Fifty years ago, when Sprague first opened in 1972, Al Zupo was part of the original staff that greeted students. Over time this teacher/coach became the Olympians third Athletics Director. When he retired after 25 years wearing the orange, yellow, and brown of Sprague High School he had touched many lives. And no one influenced Salem-Keizer's fourth high school more than “Mr. Oly”.
Originally from California, Al Zupo spent his formative years in Dayton, Oregon. He, his dad Jim (who eventually became known affectionately as “Papa Zupe”), mom Marjorie, and sister Luanne moved to Dayton when he was in the third grade. While sports has always been a big interest for Al, he adapted easily to the more rural life of Dayton. At age 11, a neighbor and former men's duck calling champion taught him the art. He took to it and won a Raleigh three-speed bicycle at the Pacific Coast Flyways Junior Duck Calling Contest. Success under his belt, he then entered the adult contest, finishing 11th out of 33 entrants. He won a Pendleton shirt for his dad. “I have never been duck hunting but I could demonstrate the three calls used to bring in the ducks” says Zupo. Al also was a member of 4-H. His 4-H project in grade school was raising a calf. “Frisky” earned a fourth place ribbon at the Yamhill County Fair. Okay there were only four entrants, but a ribbon is a ribbon!
It was also in Dayton where Zupo started playing baseball on a pee wee baseball team coached by his dad. “Papa Zupe” had played for the 1930 Seattle Indians of the old Pacific Coast League as an 18 year old and he passed his love of America's Pastime on to his son. Al was a catcher. He went on to play baseball throughout high school for the Pirates in addition to American Legion baseball for Dayton, then McMinnville and Sherwood. While at Dayton High School he joined the Future Teachers of America club and was a member of the National Honor Society. Before his Pirate career concluded in 1960 he had earned 11 varsity letters and was a first team all-conference selection in football, basketball, and baseball. Ultimately Zupo declined a $10,000 bonus signing offer from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the summer of 1960 to pursue college.
(A side-note, the Pirates went on to sign a different catcher that year. Manny Sanguillen had a 14-year Major League Baseball career. He was a three time all-star and two time World Series Champion. Al actually got to size up his former potential competition when he met Sanguillen at his barbecue stand outside the centerfield fence in 3-Rivers Stadium.)
After high school, Zupo tried out for the University of Oregon's frosh baseball team together with nine other catchers. He lasted through the winter but the Ducks finally kept the three catchers who were on scholarship. Not one to give up, and believing in his own ability, he made the varsity as a sophomore. Unfortunately, health issues cut his time short after making the spring break trip to California. He transferred to Linfield College (now University) and played for Coach Roy Helser (a former Pacific Coast League player himself). During Zupo's time at Linfield the Wildcats were on a nine-year run of consecutive Northwest Conference championships. Al played catcher, first base, and the outfield. Coach Helser believed that if a player was hitting he would be in the lineup. And Al could hit. There were games when four catchers played various positions in the game. It was also at Linfield where Al got his first experience as a coach when basketball coach Ted Wilson suggested he be an assistant with the JV basketball team. He ultimately coached a nine player all-frosh team to a 6-1 record.
Zupo graduated from Linfield in 1965 and began teaching mathematics and health at Whiteaker Junior High in Keizer in 1966 where he also coached lightweight football and assisted in basketball and baseball in a time when junior high schools in Salem offered a full complement of sports.
When Al moved to Sprague in 1972 he was hired as a teacher and coach. “This was an honor as junior high teachers were not given the opportunity to transfer to the high school in those days.” Zupo was actually hired to teach consumer economics/personal finance and math. He was also hired as the JV baseball coach under Sprague's first Athletics Director and 2018 Beacon honoree Marv Heater. However the designated head coach – Morrie Jimenez – left before the school year started and Al became Sprague's first varsity baseball coach. He served in that position for 12 years and won a Valley League title. He also coached JV and frosh football for 12 years in addition to sophomore basketball for two years, working with coaches like Jerry Gilman and Walt Hamer.
“My first season as baseball coach was quite an experience. Sprague had no baseball field to play or practice on so we bused to a sand field that later became a GI Joe's store for practice. Not a real baseball facility. The first team was a blend of varsity players, JV players and others who did not play baseball the previous year. Most of the players [had] moved from South Salem [High School], including Terry Haugen among others.” The Olympians played most of their games away from home although they did use Gilmore [Field] for a few games. They won four league games, beating Corvallis twice and South Albany twice. “Later our teams qualified for the league playoffs several times and were league champions in 1981, losing to Medford High School in the first round of the OSAA State Playoffs.”
Zupo became the Olympians Athletics Director in 1985 when then AD Cliff Saxton retired. He held that position for 13 years. As an AD he worked alongside 2018 Beacons honoree Dick Bellock and 2020 Beacons honoree Dave Johnson among others. Al was forward thinking during his time as an AD. “During my time as Athletics Director, I was privileged to work with many outstanding coaches, athletes, parents, and community members. I hired the first female to coach a male team – soccer. I moved all varsity soccer games to what was then considered the 'football' stadium and began playing night games in the stadium. Sprague was the first Salem school to make this change.” He also was part of the decision to treat members of the extremely successful Sprague Olyannes dance team – led by 2020 Beacon honoree Coralee Rose - as any other sport by awarding members their varsity letters. He also developed an academic award for athletes who maintained high grade point average standards for four years. In a somewhat controversial decision but not widely known, “Tom Pickens and I [decided] to award athletic letters to Sprague students participating in non-OSAA sponsored sports or sports not funded by the school district. We did this without using any district funds.” To qualify the student had to meet OSAA academic requirements, provide a schedule of their practices and/or their game/meet participation to demonstrate the amount of time in the activity. As examples, letters were awarded for skiing, bowling, rodeo and target shooting.
During his tenure “Sprague attracted outstanding coaches who coached the Olympian teams to many league titles and some OSAA championships. During back-to-back years nearly every team at Sprague qualified for state playoffs and many, many individuals also qualified – straining our finances for
meals, transportation and lodging. There are too many coaches and athletes to name without forgetting someone, but I will mention one – Robin Hill, one of Oregon's winningest football coaches.” One of Zupo's great memories “was a boys tennis team that no singles player or doubles team lost a set. They swept through the Valley League's District Tournament (every member of the team scored at least one point ), qualified 8 or 9 for the state tournament, then won the OSAA Boys Tennis Tournament (every player scored at least one team point) and Jeff Nunnenkamp was the Oregon State singles champion.”
After retiring in 1997, Zupo served as a consultant for the Salem-Keizer School District, developing and coordinating middle school athletic and transportation schedules as well as working with middle school coaches and administrators to modify and adjust athletic procedures.
Zupo was included in the first Sprague Athletic Hall of Fame induction in 2010.
Al has been married to wife Sharon for 47 years. He met Sharon at Sprague where they both worked for 25 years, Sharon as a science teacher. Together, Al and Sharon have raised and trained puppies for “Guide Dogs for the Blind” for over 30 years. Some of their trainees are still guiding the visually impaired today. For 15 years, their various family dogs were certified as therapy dogs and volunteered for reading programs at schools and visited retirement/nursing homes and convalescent facilities.
During his 25 years at Sprague High School, Al Zupo became synonymous with the school in his roles as teacher, coach, and AD. He approached his day-to-day activities with a smile and a positive attitude. He worked hard and was proud be an Olympian and his community, his school, his coaches, and his athletes saw that. For that “Mr. Oly” is now a Beacon.