Football’s days are numbered at Albi, but some fans aren’t ready to give up on the aging facility

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Under the Friday night lights at Joseph A. Albi Stadium, Craig Gerlack can be found in his regular seat in the upper level on the press box side, sitting next to his track coach, Joe Schauble.

Schauble hasn’t been Gerlack’s coach for a while – Gerlack graduated North Central High School in 1980, but Gerlack was an assistant coach in football, wrestling and track at North Central from 1982-’85, and over the years their relationship deepened to a friendship that often finds them sitting in the stands at Albi, reminiscing and taking in a game.

On Sept. 13, it was a double-header: West Valley vs. Shadle Park, followed by Moses Lake against Mt. Spokane. The talk was of the osprey nested in the lights, dive-bombing at any worker who came close. Attendance hovered around 1,000 people.

Over the years, Schauble has learned a few tricks, such as stashing contraband peanut M&Ms in the bag he uses to carry his blanket. Gerlack only has a flip phone, so a friend texted him updates of the Washington State University game against Houston. A few times, he flipped open his phone even though it made no noise.

“She should have texted me by now,” he said.

Gerlack understands that a smartphone would enable him to check the score himself, but his flip phone works just fine. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown out, he believes. It’s a principle Gerlack applies to many things in his life – Albi included.

Gerlack will be the first to point out the crumbling stairs near his seats (“It’s all concrete, it can be fixed”) and the chipping gray paint.

“What about the Grand Coulee Dam?” Gerlack said. “No one wants to tear that down, concrete and rebar.”

Gerlack does not see Albi as what it is; he sees it as what it was and what it could be. Schauble, whose eyes rarely leave the game for conversation, has a more pragmatic approach: “Why waste it? It’s here.”

On Dec. 12, Spokane Public Schools board voted to build a 5,000-seat stadium where Albi stadium currently stands. Brian Coddington, a spokesman for Spokane Schools, said construction for the new stadium is slated for summer 2021. This means there will be two more seasons for high schoolers to play in the current stadium. What will happen to the objects that make the stadium what it is – such as “Joe Fan,” a bronze sculpture of Joseph A. Albi by Vincent De Felice that sits on the bleachers in the south end zone – will be up to the school board.

Coddington said there are two primary reasons the school board has decided to build a smaller venue, the first being that the large space isn’t being utilized.

“Football games are the primary drawer of large attendances there, and those attendance figures have dipped into the hundreds and few thousands except for maybe one rivalry game where there’s closer to 7,000 or 8,000 people that come,” Coddington said.

Another reason to downsize is because of the middle school that slated to be built on the property in August 2022.

“It’s going to require some of the footprint that Albi already has to build that middle school,” Coddington said.

Since the vote, Gerlack has been a one-man army for saving Albi stadium. He has sent more than 70 letters to councilmembers, senators, representatives, veterans organizations, the press and even people like Gen. Colin Powell. (Powell wrote him back, thanking him for the letter, but explaining, “I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to write a letter to the Historical Preservation Officer endorsing your position. … I have never been to the stadium nor had any connection to it or to Mr. Albi.”)

Gerlack’s reasons are personal but not completely straightforward. For Gerlack, saving Albi is about honoring veterans. To understand that logic, a little Spokane history may be necessary.

The Spokane City Council voted to change the stadium’s name in 1962, when the stadium’s namesake was in the hospital. Albi died weeks after the renaming. What is now Joseph A. Albi Stadium was once Spokane Memorial Stadium, a name chosen through a Spokane Daily Chronicle contest and announced on July 14, 1950. Many readers submitted the name “Spokane Memorial Stadium,” but Mrs. Clarence A. Rust was the chosen winner because her accompanying letter “embodied the idea that the stadium be a permanent memorial not only to our war heroes but to all who have had a part in building Spokane and the Inland Empire.”

Those familiar with Albi’s origin story would show no surprise that the name was chosen through a reader contest. The entire construction of the stadium was a civic effort spearheaded by none other than Joseph A. Albi, who was the president of Athletic Round Table from its beginning in 1920. The entire $600,000 project was funded by different organizations and clubs, starting in 1948.

A picture on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle on April 26, 1950 showed four high school football players helping move dirt at the construction site. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Albi was built in about four months.

On Sept. 10, 1950, The Spokesman-Review reported, “Now these native sons are overjoyed to be able to turn over as a gift to their city a lasting and useful monument to their civic pride and friendship for its happy people.”

“Spokane Memorial Stadium” was chosen because the stadium was constructed keeping the military in mind. Sod for the stadium was taken from the historic Fort George Wright parade ground, he dirt from Geiger Field.

The Spokesman-Review article described the stadium as “a memorial to the city’s sons who gave their lives in their country’s wars.”

Gerlack is not a veteran, but his father served in World War II and the Korean War. Gerlack’s father died when he was 9 , thought not at war.

“I think you should honor any veteran living today,” Gerlack said. “Everyone says they have their constitutional rights and they have their freedom, how do you think we have those constitutional rights and freedom? You thank a veteran.”

Growing up for much of his life without a father, neighbors took Gerlack to games at Albi.

Gerlack bets that anyone who’s lived in Spokane for any amount of time has some sort of Albi stadium memory. Gerlack has been collecting those stories along the way, and perhaps his favorite is that of former Superior Court Judge Jim Murphy serving a hot dog to Elvis Presley, who performed at the stadium on Aug. 31, 1957.

Living close to the stadium as a child, Murphy sold concessions at events to earn spending money. At the Elvis concert, he saw a group of adults by the locker rooms, and he decided to try his luck selling there. Someone told him that someone in the back wanted two hot dogs.

“I went back there, and it was Elvis,” Murphy said. “I was rather flabbergasted, but nevertheless I pulled out two hot dogs and handed them to him. They were a quarter a piece as I recall, and he handed me a five dollar bill and told me to keep the change.”

Murphy said he’s been telling the story ever since, and has very fond memories of Albi. Murphy still occasionally attends high school games, but “it’s in pretty tough shape.”

It’s been more than 60 years since Elvis left the building, and Albi has fallen into disrepair. In the locker rooms, there is a chalkboard with small lettering on the top that says “NO FOOD, TOBACCO, GUM, PEANUT AND SUNFLOWER SEEDS ON FIELD TURF PLEASE. DO NOT TOUCH URINAL VALVES THEY ARE ON A TIMER SYSTEM.” The bathrooms themselves have the gentle dripping noise of a cave and the floors are wet. None of the high schoolers thought to use the blue wooden lockers, so maroon and gold Moses Lake duffel bags were strewn across the polished concrete floor. The door to the referee’s room is painted with black and white stripes.

The press box has ceiling tiles missing. A defunct concession stand has a dilapidated roof. Not to mention, there’s an osprey nest in the lights! To the list that continues to grow, Gerlack’s answer is fix it. He believes that if Albi is renovated to its former glory, and the right events are promoted, the stadium could return to what it once was.

In Murphy’s opinion, the biggest problem is one that can’t be fixed. We aren’t living in a time when high school football games will fill a 30,000-person stadium.

“As we get older, those things that were treasures to us when we were younger and no longer exist still have a place in your memory,” Murphy said. “I will miss my times in what was then a 30,000-person stadium that often filled up, but again time moves on and needs change.”

Defense attorney Bevan Maxey, who played football at Albi first for Lewis and Clark High School and then for WSU, said there was something “grand” about playing at Albi.

“When I was playing there it felt like you were really playing into the big lights,” Maxey said. “You’re out at the big stadium, and it was full of people, and it really made it exciting.”

Because Maxey wants that same feeling for Spokane high schoolers, he thinks the 5,000-seat stadium is a good idea.

“Hopefully, if they are able to build something that can be filled and provide a positive environment where it gives the feeling that there’s people there to watch and gives the event the appropriate aura,” Maxey said.

City Councilman Breean Beggs understands what Gerlack is trying to perserve. Beggs had a chance to speak with Gerlack when they ran into each other at the Zips on North Monroe.

“The thing I notice in the people in the community, we have really strong feelings about a thing and then we kind of attach to a particular physical outcome that we think that will advance the feelings and the value,” Beggs said.

Beggs hopes the school district and city can come up with a way to honor veterans and the history of Albi in the new stadium, so that “once Mr. Gerlack and anybody else who feels strongly about the stadium experiences that, they’ll go, ‘Yes we get it, it’s continuing forward.’ But until they see that alternative, all they see is the loss right now.”

Coddington said the school board will be working with the architect to incorporate historical elements into the new stadium, “so that people have that same Albi essence.”

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