Respected Coach DeHart could be a prankster, too
Salisbury lost one of its finest citizens Sunday with the passing of Jim DeHart.
A heart attack was the medical reason Jim left us, and I wasn’t surprised when I heard that. He had given so much of his heart to other people throughout his life, I suppose there wasn’t enough left for himself.
His wonderful wife, Betty, stole a big chunk of Jim’s heart when they were “kids.” Then their three daughters got their shares. Then the grandchildren, and there’s a sizeable number of them.
What remained, he gave to other people’s children, including one of mine.
It was the late spring of 1996. My son, Matthew, had been playing baseball since he was 9. It is/was the dream of many boys in this area to play Rowan County Legion baseball when they became age eligible. He was but one of the many.
So he signed up to play when he was 16. And when the final cutting deadline came (when the final roster of 18 had to be selected), Coach Jim DeHart kept him on the roster, to back up starting catcher Adam Patterson.
And what a season 1996 turned out to be, including a trip to the American Legion World Series, held that year about as far west one can go in the United States without falling into the Pacific, the state of Oregon.
As I wrote this article, my son, now 33, sent me the following email: “I didn’t know it then, but that 1996 summer was the best of my life (and my favorite team).”
Matthew went on to play for Coach DeHart in both the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Three summer beach trips with friends he gave up to play baseball at Newman Park.
If a kid played for Jim, you didn’t hit the beach until the season ended. More than once, I heard Jim say, “You can’t contribute to our team by being at the beach. If you’d rather go to the beach than play ball, I understand. But make up your mind now (at the start of the season).”
If a Rowan Legion/Jim DeHart player missed a practice or a game because of a spur-of-the-moment beach escapade, all this player needed to do upon his return was drop his uniform off at the ball park. It didn’t matter if he was the team’s best pitcher, best hitter, best anything.
Coach DeHart expected, even demanded, commitment, but he earned respect.
Once I got to know Jim, I found him to be a warm, fuzzy teddy bear. He was serious when it came to the things that were serious, but he loved to have a good time.
Jim always parked his Buick in the same parking space at Newman Park every night. I pity the guy who got there first and took Jim’s space. One night I pulled into the space right next to him. He was nowhere in sight, so I carefully parked my car no more than three inches from his driver’s side, making it impossible for him to get in.
I knew I would be leaving at the same time, so it really would not cause him any inconvenience. So when Jim, Howard Platt and I walked out of the clubhouse to go home after the game, he stood there and said something along the lines of “Now, what is this %$#@!”
He knew it was my car, so he just stood there, waiting for my reaction.
“Is there a problem, Jim?” I asked.
“No, not at all. But you’re going to have one unless you move that car … now!”
Then we all burst out laughing.
So the next night, I parked my car near his, but not immediately beside it.
When the same three of us walked towards the parking lot to go home, Jim said, “Mike, when you drive home at night from the ball park, do you like to listen to music on the radio or just have it quiet so you can enjoy the ride?”
“Uh, I usually play music on the radio. Why?” I asked.
So I said good night, started the car and was backing out when I realized all I was getting on the radio was static. I punched all the buttons, trying to find a radio station, any station.
Then I looked up, and the distinguished gentleman was standing next to his Buick, with a big grin on his face, holding my radio aerial, which he had sneaked out during the evening and removed from my car. He reattached it and said, “See you tomorrow.”
That’s all he needed to say.
I have no idea the number of young people Jim DeHart helped during his lifetime. I’m sure it’s too many to calculate. Either by convincing them they should continue their educations by attending college, or by helping them get into college. And if you told me he and Betty even helped some kids pay for college, I wouldn’t doubt you for a second. Jim and Betty wouldn’t want me or us to know. They wouldn’t do it so they could talk about it.
A few years back, I had the distinguished honor of participating in the ceremony in which Jim DeHart was inducted into the Rowan County Sports Hall of Fame. It remains one of my favorite memories.
Jim didn’t strive for awards, the awards found him. He didn’t use “I” very often in terms of achievement. Instead it was “we.” He shared the credit with those who deserved it. In my son’s Legion days, it was Jim and Paul. When speaking of his incredible family, the “we” was Betty.
Those of you who attended Rowan County Legion games during Jim’s tenure, no doubt, saw Betty at every home game walk down and leave on top of the Rowan dugout a pot of hot coffee for the Coach. Even on hot, steamy June nights, he claimed hot coffee cooled him off. While all the players were gulping Cheerwine slushies, Jim was savoring hot coffee.
And I also remember the night an errant foul ball found its bull’s-eye mark on the coffee pot, completely removing it from the immediate vicinity. I’m guessing it got hot in the dugout that night.
The positive impact Jim DeHart had on my entire family is immeasurable. I struggle for the words to explain any further. If you knew Jim, you probably understand.
A finer man I have never met.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents every movie played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.