Dorr: Finelli made his mark on Princeton

He was man for all seasons, the Italian boy who left the security of life in Cleveland and married a Norwegian girl from the north woods of Minnesota. Pete Finelli came to Princeton in 1956, as a teacher and assistant coach. Although he left a couple times, it became his adopted home.

Pete died last week, at age 84, from complications of diabetes. He also battled Alzheimer’s the last six years of his life.

Before that, he left an indelible mark on Princeton, the lives of its high school history students and its residents.

He was much more than a teacher and a coach, although he made his mark in those two fields.

Pete was named an assistant football coach when he came to town, fresh out of St. Cloud Teachers College, and then became head coach when Frank Fischer moved on to Edina.

He was known for his wide-open offense, including jump passes by a couple quarterbacks, both of whom went on to be starters at Army, one as a linebacker and one as a quarterback.

If you look at a team picture from the fall of 1962, Pete is dressed in a sport jacket and bow tie along with assistants Mike Skavnak and Jerry Peterson, both residents of Princeton today.

Pete was also the pitching coach for many of Howard Solheim’s well-known baseball teams. He had pitched three years in the New York Yankees farm system, compiling a 15-21 record. The last of those three years was 1950, in Fargo, N.D., and he stuck around to go to college in Moorhead. That’s where he met his wife of 61 years, Lucille.

Pete was the advisor of Princeton High School’s school newspaper, Tiger Tales.

He also was a sportswriter for the Princeton Union for a few years. When the Princeton Eagle began its 26-month life in April of 1974, Pete was the sports editor. Yours truly was the editor and I had the unenviable task of plowing through the reams of copy that he would turn in each week. Sometimes, it seemed, every pitch or every basket was mentioned. He also wrote a weekly column called The Personal Side of Sports.

Pete was also the first sports director and play-by-play man for radio station WKPM (forerunner to WQPM) when it debuted in the late 1960s. I was his color man, or analyst, on some of those broadcasts and we had a great time talking baseball as we rode to games in his RV.

We did an afternoon football game in 1974, from a rickety press box of sorts on the 25-yard line at Madison, Minn., and Pete predicted it would fall before the game was over. It didn’t, but we had a good laugh on the way home.

Later that fall, we broadcast a Princeton-Milaca football game from atop his RV in Milaca.

The most fun we had was traveling to and from Legion baseball games in the summer. The baseball conversation flowed nonstop as we went down the highway. Pete maybe even missed a turn because we were talking baseball.

Those among us who were privileged to work with Pete – or listen to him – can’t forget Pete’s favorite saying when he made a mistake. “Back that up,” he would say, and then would go on to correct himself.

Pete was also a cook of note, proud of the Italian heritage that was nourished in his home town of Cleveland, Ohio. He made his own spaghetti, his own sausage. Neighbor Mike Skavnak said there was always a feast when Pete was cooking for their couples club.

Now that the statute of limitations has run out, it can be revealed that Pete’s American history students would lead him on in class. They’d get him talking about a particular subject, perhaps the JFK assassination that was his favorite, and the hour would fly by, those students said. The bell would ring and the students hadn’t had to do any work that day. Maybe Pete knew, maybe he didn’t. He enjoyed talking about history.

He was buddies with some of the coaches of his era – Herb Claffy of Milaca, Joe Lutz of Mora, George Larson of Cambridge – and could talk to them easily. He loved doing interviews with Minnesota Twins players for the radio, as well as visiting players. He’d spend a weekend in his RV in the parking lot at Metropolitan Stadium, reveling in the sport he loved.

If I had a penny for every word we spoke to each other about baseball, I’d have the funds to take on a project we once talked about.

That project was to do a sports history of Princeton. We figured since we had, together, covered sports in Princeton for parts of six decades, we’d have a good start.

We won’t have a chance to see that project through. But we surely should take the time to remember a man who was important to Princeton.

In 2006, Lucille Finelli sent me a Christmas card in which she wrote that Pete had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

She began, “We will spend a quiet Christmas season, being happy to be together.” She said she was happy to be his caregiver.

“We laugh and assure each other of our love for each other,” she said, noting that Pete enjoyed singing old favorites that she played on the piano.

At the end of the card, as Christmas neared, Lucille wrote: I know I can feel sad, happy, upset and thankful … and that our God will always be there to love and help us and bring peace and comfort. We are looking forward to the New Year. We hope you can do the same.”

And so we will when 2013 begins – but we’ll have to do it without our friend Pete.

The memories remain of a man who truly was a man for all seasons.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Luther Dorr is the former editor of the Princeton Union-Eagle. Reach him by email at [email protected]