Champions Center builds on generations of family history
Gene Sharp has baseball in his blood. You can tell by the way he holds the hard leather ball in his hand — a child’s baseball with raised seams, dirt decades old, and a tooth mark or two from the first of his many dogs, all of which he named Pal.
You can hear it in his voice, when he reminisces about years spent working with the Liberal Bee Jays semi-pro team. But his voice fills with more emotion when he talks about the family love that preceded Sharp’s support for baseball.
That deep-seated connection is demonstrated by a $1 million gift to kick off construction of the Sharp Champions Center at Seward County Community College, part of the college’s Capital Campaign, “Students First Community Always.” The Center, which includes indoor practice space for baseball, softball, tennis, and the Liberal Bee Jays semi-pro baseball team, serves as a lasting tribute to a family with deep roots in the region.
“It was really my father who got me interested in sports,” Gene said. A tobacco salesman, Olin A. Sharp would leave the house Monday morning, “and I wouldn’t see him again until Saturday when I woke up. I think maybe my mother, having put up with me by herself for the whole week, was glad to see my father take me out on weekends. “Dad took me to sporting events in Topeka, Kansas. Baseball games, football games, softball games, even a tennis match. That was the time I got to spend with him.”
In fact, Gene might not even have come to exist were it not for baseball, hard times, and the annual wheat harvest.
“My father grew up where there were a lot of rocks, on a hill in Arkansas near a little town called Prairie Grove,” he said. “He was very accurate throwing rocks. The story is that he kept the family in meat on his way back from school.” A well-aimed, carefully timed hard throw would kill a rabbit and fill the pot.
That skill held up on the field, where Olin took to the pitcher’s mound in the 1920s.
“As a senior in high school, his team played a preseason game with the University of Arkansas baseball team in Fayetteville,” Gene said. “He beat that ball club, and when he graduated from high school shortly after that, he came to the Floris, Okla., area to work harvest for an uncle of his, a man named Sidney Sharp.”
Floris was a “substantial little community,” Gene recalled. It had a church, a school, a Masonic Lodge, a bank, a filling station, a John Deere dealer, hardware store, blacksmith shop and three elevators. It also had a baseball team, and they persuaded Olin to pitch a game, “which he won.”
That summer, Olin became the regular pitcher for the Floris team. When it came time to leave because the farm work was all done, Sharp said, “the local people didn’t want to lose their pitcher.” They offered Olin a job to teach in the town’s one-room, eight-grade schoolhouse. When school was out, he played ball.
“It so happened that his catcher was my mother’s brother, and that’s how he met her and later married her,” Sharp said.
Gene was born in East Saint Louis, Ill., a detail that prompts him to observe, “I should be tough as nails.” His father sold tobacco for the R.J. Reynolds company, eventually ascending to a managerial position. But he lost his job after a long spell of illness, a case of life-threatening double pneumonia. The young family moved around a bit before the Sharps made their way back to the Oklahoma Panhandle and Liberal, Kansas. The area had already nurtured three generations of Sharps, and as many of the family of Gene’s future wife, Jo Ann.
“When we lived in Topeka, we lived in a neighborhood that was a long block from Gage Grade School, on 904 Warren Ave., and next to us was a vacant lot. It was the only one in the neighborhood. I was the only one in the neighborhood that had a baseball and bats and gloves, and we played ball in that vacant lot all summer long.
This is the baseball we used. When there wasn’t somebody to play with, I had a big German shepherd dog that I could hit the ball with, and he’d bring it back to me … that’s how these teeth marks got on here. All my dogs were named Pal. I had several Pals.
Jo Ann King’s grandparents were also homesteaders in the Oklahoma Panhandle who migrated north to build better lives and sought out the best education possible for their children with equal fervor.
“My grandfather King came here by horseback from down around Austin, Texas, where his parents had sold vegetables and supplies to the Confederate Army in the Civil War,” Jo Ann said. “On my mother’s side, we were farmers and business people, too.” On Liberal’s Kansas Avenue “Main Street,” a two-story building just north of the railroad crossing still bears the name “Matkin.”
Both Jo Ann’s parents graduated from Liberal High School. Her father earned a degree in chemistry from Southwestern College in Winfield, before returning west to work in the oil industry and establish a farm.
“I grew up on a farm eight miles south of Liberal,” Jo Ann said, noting that rural life did not prevent her parents from seeking out opportunities for their five children.
“My mother brought me to Liberal for private kindergarten before I attended grade school in Turpin. We came to Liberal to go to church, for twirling lessons, and for 4H.” Every summer after harvest, the Kings took a family trip, where they visited national parks and landmarks, and toured art museums and other cultural attractions. As the children grew, the family moved to town so that Jo Ann and her siblings could attend Liberal High School.
Gene, too, made his way from farm to town for educational purposes.
“My mother’s grandmother lived in Liberal, Kansas, about where the parking lot is now for the Sunflower Bank,” he said. In early days, the site currently occupied by Washington Elementary School housed Liberal’s first proper high school. By the time his mother got to high school, the community had begun to build a new high school — “the one that’s abandoned now,” Gene said, “and my mother was in the first graduating class from that school.”
Years later, Gene attended LHS, where he played left field.
“The baseball field was out on what we call Mahuron Park, about a half mile from the high school. I played left field generally and pitched batting practice because I could get the ball over the plate all the time,” he said.
One year behind him was the girl he’d eventually marry. Early on, he gave her a special nickname, Jody, “to keep the wolves away.” As the couple nears the 65-year anniversary mark, the nickname still finds use in everyday conversation.
“That same school is where our three children went to school, and the point I’m trying to make is that we have very deep roots right here,” Gene said. “We’re very interested in this community and have been, all of our lives.”
In high school, however, it was Jody that Gene was most interested in.
“He wanted to get married when I was in high school,” Jo Ann said. “But I promised my parents I would go to college. I told him, ‘I’m going to college. After that, If you’re still around and I’m still around and we’re both still interested, we might just do that.’”
Jo Ann went to Texas Women’s College in Denton for two years, while Gene worked his way toward law school.
“I wrote her or called her every day,” Gene said. Next stop was Oklahoma University, where Jo Ann earned a bachelors degree “in home economics education, like every woman!” she said. Gene finished law school at OU, and the couple married. Gene took a position as the Beaver County Attorney, and they moved back to their Panhandle roots. It was 1953, and the Korean War continued to pull America’s young men overseas. Gene had a commission in the United States Air Force, and six weeks into his new job he was called up to report to Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth, Texas.
The summons was so sudden, he didn’t even have a uniform. He and Jo Ann arrived in Texas three days later, where Gene reported for work in the morning and got two shots in one arm, three in the other; he was on the docket to try his first court martial case that afternoon.
“I could hardly get my arm up to salute the court,” he said.
Over the next three months, Gene tried nearly 90 cases. Then, he got a phone call from his commanding officer: the Korean War was over, and Gene could be released from his three-year service commitment.
But back at the draft board in Beaver County, the chairman disagreed.
“He said, ‘Three months?! That’s not long enough. If you come back, we’re probably going to send you back to the army,’” Gene said.
So Gene signed up to serve in the Air Force for “as long as they had use for me,” with the opportunity to request release after three years. His first posting was at the Air Command and Staff School in Montgomery, Ala.
Having tried more cases than the average student enrolled at the school, Gene found the assignments straightforward. The Officer’s Club was “out of this world,” Gene said. “The best drink in the house was probably 25 cents, and hamburgers were a dime.”
“We had a good time,” Jo Ann said. “But we lived in a one-room apartment not even as big as this room. The bed flew out of the wall, you couldn’t turn around in the bathroom. It was really an efficiency.”
The Cold War had increased tension on the base, where Gene was assigned to the Strategic Air Command at the Altus, Okla., Air Force Base. War planes with atomic bombs flew routes day and night, in case the worst came to pass. Unless he was on leave, he was expected to be on call and ready to report for duty within 15 minutes, day and night.
“This was before cell phones or pagers, so if I wanted to take my wife to a movie, I had to tell them the phone number of the theater so they could reach me. If I went grocery shopping, I had to tell them where I was going,” Gene said. “I took off my watch when I got out of the service, and I haven’t worn one since.”
When his service term wrapped up, Gene considered an Air Force career. But with one toddler, David, and a baby on the way — their daughter, Tammy — the Sharps wanted a good place to raise a family. They headed home to Liberal.
“I had an opportunity to go to work for what was then the largest law firm in Oklahoma City,” Gene said. “The man who was interviewing me was an alum from my fraternity, and in visiting with him, he told me ‘If I were you, I’d go hang out a shingle in your hometown and practice law.’”
Then, too, Gene said, “farming was in my blood. It still is. I had worked with Dad on the farm since I started driving tractor when I was 11.” Gene’s father was still operating 1,000 acres of dryland farmland.
“When I decided to go to law school, Dad sold his car dealership because he couldn’t do both. He was afraid I wasn’t going to come back,” Gene said. “Jody was always willing to go and do whatever I wanted to do. But we didn’t think the Air Force was a good place to raise a family.”
After moving back to Liberal, the Sharp family grew to five, with the birth of Rex. As they raised their three children, they watched the community expand and took part in helping it along. Their home in the north section of town was all by itself when they began construction of the angular, modern structure Jo Ann designed. In the early 1960s, nothing had been built north of what is now 15th Street.
“We were in a field out here,” she said. “But the town came along and grew up alongside us.”
Gene and Jo Ann did their part to encourage the community’s growth. Using the welding skills he picked up at age 14 from an uncle in Floris, Gene helped craft the original stoves used for International Pancake Day festivities in Liberal; the units are still functional and are put to good use every Shrove Tuesday.
Another lasting contribution was the start of Kids Inc., which grew out of the small-town desire to improve a losing football record.
“At that time, Liberal High School wasn’t very good. They lost more games than they won, but for some reason, they seemed to keep the same coach and the same type of offense and defense year after year,” Gene said. “It so happened at that time, there were three All-American football players living in Liberal, two from OU and one from Ohio State. They became so upset about the whole picture of athletics, and came to me to say, if it could be done, they wanted to start a club for kids, to teach them the fundamentals of football. So we started Kids Inc.”
That first year, Gene said, the group raised enough money in the community to buy 100 football uniforms for kids, helmets and shoulder pads and pants, shirts. The program grew until more volunteer coaches were needed.
“Liberal was beating everybody so bad that no one wanted to play us. And we ran newspaper ads, ‘We’ll play anybody anyplace, anytime,’” Gene said. “That was the beginning of a series of championships that LHS won in the years that followed.” Though neither of the Sharp boys played football, their parents said, that wasn’t the point. The community needed programs for children, just as it had needed a new high school when Gene’s grandmother was a teenager. It was part of a person’s civic duty to help good things develop.
For Jo Ann, the biggest success in Kids Inc. is not only its establishment and survival, but the way the program “took off,” adding multiple sports to benefit boys and girls of all ages.
“It’s branched out and has improved a lot of sports, and offered an opportunity to children in this community who might not be able to participate in something that charged a fee,” she said.
For 20 years, Gene served as lawyer for the Liberal Bee Jays, and the family also hosted players. Jo Ann said baseball was completely entwined with the summer experience in her household.
“Our boys learned to drive tractor and farm from Grandfather, because Gene was busy at the office,” she said. “They’d go to the donut shop for breakfast, and they’d work at the farm, come to town and have a hot dog and a Coke at the Bee Jays game.” All three kids went to every game, all summer long, she said, and Tammy would bake cookies for “their” Bee Jay to snack on after the games.
Jo Ann, too, served the community.
“One night, we had friends over and they wanted Gene to run for school board, and he said, ‘I don’t have the time,’ and I said, ‘but I’ll take the time.’ They kind of laughed and said, ‘We don’t have a woman on the board, why would we do that? You’ll never win.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll go file tomorrow, and we’ll see.’”
“She earned it,” said Gene. “She knocked on every door I think, in the whole town.” Jo Ann went on to win election, and served for 12 years on the USD 480 board, as the district built Redskin Field, the Vo-Tech, and eventually, lobbied to create a community college. She recalls multiple trips to Topeka with Al Shank Sr., and other community figures.
“We needed to be that 19th community college in Kansas, and create an opportunity for people who do not have a way to leave the area and go somewhere else to get any kind of education,” she said.
After a hiatus from public service, Jo Ann was asked to serve on the SCCC Board of Trustees, which she did for 24 years. She’s able to list significant achievements of the college for that time span: the construction of the cosmetology building, new dorms, the establishment of EduKan distance learning.
“The community has supported them but I know they can neither afford to really support another bond issue where we are, and I doubt like something like this for sports would really pass if we did float it,” she said. “But we believe it’s needed.”
The Sharps see institutional needs and community needs — but they also have a close-up, individual view of why the Champions Center matters.
“We’re sponsoring the Champion Center in part because, on more than one occasion I have been out to the college when I saw Galen McSpadden, right along with the rest of his team, scooping snow off the field so they could practice,” said Gene. “And I know from the little baseball I played in high school that in cold weather like that, a baseball can really sting, even if you’ve got a mitt on. They need some place inside for the pitchers to practice. Pitching on cold weather is hard on the arm, and I don’t want some kids that have some ability to pitch to ruin their arm out at the community college where they don’t have a place to practice.”
Liberal’s remote location can make it hard to recruit quality players, Gene said, and a modern, well-equipped facility will prove hard to resist when paired with a coach like McSpadden who “has something to offer them that I don’t think any other community college in this area has to offer. The same is true of tennis and softball. I think the Champions Center is going to facilitate a lot.”
Accommodating the Bee Jays is a win-win, he said.
“That organization has been something that put Liberal on the map. Even when you get up to Alaska, when we told people we were from Liberal, they associated Liberal with the Bee Jays. I don’t know if the public understands the number of kids who have played in the Bee Jays here and gone on to the majors — 65 of them,” said Gene.
Jo Ann is looking closer to home at the short- term payoff.
“I’m very hopeful those same kids who participate today in Kids Inc. sports, when we get this Champion Center up, will be able to go to some camps or work sessions with the Bee Jays and the college boys. I hope they’ll feel they can have a part of that.”
While the Sharps have given $1 million in cash funding to get the Champion Center started, they hope to see small gifts from people across the entire spectrum of Liberal’s population, making the project a true community effort. Jo Ann envisions children who take part in Kids Inc. or Parks & Recreation teams giving a dollar each, then seeing their names on display when the Champion Center opens.
“That would be wonderful,” she said.
Both Sharps know baseball has the power to change the trajectory of a person’s life — as their own story shows.
TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE SHARP CHAMPIONS CENTER PROJECT, contact the SCCC Office of Development, 620-417-1131, or contact Executive Director of Development Tammy Doll at email@example.com.