Nearly a year after his death, Len Chappell remains a Portage icon, often referred to as a "Gentle Giant" who was an All-American basketball player at Wake Forest University and an all-star during a distinguished NBA career.
When Chappell died last July 12 at age 77 in Wisconsin, the region's longtime sports fans remembered the Cambria County Sports Hall of Famer both for his athletic prowess and the fact that Chappell never forgot his "Mustangs roots."
On Saturday morning, Chappell will return home to Portage one final time.
His widow, Joanne, and Chappell's family will have his cremated ashes buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery near Blue Knob, where members of Chappell's family also are buried. The Chappell family also will visit Portage High School, where the gymnasium is named in Len Chappell's honor.
"I've been there before because his sister is buried there. It's on top of a hill. It's beautiful there," said Joanne Chappell of the Mount Moriah Cemetery. "I was just really impressed when we were there when his sister was buried on the side of the mountain. I always loved it there. I found out all of his brothers are buried there. It just seemed like the right thing to do."
Chappell was a 6-foot-8, 240-pound center with a soft scoring touch and a dominant presence underneath the boards.
His career had its start at Portage High School, where Chappell scored 977 points as a senior in 1957-58 and his 37.7 points a game average ranked first in Pennsylvania. Chappell scored 2,240 points and was an Associated Press All-Pennsylvania selection.
At Wake Forest University, he earned first-team All-American status in 1961 and 1962. Chappell set a Demon Deacons three-year scoring record with 2,165 points. His jersey number has been retired at Wake Forest, where he was named ACC Athlete of the Year as a senior.
His first-round selection in the NBA Draft followed, as the Syracuse Nationals took him fourth overall in 1962. Chappell played 591 NBA games and scored 5,621 points before retiring in 1972. He resided in Milwaukee after his retirement and had moved away from Portage five decades before his death, yet still is among the region's best-known sports figures.
"He meant so much to that area. He's an icon in sports," said John Barr of Dallas, Texas, who attended the former Beaverdale High School and became a lifelong friend of Chappell. "The athlete that he was. The person that he was. He was just a great guy. I just loved him."
Barr originally was supposed to make the trip to Portage, but a health issue will prevent him from attending.
"Len never lost that Western Pennsylvania in him and growing up in a coal mining town," Barr said. "That was still Lenny. He was a still down-to-earth person."
Portage Athletic Director Jeremy Burkett, a former three-sport star with the Mustangs, appreciates the Chappell family's making the trip from Milwaukee and other parts of the country.
"I think it's really neat for the family to want to come back to Portage to see where it all started, especially the sons," Burkett said of Jason and John Chappell. "It says a lot about the Chappells and the Portage community. We're honored to show them the school and obviously Len Chappell Gymnasium."
Earl Sease is a local historian who spent 37 years teaching mathematics at the Portage Middle School before retiring. Sease takes pride in assembling and maintaining displays located in the halls adjacent to Len Chappell Gymnasium.
He spent Friday afternoon preparing the cases for the Chappell family's arrival.
"They're looking pretty good, the two Chappell displays and the displays honoring Vinnie Michaels (football) and Tammy Etienne (track and field)," Sease said of the tributes to three Mustangs legends.
Sease knows plenty about Chappell. He recited highlight's of Len's career at Wake Forest and in the NBA and former American Basketball Association (ABA) during a telephone interview.
"He was the only professional athlete we ever produced," Sease said. "His success at Wake Forest is still being talked about at Wake Forest. He played 11 years in the pros. When the (Portage High School) students learned that he was a first-team All-American and he played 11 seasons in professional basketball – 10 in the NBA and one in the ABA – that gets their attention."
He recalled Chappell's visit to the school in 2012, when all of Portage's boys and girls basketball 1,000-point scorers were honored.
"He never forgot that he was a hometown boy and probably the finest athlete we ever produced here, at least in my lifetime," Sease said. "We're trying to make the students aware of him.
"You'd be surprised – when I was teaching – how many students never had heard of Len Chappell until we named the gymnasium after him."
Chappell will be remembered on Saturday during a quiet ceremony at Mount Moriah Cemetery and at the gymnasium that bears his name.
It will be a homecoming befitting of a local icon.