Salena Zito: For Dave McCormick, It All Began in Humble Bloomsburg

‘It’s clear after spending a few days here that Bloomsburg’s people are the ones who formed him’

By: Selena Zito
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
January 21, 2024

It is a little past 8:30 in the morning, and Dave McCormick is walking into his alma mater, Bloomsburg High School. No one there knows he’s coming, yet it’s clear in the first interaction as he’s walking toward the gym that a lot of people around here still see him as that star football player and wrestler who took their school to glory back in the 80’s.

“Hey, Davey — how’s it going,” says Dane Hahn as he passes McCormick in the hall — as matter-of-factly as if the last time he’d seen him was last class. Mr. McCormick responds in kind, then abruptly stops, realizes what just happened, and turns around.

Mr. Hahn, a retired Marine who is part of the security team at the high school, smiles and laughs. The two embrace and spend the next ten minutes exchanging ribs about some of the antics from their high-school days.

Thirty seconds later, after rounding the bend towards a wall of plaques that honor outstanding graduates, including himself, he gets another casual “Hey Davey” — this time from Chuck Baker, one of the school’s operational engineers and the head coach for the girls’ field hockey team.

“I’m the guy that made you take a good look at the ceiling a while back,” Baker said, reminding McCormick of that time he pinned him in a match for a win. He didn’t have to: super-competitive in everything he does, Mr. McCormick clearly had not forgotten.

Mr. McCormick’s academics and skills on the mat at Bloomsburg — a small town about 20 miles west of Wilkes-Barre — led him to an appointment to West Point, which in turn led to him earning a Bronze Star for his service as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division in the first Iraq War. It’s clear after spending a few days here that Bloomsburg’s people are the ones who formed him.

This is the first of a two-part series looking at Mr. McCormick and Sen. Bob Casey Jr., who in all likelihood will be the two men vying for what will arguably be the most important Senate race in the country. The race could decide which party will hold the Senate in January of 2025.

It will also likely be one of the most expensive and most over-analyzed races in the country, with reporters covering it from a mostly horse-race political view. This series will look instead at the two men from the vantage point of the people and places that helped form who they are and, ultimately, why they are running.

There are two things you quickly learn about Dave McCormick after a few days in his hometown: His friends, coaches, parents and acquaintances are still as competitive as they were 30 years ago, and they all still challenge each other to do better.

Mr. McCormick’s friends Ray Klinger and Todd Kreisher — who appeared in his “Buddies” ad in 2022 when he ran and narrowly lost in the U.S. Senate primary to Dr. Mehmet Oz — give him the same type of ribbing in real life as they did in the ad, in which they laughed at his claims about the size of the first buck he shot when hunting with them.

Mr. Klinger has never left Bloomsburg and now serves as the police chief of Scott Township, which surrounds the town. Mr. Kreisher left for a 26-year career with the U.S. Secret Service, but he came back ten years ago to run corporate security for BMW Americas Region.

They still all hunt together, something they’ve done since high school, and they still all agree — including Mr. McCormick — that he’s not as good at it as they are.

“It’s okay, with a little more effort, maybe Dave will get better someday,” Mr. Klinger deadpans.

It could be argued that Mr. McCormick is drawn to people who hold his feet to the fire. You see it in how he interacts — in softer ways — with his mother and his wife, Dina Powell.

You also see it more obviously with his former high-school wrestling coach, Keith Taylor, and with his father, James McCormick, who brought the family here when he was named — at the age of 34 — president of what was then called Bloomsburg State College. Mr. McCormick was in elementary school at the time.

The bantering with his father at the family farm, which at one time was a Christmas tree farm that kept both Mr. McCormick and his brother Doug busy during high school summers trimming and shaping the branches, reveals a very loving but also austere father — one who wants his son to consider all variables in his run for U.S. Senate.

The elder Mr. McCormick is clearly proud of both boys. There is a “Wall of Doug” on one side of the working farm’s office and a “Wall of Dave” on the other, showcasing framed clippings of both boys’ achievements in high school, at West Point and into their adulthood.

As the children of educators in rural Pennsylvania — mother Maryan was also an educator, earning her Ph.D. at the age of 50 — the focus in this family has always been on hard work and exceeding expectations.

As father and son sit at a table at Unida Pizza shop, they are joined by some of Mr. McCormick’s closest friends. Back in high school this was Luigi’s, and it was the place football players and their families went after a home game.

Among them are Mr. Klinger, Chris Howell, Daniel Klingerman and Todd and Molly Kreisher. Ms. Kreisher disclosed that “for about five minutes,” she had been Mr. McCormick’s high school girlfriend.

After chowing down on some great pizza (the secret is in the sweet sauce), the friends’ discussion turned to Mr. McCormick’s run for office. Everyone chimes in, especially his father, who offers — several times — his viewpoint on his son’s risks. After a while, the candidate leans towards his father and deadpans, “Are you working for the Casey campaign Dad?”

No one flinches over his father riding him or the interjection. In fact, they all laugh and carry on. Josh Klingerman, Dan’s younger cousin, explains that this is just how it is with people from Bloomsburg — and it’s the genesis of Mr. McCormick’s responsiveness and attraction to people who give him a hard time. Not a bad trait in politics.

“It is part of, I think, the ethos of parents in rural Pennsylvania to push their kids towards excellence, and it doesn’t matter what you are doing — whether you are working with your hands or going on to serve your country — you just better be doing more than your best at whatever it is,” said Mr. Klingerman, whose family for generations has been legendary here for their service and investment in the community.

Mr. Klingerman adds that Mr. McCormick’s father, his high school football coach — the late Tom Lynn, a legend in these parts for his tough-as-nails coaching — and his wrestling coach Keith Taylor all share the same drive for excellence Mr. McCormick responds to, even when it is brutally honest.

High school wrestling here is maybe just a notch less popular than high school football, said Mr. Klingerman, “and that is a big ‘maybe.’ Wrestling here is everything, and all you have to do is just try to go to a wrestling match here and try to find a place to stand, let alone sit.”

His cousin Dan, who excelled alongside Mr. McCormick on the mats (though the two quibble incessantly over who was the best), explains that the first thing you learn in the sport is that every problem you face and everything you do in your life after wrestling is easier because of the limits you have pushed past. “The mental strength and self-reliance you develop from the sport almost always leads to a very successful adult life.”

An hour later, over coffee at the Bloomsburg Diner, Mr. McCormick is sitting across the table from Coach Taylor, the man who once pushed him to the brink of his physical and mental limits.

Later he visits with Ida Lynn, widow of the late football coach Tom Lynn. Ida still lives in the same split-level home as decades ago, when her husband would have all the kids over after three-a-days or ahead of a big game for pizza, inspiration and a lot of tough love.

A striking silver-haired former nurse who looks 20 years younger than her age, Ms. Lynn candidly admits that her husband was a ball-buster who expected his players to excel in both academics and on the football field.

“Oh, how he loved those kids,” she says, and looks Mr. McCormick in the eye, adding: “You were family. You were all family.”

Mr. McCormick said Coach Lynn saw in him something no one else did: “He plucked me from obscurity. I was a sophomore and kind of a benchwarmer and the player who only got called in to play in the last quarter, whether we were losing big or winning big,” he explained.

When Mr. Lynn was named the new head coach the summer heading into Mr. McCormick’s junior year, he watched all the game films. And then called young Davey and told him he’d noticed what he could accomplish when he got the limited playing time.

“He said, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve been watching you, and I think there’s a real place for you on the team as the middle linebacker — but you’re going to have to work really hard and earn the spot,” Mr. McCormick recalled.

“I worked my butt off all summer and then went to camp, and he made me — along with two other guys — the co-captain of the team, which as a junior is pretty unfathomable,” Mr. McCormick said.

He’d gone from benchwarmer to co-captain.

“He said he saw leadership potential in me that I really didn’t see in myself, and the reason he was so instrumental in my life is he was brutal — ruthlessly difficult, hard and demanding,” explained Mr. McCormick.

Coach Lynn laid the groundwork for him to be successful at West Point and Ranger School — and even at handling his firing as co-CEO early on at Bridgewater, only to earn his way back to the top position a little over a year later.

“I deeply admired Lynn, and he made a huge difference in my life,” Mr. McCormick said. He kept in touch with the late coach until his death, even sending him a letter from the war zone in Iraq during the First Gulf War, telling him how much Mr. Lynn meant to him and how much he appreciated everything he did for him by pushing him to be great.

Ms. Lynn said, “He really cherished that letter.”

Thanks to the university — which his father steered for over ten years before becoming the founding chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — Bloomsburg has not fallen into decay like many other similar towns in Appalachia, though it too has a persistent problem with meth and fentanyl.

The Main Street is vibrant; the school district is robust; the population has shrunk, but not significantly, and people who live here often have lived here for generations.

Mr. McCormick points to the former hotel where he was a bus boy and to his favorite hoagie joint as a teenager, places where he, Mr. Klinger and Mr. Howell pulled endless pranks on each other, and finally to the high school football field where Coach Lynn first took a chance on him, and pushed him hard.

“It’s funny but this is where everything changed for me,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong: It was hard, and I’m not sure how much I fully appreciated it then, but I will tell you after my first week at West Point, I was glad he did,” he said chuckling, and adding: “It’s the thing I go back to every time I have faced any challenge in my life.”