WILKES-BARRE — The 1980s were marked by the rise of computers and the end of the Cold War, but there was an array of shocking, thrilling and disappointing local news in those 10 years that will be long-remembered by Wyoming Valley residents.
The Citizens’ Voice, barely two years old, covered all those events while newspaper employees and residents alike struggled to put behind them a bitter strike that ignited after employees of Cap Cities — the new owner of the Times Leader — started up a competing publication. Here’s a look at some of the important stories that dominated the pages of the newspaper through that decade.
One of the most shocking stories of the 1980s and in Luzerne County history was that of mass murderer George Banks, who went on a shooting spree in Wilkes-Barre and Jenkins Twp. on Sept. 24, 1982, killing 13 people and wounding one.
After drinking and taking prescription drugs at his Schoolhouse Lane home in Wilkes-Barre, the 40-year-old state prison guard used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to kill three women (all mothers of his children) and five children — four of them his own — at his residence.
Dressed in fatigues, Banks left the house with the rifle and shot at two passersby, wounding them both, one fatally. He then headed to the Heather Highlands Trailer Park in Jenkins Twp., where he fatally shot two children (one of them, his son), the mother of that child and two other adults.
Banks went to see his mother in Wilkes-Barre, confessing his crime to her, and then holed up at a vacant home on Monroe Street. He surrendered to police after a four-hour standoff.
Then Luzerne County District Attorney Robert Gillespie convinced several area radio stations to broadcast reports that said none of the victims were dead and all were expected to live — a ruse designed to convince Banks his crime was not serious and that he should surrender.
Accounts of the mass shooting in the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun suggested that Banks’ motivation for the 13-murder spree had its roots in Banks being treated in early life as a social pariah.
Banks’ mother, Mary Yelland, told the Baltimore Sun, “Georgie’s father was black. I’m white. He was born out of wedlock and the people here never let us forget it. They shunned me and the kids. They called me a (racial slur) lover and they did the same with George’s women. They ate at George. They just kept bugging him.”
Banks was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. In 2010, he was declared mentally incompetent, which prevented his execution. He remains imprisoned at State Correctional Institution Phoenix in Collegeville.
The following year, parts of Northeast Pennsylvania saw its residents getting sick, and the water was to blame.
In 1983, a giardiasis outbreak occurred in the drinking water systems supplying residents of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties sickened thousands. Other Pennsylvania counties also saw outbreaks.
The outbreaks led to system-wide boil advisories, and ultimately forced the Pennsylvania Gas and Water Company to install filtration and treatment plants at all of its reservoirs.
The 1980s began on a bad note for many in Luzerne County who were concerned for those with mental health issues.
The state Department of Welfare intended to close Retreat State Hospital in Hunlock Creek. The controversial closing was hotly debated, with opponents contending the move would put hundreds of mentally ill people on the street and their caretakers out of jobs.
County commissioners unsuccessfully opposed the move, and the mental hospital closed in October 1980. The following year, then Gov. Dick Thornburgh announced plans to convert the facility into a state correctional institution. The site now operates as SCI Retreat.
The year 1980 held a bright spot for downtown Wilkes-Barre, when Reading businessman Albert R. Boscov bought Fowler Dick and Walker’s Boston Store on South Main Street that August.
Boscov made sure the ribbon cutting for the Aug. 11 grand opening of the department store would be memorable. The ribbon consisted of 30 $100 bills — one for each member agency of the United Way of Wyoming Valley.
Ken Pollock, a Hunlock Creek businessman, had bought the store that May, and Boscov bought it from Pollock less than a week prior to the grand opening. Boscov planned to spend $1 million to remodel and update the store.
Opening the Wilkes-Barre store was Boscov’s first venture into a downtown shopping area, and it was his first multi-story store. It became the eighth store in the Boscov’s chain.
Boscov’s last name became synonymous with shopping, when a clever advertising campaigned morphed into a verb defined by shopping at his department stores. “Did you Boscov today?”
Boscov died of cancer last year at the age of 87. The chain is now headed by his nephew, Jim Boscov.
Kirby Center opens
Thanks largely to the efforts of Boscov, the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts opened in the refurbished Comerford Theater on Public Square six years after his store downtown.
The Comerford, previously the Paramount, was used as a venue for touring concerts and closed-circuit television boxing matches in the early 1980s. The building began to deteriorate, and the next step planned was demolition. But a group of local residents called STOP (Save the Old Paramount) banded together to try to prevent it.
In 1985, Boscov entered the picture and, along with August L. Simms, and with the assistance of Fred M. Kirby II and the Kirby Foundation, a team was assembled including local business and civic leaders, to put together a drive to raise the necessary $3.3 million for the acquisition and restoration of the theater.
The project was launched, designed and completed in just under nine months, and the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors on Sept. 19, 1986, with a gala event to celebrate the theater’s rebirth.
The gala featured the American Ballet Theatre as well as the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic and members of Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theatre. The venue is still going strong today and has been referred to as an “art-deco jewel” of The Diamond City.
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