Wheeling Hall of Fame: Michael J. Valan
Michael J. Valan made many contributions to the betterment of his community, particularly in providing entertainment for the sports fan of Wheeling and the entire Ohio Valley.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1910, but a resident of Wheeling since 1919 until his death in August of this year, Mike Valan made his money as a painting contractor. He spent much of that money on sports ventures.
A half-pint second baseman on the baseball team at West Virginia University, from where he was graduated in 1933, Valan had a life-long love affair with sports. He played sandlot baseball with some of the valley's best teams of his day. After World War II, he and his business partner, Nick Mansuetto, sponsored a baseball club, the Valan Contractors.
Valan and Mansuetto obtained a franchise in the All-American Basketball Association in 1948 and launched the Wheeling Puritans, who a year later became the Wheeling Blues. The Blues won three league championships as they competed against teams from cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Maryland. The Harlem Globetrotters, Toledo Jeeps, Detroit Eagles, and New York Rens came here for exhibitions.
A decade later, Valan was instrumental in bringing minor league professional football to Wheeling. He was a founder of the Wheeling Ironmen and served as president of the club during the entire lifetime of the franchise, from 1962 through 1969.
The Ironmen won championships in the United Football League in 1962 and '63. They drew a paid crowd of 11,206 to Wheeling Stadium in 1963 for a game with the Cleveland Bulldogs. Fans streamed through the gates in impressive numbers on Sunday nights in the '60's.
However, player salaries and other expenses kept escalating, especially after the Ironmen entered the Continental Football League, which had franchises in such cities as Toronto, Montreal, Orlando, Providence, etc.
Because of the efforts of Valan and other members of the organization, Ohio Valley fans saw many players who were to advance to either the National or American Football League. Two ex-Ironmen, Bob Brown and Andy Rice, went from Wheeling to the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively, and played in the first Super Bowl — a year after they were playing on the Island.
Wheeling proved a way station for many athletes who needed only more experience to make the big time. Sam Wyche, coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, is an Ironman alumnus. So is Tom Keane, who was the team's first head coach and who subsequently spent 21 years as an assistant coach in the NFL.
Ultimately, the increasing cost of operations brought the financial demise of the Ironmen but not before Valan had also served as president of the CFL. There were many investors in the franchise but no person gave more financially or in time and energy than Mike Valan — high strung, volatile, benevolent, and a human dynamo in behalf of any cause which he took to his heart.
Valan was a president of the Wheeling Auditorium Board and a member of the board of Oglebay Institute. He served two years as president of Wheeling Fraternal Order of Police Associates.
He was twice bereaved — by the death of his first wife, Katherine, in the mid-50's and in 1985 by the death of his wife Irene. He had two sons, John, who now heads the family business, and Michael, who is in medical school at West Virginia University, and is also survived by a sister, Betty Karras.
Text and pictures provided by Wheeling Hall of Fame. Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with the Wheeling Hall of Fame Committee.
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