Standard-Speaker, Hazleton icon dies at 82
Ramon S. “Ray” Saul, the retired managing editor and sports editor of the Standard-Speaker, died Tuesday at his home in Hazleton.

BY KENT JACKSON
STAFF WRITER

Ramon S. “Ray” Saul, the retired managing editor and sports editor of the Standard-Speaker, died Tuesday at his home in Hazleton.

Saul, 82, started as a sports writer at the Standard-Speaker in 1950 and became the face of the newspaper to readers, whether they saw the picture on his column, sighted him on the sidelines of a local game or heard him deliver one-liners from the podium of a banquet.

He guided the Standard-Speaker as sports edito r for 26 years and managing editor for 16 years. Although he retired in 1997, he never stopped writing. His last column appeared Tuesday.

While reporting about Hazleton for 57 years, he became associated as much with the city as the newspaper.

Saul served on boards of directors for charities such as the United Way, Catholic Social Services and United Rehabilitation Services; the state museum, Eckley Miners’ Village; and CAN DO, the local economic development group.

For 56 years, Saul was secretary of the Kiwanis Club and never failed to send in monthly reports, even while at sea with the U.S. Navy, from which he retired as a lieutenant commander in the Reserves.

He belonged to the advisory committee for Penn State Hazleton, his alma mater. He helped keep Hazleton Little League afloat in the early years, served as a coach and watched one of his own players, Joe Maddon, manage a Major League team to the World Series last year.

Saul officiated baseball, softball and basketball from youth sports to the old Eastern Pro Basketball League. He also was secretary for the league and befriended another official, Tommy Lasorda, who became better known in baseball.

Lasorda kept in touch with Saul while scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers before he managed the Major League team.

“Every time I would scout, Hazleton was in my territory. I would always see him. He was one of the nicest guys. I’ve been involved with a lot of sports people and members of the press, but to me Ray Saul acted in the highest degree of dignity and character and he represented the city of Hazleton in that fashion,” Lasorda said Tuesday on the telephone from Miami, where he is promoting the World Baseball Classic.

Lasorda remembered eating “those chili hotdogs” with Saul at the former Coney Island Restaurant next to the Standard-Speaker and expressed condolences to Saul’s family, which include his son, Gregory, in King of Prussia, Montgomery County, and daughter, Janet Curilla, in Hazleton. His wife of nearly 52 years, Nellie Avillion Saul, died in 2005.

Known throughout the world of sports, Saul attended college bowl games, heavyweight championship fights and World Series games. He was a long-time friend of Penn State’s football coach Joe Paterno. The two were the same age, and Paterno won their running bet about who would retire first.

“Ray Saul was one of the great people I’ve known in Pennsylvania sports. He was always honest, hard-working, completely loyal to the people he worked with and was always pleasant to be around. Ray was just a great guy, and I think all of us that knew him are going to miss him,” Paterno said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Saul followed careers of Hazleton residents from their school days to their successes in business, the military, higher education and retirement.

“I think that Greater Hazleton has just lost a treasure. He put Hazleton on the map ... He supported us unselfishly,” said Cathy Gallagher, the Kiwanis Club president and executive director of URS, which trains people with disabilities to live and work on their own. “He would follow our clients no matter where they went. He would follow the athletes no matter where they went.”

His final column mentioned basketball coach Bruce Leib, whose team at Hazleton Area High School went all the way to the state championship game in 1988-89 before losing and finishing 28-1. Leib left Hazleton a few years ago to coach at Central Dauphin East High School, but his team entered the state playoffs again on Tuesday.

“It’s like you always thought he would be there in the thick of reporting sports and attending games and every sports banquet. I don’t think I ever knew a busier person,” Leib wrote about Saul in an e-mail before his team’s playoff game.

Long-time friend Fred Barletta Sr. said he and Saul watched together from the stands when Carlton Fisk hit a home run to extend the 1975 World Series to a seventh game against Cincinnati.

“I went to so many World Series games and so many all-star games and so many basketball games. Ray was like family to me. Anything I needed for my family, he was there,” Barletta said.

Louis “Booty” Beltrami, a Hazleton restaurateur who traveled to heavyweight title fights with Saul, told about when they brought Muhammad Ali to Hazleton.

The late Rev. Josep h Ferrara wanted to take his youth orchestra from Hazleton to Romania. He lacked $14,000 for the trip.

Ferrara, Beltrami, Saul, Tony Manfredi and the late Joe Barletta decided to approach Ali.

The champ came, bringing sparring partners Jimmy Ellis and Larry Holmes, who later wore the title belts, for an exhibition at Harman-Geist Stadium.

“They put on that show. We collected enough money to send the kids to Romania. Muhammad got up and said — and Ray always put this in his column — ‘What’s a great champion like me doing in a one-horse town,’ and he puts on a great show,” Beltrami said. “Ray was a good, loyal friend and asset to our community. His presence will be missed by all, but to me the times we spent together, especially around Muhammad Ali, will never be forgotten.”

Although identified with sports — people still thought he was the sports editor 26 years after he left that job — Saul led the entire news operation as managing editor. His Sunday columns in the op-ed pages covered the span of local, national and world events.

“He was a real intellectual, very bright, extremely well-rounded. Few individuals in any profession can equal his sustained excellence in journalism,” Fran Libonati, retired Hazleton High School principal, said.

Paul N. “Nick” Walser, the publisher of the Standard-Speaker from 1977 to 2002, said he has known Saul all his life.

He’s been a help to me all my life, been a wonderful sports editor, managing editor,” Walser said.

Carl Christopher, the managing editor of the newspaper, said Saul was the perfect community journalist.

“He knew everybody in town, and everybody knew him. He was the human face of the Standard-Speaker,” Christopher said.
Joseph Falatko, who worked 61 years at the Standard-Speaker as the North Side news correspondent, shared seniority with Saul at the newspaper. They also both officiated basketball and baseball.

“He was the kind of guy who made friends with everybody and had a sense of humor, and he was the best boss in the world,” Falatko said.

Saul had already been at the paper 47 years when he met an intern reporter, Jeff Drumheller.

Drumheller had just been hired and approached Saul at the North Wyoming Street Brewing Co.

“I’m not trying to be too forward, but one day I want to have your job,” Drumheller recalled telling Saul.

“He said ‘It’s all yours. I just retired,’” Saul replied.

Retired or not, Saul took Drumheller to Media Day with the Penn State football team and made sure he met the coach.

“Ray pulled me aside and said, ‘I’d like to introduce you.’ Paterno shook my hand. I had only been (at the newspaper) two months. It was quite a thrill,” said Drumheller, who became sports editor.

Ju dge Correale Stevens of the Pennsylvania Superior Court said he knew Saul since he was a child. Stevens’ grandfather, Tony, and Saul’s father, Santini, served together on the Hazleton police force.

“I’ve always had a great respect for Ray. He was tremendously knowledgeable about the history of the area, and of course, his love of sports. He had a grasp of the whole area, the people,” Stevens said.

Stevens worked with Saul on the advisory board for Penn State Hazleton and said Saul was a community representative on the Luzerne County Law and Library Association, the county bar association.

“He was able to bring a perspective to the bar association that we needed, just a wonderful presence as a non-lawyer,” Stevens said.

Saul also helped sustain the arts programs in Hazleton by reviewing local plays and concerts.

“He was the rare man who appreciated sports and art — almost unheard of these days,” Judiann McGrogan of the MPB Community Players said. “He always highlighted the best and gave credit to the actors, which was a great boost to them.

“I was amazed at how much he knew. It wasn’t just that he came to the plays around here. He had a great knowledge of all things in theater and music.”

Phyllis Colombo, director of Backstage Studios, said actors gave their best whenever Saul attended a show.

“Even if it was a regular night it was special,9 D Colombo said. “You could tell how good you did by how flamboyant his words were. He never put in anything that was not deserved.”

She said Saul even donned his Navy cap to fill in as a captain in a production of “South Pacific” when the regular actor had to miss two shows.

“He couldn’t learn his lines. He stayed on the stage playing the captain with a clipboard,” Colombo said. “He brought his old caps over and uniforms and helped outfit the cast and had a great time being on stage.”

Saul also enjoyed hosting banquets.

“He was a tremendous master of ceremonies. There are very few of those kind of guys left,” said Pat Ward, a newscaster who now leads the United Way of Greater Hazleton. “He would always refer to me tongue-in-cheek as the ubiquitous Pat Ward when he, himself, was the ubiquitous Ray Saul.”

When Ward acted as master of ceremonies for a dinner in Hazleton to honor Saul five years ago, Larry Shenk, vice president of alumni relations for the Philadelphia Phillies, attended.

“I’ve know him since ’64 when I started,” Shenk said Tuesday. “He was an icon of sports in Hazleton. Everybody knew him. He was a very talented and classy journalist. We’re going to miss him.”

Saul got around to banquets, regaling audiences with tried-and-true stories and sayings of his mother, Genevieve.

Ed Morgan, former Hazleton20High School baseball coach, said Saul gave the speech to dedicate a stone memorial to the alumni of the former Rock Glen school.

“We put up a wall of all our graduates. At the dedication, of course, Ray came down. The next year when we finalized it, he came down again,” Morgan said.

“Ray and I both shared the distinction of having coached Joe Maddon,” Morgan said.

Morgan coached when Maddon helped pitch the Hazleton Mountaineers to a district title in 1971.

“Mr. Saul — I got to know him when he was my Little League baseball coach,” Maddon said from spring training where his Tampa Bay Rays are set to play their first, pre-season game today. He expressed his sympathy to Saul’s family, including his son, Gregory, a former teammate in Little League.

“Whether in baseball, or teener league or high school, he would always be there to cover those games,” Maddon said. “We always remember his distinctive voice and the fact that he was so big and imposing.”

Bill Crooks, who followed Saul as sports editor, was among the Standard-Speaker workers who learned to mimic Saul’s voice.

“There were some great imitators,” Crooks said, “but it would be nice to have the original back.”

kjackson@standardspeaker.com