The 1930s were a golden era in athletics at Pearl River High School. Whatever confluence of factors contributed to the Pirates’ sporting success is anyone’s guess, but one need only look at the roster of all-stars plying their skills on the playing fields to understand how magical an epoch it was.
Names like Danny Fortmann, Chuck Aleno, Bob Tierney, Walt Sickles, Brit Patterson – Rockland Hall of Famers all – gave “Muddy Creek” a sterling pedigree when it came to ball sports: hitting and catching, shooting, passing, toting and kicking.
Continuing the stellar legacy of these Pirate paragons was Alex “Zilch” Zilko, a 1939 Pearl River graduate. Like many of his era, Zilko was a multi-sport athlete. Unlike many, however, he excelled at whatever he tried. In football, he was a two-time All-County
halfback. He led the 1937 Pearl River team to a season in which they went undefeated, untied and unscored on in Rockland Public School Athletic League play. He also captained the 1938 squad.
In basketball, he made All County and captained the team his senior year. The same year, he made second-team All-County as a right-handed pitcher, a season highlighted by his 23-strikeout performance in an extra-inning game against Park Ridge, NJ. In track and field, Zilko also parlayed his natural speed and leaping ability into a Rockland County title in the long jump – then called the running broad jump – with a mark of 19 feet, 4 inches.
After high school, Zilko gained further distinction in football and baseball. Playing for the Pearl River Wildcats in a semipro football game versus the Sparkill A.C.’s in 1947, Zilko amazed onlookers by drop- kicking a 51-yard field goal to give the Wildcats a 10-7 victory.
Baseball might have been Zilko’s meal ticket to greatness had illness and injury not waylaid his plans. An appendicitis attack ruined his chances to latch on with the Durham Bulls, a Class B minor league team, with whom he signed in 1939, right out of high school. Two years later, he was offered a contract by the New York Giants to play for their Jersey City farm team, but a collarbone injury sustained while playing for the football Wildcats wiped out that golden opportunity.
The playing arena was not the only venue where Zilko shone. During the Second World War he was an Army Air Corps sergeant who flew close to 20 combat missions as an aerial photographer with the 97th Heavy Bomber Squadron. He was awarded the Bronze Star, Air Medal (one cluster), Purple Heart, and Good Conduct medal.
Zilko worked for many years at Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, where he was head of the chemical workers’ union. He died two years ago at age 78.