualified.
Conroy, like a handful of others, was a big part of my statistics crew when I served as YSU sports information director (1981-97) and we did everything manually, not how statistics are currently recorded, which is electronically and through a program to which teams nationwide subscribe.
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In fact, the stat crew adopted ‘Supe’ and made sure that he joined us after every game for food and beverages when we gathered at the former Inner Circle site that was located on Lincoln Avenue, almost directly across the street from the now torn down Lincoln Parking Deck.
“Words cannot explain how appreciative John was to feel wanted and just be a part of our group,” Conroy stated as he went down memory lane and talked about the man he befriended over five decades ago. “Like everyone else, I, too, had my reservations about ‘Supe’ until I watched intently and got to know him.
“One night, we were enjoying our usual after game get-together at the Inner Circle and this was early on when he had first joined us. Someone in our group, who shall remain nameless, sprinkled hot peppers over his pizza and it just didn’t agree with him. Here’s a guy who did nothing to anyone and he just didn’t deserve that. I said to myself at that very instant that I am going to help look out for him and make sure that he was never taken advantage of ever again.”
Bartholomew would grow his now legendary beard, always wore a Youngstown Pride headband or shirt, pretended to give signals with his hands as if he were helping coaches call ‘his’ plays and in short, was just an all-around trusting guy.
So trusting and caring was he, according to Conroy, that people who lived in his apartment complex would abscond with his food stamps while thugs beat him up for his change and lawyers cheated him out of some of his rightful belongings, dollars he had coming to him from the U.S. Government.
“When we first met, John weighed about 150 pounds and he looked the way he did because it was his defense mechanism,” Conroy added. “He spent hours upon hours at McDonalds on Fifth Avenue across from YSU’s Stambaugh Stadium. They just loved him there because he would clean the area up when customers were done eating and the employees grew over time to appreciate his kindness, giving him a free coffee or more for his efforts.
“Before you had a Walmart greeter, Super Fan was the McDonald’s official greeter. Customers loved him and used to bring him food so it is easy to understand why he put over 75 pounds on that frame of his.
“When he passed his driver’s test and received his license, he drove to my house and you could just see how proud he was. I made a call to the YSU Police just to let them know that Supe had, in fact, received his driver’s license so if they saw him behind the wheel of a car near campus, it was legitimate.
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“When I heard his laugh, I just perked up. He was kind and caring but most of all a giving soul, someone who would give you the shirt off his back even though he needed it and had less, but felt you needed it more than he did. He should have graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School but pursued his degree years later, going to Night School in the former South High building, kept at it and eventually received his GED.
“He sold business cards to those wishing to become members of his fan club, all for the hefty price of $1. I can remember that our former athletic trainer, John Doneyko, was No. 3 to ante up and I was No. 34. When I asked why mine was so far down the list, his reply was plain and simple – you just weren’t around, l guess.”
No one looked out for Super Fan and his well-being more than Conroy, who stated “I always got a call when he was in need. We had that connection and I was only too happy to lend a helping hand.”
While Conroy looked out for Bartholomew, others also appreciated his flair and flamboyance. It was a gift he shared with others, perhaps unbeknownst to the Beeghly Center icon.
Between Conroy securing game tickets or former YSU associate athletic director Rick Love, who oversaw all athletics marketing and floated him a comp ducat, Supe never had to worry about getting into a game free of charge.
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“I had the unique opportunity to get to know Super Fan over the span of almost 30 years – at both Youngstown State basketball, football and tailgating as well as the Youngstown Pride games during the summer months,” Love noted. “He truly cared about the Penguins and made extraordinary efforts to be at each home game. He was loved and appreciated by all those who knew and cared about him.”
Once, Supe was at a Pride game and his name was pulled for their three-point contest, which was staged in front of the Pride’s bench during a time-out.
With Pride head coach Bob Patton in the huddle setting up his defense on a dry erase board, his players were doing everything but paying attention as they kept an eye on Super Fan to see if he would hit the shot.
Supe, in worn leather sandals, dribbled left, dribbled right then between his legs for what seemed like an eternity. When he hoisted the shot, it went right through the hoop, nothing but net with the Pride players congratulating their hero and Pride star Barry Mitchell hoisting Bartholomew on his shoulders and carrying him around the court, Supe the real winner of the game that day. So much for that time out.
YSU’s longtime head athletic trainer, Dan Wathen, recalled Super Fan as a gentle soul who just loved being around people at games which he attended.
“Super Fan adopted YSU athletics in the late 1980’s,” Wathen stated. “It was obvious that he suffered from some mental disease but he was a gentle soul and never caused any problems. He would run around the stands during football practices doing some type of imaginary hand signals. This continued during both football and basketball games where he had an area off to side of the stands.
“Various stories would emerge as to what caused his condition with our volleyball coach at the time, Joe Conroy, taking him under his wing to get him situated in housing as well as financially. He was also a big fan of the World Basketball League, specifically the Youngstown Pride and when he won that three-point contest he was arguably the happiest a fan could ever be after winning a contest.
“Recently, a fan told me he once saw John jump up and touch the rim in Beeghly Center prior to a volleyball game, that occurring in the mid-90’s. He slowed down quite a bit in recent years but rarely missed a game. The man loved YSU athletics and will be sadly missed by all.”
Dana Balash, dean of area sportscasters who serves as sports director of the local NBC affiliate, WFMJ-TV, Channel 21, said nothing seemingly stopped Super Fan from getting to the game.
“John was a fixture at Beeghly Center,” Balash added. “He never missed a home game and even when weather stopped a lot of season ticket holders from attending, Supe was always there. His antics were always fun to watch and he will certainly be missed. In fact, YSU should consider naming the North end bleachers in his honor because he was the most dedicated fan in Youngstown.”
Longtime YSU basketball season ticket holder, Bob Camardo, who currently serves as president of the area’s Curbstone Coaches organization, sits just a section away from Super Fan’s perch.
“It’s just a shame that Super Fan passed away in the midst of the Penguins’ best basketball season in decades because, like a lot of us, he spent several years watching bad basketball! Yet during those lean years, it was always entertaining to watch him and his antics as a diversion to the action on the court. My wife used to think she should have him come to our house for dinner because she feared that he was homeless. I told her he was just fine and he was. We will all miss seeing him at home games.”
Joe Fanto is in the local banking business but has served as timekeeper for YSU’s football and basketball teams.
“I have been going to Youngstown Pride and Youngstown State games for years and it was always great to see Super Fan at the game,” Fanto stated. “It made me feel like we were always going to win with him there rooting us on. Now, as I work the YSU games at the scorer’s table, I always looked up into the stands to make sure that he was in his spot. It was so sad to hear about his passing.”
Herb Simpson and Ken Bochenek were both members of my stat crew from 1981-97, working tirelessly to make sure that our basketball and football game statistics were perfect to a fault.
“What I remember most about Supe during my days when I was involved with the Youngstown Pride basketball team, and YSU basketball-football stat crews was that he was always a part of our team,” Bochenek noted. “Whether it was hanging out with us before or after games, he was always happy and full of stories, just an easy going guy who always had fun. I really miss those days and we all are going to miss you, Supe. Thanks for all the memories that you gave us.”
Simpson, who was also a photographer for me during those early years, caught Super Fan in action more than once without his lens cap on.
“I have known Super Fan for 40 years and can attest to the fact that he was an authentic, unique human being,” Simpson said. “He always made you feel better every time he spoke to you and was one of the most complete Penguin fans.
“He was a very prophetic man, recalling Supe’s catch phrase ‘you can’t win unless the other team loses! Not seeing him now in his familiar Northeast corner seat on Rosselli Court is something that will be sadly missed. Thank you, Supe, for all the enjoyment you have given me over the years. I will enjoy talking with you once again when we reunite in heaven.”
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In closing, my story about Super Fan goes back to New Year’s Eve, 1991.
Joe Conroy took John out for a New Year’s Eve dinner and they stopped at my house on their way back home to wish me and my family a very Happy New Year.
My two daughters, Meghan and Heather, were six and three years old, respectively, at that time and they remembered Super Fan from coming to basketball games with my late mother Julia, their grandma.
They knew Supe and were only too happy to see him and Joe, welcoming them both into our home.
As they were leaving, Supe did something that Joe and I never expected and will never, ever forget. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill for each of my daughter’s, a belated Christmas gift.
He was willing to share what little he had with others, an act that I nor my daughters will ever forget!
Rest in peace, John!!!