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Gallagher column: Saluting Theo

The home opener for the Rowan Legion team is always a time for the past greats to visit Newman Park and reminisce about why Legion baseball is so great here.
You can bet most everyone came to remember Theo Heilig, who passed away on May 5 at the age of 90.
Forty-seven years ago, Theo and 11 other baseball men got the Rowan program started. He had a lot to do with the immense success and notoriety of Legion baseball in this county.
“It’s going to be a void,” said athletic officer Banks Barringer, who gave a tribute to Theo before the game. “He’ll be missed.”
Theo washed uniforms. He rubbed baseballs. He took up money. But more than anything, he took up for his boys, the ones who ran onto the field every night during the summer wearing that famous uniform.
“He was really in it for the players,” said Rowan coach Jim Gantt. “He wanted the best possible place for them to play.”
Gantt found that out first hand. He had just graduated from Catawba in 1989 and recalls working with Theo on the field. At the time, Theo was a ripe ol’ 71.
“That’s when they had just put the dugouts in the ground,” Gantt said. “It was really hot. I’m thinking, ‘There’s no way this old man’s going to outwork me.”
After a few hours?
“It almost killed me,” Gantt said. “We had to put my bicycle in the back of his station wagon and carry me to my apartment.
“But that’s the way Theo was. If there was work to be done, he got it done.”

You had to know Theo Heilig to appreciate him.
I walked into Newman Park 20 years ago and saw Theo manning the gate. It was our first face-to-face encounter.
I told him I was from a newspaper and was here to cover the game.
“Yeah?” he sniped. “Well, where’s your pad?”
I pulled it out of my back pocket.
“Where’s your pen?”
Huh?
Gantt laughed at that story.
“He came off pretty rough around the edges,” Gantt said. “He told people what he thought.”
Theo relented and let me in the park. Actually, I kinda enjoyed the bantering. So I decided I’d find out just who this gruff old guy was.
I quickly learned that Theo was simply outspoken, not a mean guy. In fact, he was so emotional that it was nothing to see him cry when a kid got a game-winning hit or made a game-saving catch.
I learned he was one of the visionaries who got the Legion teams from Salisbury, Rockwell and Spencer to join forces.
I learned he was a former state commissioner and N.C. Legion Hall of Famer. He helped bring in winners like Joe Ferebee and Jim DeHart to coach his boys.
And in return, they gave Theo state title after state title.
I’m sure he cried after each one.
Every one of those players and every one of those coaches wanted Rowan to taste success for him.
“Theo could get things done that others couldn’t because he knew so many people,” Gantt said. “Legion baseball was in his blood. He was such a good guy.”

Even at 90, Theo expected to be as active as ever. He was going to be the athletic officer. That’s amazing. He still had the zest to see Rowan be the best.
Memorial Day is when we salute those who gave their lives for this country. At Newman Park, we also saluted a man who not only served his country in the Navy Air Corps but dedicated his life to making Rowan his personal passion.
“Everything he did with Legion baseball was trying to improve it,” Gantt said.
Theo might have missed his first opener in 47 years last night, but his spirit was here. And because of him, the best Legion baseball program in the state will always be here as well.

Contact Ronnie Gallagher at 704-797-4287 or rgallagher@salisburypost.com.

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