There was a time during parts of the 1970’s-80’s’s that I served as sports editor of this newspaper. Lacy Smith, who just happened to have been my biology teacher when I attended Logan High School, had at the time sued the Logan County Board of Education because the Board never even bothered to grant him an interview for the head football coaching job at Logan High. Smith, an African-American, who had won two state championships at Aracoma High School, which was located at Coal Branch in Deskins Addition, also had served as assistant football coach for the Wildcats. Coach Smith, still living today in his 90’s, had been hired as an assistant at LHS after integration finally arrived in these coal fields in 1962. An older fellow by the name of Don Pritchard (who I had never heard of in my life) was hired by The Banner when I was sports editor, and then introduced to me as a former respected reporter and columnist for The Logan Banner.
One day when I was openly complaining in our newsroom that there probably were going to be a lot of readers start to dislike me because I was taking the position of defending Coach Smith—who eventually was awarded the head coaching job—the usually quiet Pritchard spoke up from across the room, “Dwight, don’t worry about the public. At least they haven’t hanged you in effigy, yet.” At the time, I really didn’t know what Don meant. Now, some 30 years later, I can tell readers (including Willie) that the late Don Pritchard is largely responsible for legendary basketball coach Willie Akers ever being in Logan County. Here’s the story, as we take a short trip back into the local pages of history.
February 10, 1959: “Local critics of Coach Jim Lilly have been hounding us these past few weeks to assume the unpleasant chore of pointing out that his temper has been getting the best of him at recent games and has prompted many fans to lose the respect and admiration they once held for him,” wrote Don Pritchard in a weekly column titled “Here and There.”
Lilly had been the head coach of the Wildcats since 1956, and from all indications that I can find, apparently had some of the local interests unhappy due to not winning the “big” games. The following example is a letter that was written to Pritchard by a prominent, local businessman and loyal booster.
“I can no longer hold my temper in reference to the Logan-Chapmanville ball game played Feb 3. 1959,” the letter said. “If you witnessed the ball game, I am sure you and a lot of other fans and alumni feel the same way. I am not criticizing the bad players. I feel they played three quarters of good basketball, however, when the chips were down Jim Lilly blew up. Instead of calmly talking to his team and mapping out a plan, he ranted and raved at the players until they appeared more afraid of Lilly than anything else.”
The writer went on to say that Lilly had been coach there for four years and had never beaten a Huntington team or very many other large schools in Logan’s class. “I and a lot of others feel the talent is there but it will take someone with a little patience to get it out,” the writer pointed out. “If we have become natural rivals for these smaller schools, let’s drop Huntington, Beckley, Charleston and other schools our size, and maybe Lilly will be able to rant and rave and win a few from the Class A schools.”
Logan High School and it’s Memorial Fieldhouse (now appropriately called Willie Akers Arena) was just two years old at the time and the facilities for basketball were considered the best in West Virginia, according to the unnamed writer.
The letter printed by Pritchard created an outcry from students, teachers and players at Logan High School. In a later column, Pritchard wrote: “A good many students at Logan High School have declared war against yours truly as the result of a letter which appeared in this column earlier this week criticizing the temper tantrums of Coach Jim Lilly.”
February 13, 1959: “Dear Mr. Pritchard: We as players of the Logan High School basketball team would like to let you know our coach, Mr. Jim Lilly, ranks high with us. Sure, he loses him temper, what coach doesn’t? We, as boys who are coached by him, we appreciate his help and ability. We only wanted to let you know that we are behind our Coach Lilly 100 percent.” The letter was signed by the following Wildcat players—Ronald Henderson, Willis Griffiin, Don Farley, Louis Hernandez Jr., Henry Graver, George Messer, Freddie Colvard, Ruebin Gillman, Kenny Green and Jerry Hainer.
As for myself, having not been born until 1953, I can only tell you that of the names listed above, Jerry Hainer, who I’m told was an excellent player and became an All-Stater, and Willis Griffin are both still alive and residing in the area, as far as I know. It is also my understanding from “old timers” that Fred Colvard was one of the best athletes ever at Logan High, and later excelled in football at WVU. There may be others from that team still around that I simply am not aware of.
Besides teachers, there were nearly 300 students who wrote letters of support for Coach Lilly to the local newspaper, not to mention the many telephone calls Pritchard received.
February 17, 1959: “Thanks to the students at Logan High School, I became a charter member of the “I Was Hanged in Effigy Club’,” wrote Pritchard. On a Sunday night, a group of LHS students hanged a dummy bearing the name of Pritchard from the flag pole in front of the school. The students, anxious to have their prank publicized, telephoned a Banner reporter the day after the event to make sure their deed did not go unnoticed. City patrolmen Herman Minter and Paul Wellman removed the dummy from the flagpole.
“Perhaps I’ll hold a place of honor in the Effigy Club,” wrote Pritchard, “since students were not satisfied with hanging a noose around the neck of the dummy, they made sure of their deed by plunging a foot-long fork into its neck.”
Now, let’s skip to the chase, so to speak. Turns out, the highly respected Don Pritchard had left Logan, got divorced and came back here as a chronic alcoholic. Apparently, The Banner was giving likable Don a chance when he worked briefly with us in the ‘80s. I never once told Managing Editor Raamie Barker, but Don always kept a bottle of liquor in his desk drawer, and drank it from a coffee cup every afternoon. I also never let Pritchard know that I knew what he was doing. Frankly, it was none of my business.
As tensions built up regarding Logan High School basketball back in the late ‘50’s—mainly because local and prominent “boosters” of the school expected a championship (particularly since the almost new fieldhouse and dressing rooms had been constructed)—Coach Lilly was, more or less, forced out, and two successful legends later began: one for Willie Akers and one for Jim Lilly.
While Lilly left Logan with a respectable 87-52 record, a young guy from Mullens, who had served as team captain of the 1960 WVU basketball squad and who was a participant of the nation’s No. 1 ranked WVU team in 1958—and lost in the national title game by one point in 1959, with NBA Hall of Famer Jerry West as a teammate—began to build a basketball dynasty at Logan High School in 1961, coaching the ‘Cats to a 19-4 record in his first season. The following year Logan went 23-4 and was AAA state runner-ups. In 1964, Logan won its first state championship, finishing with a 25-1 record. The Wildcats’ early accomplishments (it would be safe to say) were largely in part to the closing of Aracoma High and students enrolling at LHS in 1962. Arguably, the best ever athlete at Logan High School, James Davidson, who was a member of the ’64 squad, was a result of segregation.
Fortunately, there are those of us who were a part of the overflowing crowds that once dominated the Logan Fieldhouse prior to Akers’ coaching retirement. Perhaps never again will Logan basketball be the same. After all, gone are the great traditional rivalries that included the likes of Williamson, Northfork, Mullens, and a few other schools that no longer even exist. Regardless, Wildcat basketball has continued to be highly admired across the state, and no doubt, will always be respected throughout West Virginia.
It’s just that things have changed. Akers, who compiled a record of 402 wins and just 116 losses in over 20 years’ service at Logan, is now closing in on 80 years of age. While time never stands still, his accomplishments will always remain—four state AAA championships; four state runner-ups; a final four; two elite eight finishes, and 11 sectional titles highlight a brilliant career at Logan High School. Akers, who was inducted into the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Logan High School Hall of Fame in 1994, continues today to serve the as a Logan County Commissioner, having previously spent 10 years as Logan assistant superintendent of schools.. In addition, he and his wife, Linda, have been active in several civic endeavors; the latest of which was the recent announcement of the $25,000 establishment of the Willie and Linda Akers Endowed Scholarship at WVU for qualified students in the Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.
So what became of the former coach that caused a sportswriter to be hanged in effigy? Well, grieve no more. Lilly went on to become the third winningest coach in West Virginia high school basketball with an overall record of 591 victories, which included eight state tournament appearances. The Oak Hill Red Devils mentor won two AAA championships (1984 and ’89) and his teams finished as runners-up twice. Lilly, like our own acclaimed former coach, has a basketball structure named for himself—the “Lilly Center” in Oak Hill. He ended 38 years of coaching by retiring following the 1989 title game.
And now you know the story—behind the legends.
BITS AND PIECES
Today is a great day for two special people: my assistant Lisa Ellison and my youngest brother Jimmy are celebrating birthdays, but there’s also an unusual connection between the two…..both of them were not only born at what was Man Appalachian Regional Hospital on the same day, but Lisa’s mother and my mother were roommates at the hospital…..I can honestly say, there are no two finer people than Jimmy and Lisa, and anybody who knows either will agree…..of course, so was my late mother (Ethel) and Lisa’s mom (Donna Lou), who resides at Switzer; both were coal camp mothers, who helped raise large families…..sad to hear about the passing of two kind people: Herschel Brown of Stratton Street, whose house also partially burned recently, and Ken Heckler, a great public servant, who will be missed…..though much has been written about Heckler, what most people do not know is that he was there for the opening and dedication of the current Verdunville post office when I was a “kid” in the ‘60’s…..Herschel, who was a friend and political supporter, used to telephone WVOW’s Trading Post often, and I got a kick out of the way he spoke to my daughter (Erin) who did the show at the time…..Herschel was a genuine person…..I wish to thank Sarah Ledford of Switzer who recently brought me some nice personally written poetry…..Sarah, who credits me entirely too much for certain things, is a fine individual and the mother of 1971 classmate, Tommy Browning…..2017 garden calendars are now ready to be picked up in the WVU Extension office located on the 2nd floor of the Logan Courthouse…..we haven’t even gotten to Christmas, and I’m already looking forward to spring…..I’m just curious, but with applications having been available until Dec. 16, I’m wondering if anybody applied to the State Preservation Office for grants for the Don Chafin House in Logan…..with eligible projects including the restoration of locations that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Chafin House being one of them, it only makes sense to me that monies should have been secured for the repair of the roof to the historic place….. speaking of the house that is owned by the Logan Woman’s Club of Logan, Shirley Baisden, who is president of the local club that has hardly any members, asked me if I was one of the “Porch Sitters” that threw rocks at her vehicle many years ago on Mud Fork…..for the record, none of the “Porch Sitters” ever threw rocks at vehicles; must have been some of them hoodlums on down the road…..Shirley said she returned to the location and fired a pistol into the air, which I believe…..more from Shirley and the Chafin House will be told at a later date…..DID YOU KNOW that former Mullens High School basketball coach Lewis D’Antoni, the father of NBA coach Mike D’Antoni and Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni, also was Logan County Commissioner Willie Akers’ high school coach?…..I’ve seen several studies that show how many millions of pain pills were shipped into different parts of the state over the years that started the drug epidemic we still have, but never one for Logan County—just curious…..QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “No man is a failure who has friends”—the angel, Clarence, in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”…..FINAL NOTE—Chief Judge Eric O’Briant will be swearing in all three Logan magistrates at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, as well as our assistants. In addition, all magistrate court personnel will be enjoying a Christmas luncheon at noon the same day. Many changes have occurred here in my 16 years of service, and it is always sad to see someone leave. So we welcome back Magistrate Steve Gray and his fine assistant Cindy Armstrong for the luncheon, and then we shall welcome in at 1:30 p.m. our new magistrate, Joe Mendez and his assistant, Tammy White, who is currently serving as Judge Doug Witten’s secretary. At any rate, we’re all just glad that Steve is doing well, after the battle with his aneurism. Both he and Cindy will be missed—as we “turn the page” in the dungeon of the courthouse—otherwise known as magistrate court.
Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.