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History Matters

Rediscovering a Laurel High coach and Irish pizza pub's 'leprechaun'

By Kevin Leonard

6:00 AM EST, February 23, 2013

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Occasionally this column takes a look at what happened to a person or thing that was a memorable part of Laurel's past. This month it looks at two Laurel icons from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Laurel High coach set the standard

Laurel High School was never known for fielding excellent football teams. Ron Ladue changed that.

Ladue inherited a football program that was not expected to win. But Ladue's teams did win and changed the expectations for Laurel High. By the time he left coaching after the 1972 season, Ladue had established himself as the school's best football coach up to that point. His tenure set the standard and, to this day, his record at Laurel High stands up with the best in school history.

Interviewed recently in his office in Olney, Ladue, now 70, fondly remembered his time in Laurel.

Ladue grew up in Laurel and his family lived in the area then known as Scotchtown, off Old Sandy Spring Road. An all-county football and baseball player at Laurel High (class of 1960), he played in turbulent times, when Prince George's County's schools and athletics were still segregated.

"Back then, we never played against Fairmont Heights, where the black kids from Laurel were bused," he recalled. "They only played against other 'black' schools." It was during his years at Laurel that the county's schools were integrated. One of Ladue's best friends was Bill Scott, Laurel High's first black athlete, who went on to play football in college and professionally. Another good friend, who also played football with Ladue both in high school and college, was Hollis T. Brown, who would later figure in a life-altering career change for Ladue.

Ladue was a scholarship football player at the University of Maryland, but his career was interrupted with a stint in the Army. While stationed in Germany, Ladue married and had a daughter. With his Army commitment expired, Ladue resumed his football career at Maryland. An education major, he student-taught at Laurel High and assisted head football coach Tony Yanchulis.

After graduating in 1967, Ladue was hired at Laurel High to teach English and, with the blessing of the now-retired Yanchulis, coached both football and baseball. After a few years, he began teaching driver's education.

"Honestly, driver's ed was a boring job, but it had its moments," Ladue said. "They only gave us a brake on the instructor's side of the car. We really needed our own steering wheel."

In Ladue's six seasons as coach, he never had a losing record. His finest season was 1970, when the Spartans went 7-3. Ladue recalls the highlight of that season was beating Potomac High School at their homecoming.

"There was a lot of racial taunting at that game aimed at our quarterback. Black quarterbacks were pretty rare in those days, but we had one of the best in Ronnie Wallace." Wallace justified Ladue's faith, burning Potomac for five touchdown passes.

"He was both a coach and a father figure to us," said Wallace (class of 1971). "He developed discipline in me that I used when I became a policeman."

Robert Ricks (also class of 1971) remembers Ladue as "tough but fair. Because of what he expected, we played bigger than we were," said Ricks. "There were no excuses for not winning."

To supplement his teaching salary, Ladue started selling real estate on the side, encouraged by his friend from school, H.T. Brown, who had a thriving real estate business in Laurel.

"I was making a lot more money selling real estate part-time than teaching and coaching full-time," said Ladue. When Brown offered Ladue a full-time position after the 1973 school year ended, he made the career change. It was difficult for Ladue to leave.

"I have a lot of fond memories of my time and the people there," he said.

His career blossomed so much that in 1978 he left H.T. Brown to start his own real estate development company. The Laurel area is dotted with projects from this enterprise, including Patuxent Greens and Carriage Hills. In 2000, he dissolved his company and returned to just selling real estate. He enjoys being a mentor to younger agents in his office at Remax in Olney.

He never completely left coaching, however. As his son, Whit, grew and became an accomplished athlete, Ladue lent a hand coaching his son's football teams in the Olney Boys and Girls Club and, later, Middletown High School.

Ladue plans to retire eventually to the Delaware shore, where he owns a beach house. His "retirement" plans, however, are typical for the hard-driving former coach: he already has a Delaware real estate license.

Delaney's 'leprechaun' had vaudeville past

Delaney's Irish Pizza Pub opened in 1970 in the Montpelier Plaza with a new gimmick: a 4-foot 'leprechaun' who mingled with the customers, telling jokes, playing various instruments, making balloon sculptures, performing magic tricks and, most important, leading the crowd in traditional Irish tunes. Sammy Ross, the "leprechaun," masterfully worked the room, and with good reason: he was a seasoned actor with a resume dating back to the 1940s that included Hollywood films and vaudeville.

Ross was born in 1923 in Baltimore. His early years in show business included vaudeville shows around the world. He toured with Lawrence Welk, the Three Stooges, and Jackie Gleason, playing Radio City Music Hall and European venues. He toured with the USO, performing for troops during World War II.

Prior to performing as "Johnny O'Pal" at Delaney's, he appeared in two movies: "Top Man" (1943) with Donald O'Connor and Lillian Gish; and "The War Lord" (1965) with Charlton Heston and Richard Boone. In 1967, he was in an Arabian Nights pilot for CBS called "Sinbad," but it was not picked up by the network.

In 1969, the owner of the soon-to-open Irish pizza parlor saw Ross working as one of Santa's elves at the Laurel Shopping Center, and hired him on the spot to be Johnny O'Pal.

While working at Delaney's, Ross appeared periodically in other Hollywood productions. In 1982, he appeared in a television special, "The Mondo Beyondo Show," which featured avant-garde comedy performers and was hosted by Bette Midler. He also made two more movies: "Trading Mom" (1994) with Sissy Spacek and Maureen Stapleton; and a TV movie, "Willa: An American Snow White" (1998).

His son Michael, also 4-feet-tall, joined his act at Delaney's in 1975. The duo worked non-stop, and were hired by stores, industrial shows, shopping malls and private parties.

In a 1997 interview with the Washington City Paper, Ross defended his work at the pizza parlor: "Once in a while, people come in and say, 'You made movies? What are you doing here?' … I say, 'What do you mean? This is chopped liver? This is good, honest work. This is not a Podunk place. This is a nice, neighborly place-well-regarded. How many places can you go and find a live leprechaun?"

Ross played Johnny O'Pal for 27 years, retiring in 1997 to his home in Baltimore. He lived for several years in a nursing home in Pikesville before succumbing to Alzheimer's disease in 2010 at 87.

Richard Friend helped research this article. History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Is there something or someone you'd like to know "whatever happened to…?" Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? E-mail Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com.