William P. “Bill” Fennhahn taught Amsterdam junior high school boys the skills used in carpet-making and other textile trades.
His daughter, Patricia Fennhahn Dunn, sometimes visited her father at the end of the school day. “While everyone was busy cleaning up the shop, he would entertain everyone with war stories. He had a great way of telling a story, using humor to entertain everyone while they worked,” she said.
“My Dad was wounded during the war and was disabled, but you would never know it unless he told you. He became a teacher when his injuries prevented him from signing on with St. Louis to play baseball.”
Born in Mannheim, Germany, in 1924, Fennhahn and his family came to America when he was young. He was a standout baseball pitcher at Hillsdale High School in New York’s Columbia County. Enlisting in the U.S. Army after graduation in 1943, Fennhahn became a platoon sergeant in the Fifth Ranger Battalion of the 35th Infantry Division.
He was in the Normandy invasion in 1944, telling the Recorder: “The most harrowing part was getting to the top of the first hill.” His unit’s assignment was to link up with another unit about one half mile off the beach. “It took a day to reach that point,” he said.
Fennhahn was wounded several times and earned two Purple Hearts plus the Bronze and Silver Stars. Fluent in German, he was wounded once while interrogating a German civilian. Another American soldier heard the two speaking German and opened fire.
Fennhahn’s worst injuries were sustained when his legs were broken and nerve fibers severed by machine gun fire in Germany. He was hospitalized for 16 months.
Still eager to be a baseball player, he secured slots with minor league teams after the war, the Quebec Alouettes and the Peekskill Highlanders. His injuries made it difficult to pitch a full game, according to Gary Bedingfield in the Baseball in Wartime website.
Fennhahn married Theresa E. Gonyea of Dalton, Massachusetts, in 1950. He went to SUNY Oswego, played collegiate baseball and earned a bachelor’s degree.
In 1954 he was appointed textile instructor at Amsterdam’s Theodore Roosevelt Junior High on Guy Park Avenue. The school had 950 students then.
Fennhahn secured a sock-making machine for his students, according to a 1957 Recorder story. Carpet-maker Mohasco donated scrap chenille for making rugs. The boys were taught designing, stenciling and sewing.
In 1960 Fennhahn became president of the Amsterdam teachers union. In 1961 he was pitching for the Amsterdam Textiles in the local Twilight League. He also was an excellent bowler, rolling a “sizzling 670” triple one night in 1961.
A German-speaking cousin from Dusseldorf, Germany, Helmut Hessman, once visited the Fennhahns at their Guy Park Avenue home. Theresa and Bill were raising six children, four girls and two boys.
The Recorder wrote that Fennhahn’s students were “becoming well prepared for work in a city which has been known for years as the Carpet City.” Unfortunately, the rug industry was moving out.
Fennhahn left Amsterdam junior high after 14 years for an industrial arts teaching job in St. Johnsville, where he taught for 15 years. In 1975 he was named St. Johnsville’s baseball coach.
He visited Normandy on the invasion’s 50th anniversary in 1994. He told the Stars and Stripes newspaper he couldn’t find the exact spot where he landed but added: “In your mind you visualize everything you did before you hit the beach.”
Fennhahn died in 1997 at age 73 following a long illness. Theresa died in 2009. They are buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Tribes Hill.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 346-6657 or [email protected]