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Chester High School basketball star Warren Sutton finds redemption 60 years later

A star at Alfred University in Western New York, Sutton, an African American, he began dating a white coed. What followed changed their lives forever, and led to a gracious resolution.

Warren Sutton receives an honorary diploma from Alfred University in 2017.
Warren Sutton receives an honorary diploma from Alfred University in 2017.Read moreCourtesy of Warren Sutton

Sometime after Christmas, Warren Sutton, 79, will board a bus in Kitchener, Ontario, and, perhaps for the final time, make the 350-mile journey back to his old hometown of Chester.

There are nieces, nephews, and old basketball buddies he hopes to see. His real destination, though, will be Haven Memorial Cemetery. That’s where his parents and siblings are buried and where he’ll attend a headstone dedication for Emerson Baynard, the Chester High basketball legend who died penniless in 1993.

Basketball is Chester’s signature sport. And when the game was taking root there in the 1950s, Sutton picked it up quickly. A co-captain on the 1956-57 Chester High team that lost in the state championship game, he’d go on to become the best player in Alfred University’s history, a Canadian collegiate star, a draft pick of the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks.

But America’s links to racism were older and deeper than Chester’s to basketball. And that was something that, until he fell in love with a white Alfred coed, the young African American hadn’t grasped.

Their relationship would play out amid the civil rights movement’s tumult. And when it ended, Sutton and the blond, blue-eyed daughter of Alfred’s bursar would pay a steep price.

They would lose each other. She would be committed, by her father, to a mental hospital. He would leave the basketball team, the university, and eventually the country.

In a time of racial divide, when social issues often intersect with sports, Sutton’s remarkable story remains instructive as an American tragedy, a painful lesson in the pitfalls of prejudice.

Before the story ended in the glare of flashbulbs at a Times Square movie theater, a progressive college had driven a star athlete away, a father had institutionalized his daughter, police had pulled a young couple from a movie theater, and a young American had abandoned his country.

But thanks to resilience and redemption, this story had an upbeat ending. Nearly six decades later its central characters have found peace. Recently, those who wronged Sutton in 1960 or ignored him afterward have reached out for forgiveness. And even though their actions upended his life, he has welcomed the mea culpas.

“There’s not an ounce of bitterness,” said Gary Ostrower, Sutton’s Alfred classmate and now a professor there. “He’s just a generous, even-tempered, decent human being.”

In 2017, the new president at Alfred, a small university 75 miles south of Rochester, N.Y., wrote him to apologize. That spring the school awarded Sutton, who left midway through his junior year and never earned a diploma, an honorary degree.

Likewise, the retired computer-systems analyst’s athletic achievements are being recognized. He’s been inducted into sports halls of fame at Alfred, at Canada’s Acadia University, and in his native Delaware County.

“Am I receptive to all of this? Sure,” Sutton said. “I don’t blame Alfred for what happened. It wasn’t the school. It was just a few old men.”

Perhaps when Sutton boards that bus for Chester, he’ll remember another trip home, in December 1959, when Alfred officials were pushing him to end his association with Dorothy Lebohner.

“We had an exhibition game that night and the tension and pressure were building,” Sutton recalled. “I got into a fight with another player. That wasn’t my nature, so I knew things were out of control. I told [Alfred coach Pete Smith] I wanted to go home and he got the manager to drive me. That’s how I left. In the middle of the night. Chester was the only place I could go.”

'The best who ever played here’

Born in 1939, the second of the five children, to a General Steel worker and his wife, Sutton grew up in the Bennett Home projects on Chester’s west side. He discovered basketball late.

“I was in Grade 10 when they built these outdoor courts about four to five blocks away,” he said. “That’s where I really learned to play.”

Residents called the two courts surrounded by high chain-link fences The Cage. It’s remained a basketball mecca, a breeding ground for Chester greats from Baynard to Jameer Nelson.

A junior in 1955, Sutton tried out for Chester High’s team. Coach Bob Forwood was building a dynasty. Though they lost them all, his Clippers reached four state-title games between 1954 and 1959. Sutton made the team, which was led by two returning stars, Horace Walker and Gerry Gilbert.

“Coach was looking to surround that core with anyone who was tall and could walk and chew gum,” said Sutton. “I was 6-3 and I guess I fit that category.”

As a senior, he broke his foot and missed several games, but he was still the 26-3 Clippers’ leading rebounder and a significant offensive contributor. His 17 points led Chester in its championship-game loss to Sharon.

Among the colleges interested in him was Columbia. While his report cards were filled with A’s and B’s, Sutton didn’t meet the Ivy League school’s academic requirements.

“But Pete Smith, the freshman coach there, had just taken the head job at Alfred,” said Sutton. “Columbia’s coach mentioned to him that I wasn’t getting in and suggested he take a look.”

Located in a tiny town of the same name in the Allegheny foothills, Alfred had just 1,200 students. The Division III school couldn’t offer Sutton a scholarship, but a cafeteria job helped pay his bills.

The springy-legged Chester teenager was the Saxons’ best defender, rebounder, and scorer, playing everywhere from center to point guard in two seasons.

“I’ve watched Alfred basketball for 55 years and he was the best who ever played here,” said Ostrower.

Sutton averaged a school-record 22 rebounds a game, 16 points, 5 assist,s and 2.5 blocks in 1958-59. Against Upsala, he collected 39 points and 34 rebounds.

“Alfred gave me a platform and I took off,” Sutton said.”

Social taboo

While Alfred had admitted its first black student in 1850 and was just the second coeducational college in the United States, Sutton was then one of only five African Americans.

“The one black girl was in the nursing school, so she wasn’t even on campus,” he said. “I was pretty close to the three guys, but they lived in fraternity houses. I wasn’t really a joiner so I stayed in the dorm. I never ran into racism on campus. Actually, I think there was more animosity toward Jews.”

A chemistry-biology major, Sutton couldn’t afford to return home in the summers and, needing the money, continued to work on campus. The independent life appealed to him.

“I was a loner,” he said. “I made up my own mind, made my own decisions. My parents knew I was stubborn, so there was never really any hassle from them.”

One summer, he befriended some youngsters from nearby Alfred-Almond High. That’s when he met Lebohner.

“They were 16-17 and I was 18,” he said. “They were the only other people around my age. We’d get together at this soda shop for burgers, that sort of thing. Dorothy and I had no relationship at first. But my junior year she came to Alfred as a freshman and we started dating secretly.”

Interracial dating was a social taboo virtually everywhere in 1959. Several states still banned mixed marriages. When Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, wed in Washington, D.C., in 1958, for example, they were arrested upon returning to Virginia.

Sutton had dated white girls before, but it became an issue this time because the father, Edward Lebohner, was a school administrator.

“He wasn’t interested in having a black person date his daughter,” said Sutton. “He was putting pressure on her. He didn’t speak to me directly, but he pressured the athletic director, who pressured our coach.”

It all got to him in the ill-fated December 1959 exhibition. After Sutton withdrew from Alfred and returned to Chester, he and Lebohner stayed in touch.

“We were 19 and 17 and in love,” he said. “I guess marriage was in our plans, but nothing concrete was ever done. If we’d let it run its course, we probably would have found we didn’t even like each other much. That’s how teenage relationships are.”

At Christmas time, when Lebohner accompanied her mother on a New York City visit, they decided to meet. Sutton rented an apartment in Newark, N.J., and they “disappeared” for days. But the money ran out and both returned home.

In early February, they tried it again.

“That’s when her father really got involved and things got explosive,” he said.

This time Edward Lebohner contacted the police and the newspapers. A warrant was issued for the girl’s arrest as a “wayward minor.” Breathless headlines detailed the hunt for the “runaway blond coed.”

The couple met in Grand Central Station. After wandering Manhattan for 21 hours, they entered a 42nd Street movie theater. That’s where police and photographers found them. Lebohner smiled for the photos but Sutton ducked his head beneath his orange Chester letterman’s jacket.

“I don’t know why I did that,” he said. “We hadn’t done anything wrong.”

Sutton was freed but Dorothy was taken into custody. An aunt accompanied her back to Alfred, where her father had her committed to Gowanda (N.Y.) Psychiatric Center. He would later dispatch her to California.

The ugly episode disillusioned Sutton. He found a job and remained in New York for several months. Then, with Smith’s help, he arranged to continue his education and basketball career at Acadia in Nova Scotia.

Except for occasional visits home, he would never leave Canada.

“Both my brothers served in the Air Force, but I felt a little differently,” Sutton said. “After all that happened, I thought, `This is not my country. This is not where I can live a good life.’ So when I got to Canada, I said, ‘OK, here’s a country where I can feel comfortable.’”

He averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds and led Acadia to its first Maritimes championship. He would transfer to Sir George Williams College in Montreal, where in 1963-64, he averaged 30 points a game.

In the 1964 NBA draft, the St. Louis Hawks selected Sutton in the 12th round. The 94th overall pick, he was the first player drafted from a Canadian college.

Sutton survived a few cuts, then, after turning down an opportunity to play in the Eastern League, returned to Canada. Retired since 2004, he held several jobs, most recently as a systems analyst for the City of Kitchener, and also coached women’s basketball at three universities.

“For the most part, race is not the same issue in Canada as it is down there,” he said. “People just accepted me for me.”

Sutton married in the 1970s but divorced nine years later.

Honorary degree

In 2016, Alfred hired Mark Zupan as its new president. One of his initial discussions was with Ostrower, a history professor and senior faculty member.

“I had a list of 16 things to talk about,” recalled Ostrower. “At some point I said, ‘Let me tell you a story.’ ”

A month after learning of Sutton’s ordeal, Zupan hand-wrote him a letter of apology. Sutton’s gracious reply generated so much discussion that Alfred’s trustees decided to award the ex-basketball star the honorary degree in May 2017.

Sutton, Zupan said, was honored “not for his extraordinary basketball skills, but for his character and his history.”

Classmates he hadn’t seen in half-a-century came from across the country to attend the ceremony. Since then, Ostrower said, Alfred has received countless letters from alumni and others praising them for their actions.

“It was very unusual,” said Ostrower. “Most times institutions will try to cover up their sins.”

Several years ago, Sutton reached out to Lebohner. They still speak regularly. She completed her education in California and became a psychotherapist in Santa Rosa.

She married a lawyer in 1963 and later divorced. They raised four children.

And in a deliciously ironic coda to an episode that altered both their lives, one of her sons married a black woman.

“That,” said Sutton, “seems so very fitting.”