Tempers flared so hotly at the Carlisle Borough meeting that Council President Pierson K. Miller had to use the gavel to restore order.
For more than two hours, town leaders were locked in a cycle of heated argument with a standing room only crowd over the future of the local Police Athletic League.
The date was April 13, 1961, and the popular program was in jeopardy by a proposal aired in mid-March to merge PAL with the Carlisle Recreation Board. Under the proposal, officer Matthew J. Lawton would return to full-time police duty to make up for an anticipated shortfall in the department roster when another officer left for training at an academy.
Lawton was president of the PAL board of directors and the main proponent that drove the program forward. The public felt his departure would mark the end of what had become an important refuge for disadvantaged youth.
There were those on the council who believed off-duty officers could handle the program and that a merger could result in additional state funding for facilities, thus reducing the need to transfer money from the general fund to recreation.
On March 15, The Sentinel outlined the proposal in a front-page story. Within days, the newspaper published the first in a string of letters to the editor calling on the council to leave the program alone.
L.W. Keith – a councilman from 1954 to 1959 – was among the first to vent. “When PAL was accepted, everyone knew what it stood for, but with short memories they are now using the argument about a full-time police officer being in charge of it. We could not have established PAL here unless it was set up with a policeman in charge.
“When on council I argued many times that PAL reached out for boys and girls the recreation department never contacted,” Keith added. “The people in Carlisle should rise and defend the project and keep it separate as it is. I believe council’s only interest is to control all recreation and make a better job or jobs for a few people.”
Gayle F. Jones of North Pitt Street wrote how she was shocked to learn how this program could be discontinued. “Let us stop and think of the numerous benefits the children of Carlisle have received and enjoyed from PAL,” she wrote. “Not only has it meant pleasure and recreation for children the year round, but a source of learning.”
Activities offered by PAL included ping-pong, pool and volleyball, along with instruction in boxing, fishing, marksmanship and dancing. All this was offered for a fee of only 25 cents per year, Jones said.
More than once, Lawton’s annual salary of $3,800 came up during the debate. In an April 12 letter, Charles Wardecker of South Pitt Street touched on the value the borough was receiving for its investment. He figured the annual salary represented only 20 percent of what the PAL program returned to the community in terms of programs and facilities.
“Would it be wise to leave hundreds of youngsters drift into their own unsupervised use of leisure time?” Wardecker asked. “What price might the community have to pay in increased delinquency, property damage and personal injury?” He also questioned how much it would cost for the borough to provide instruction that citizens of the community have so generously donated to PAL.
Letha Barbour of East North Street pointed out in her letter that corporations and community organizations donated a vast store of equipment for the exclusive use of the PAL program. That equipment and the PAL recreation room “could in no way be transferred to the Recreation Board,” she wrote. Replacing the equipment or the room would be an unnecessary drain on taxpayer dollars.
Youth speak out
More importantly, Barbour wrote how PAL achieved great success in curtailing juvenile delinquency by providing a refuge for hundreds of boys and girls who had nowhere else to go. This included youth who had been ignored or neglected, as well as those from families who could not afford membership fees in sports and clubs.
“[At PAL] they found some adults who were interested in them and who cared what they grew up to be,” she wrote. “They had an opportunity to play or train in any field or activity that captivated their interest.” Barbour encouraged others to back Lawton.
“Money could not begin to compensate for the long uncharted hours, the love and the good the PAL president had given to our children and leaders of tomorrow,” she wrote. “The least we can do is to stand behind him now and express our thanks.”
She was not alone. “I have talked to many people and they think that he devotes his time to the boys and girls off the street and out of trouble,” Albert Fisher wrote. “If he keeps one boy or girl straight or a dozen, he is doing his police job and serving the community because our boys and girls today are the citizens of tomorrow.”
One day, about 75 of those citizens rallied in downtown Carlisle in support of Lawton who was commonly referred to as “Tom” by program participants. The youth formed a double file that marched along the sidewalk over North and South Hanover streets and East and West High streets for several blocks.
The boys and girls carried banners reading “Tom is our PAL” and “Tom’s for PAL.” They also chanted “We want Tom. We want PAL” as they walked. The Sentinel newspaper published editorials in support of Lawton and the PAL program.
On April 13, the editorial board made a case that the future of PAL should be discussed from every angle before the council voted on the proposal that evening. The editors believed PAL was being as used as a “political goat” to “be abolished simply to satisfy the whim of a few officials, despite its worth to the community.”
The same editorial urged the public to hold council members accountable in the severest sense. “Those who recommend or vote to abolish PAL should be rejected if they seek any public office, elective or appointive, in the future. We must have officials who accept responsibility, not hide from it.
“From usually reliable sources we understand that the majority of the members of council have been convinced by its heads of the police department that PAL is a waste of time and money and that the police should not use regular duty time to supervise PAL,” the editorial reads. An earlier opinion piece mentioned that it was “a top official of Town Council who refuses ... to be identified” who was behind the push to reassign Lawton.
During the April 13 meeting, several residents spoke out against Police Chief Edward Still and the apparent lack of interest his department had in PAL. It was mentioned in newspaper coverage that while the bylaws for PAL required several police officers to serve on its board of directors, only Lawton stepped up and showed any initiative.
Still defended his department by saying most of his officers had no off-hours to spare because they needed to work other jobs to support their families. “We are not against PAL,” the chief told the crowd. “It’s just that I can’t get enough help within the department to run it even on a part-time basis.”
In the end, the council voted unanimously to continue PAL and not order Lawton back to full-time police work. Instead PAL was turned over to the town burgess and Still who were authorized to prepare a plan to correct any deficiencies within the program and to monitor the administration of the program and its solicitation of funds.
PAL existed for many more years until it was discontinued.