This Father’s Day I want to write about the men and boys who influence little boys and girls in ways that they may not know about but ways that last a lifetime.
My father, Bill Hayes, was a baseball player from Lawrence County, Kentucky and a fine all-around high school athlete. I still have some of his buttons and awards. After World War II he moved our family to Ashland, primarily because his father, a sharecropper from the Kentucky/West Virginia border, had moved there during the war. Dad worked for Ashland Oil and was still, when I was small, well remembered as an athlete and track man in that part of Kentucky.
The first player I ever remember him talking about and using the word “great” was Jim Host. Yes, that Jim Host, the tall, elegant media mogul who formed, nurtured, created and sold a sports media empire in Kentucky and looms large over those industries and a lot of benevolent work to this day.
My family was, in those days, unknown in Ashland. My grandfather had gone from being a sharecropper to janitor at old Putnam Junior High School on Kansas Street there. It was a step up for him. He worked hard and walked fast. They called him Speedy.
From time to time, I got to accompany him in that huge three story brick building, that is now Verity Middle School as he performed his rounds. I had been born profoundly club footed and at age 6 had only just learned how to walk. With big backwards-looking corrective shoes I stumped along looking pretty gawky. I felt even more gawky.
My father had talked about Jim Host, had gone to see him play for the Ashland Tomcats and believed he would be a major leaguer, for sure. He knew about those kinds of things. His uncle Charles Hayes pitched in the Cincinnati Reds organization before World War I. He was a great admirer of Host.
I was with my grandfather and he was emptying the trash out of the cans in the library of that big building. He was speaking to the librarian and it was, apparently, a day that school was out. A very tall blonde young man came into the room and addressed my grandfather by his nickname “Speedy.” He spoke to the librarian as “Miss Chandler” and then looked at me. I do not remember how he addressed me but I do remember being speechless. This was the guy my dad had talked to me about. The whole county was abuzz about him.
Then, as natural as could be, Host knelt down on the floor, reached out, took my hand in his and shook it. He ask me my name and I told him. He asked me what the deal was with the shoes and I told him. Then I asked him if he was going to be a major leaguer and he said he hoped so.
Almost immediately he turned it around and talked about me again. He told me not to be too impressed. He told me to forget the shoes, to practice hard and one day I would be an all-star. I remember being confused by that since as a recent graduate of the Crippled Children’s Ward down at old Kings Daughters Hospital it did not seem very likely. He saw my confusion, cuffed me on the shoulder and said that I should believe him. After all these years and this fabulous life I have been blessed to live, I realize that my possibilities began there in that library that day. The reason they began then and there was because, even as a college freshman, Jim Host knew how to talk to people. That was the first time anybody, outside my family ever told me anything like that and what it shows is that Jim Host and men like him know how and when to encourage people and are not afraid to do it.
A few years later I gained some recognition as a little leaguer and many years later went into the hall of fame of my high school. By then Host had hurt his arm playing for the White Sox. We followed him at our house. He had a fabulous career in business, was candidate for the highest offices and loomed large over UK basketball and other sports media.
Even after that day, as I became a bigger boy I remembered the way he treated me, the way he knelt down to speak to me so as not to tower over me. I still remember the positive things he said. But mostly I remember he was decent enough to take notice of a little crippled kid at a time when he, himself, was already tremendously important. This Father’s Day we should remember those men who, though not our fathers, gave us something of themselves and helped to form our better natures and lead us toward our greater dreams.
A great attorney from Lexington, Peter Perlman, played baseball with Host at UK and was kind enough to permit my wife and me to grace his table when he went into the UK Hall Of Fame last year. Host was scheduled to be there and I was really eager to meet him. Unhappily, he left as soon as the ceremony was finished for another appointment and I missed him. Perhaps someday I will get to tell him and thank him. Until then I carry in my heart the image of that big blonde fireballer kneeling on that tile floor to meet a little kid. When he stood up, he raised me up with him. Men who know how to treat people can do that.
Bill Hayes is an attorney, writer, former prosecutor and appeals judge. Hayes was raised at Ashand, Kentucky and has practiced law in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee for 30 years. He, his wife Charity and their two children live in Middlesboro, at the Cumberland Gap.