Jack Hicks Chapter 5


Little League Baseball

The formation of Little League Baseball was the brainchild of Carl Stolz of Williamsport, Pennsylvania who was desirous of helping his nephews and their friends develop their games and having an adult presence overseeing. Talented at organization, Mr. Stolz experimented in 1939 with field dimensions and, in 1939, formed 3 local teams, managed by adult friends, and played an informal season. The following year, these three teams coalesced into an official league, sponsored by 3 local businesses.  The first teams, Jumbo Pretzel, Lycoming Dairy, and Lundy Lumber, were managed by Carl Stotz and  two of his friends, George and Bert Bebble. The men, joined by their wives and another couple, formed the first-ever  Little League Board of Directors. Stotz’ dream of establishing a baseball league for boys to teach fair play and teamwork  had come true.

The following year, 3 more teams were added in Williamsport, including a second league and the organization was on its way  to its eventual 200,000 teams in 80 different countries.

By 1946, Little League had expanded to 12 teams, all in Pennsylvania. In 1947 the first Little League organization outside  the state of Pennsylvania was formed in Hammonton, New jersey. In 1948, Little league baseball had grown to 94 different  leagues throughout the United States. US Rubber became its first corporate sponsor, who donated Pro Keds shoes to  participants in Williamsport’s 3rd World Series, won by the Lock Haven team from Pennsylvania of a team from St.  Petersburg, Florida.

It was 1948 when Little league “went viral”.  The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek Magazine each ran special articles on  Little Leagues. Suddenly, Carl Stolz was inundated with hundreds of requests asking how to form leagues at the local level  from all over the United States. Little League incorporated in that year in New York.

In 1951, Little League opened leagues in British Columbia, Canada and Panama, making them the first leagues outside of  America. 1953 became noteworthy as the first televised Little League World Series was telecast live from Williamsport. Jim  McKay did the TV announcing and Howard Cosell did the radio. In that year, Joey Jay became the first Little Leaguer to  make it to the Major leagues of baseball. Little League had very much arrived.

Little League Baseball and Owensboro

Meanwhile, in Owensboro, a curious Jack Hicks also investigated the possibilities of a Little League franchise in  Owensboro. Fully employed as Business Manager of the Owensboro Sportscenter and highly regarded as an officer in the  Owensboro Jaycees, Jack saw an opportunity to form an absolute match for the successes obtained elsewhere with this  growing organization. Like many others around the United States and even the world, Jack saw a superb avenue for young  boys to actively participate in a first love.

Jack obtained the principles for the league’s formation from the National Headquarters and set about analyzing the local  scene to test its interest. What he found – like so many like-minded men around the globe – was a very profound interest,  indeed. Local coaches would be easily found, facilities would be made available and the very necessary volunteer corps  would be the least of his worries. He also knew full well he could enlist the aid of community groups, especially inasmuch  as he was so central to their existence in so many varied ways. The truth was, he was perfectly situated to manage its  beginnings into what it is today. Intimately involved in the youth center he ran underneath the Sportscenter, Jack then  queried the kids about whether they would participate. To say the response was 100% in favor is an understatement. The  boys had long since read the Saturday Evening Post articles or talked about them as the Little League fever had hit their  own communication airways.

So Jack arranged an organizational meeting featuring persons he felt held the most enthusiasm, as well as others invited  by those chosen. The initial meeting was overwhelmingly in favor. Volunteer Coaches were generally chosen, tasks assigned  including the acquisition of land and premises for the games and a crew of volunteers was set up to do the actual work of  constructing the physical aspects of the League.

The remarkable civic achievements of the selfless adult volunteers who made Little League and all the rest of this era’s  social enablement work so fluidly stand today as symbolic, not only of the era celebrating the return of the soldiers and  participants in the dreadful and extended ugliness of World War 2 but also of the era which saw the largest expansion of  the middle class, in economic terms, in World History. (And, of course, the fact that the men and women were producing  lots and lots of babies.) Wild numbers of Dads, Uncles, Moms and friends made the Little league world possible, crafting  ball fields out of empty lots and experiencing the attention of many City Halls who funded, acquired the land for and so  enabled such developmental facilities for little sportsmen and for boys and girls to experience as a mass for the first  time.

In August of 1952 a group of 11 and 12 year old boys found themselves traveling together on the road to Murray, Kentucky in a small group of  cars on what was then a 3 hour trip of exciting sights and sounds, including driving by the world’s largest man-made body  of water at that time: Kentucky Lake. All involved had no idea of what to expect. This bubbly and nervous group of kids  were in their very first year of competing in the newly-formed Owensboro Little League Baseball, having been granted the  franchise the year before under the National Umbrella of this still-very-current organization. At the time, Owensboro was  not, strictly speaking, an early entrant to this blossoming organization, joining after more established groups had formed  in Louisville, Lexington, the Cincinnati suburb of Newport, Harlan, Paducah and Murray. Along with neighboring Henderson,  Owensboro joined this very season, in 1952.

That an All Star team would be chosen and that this group would travel together to compete with other towns, while  exciting, was never a large consideration over the course of this exciting new concept back during the regular season,  where each team was far too busy enjoying the new competition, learning the rules of the more formal parts of the sport  and just flat out loving “playing ball”. Of course, when appropriate – which was often –  beating the snot out of each  other on the field was equally satisfying. There was no shortage of competitive fire in this small group of players,  proven in spades as the tournament commenced. Nor was there any shortage in sheer athleticism, a subject we will revisit  often regarding this city and its enduring love of the game of baseball.

So for 2 days, what occurred in Murray, a “mature” league of 4 years with gorgeous ball fields and well-developed players,  along with Hopkinsville and Bowling Green, would rather quietly announce to the world that a true baseball-competent force  was developing in Owensboro. Led by Coach Jack Hicks, in his first-ever coaching role, having taken the team over by  acclamation from the league’s “real” coaches, all of whom were so wrapped up in local – business – events they feared they could not adequately perform the practices and trips themselves, the kids dominated in an almost embarrassing display.  They won the Semi-State Championship and made it look suspiciously easy.

In one day, behind 3 home runs from 12 year old Lloyd Nash in the first game,and behind the pitching of Woosie Woodward,  the youngsters won 23-0 over Hopkinsville, then 13-0 over Murray. As baseball scores go, these are about as lopsided as it  gets.

Later, traveling to Harlan to play in the State Championship Game, they trounced Harlan as well, winning the State  Championship in their very first year. Owensboro baseball had arrived with a solid and resounding “thwack”.|

American Legion Baseball

In the Summer of 1953, as if he did not have enough challenges, Jack took the coaching reins for the James Yates American Legion Post 9 baseball team. “Legion  ball” – a national organization – had a long history in America, far more so than Little league and the later boy’s  leagues. Begun in 1925, American Legion baseball originated as a somewhat struggling program, aided by donations from the  major leagues to reach its feet after some initial misfires. Thence, unfortunate timing encountered the fledgling  operation with the Depression Era, when various newspapers filled the funding gap left by Major League Baseball. Later,  Major League Baseball recommenced their donations in 1935. American Legion baseball reached Owensboro in 1937 and the  local Post 9 maintained a baseball presence for decades without a lot of fanfare. It typically drew players from local  high schools, many of whom were the best players in the area, but they never really approached what happened until Jack  Hicks took over coaching duties.

With the rock-like dedication of local businessman Jake Winkler, Jack found an ally who could barely believe his fabulous  good fortune in not just acquiring Jack to coach his favorite team and passion, but who also won the post’s first State  Championship in its history in his first managerial season.

As Jack said, “Jake wanted to buy me a car!!”

Over the next 26 years, the true barometer of baseball competency in Owensboro may very well have been exemplified the  most.by the success of these various very capable American Legion teams. And absolutely no one was prouder than Jake  Winkler, the previously long-suffering and insanely devoted occasional sponsor and biggest fan to the team, who suddenly  found himself astride a mini-Colossus.

Jack’s off-field American Legion enterprises included a search for a corporate sponsor early on. In a serendipitous stroke  of mutual interests, Jack was able to find the funding he needed for the team by addressing the President of Velvet Milk  at the time for sponsorship. Learning that about $1,500 was necessary to fund the team for the season, an agreement was reached  to honor the sponsor by sporting the brand name, “Velvet” somewhere in the team name. An impressive and masterful marketing coup was discovered in the title “Velvet Bombers” – an image rich term which has become synonymous  in Owensboro with competence.

Any way, from this point on, for the next 3 decades, the Velvet Bombers won 11 state titles and many times advanced to  regionals. With the opportunity to recruit a wider source of talent within the larger Owensboro and Daviess County community, Legion  ball suddenly became a rather hot ticket during  Summers, featuring a nice bunch of future pros, both on the Bomber’s  roster as well as the various visiting teams. Memphis, St Louis, arch-rival Evansville Funkhouser, among many others both  hosted and traveled to play Owensboro. The Owensboro brand spread and respect was earned around the  country as the Velvet Bombers so succeeded at winning baseball.

Sportscenter Stories

A year after hosting the Globetrotters to an un-noteworthy crowd of a couple thousand souls, Jack got a phone call from Saperstein, asking if he could pry a Monday evening open because the ‘Trotters had an open date they badly wanted to fill. Jack thought about it and booked the event and decided he could still have time to do just a bit of last-minute advertising. Expecting a modest crowd, but more than enough for Abe and the Sportscenter to make a buck, they completely overlooked the publicity the Globetrotters had earned by virtue of a trip they had taken to Russia, where they became virtual international celebrities’. It was the Globetrotters’ “coming out party”. The advent of television also played a major role. TV was rather new in general, but soon the world would gasp at how wonderfully and warmly the ‘Trotters were received. Their popularity went through the roof, not just in Owensboro but over the entire globe. TV had introduced an adoring public to the Harlem Globetrotters. For purposes of this tale, for better or worse, this was not conventional wisdom, at least in Owensboro and Jack Hicks  Just a few hours before the event as Jack prepared for another night of oversight and receipt-counting, while sitting in his office, Jack was interrupted by a lady he knew well who came into the office and who was complaining that she wanted a refund. When Jack asked why, wondering at this outlier of opinion about something like the always-popular basketball games, she mentioned that she “could not get in”, even after having bought her ticket days before. Jack went “Huh??” and took a stroll with her outside.

Passing through the Sportscenter, Jack noticed the place was filling nicely, piquing his curiosity about this complaint. Then, outside, at all 4 corners of the arena, lines formed stretching out into the street and parking lots. There were hundreds no, thousands – of fans waiting to buy tickets and get inside. And it was already packed! There was this insane image of thousands of fans in an endless series of ticket-wanting people getting slowly upset with the slow pace of purchases. It was looking every bit like a real problem.

In order to facilitate the crowds, they made room inside. Over 8,500 people attended that event, in an arena which comfortably seated 7,000. Jack had even called the Fire Marshall, complaining that things were crazy and almost out of control at the packed house end. In a much-appreciated favorable analysis, the Fire Marshall laughed and mentioned to Jack that he was far too busy to check, to go ahead and have a ball. The event was a smashing success. (He also had made sure the lady and her entourage were seated.)

Another peculiar and noteworthy story revolves around Roy Rogers, who brought Trigger, Dale Evans and himself to Owensboro in an event where they allowed kids to pet and ride Trigger, allowed Roy and Dale “face time” and autograph-signing with adoring fans. At the time, Roy’s TV show was one of the hottest shows on television. In other areas of outstanding media success, Roy and Dale sold music records of their excellent work and made some kid-friendly cowboy movies. They were just the mega stars of their day – icons in an extremely kid-friendly era, and the Owensboro visit was highly anticipated and enthusiastically attended.

As the event wound down, their newborn – Dusty – had developed a respiratory infection. They decided against taking a crowded bus to the airport. Roy and Dale found themselves all packed and ready to go but with no ride for his airplane trip out of nearby Evansville. It was a little bizarre, but Roy ended up asking Jack if he could run them over to the Evansville airport. Jack said of course he could, so they hopped into Jack’s car and drove over.

The chat on the way over was a revelation to Jack. It was an easy-going gabfest between these two, while Dale nursed and doted over Dusty in the back seat. Jack was totally impressed with Roy’s honesty, his humanity and pleasant style, fully realizing it was not an act at all. As they spoke about things, Jack became a fan himself, (even after having turned down Roy’s offer of one-on-one time with Trigger – a treat valued incredibly highly by Roy’s devoted following!). Finally, they made it all the way across Evansville to the airport – a longer drive than one might believe, considering Evansville’s penchant for stop lights. As they approached Roy’s debarkation point, they saw an enormous crowd lining the street, all waiting for a glimpse at “The” Roy Rogers. Jack sighed and asked Roy if he wanted to drive around all the hubbub to avoid the crush. Roy answered with an honesty and purity which defined his memory to Jack for life.

“No, Jack. If you would please take Dale and Dusty to the main gate. These people are why I am in the position I am in today. I owe them everything. You take care, buddy, I’ll get out here.”

With that, Jack watched him get swallowed happily amidst the crush of his fans and admirers and he learned a valuable lesson about humility amid ridiculous fame. And Roy Rogers became a bit of an icon to Jack for gentlemanly behavior.



In 1954, Jack was running the Sportscenter and extremely successful at it. The frequency of dates for visiting cultural  events, including a wide range of performers ranging from the always tremendously successful Ice Capades to those links  made with his promoter connections in Memphis and Nashville produced the Bob Hope visit, a huge and very hilarious sell  out. It also retained the services of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Grand ol’ Opry stars such as Charlie Pride and Kitty  Wells. Porter Wagner and Dolly Parton, the Globetrotters – simply a Who’s Who? of American media heroes. Owensboro became  rich in entertainment as young Jack Hicks provided a tone for an entire city.

The Youth Center was thriving, as was the public Sportscenter swimming pool, a recreational Summer destination for  hundreds if not thousands of young Owensboroans and the stuff of legend in everyone’s tales of growing up in this  progress-imbibing town. It was a virtual hangout and meeting place, chaperoned by scowling and serious life guards and its  overseer, eventual High School principal, ex-Marine Joe O. Brown.

Jack was also advancing the Jaycees cause in Owensboro, correctly and somewhat excitedly deducing the impact a social  organization such as this could have on communities and the culture at large. Hugely instrumental in the Jaycee  contributions to the the foundation off the fledgling Little League and Owensboro Youth Baseball, Jack became vitally  interested in promoting the Jaycees themselves. In an era where so many cooperative young men had returned from war ready  to invest themselves in the lives of their children and their communities, the combination of younger non combatants with  a similar hunger for progress and social betterment coalesced in a virtual outburst of Associations such as Optimists,  Jaycees, Kiwanis Clubs, veterans organizations and many others in spirited efforts aimed at improving their communities.

Jack began a process which would eventually become an entrenched civic organization:

Owensboro Youth Baseball.

Jack oversaw the  training and selections of umpires as well – at every level including the eventual Babe Rurh League formed soon after Little League. These were all recreations created by the now amazingly active Jack Hicks. His status in the  Jaycees also skyrocketed as he accompanied the young Wendell Ford to various State and National Jaycee events. In one  notable period back then, Wendell – the Kentucky State President of the Jaycees – ran for National President of this  increasingly influential organization. Armed with glowing rapports with the political big wigs of the times in Kentucky  such as US Senator John Sherman Cooper and State Representative William Natcher, Wendell – and Jack by the osmosis of his  position – climbed to a lofty spot, nationally.

In an all-out effort at lobbying and back-room negotiations at the National Convention, Jack  helped guide Wendell Ford to  the National Chairmanship of the Jaycees. The machinations were heady and fascinating as Jack himself received the annual  award for the state’s most appreciative honor as Jaycee of The Year. It was a peak experience for Jack and it truly  cemented eventual US Senator Wendell Ford as a budding political player in the state and nation.

In 1953, Jack was announced as Owensboro’s Young Man Of the Year.

The successes there led to the formation of Jaycee organizations around the state, for towns such as Greenville and  Madisonville which had not yet formed. Wendell and Jack began meeting with those locals to set up and familiarize them with by laws for setting systems in place. It required some travel and overnight stays to shepherd the process for the  eager new communities. It was a huge demand on time, but Jack was more than able to make it work. He was rather driven by  the successes and hopeful with the spread of a strictly objective, inspiring cooperative message and medium as the  Jaycees.

Back at home, the Sportscenter’s oversight apparatus completely changed. Owensboro changed the form of their city government. The basic city style became more board- centered with the implementation of a new city plan. In  place of the 3 former tight and mutually-friendly overseers who  had overseen the Sportscenter’s initial development and its running’s, a new board was established, composed of 7  completely new people and chaired by the President of Texas Gas. What Jack was not aware of at the time was exactly “how  new” to the Sportscenter’s management this board was. As it turned out – and in spite of the absolute roaring successes  attained by the organization – Jack’s extra-curricular activities had become something of an issue. “People suspected he was too busy” with outside interests such as Little League, Babe Ruth leagues, the Jaycees, coaching the Velvet Bombers and his peripatetic style which also had him on the road with his true baseball mentor, Wally Lance. All it took was one  seemingly unimportant event to put a gas flame to Jack’s position and thereby wreck it.

Wally Lance

While at the Sportscenter, Jack encountered one of his greatest influences in sports, Wally Lance, who had married Jack’s executive assistant at the time, Mary Wolfe.  Since Mary doubled as business manager of the Owensboro Oiler Class D Kitty League minor league baseball team, a 6 month job, her time segued marvelously into the Winter-heavy schedule of the Sportscenter’s events, filling two needs for busy organizations in 6 month increments. She was a very appreciated asset to Jack and the Sportscenter in general, running accounts and bookkeeping and helping with phone work with the numerous clients and prospective clients.

Wally Lance’s own workload included refereeing major college basketball games as well as his baseball gig. He had a BS in Chemistry from The University of Tennessee and he was a player/manager for the Owensboro Oilers. At times Wally was called to travel relatively far to referee ball games, from places as diverse and far-flung as Southern Illinois to Arkansas and even Chicago. These diverse and numerous venues were areas to which Owensboro was somewhat central. Many times he asked Jack to travel along to keep himself awake and to provide society during the long rides. That he genuinely liked Jack is implicit, of course, and Jack’s reverence and hunger for his baseball knowledge became a mining expedition for advice on in-game situations, training, and even recognizing potential. Wally was simply a fount of baseball information. The easy give and take provided an amazing abundance of lore and the knowledge a professional can cede to a young, ambitious aspiring coach. Jack had always read voraciously about baseball but Wally Lance was like a visit to an Encyclopedia who also smiled. Make no mistake, Wally had “been there”.

Jack relates his own awareness of traveling with such an asset as he tried to make the most of his own perceived great good fortune. But this is to say nothing of the interest generated by the basketball games themselves – a sport which of course Jack also coached. Jack speaks of accompanying Wally in hideously nasty weather, driving through the inclement weather with some close calls and adventures specific to those days of far less safe vehicles and road manners. 

The baseball-specific conversations involved many situational questions and the enormously variable baseball strategies of any game or even of programs. Training questions, major league drills for development, hitting strategies, cut-off plays, defensive choreography, pitching ins and outs, sliding phenomenology, fundamentals of defense – simply everything a professional is concerned with – jumped off the mental page in an unmatchable educational transfer, forming many of Jack’s future tactics and approach to the game. Jack became a willing sponge for knowledge as Wally somewhat adopted him after a fashion and they spoke of their purest sporting passions.

It was a sort of Perfect Storm for Jack, learning all this abundant theory at the side of a literal master of the sport. As deeply embedded as Jack was into the entire subject of baseball, complete with an already-abundant sense of the game’s strategies and talents, the adventures with Lance cemented an extra layer – a different level – of baseball competency. Still 4 years away from coaching at Owensboro High School, Jack found himself able to implement much of what he learned by taking over coaching the Owensboro American Legion team the Summer of 1953.

Meanwhile………

One afternoon, Jack was huddling with the visiting Abe Saperstein in the Sportscenter office, negotiating the dates and receipts of next visit of the Harlem Globetrotters. By this time, Abe had seen a very competent young compadre in the person of young Jack, as they had experienced the ‘Trotters stratospheric rise together and had some true fun together  while doing so. As they were talking and closing in on completion of the project, Jack heard a knock on his door. As he  opened the door, he beheld the face of one of the members of the newly-minted Sportscenter Board who asked what Jack was  doing. Jack replied by describing his visitor, Abe, and the nature of the talk, mentioning they were near the end of the  visit and that they – he and Abe – had done this often in the past.

“Don’t you think I should join you?” the member asked Jack, who regrets to this day his reply:

“Not really.”

He also again explained they were nearly finished, dismissing the now-hostile board member and wrapping up Abe’s  visit with the successful signing of a contract.

Days later, Jack got summoned to appear before the board at an “extraordinary meeting”. Curious and unsuspecting, Jack  made the meeting and found himself sitting before the entire board in what became a hostile environment. The Chairman  recited an account of the visit made by a ‘cooperative member’, citing an act of rudeness and possible disdain on behalf  of Jack himself. Jack sensed the worst. Unbidden, they had come for his job. It seemed stunningly ludicrous to Jack,  considering the absolute success he had earned on behalf of the Sportscenter with Mr.Saperstein.

The Board took issue with a litany of “issues”, among them Jack’s involvement with so many enterprises which were not  Sportscenter-related. As the list scrolled on – his Little League endeavors, his work with Jaycees, coaching the American  Legion team, Owensboro Youth baseball – Jack could tell it was a virtual witch hunt and that they were intent on firing  him. It was the single most depressing event of his young life, beyond compare, really. Nor could he see the sense of any  of it. He had literally put everything he had into the project and now he found himself victimized by a committee with a  heedless sense of actual achievement, replete with bitter animosity, the origins of which he could only guess at.

Jack  resigned. He reeled from the event. Having given up his teaching career for purposes of running the affairs of such a  busy enterprise, Jack found himself unemployed. No more daily challenges and promoting his own home town in trade papers,  no more speaking with the cultural icons and leaders America, no more hobnobbing and enjoying the personal actuality of  celebrities. Jack was now required to rebuild.

Next: Jack Hicks Copes


Favorite Pictures, Favorite Projects

With this title, this could probably be one heck of a long series. Just the same, as I sit mending from my medical misadventures of recent vintage, “recollection” – history – is in the air. It just is what it is and I am a passenger on this “big blue ball”.

Play this here tune whilst you read. 😉

(I invite you to click on the pictures, most of which enlarge, sometimes dramatically. But it will kill the music if you do, ha ha. I am a diabolical DJ. Read first, then enlarge, that’s my advice.)

The accidental impact of my career in landscaping, which began as a diverting and hard-worked but somehow satisfying mode of making a living in 1970, has become much more than that, 45 years later. Through all of the years of partial regret at actually “working for a living”, the trade for me bloomed at various times into blossoms I would never have recognized at the onset. For example, who knew I would eventually design – and install – projects which would actually win awards? There were even a few which won awards I was not even aware of until much later. 001 The Best and Worst   The Best: Standing with a client and collecting the final check, listening to something like this is the best part: “Wow, Steve. I know it would be pretty but I never expected anything like this!” There are unfortunately, no pictures for this sort of thrill. Those are in our hearts and minds. 😉

Second Best:  Standing with my foreman after the finishing touches are placed. My Pictures0001 The Worst: (in picture form) 2009-mud-race-4 Here, in no set order, are those projects I am proudest of………….. AlenaandDad LOL, OK. I’m proud of my daughter. She was a major project that worked out well enough. Now teaching Yoga in San Diego. 😉 001Where was I?

Oh yeah………..A project we worried into existence over a few years was at my Reno Business partner Bill and Donna Hermant’s home. It began with us working over a frightfully bare and dusty failure of a landscape and was undoubtedly part of the appeal to Bill at the idea of having himself a partner in the landscaping business. oct1139-800   The very first thing we did was to install his wife’s most precious desire – a waterfall or two and a creek. oct1025   Having finished that – in between projects elsewhere, we worried his house into a fairly splendid landscape – one he was delighted to host parties at for his and my own crews. 001 Here are pictures “down the road a piece” in terms of time. 001 001 001 001 001 The transition from dusty, bare and foreboding to lush, green and welcoming is one of the rewards of the landscape building trade. Needless to say, the clients who receive all this excellent and totally focused attention usually feel pretty darn good about themselves after we leave. 3 This project was a 10 acre extravaganza we did for a home builder/developer who hand-picked his landscaper – me – and who gave “Carte Blanche” to design and install. LOL, those circumstances alone were enough to feel good about, but the artistic and engineering problems so rife with this project – (all water is from a well with a limited amount to be used for the landscape) – and the drainage issues which nearly wiped us out in mid-project (thanks to a careless neighbor) – made for some very serious concentration all the way through the 6 months we worked there. Doug-and-Ed-020 001 From this……. 001 To this……. 001 001 From this………. Picture8To this: 001 What began as a puzzle…………… 001 Sure enough worked out pretty well………… SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA 001 Bottom line on both cases – the clients were quite pleased. The very bottom line?  I was pleased as well. Later on, we’ll move on to some other faves……….. 001   SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

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Accidental Tourism – My Life In Football

001In a way this is a story of extreme local interest to the denizens of Owensboro, Kentucky and almost no one else. My hometown, Owensboro is a sports-mad town with a legacy in the state of Kentucky as something of a traditional athletic power. No team in the state has won more State High School baseball titles. Just last year they won a very competitive, basketball-crazy state’s Championship in basketball. Two of the city/county’s other 3 high schools have also won baseball championships – Owensboro Catholic High and Daviess County High. The 4th, Apollo, has actually come close. When I attended there, we won state Track and Field honors regularly and, as many who know me realize, we won the first of 6 eventual school titles in baseball with me patrolling shortstop as a 10th grader. Bear in mind, this was all in open competition with no “subdivisions” based on school size. In other words, we competed with all the teams from Louisville as well – yet another sports mad city, just 10 times larger.

Basketball and football were king, with baseball and track being increasingly popular due to some fairly outrageous successes. Football in Owensboro has consistently produced individuals who competed at the next – and even higher – professional levels. The Friday Night phenomenon so popular in Texas and down South included Owensboro as a preferred local Friday Night recreational ticket, so often followed by dances and mingling events hosted by the school following games. Yes, as always, football was a pageant….a literal pageant, with our crackerjack band, lovely cheerleaders and 5,000 rowdy fans cheering it all.

It was into this matrix where I evolved into a reluctant participant. In my day, kids with some talent played every sport – it was, frankly, one of the secrets to Owensboro’s long legacy of success. Players like Bobby Woodward, Richard Anderson, the incredible All American duo of Dickie Moore and Frank Chambers who I practiced against daily – one, Dickie leading the nation’s small colleges in rushing 3 years in a row and having an evemtual career in the CFL, and the other – Frankie, attending Alabama, along with our coach……… Kenny and Dwight Higgs, Frankie Riley, Gigi Talbott, Ike Brown, Sam Tandy, NBA Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan – it’s a long list – played every sport they could. It was just what we did. You could see many of the same athletes doing well at each sport in their own rights. The coaches were cooperative for the most part and the new muscles required at each sport created a sort of 2 week No Man’s Land of conditioning for each kid, developing and discovering new muscles and pains relative to their sports.

The feeder system of junior high schools fed dollops of players into the matrix, featuring the raw athleticism and sometimes dominance of certain star-quality individuals into a hard-fought mix of competitions. This is where my individual story as an “accidental tourist” begins………..

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It was in the 8th Grade at Southern Junior High where I began my march to cooperating with talented mesomorphs and psychotics in the sport of football at both the coaching and playing level. I recall the first days of football camp – begun a week or two early, prior to even school openings. It was a bumpy career ride.

Another of my friends saw the wisdom of an early retirement from football, especially after enduring the humiliation of being youngest on the club and getting an unbelievably embarrassing set of football tools, complete with the hazing of the team’s managers whose laughter at the stuff they were reduced to handing out was bully-like but real, unfortunately deep laughter – it was that bad. The helmets handed out to the 8th graders were literally from an earlier era. What we referred to as “’47 Crash Helmets” – real leather helmets, ha ha, and more experimental, weirdly-shaped types of modern helmets (are you reading, Steve Bare, ha ha ha?) provided a completely embarrassing look for each of us as we dredged up equipment handed down from decades of predecessors. Inasmuch as this was my first football since a tentative experience one year in Little League football while living in Bowling Green…………………….

…………………..I actually quit the sport after a few days.

(An angry Father of mine intervened somewhat dramatically. Football was his sport, having played it at Eastern Illinois University in the 30’s and attracting attention with his speed and ability, thus earning the title of “Flash” which my friends teased him remorselessly about. “Flash” actually came from a headline or two celebrating “Freddy The Flash”, who made football look almost easy. He did not agree with my quitting – and did not agree most forcibly, one of his few interventions as a sports Dad. Needless to say, I reported back out to the field in rapid form. The moment did not increase my respect for the sport. I always viewed playing football as a survival sport not particularly suited to my skill set. Yet, there I went, learning the game, playing for 5 straight years at a program well-known for its superlative players.)

In Junior High, I was a fullback/running back on offense and a cornerback on defense. Later, in high school, I became a wide receiver in a pro-style set, occasionally playing Tight End when personnel issues like injuries loomed. I never shook the unreality on the field, no matter what level. I often wondered just exactly why I was playing – what I had done right to earn the dubious distinction of occupying the same field as the incredible players we had who loved it all. That is how uncomfortable I felt with a sport I had zero natural feelings for.

Here are some of this tourist’s memories of the sport:

As an 8th grader, the season dragged on while I waited for my second favorite sport – basketball – to commence. We played 8th Grade football against other teams, so we had our equals to compete with, and it became interesting for that reason. Make no mistake, I really enjoyed my team mates, all personal friends already. And also make no mistake that this level of competing saw some very satisfying times – great defensive hits on my part, the sensation of “team play” where we sacrificed for the betterment of our record and witnessed, first-hand, what “team play” could coalesce into – a winning formula. I recall – vividly to this day –  few truly embarrassing moments of incompetence as I watched Marvin Robinson streak outside for repeated touchdowns on plays where I – the cornerback – was supposed to “turn the play back inside” from the outside, whereupon I did not, ha ha. Marvin just ran around me, untouched for a couple of long TD’s. Learning from mistakes also took place on a visible level. Just like the embarrassment of incompetence provided an alchemy I adjusted to in my sporting life as time rode on, making me better, if addled..

But Fate had a new plan I would never have guessed at, even in the 8th grade. Southern had 5-6 guys kicked off the team for the abhorrent crime of smoking cigarettes – an unusual penalty in some ways, considering the wild number of farmers who grew tobacco in the lush Western Kentucky fields and the humongous warehouses that hosted tobacco auctions in a clearly tobacco-centered town like ours. But nevertheless, these guys were goners, and they were some of our best players, no less. Well, into the breach go I.

It was our final game of the year when I found myself starting in the backfield for the 9th grade – the “big” – team against traditional heavy rival, Daviess County. Yes, I fully admit my excitement at such a weird opportunity. I was most definitely “playing up” now. I felt a strange sense of destiny, warming up, for real. I had planned to do absolutely everything I could to help us win a pivotal, pennant-clinching game against our rivals and competing first-place qualifiers.

So we kick off and hold them enough to make them punt. I was not a defensive player in the game inasmuch as the defense suffered fewer scratches from their end. So out I went to join the first team offense.

Our very first play from scrimmage was for a screen pass from the excellent and very experienced Terry Tyler to yours truly, a young Walter Mitty. The surprise play took advantage of a very startled Daviess County defense and, catching the ball all I saw was a wide open field ahead of me. I was shocked at the crazy opportunity, the first time I had ever benefited from another team’s defensive mistakes. Naturally, I did what I was supposed to do – I ran like hell.

Well, I scored on that play – 65 yards long – our very first play from scrimmage. At the very end of the run, just as I crossed the goal line for the score, I felt the presence of a defender making an attempt at a tackle. To this day the name Barry Beck haunts my dreams. He launched himself at me in the “good old college try” – well into the end zone, no less – and I attempted to vault him, jumping over his sliding self but catching just enough of him to literally pinwheel me in the air, creating a sort of “flip” which I rotated a full 180, coming down hard from a substantial height of leaping momentum and tackler-propulsion. On my way down, I stuck out my left arm to cushion the fall and I heard my arm snap. Completing my fall, I lay there for a moment with the ball in my right arm, satisfied about the score with a warm feeling. I then took a closer inventory, lying there, of my arm and I suddenly had a sinking feeling that I was looking at 2 elbows. My arm had broken between the elbow and wrist, making a literal “L” out of the forearm. I mean, there was absolutely no doubt I had the first broken bone I had ever seen this close-up. I remember Roy Kennedy’s eyes as he looked at me through the tiny gap in his helmet, and then watched him turn to throw up.

(Interestingly, (if you are a ghoul) my Mother reminds me that she had only just shown up to the game – it was that early in the contest. Walking into the stands to join my Dad, she asked “So how are we doing?” in all her innocent hopes, even before she sat down. My Dad pointed out a cluster of people standing and leaning into a player on the ground in the end zone. “Your son is on the bottom of that pile.”)

Well, I was driven to the local hospital where I remember seeing my rather breathless parents arrive. Walking in the door with a towel over my arm, I remember the sounds of my huge football cleats hitting the slick tile floor, then finding myself in the air again as I slipped and fell, right back onto my back. Finally lying down for a doctor’s perusal, I recall the sense of comfort that mom and Dad had joined me here. The doc told me to count backwards from 100 and I got to about 97.

I remember waking up in the Recovery Room, alone and quiet. I looked down and saw this cast on my left arm – a whole new deal. None of the implications for the future loomed at all. I was also merely the 3rd kid on that team who had broken his arm playing football that year, including Jerry “Jumbo” Elliot’s compound fracture – a “Kevin Ware” type injury with protruding split bone featured –  just for an arm and not a leg – during a completely average play. It was my last visit to a hospital for sickness or injury until 2011, lol, a span of 49 years.

Mom and dad showed up, concerned and loving, God bless them, and even brought a magazine – a Sports Illustrated – a fave of mine back then. As we sat talking, here comes the denouement of the day.

Coach (Yogi) Meadors came into the room, all smiles and concern. After quickly getting the questions in about my state, naturally I asked him the results of the game.

“Steve, we got beat 27-0. Your touchdown didn’t count because we were offsides on the play. It was called back.”

Thus began my love/hate relationship with football.

The next season saw me in a far more prominent role. As starting fullback, I got a number of carries and learned quite a bit about twisting and turning, doing complete 360’s – spins – to keep balance and deal with initial hits. I began becoming a far more efficient cornerback, having learned my lesson about “containing” the play in front of me and learning to throw myself in some organized manner at ball carriers. It was a season of successes, actually, and I even had this 75 yard punt to brag about as the team’s kicker, a ball that hit the frozen ground of that day and literally received a prop boost as it bounded away down the ‘frozen tundra’ of that exceedingly cold day. The only real negative of the season was my bursting through the line on a dive play right up the middle and receiving a helmet in my face after 3 yards, hit by a large middle linebacker who broke my nose – yes, through the face masks. Bleeding on the bench at the halftime break, my coach was livid at how we played and he questioned my courage. It seemed like such an incongruous thing – after my broken nose, I still never missed a play. I recorded the humiliating event as yet another strike against the sport in my world. We won the game, 7-0, on a literally last second, 60 yard pass from Landy Lawrence to Gerald Woods, our athletic freak of nature

The next season was very real. Showing up at high school practice now, as a 10th grader, we endured summer two a day practices run by the local psychotic, Ralph Genito, who had played his own football at the University of Kentucky during their highlight season of all time on the Orange Bowl #3 ranked team and whose coach was the legendary Bear Bryant. Genito was a football-mad semi-tyrant who developed an animus towards me early on. Channeling The Bear, his view of the world was that there was football………………………and that’s about it outside of flirting at the local Country Club in his role as lifeguard, ha ha. But I digress.

The camp he ran that season, before school even began, was one of the most brutal experiences of my life. Later on, when I went through Basic Training in the Army, I found the process suspiciously easy. I wondered if I was somehow missing the difficulties others faced as I pranced through basic with a smile, never bothered in the least by the physical nature of the process. I credit Genito with preparing me for the military very well indeed. That initial set of practices saw our numbers of participants steadily decreasing as people quit, finally resulting in a football team consisting of 31 players only. Yes, it was that bad.

Next post – Steve discovers what a concussion is.

Running A Landscape Business – Part 1

Finally, I arrive at the nuts and bolts in my semi-autobiographical rendition of a life in the landscaping business. I apologize for taking such a long break in posting, but – hey – it’s my blog and I’ll blog if I want to.  😉

Another miscreant – John Bufton – and I were working for the largest maintenance business in Vancouver, BC in 1978 – now known as David Hunter Garden Centers. While together, we had long talks about the world around us and, among other thoughts, we found a mutual interest in trying to go off alone in a business. John, in fact, already had a few “side jobs” where he spent his “off days”, working his butt off for a couple of wealthy contacts, courtesy of his Mother who was in Real Estate. As we spoke, we realized we brought mutual strengths to the idea – John with a local connection and existing contracts and a deep history of lawn and garden maintenance, and me, with abundant experience in estimating and installing landscape construction projects. We made a business plan of sorts – believing a Spring start and the abundant work involving “power-raking” – the removal of thatch and moss built up through the cool, damp Winters of the Great Northwest – which was highly profitable – could supply our financing. From that, we would attempt to form a “base”, a ‘bread and butter’ aspect of the business in the form of maintenance contracts for homes throughout the city.

John’s mother co-signed for a loan to purchase a beater pickup truck, we invested our pay into purchasing hand-outs, prime for Spring labor, which we would distribute door-to-door to likely customers. In February we began, quitting at Hunter and venturing out on our own, dazed but explosively hopeful. Our handouts were a complete success – actually far beyond what we had imagined. In fact, John began complaining about the radical numbers of calls. Nevertheless, it was what we had asked for and so commenced a fairly robust season. After one day we were able to buy our very own weedeater and in ensuing days, we purchased all the maintenance machinery and tools we would need for the entire year. After a week, we were on our way! We were bursting at the seams, happy, tired and full of optimism.

It wasn’t long until we had some landscaping to look at. Over the course of the first month of business, we acquired a $28,000 contract to upgrade a series of apartments managed by one of our newly-acquired maintenance contracts. It required designing and a small hand-drawn idea of our intentions relative to the places and was impressive enough to please the client. Suddenly, we were a 2 crew operation and we purchased yet another beater truck. We entered the Federal and Provincial Era, where we began complying with the standards of employment in general, submitting taxes and deducting them from wages. Within 3 months, we had become “Bona Fide”. It was a heady period, to say the least.

We pretty much did everything right and we certainly could not be faulted for effort. We worked constantly. However, in this success, we encountered the beginnings of our eventual dissolution. The landscaping end of the business had encountered a subdivision of one acre lots during the period of serious economic expansion, house-flipping and people making humongous money as house prices skyrocketed locally. Fortunes were being made and lost over the housing bubble of the late 70’s in British Columbia and we experienced our first loss. Someone decided not to pay – or actually, could not pay. And this after an incredibly busy season. The timing was dreadful inasmuch as we had plowed our money into the business itself. Suddenly, the landscaping end of things realized its inherent risks, certainly compared to lawn and garden maintenance, which was sufficient unto itself, easily done and very predictable.

We found ourselves at odds over directions and John – who had 3 beautiful baby boys – was feeling pressure not only from his wife and family but from himself over realizing the inherent risks in the trade of landscaping. We became poor again, quickly enough, and John expressed his willingness to separate. Aside from it being a literal study in what can go wrong in business, it was somewhat heart-breaking. It felt sloppy and depressing, and this after a year where we were as busy as anyone in the entire town.

I spent most of that Winter in a funk. It was difficult resigning myself to going back to work for someone else, but it seemed the only way to survive. I felt alone and despairing. And then help came from a surprising source.

I got an offer from someone who wanted to help some small business as a silent partner. Our efforts had not gone unnoticed and he lived in the neighborhood of one acre homes which I had had such a difficult time leaving, since literally everyone there hired me as they moved in. He called a mutual friend who highly recommended me as someone who he might be interested in investing in. It was serendipitous, strange and relieving. As a former IRS (Canada Version) agent and an accountant, he was set up to be the most incredibly apt person to help I could have found. As we spoke, I suddenly understood he was dead serious. My heart was a’ flutter.

So with Spring approaching and a couple of small projects underway, John went onward to his life’s work without me. In a year, so incredibly much had happened no one had time to remind ourselves of the actual events – a miasma of happenings complete with small stories, a lot of success, some tragedies and an amazingly eventful series of events.

Ray soon showed up at my place with a brand new 1980, dual wheel 1 Ton Ford truck with a flatbed which raised and lowered by electric motor. It was a dream machine, the envy of the city dump! (Let it be known here and now that the girls liked it too!). Clean and sleek, it could handle the landscaping chores in ways which shot our productivity through the roof.

We moved back into the famous one acre lot territory, this time taking no prisoners and designing stuff like mad. We also acquired a couple of small commercial contracts which I had estimated for and with an eye towards moving towards a much larger commercial side of the business. There was big money there. Little did we realize we were attracting attention from larger fish. Well, we worked hard and met some amazing people.

(We did a project for Leslie Nielson’s older brother, redoing his entire back yard and fence, patio and raised bed planters. This was the pre-Airplane, pre- Detective Frank Dubbin Leslie Nielsen, whose other brother at that time was the head of the New Democratic party in the national capital – a major political player. I only name drop like this to mention that each man – who we met – was an absolute gas of a person – just nice as could be and warmly appreciative of our efforts.)

It became this sort of highlight of the season because the entire year was composed of such small successes and this project was a minor one financially but not without major fun. It was a great year and we did about $384,000 in total volume, in 1980 dollars. Extrapolated to now, that’s about $750,000. People were noticing and our reputation had become excellent.

Winter in Vancouver is a fairly bizarre thing. While I spent later years not missing one day of week day work, generally we shut down the landscaping during December to mid February. Say 2-3 months. It is actually welcomed by owners and planners as it gives a period to take a breath and assess directions and processes. Oh yeah – and have a beer.

During this down period, I got approached by another interested party who had money, bulldozers, back hoes and whose home I had worked on laboriously dynamiting trees, scraping 10 acres of land and then decorating it up in my own trademark ways. Mario – an Italian with toys and attitude – approached both Ray and I with a deal: Bid on the largest work in the Province and he would help finance the delayed payment schedules, provide machinery for the work and actually attend work every day like a working partner. Inasmuch as he was a home builder and a successful one, his record was pretty impeccable for profits. To Ray and I, it was a near no-brainer. Onward and upwards. So we two became 3. The only caveat was that we would need projects to work on, lol. If I could supply a contract, Mario would join. Suddenly my onus became clear. I had to acquire contracts.

For the next 45 days, I spent every waking hour in front of blueprints, estimating them. I would visit literally every major construction company in Vancouver and surrounding towns, asking to be put on their bid lists and begging for blueprints from which to draw and submit estimates. Finally, I got a call.

I visited this business – a $20 Million a year construction firm who was looking at new landscaping companies because of some unfortunate events with others. My price interested them but my approach interested them more. They allowed me to explain my history, assessed my principle partners and awarded us an $84,000 contract to begin in a few weeks. I drew up a contract, showed it to Ray and Mario and suddenly we were a viable business. We began the contract the day we could start, with Mario unloading his bulldozer and us pushing dirt which was partially covered in snow. For the next 60 days, no one took a day off and we put in 12 hours per day whereupon we finished to an immensely-pleased client. We hired one other person and no more, lol. We did it all.

In the meantime, I was still fielding calls and bidding projects. We were awarded another one – this one far larger – which I failed to even look at. In fact, the day we were to begin, as we were toting our equipment jobwards, I suddenly realized – along with my partners – that I hadn’t the remotest idea where it was! Both the other guys were shocked – I had been so thorough with the other ones. I became nervous, lol, as we approached the place. But as we arrived, the project supervisor came out and introduced himself. Word of our competence had spread and he was asking if we felt we could somehow manage to take on some extra work, prior to the landscaping.

“Duh”, was my reply. 😉

He wanted us to build retaining walls out of pressure treated 6″ x 6″‘s, at 5 different locations on the site, each of them over 100′ long. Each location required 3 walls of 3’ high apiece. It was an enormous undertaking. He asked for a price and we huddled. Between the 3 of us, we came up with a figure and he gave the go ahead after a brief call to his office. Suddenly, we had 3 months of very profitable work ahead of us. It was a dream.