Jefferson Award Honoree: Bobby Dunn
HARRISON, Tenn. (WRCB) -- Bobby Dunn's start with Harriscon Recreation Association was similar to most of the other adults in the program.
"My kids played here. I have two boys. They played here since they were five," he recalled.
The difference is he never left.
While many parents, coaches and program leaders come and go as their kids grow up and move on, Dunn never left.
It was 25 years ago he first signed his children up for Dizzy Dean Little League Baseball. Since then it's been his mission as volunteer president to provide and improve that experience for every child who followed.
"It was his vision for Harrison Recreation to make it the nicest park it could be so that the kids would be able to play in a nice park. That's what he goes about doing every day," said Greg Presley, a former Harrison coach.
Presley said it would be impossible to calculate the hours, effort and money sacrificed by Dunn to make a little slice of land off Highway 58 a place kids truly wanted to be.
He started with facilities, paving parking lots and building or restoring fields.
"None of the area around our main fields and stands was cemented. There were no chain link fences. The bathroom was an old and wooden building. It was nasty. He had it all built or rebuilt," said concessions manager Carol Pearson.
Every year Dunn makes sure he and his group of faithful followers has a new tangible way to make an impact on the park. This year's project was newly-built batting cages. In the past it's been a canopy for the concession area, a pavilion, new concrete walkways, or even a "Diaper Diamond" for three and four-year-olds to learn the game.
"I've had a lot of good help and we've gotten a lot of things done," he says humbly.
Pearson isn't surprised by his humble response. She said his efforts have always been about more than restoring an old facility.
"I've been in Dizzy Dean baseball for about 30 years," she said, "and he's one of the few that when he says it's for the kids, he really means it's for the kids."
His most rewarding projects are simple, individual moments. And lots of them. Too many to count and all so cherished he refuses to single one out as his favorite.
All memories made by the thousands of kids who have enjoyed the opportunity to learn, grow, laugh and cry through youth athletics.
"I feel bad for any parents who miss it," Dunn said. "A kid can come running up after the game and say 'I caught a fly ball.' That may be the first one he's every caught or the last one he'll ever catch, and you're going to miss that.
"He could get a hit or win a ball game, strike out or do something else. You miss all that."
In Dunn's mind, those are moments no child should miss. And he goes a long way to making sure they don't.
"If the kids don't have money or a way to get here, he makes it happen. If they don't have money to play, he makes it happen," Pearson said.
The sign-up fee to play baseball at Harrison is $75. Dunn doesn't know it because he's in charge. He knows it because he frequently digs into his own pockets to cover it.
"As long as we're here and we're able, they're going to play," he said. "Wherever they are and wherever they come from, if they're here and they want to play, they're going to play."
Dunn is candid and honest about the state of youth sports, understanding it's changed drastically during his 25-year run.
"A lot of parents just drop off their kids and say 'go play,' then come back to pick them up," he said. "But there's ones that don't even play, too. Baseball is not something that's real important anymore.
"A lot of them would rather play Nintendo and do whatever else they do than to play baseball and get hot. They don't like to sweat, I think."
And those stories might be what make Dunn's unending efforts so important.
"I think what he does is paramount," Presley said. "You know you can always go out and sign up for baseball at Harrison Recreation, or cheerleading or football, or whatever it is, and it would provide a good outlet for your kid to grow up playing youth sports and be a part of a team."
It also provides an outlet for adults to do the same.
Pearson's husband, who was one of Dunn's long-time friends, died from cancer. Dunn was a frequent visitor in the weeks up-to and after his death, making time around his third-shift schedule and recreation duties to offer support.
He knew Pearson would need something more.
"He called me up and asked me to come run the concession stand for two Sundays," she recalled. "That was 15 years ago. I guess he's still looking for someone (full-time)."
Presley signed his son and daughter up for baseball and softball with plans to be a supportive and vocal fan. After one conversation with Dunn, he became one of the program's most dedicated coaches.
"He told me he thought I could do it, and I had never even thought about it. I didn't think I could do it," Presley said. "I went out there and did everything I could to help those kids have a great experience because I knew I had Bobby behind me and I didn't want to disappoint him."
It's those stories that keep Dunn pushing forward.
He's had a heart attack and gallbladder surgery in the last six months, but he's still organizing spring sport signups and preparing for another busy summer.
He does his best to put up a tough front about the work that lies ahead, but it's hard to hide how much he enjoys it.
"He would like to be a bear, but he's not. Maybe a teddy bear," laughed Pearson, who has become lovingly known to the kids as "The Candy Lady." "He comes off kind of strong, but he's here for all the right reasons."
Added Presley: "Those kids just melt his heart when they talk to him or ask a question."
And so Dunn presses on. His sacrifices justified every time a former player, coach or parent returns to Harriscon Recreation to return the favor.
"I've met a lot of good friends and had a lot of acquaintances with people I wouldn't have if I hadn't been here. Plus my wife says I like it because I get to leave her at home... she's probably right," he says with a grin.
Finally, the truth comes out.