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“King: #51” Sculpture Honors Athletic Association Founder Merle Harner, Late Standout Justin King

Jun 10, 2021

“‘Hi! I’m Justin King, and I’ll be your catcher tonight for Pine Forge!’

“That’s how he’d greet the home base umpire at the beginning of each game,” recalled Carol King, Justin’s mother. “And always his greeting came with a big smile and a handshake.”

King shared memories of her son following the dedication of “King: #51,” the 76th fiberglass sculpture in Boyertown’s Bear Fever community art project. The sculpture was created in Justin’s memory and debuted at the opening game of the 2021 season at the Pine Forge Athletic Association’s (PFAA) baseball field on May 19, 2021.

Justin fell from a cliff in 2019 during the early weeks of his freshman year at Bloomsburg University. Circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery although the officials in charge of Greek Life were fired and all Greek Life was initially placed on probation and recently terminated at Bloomsburg University. Suspicions of illegal recruitment, hazing activities and underage alcohol use during a fraternity party remain.

In remembering her son, King added, “Even as a little boy he’d go right up to someone in a military uniform and thank them for their service. In any setting he’d look for ways to make the most of any opportunity. He’d be the first to help the 9- and 10-year-olds at practice, for example, remembering how much he appreciated help from older players when he was a young player.

“Justin started playing T-ball at age 5 for the PFAA and played enthusiastically until he aged out of the league at 18. His father told both Justin and his older brother Drew that, any time they were less than happy to play or practice, their baseball life was over. But there was never a time they hesitated to gear up for practice or a game,” King continued.

“Baseball was Justin’s love. Fittingly, he scored the team’s winning runs—walk-offs—during the last 2 playoff games of his ‘career’ and, just the weekend before he died, he’d come home [from college] to grab his baseball gear—planning to ‘walk on’ and try out for a place on Bloomsburg’s ball team.

“He loved baseball. But beyond that, he was dedicated, respectful, and caring—just a terrific kid, poised to develop into a great adult. His senseless death was such a tragedy.

“It’s every parents’ nightmare,” shared King. “Being awakened on Saturday morning with the police knocking at your door with the horrific news of your child’s death. There were fresh text messages on my phone from the night before—messages that he’d sent just hours before he died, joking with his dad and me.

“But that wasn’t the end; Justin’s death broke David [King’s husband.]; he got sick and died 8 weeks after Justin. During our boys’ early years, David had been a stay-at-home dad and coached our boys at Pine Forge. He loved and dedicated much of his life to their well-being. Through these tragedies, I’ve become part of a club I never wished to belong,” she shared.

In mourning the death of King, the PFAA collected donations in King’s name to create annual scholarships to support a deserving baseball and softball player and to secure a Bear Fever bear to preserve Justin’s memory. “Honoring Justin and preserving my memories are so important to me,” King concluded.

In dedicating the fiberglass sculpture, Richard A. Zuber, president of the PFAA and long-time baseball player and coach, recalled memories of Justin and PFAA founder Merle Harner.

“Justin was a perfect example of the kind of kid Merle had in mind when he started the Pine Forge Baseball Organization with his friend and brother-in-law [Robert H.] “Skip” Trainer in 1970,” noted Zuber. “As Merle’s son-in-law, I feel confident in my belief that he’d want this honor for Justin as part of his own legacy,” Zuber offered.

Zuber coached with Harner and took over as president of the PFAA after Harner’s retirement. Throughout his life, Zuber has spent much of his summer time either playing or coaching baseball.

“My husband began the league to help more kids,” explained Joy Harner. “He was so upset when his sons began to play that they needed to share a baseball hat and shirt. ‘Every kid should have his own shirt,’ he’d complain. Finally, I told him he should quit complaining and start his own league,” she quipped. “And so he did!”

“‘Mush’ Bechtel [Carroll D., owner of former Bechtel Sporting Goods in Pottstown, PA] contributed the shirts; he was confident that Merle would eventually pay him. And so, he and Skip took the challenge and here we are—50 years later!”

Joy, a gifted softball player, and Merle met at a baseball picnic; their 5 children—2 girls and 3 boys—either played baseball or softball, helped out in the refreshment stand during games each season or in grocery runs to secure prizes for the PFAA’s Saturday night Bingo fundraisers.

A plaque signifies the field as Harner Field, named for the sons and grandsons of Wellington Harner: Samuel, Morris, George, Dewey, James, Charles, Walter, Douglas, and William (Tuck).

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