NEWS, NOTES &
The Bradsher Beat
Thursday, January 19, 2012
By Bethany Bradsher
A hall of fame for real
(ECU SID file photo)
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George Whitfield has wonderful taste in
A retired baseball coach, Whitfield is a
legend in his own right. He touched countless lives in more than four
decades as a high school and college coach (including five years as an East
Carolina assistant under Keith LeClair) and somehow managed to become
acquainted with every major baseball figure who has come anywhere near North
But those accomplishments in his favorite
sport are just part of the story of Coach Whit and his extraordinary heroes.
To get the full plot, you have to be fortunate enough to be present at
Goldsboro High School on the second Friday in January.
In that old high school auditorium with creaky
wooden seats, every year since 1985, Whitfield has inducted new people into
his personal hall of fame. The ceremony is the kickoff to his annual George
Whitfield Baseball Clinic, which has been offered for 40 years as a chance
to expose high school baseball players to some of the best coaches in the
Last Saturday morning at the clinic, focus
turned exclusively to bunts and line drives, to changeups and squeeze plays.
But Friday night was staged under a much broader tent. In his biggest Hall
of Fame presentation ever, Whitfield honored 26 men and women whose
achievements ranged from stunning athletic feats to military heroism to
accomplishments in business and medicine.
You see, to be one of Whitfield’s heroes, you
don’t have to be a household name or an All-American — although he has
honored some of both. National championships, long professional sports
careers and impressive coaching resumes all fall squarely under his radar.
But so do individuals like Carol Carson, who was feted on Friday.
Carson is an East Carolina graduate who has
labored in relative obscurity in her chosen field for 23 years. As the
longtime head athletic trainer at N.C. Wesleyan College, Carson has taped
thousands of ankles and been part of two Division III national championship
baseball teams. Whitfield recognized both of those teams on Friday, but
later he highlighted Carson specifically — for her devotion to her college,
her profession and above all to the countless athletes who have come under
So far, 360 people have been inducted into
Whitfield’s Hall of Fame. In the early years of the ceremony, he would
typically only honor five or six people, but that number has steadily grown
over the years, with Friday’s class the largest so far. As Whitfield himself
has gotten older, he has found that the pool of people he wants to recognize
hasn’t become discernibly smaller. So he has picked up the pace, fueled by
the thought that someone important might be left out.
“I realized, ‘There are a lot of people I
would like to honor for their wonderful accomplishments,’” he said. “If keep
on going with only four a year, I’ll be dead and they will too.’”
Among the amazing realities of Friday’s
observance was the fact that two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients
were in attendance. Only 85 Medal of Honor winners are still living, and two
of those honored soldiers have entered Whitfield’s Hall of Fame in the past
two years. Their inclusion is evidence that Whitfield is less concerned with
athletic accolades than with attributes like courage, character and
perseverance over a lifetime.
Of course, legendary athletes abound in Coach
Whit’s hall. The most recent recipient, in the household name category, was
legendary N.C. State basketball player David Thompson, who was the last to
receive his award on Friday night but was nonetheless honored with the same
hardware and in the same manner as Carol Carson.
The planning and the execution of the ceremony
is all initiated and energized by Coach Whit, but he doesn’t bring an ounce
of pretentiousness to the proceedings. Each recognition is infused with
generosity and grace. For evidence of this, look no further than the plaques
he hands out to every new member of the Hall of Fame.
The plaques are more than two feet tall and
are inscribed with dozens of lines of engraving recounting the recipient’s
accomplishments from high school on. And each year, Whitfield reads every
line of every plague, giving full weight and time to each person and their
achievements. Those giant plaques, he said, were born out of his opposition
to the little plaques that he had often seen, the ones that only mentioned
“Sometimes people go and they get an award and
it doesn’t say anything,” he said. “It doesn’t really tell a story about
you. I thought, if I do these plaques, then anybody can see their whole life
unfurl. We start at the very beginning and go to the end.”
There are rarely any surprises in Whitfield’s
ceremony, but this year a group of his former players and friends –
including ECU baseball coach Billy Godwin — came out with a twist. They
honored the honorer, thanking Whitfield for his years of faithful service to
athletics in the state with a gift of an Opryland cruise, complete with
travel expenses and spending money.
The cruise was a gift from his past Hall of
Fame members, the majority of whom showed up on Friday to give a little bit
of love and honor back to the one who seems to have an limitless supply of
both for his hundreds of heroes.
Whitfied graduated from then-East Carolina
College in 1959.
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01/19/2012 06:46 AM