DOBSON — One of this year’s Surry County Sports Hall of Fame inductees has been a Surry County fixture in baseball for more than half a century.
Roy Vernon has coached all ages from beginners in Little League up to college players headed for the majors.
The 69-year-old has been threatening to retire for a decade, but keeps coming back to the sport he loves.
Vernon is being inducted into the Ring of Honor, rather than the regular Hall of Fame.
Linda Davis, who chairs the Recreation Advisory Committee, said that usually when a coach is selected, it is because they have worked for a high school or college. Last year, the Hall inducted long-time basketball coach Robert Smith, who worked at North Surry and East Surry.
In this case, however, Vernon had a full-time job at R.J. Reynolds and helped in baseball in his spare time, often as an unpaid volunteer, noted Davis.
Therefore, he qualifies as a person who “has made a significant impact on sports in Surry County through contributions in the field of athletics,” as the Hall of Fame nominee sheet describes.
Mark Tucker, the athletic director at Surry Community College, has known Vernon since he volunteered with Vernon’s Babe Ruth team while in college more than two decades ago.
“You know how someone will talk about this sixth-grade teacher that had such an impact on their lives?” asked Tucker. “Roy is that person for me. … There’s been no major decision that I have ever made in my life since working with Roy that I haven’t consulted with him. That’s how much I value his friendship and wisdom.”
After “retiring” from coaching at SCC, Vernon was talked into coming back to coaching with Surry Central and has been part of the team since 2009.
Tucker said he’s glad that his friend is helping head coach Matt Scott at the high school, because it allows him to continue touching a lot of lives. “He’s done it in a very genuine way,” said Tucker, “and he’s very respected within the baseball world.”
For Vernon, an interest in baseball started at an early age. However, there was no Little League in this area back when he was at that age in the late 1950s.
The boy played pickup game with his friends whenever he could. He tried to get his hands on any book he could find about the sport. And once a week, he was able to see a game on a black-and-white TV. He watched intently to try to pick up tips and vocabulary.
He attended school at Dobson, which had grades 1-12 back then.
He wanted to be part of a school team, but Dobson didn’t have a middle-school team. Instead, he was fortunate enough to have the baseball coach show pity on him.
Charlie Graham, who would become a principal and later superintendent, told the eighth-grader that he could practice with the team and travel with the team even though he wasn’t old enough yet to play with his bigger teammates.
Vernon said that was the first coaching he ever received, and Coach Graham knew his baseball.
Unfortunately for Vernon, Graham got that administrative position after the young man’s freshman year. Since principals aren’t allowed to coach, Graham had to resign, and Vernon then had three different coaches in his last three seasons.
Those three seasons came at the new Surry Central High. The school opened in the fall of 1961, and Vernon graduated in 1964.
Fresh out of high school, the graduate wanted to stay close to the game and began volunteering with a youth team called the Salem Cardinals.
Wayne Edmonds was coaching that squad, said Vernon, and he shared a lot of knowledge with his young assistant. He said the most important thing that Wayne taught him was that learning to handle players is far more important than learning strategy in baseball.
After a two-year stint in the Army, Vernon came home and helped Edmonds again with the youth team. Then he moved up to the Pony League for a couple of years, working with kids ages 13-15.
He also got his sports fix by playing in an adult softball league into his mid-30s. He believed 1982 was his last year playing.
In 1983, Don Wilmoth called to say the Salem Cards needed a Little League coach. Vernon declined, saying he had a demanding job with R.J. Reynolds and couldn’t put in enough time. After Don Wilmoth hounded him for help, Vernon finally relented.
Over six seasons with the youth group, the Cards won their six-team division four times, won three division tournaments and twice won a league championship (18 teams from three divisions).
Because of his job, Vernon said he couldn’t have led the team without the help of three good assistants in Wayne Motsinger, Dickie Wilmoth and John Brame.
In 1989, his old friend Wayne Edmonds was coaching a Babe Ruth team, ages 16-18. He asked Vernon to help him out, and the younger man consented.
Then Edmonds had to transfer to Texas with his job, and Vernon took over the Babe Ruth team for a few years. It was during this time that he met Mark Tucker.
When Tucker graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne, Vernon suggested the young man take over as head coach with Vernon as his wise assistant.
Vernon said Tucker was only 23 or 24 when SCC decided to field a baseball team. He believed the young man could handle the job, but might need some help, so he signed on with Tucker at the college. He said he worked as assistant coach and hitting coach.
Edmonds transferred back to Surry County a few years later and joined the staff as pitching coach.
Long about this time, Vernon was approached from someone in the Cincinnati Reds organization about helping with scouting in this area.
He said he already was scouting high school boys for SCC, so it made sense to pass along some reports to the Reds for an extra paycheck. He has now helped the Reds’ scouting team for 20 years.
Around 2008 or so, Vernon said Tucker had his eye on his family more than his team. With two little girls at home, Mark wanted to take a step back from coaching to spend time with them.
Vernon was in his early 60s by then, and thought he’d retire himself. Local coaches wouldn’t let him.
Jamie Lowe was hired to replace Tucker. A highly successful coach at the high school level, Lowe said Vernon was a big help in showing him the ropes and making the transition to the college level smoother.
Lowe said he wanted Vernon to stay with him at the college, but by this time, Surry Central coach Matt Scott had already recruited Vernon to help the high school team.
While new to the area, Lowe said it didn’t take long to hear that Vernon was very well respected in baseball — and not just in Surry County, but in the surrounding area.
Back before he retired, Vernon was driving all the way to Winston-Salem and back every day, yet still finding time to work with the kids, noted Lowe. And more than one person has told Lowe a story about Vernon discreetly giving a boy a glove or bat when his family couldn’t afford them.
Vernon has been with Surry Central since 2009 and threatens to retire every year, but Scott talks him into staying. Along with assistants Seth Reese and Jason Hooker, the Golden Eagles have a cohesive unit where the JV and varsity practice together, learning one system and one way of doing things.
As a veteran, Vernon said he can help teach the boys in most any area.
“I’ve tried to help them be better players, but I hope my biggest accomplishment is helping them be better people,” he said. “There’s no way to measure something like that, but I hope I’ve influenced them to do better.”
A good coach has to learn how to read people, he said. Sometimes a boy needs a pat on the back, and sometimes he needs a kick in the rear.
Looking back over his coaching career, Vernon said one of his biggest thrills was the 1998 SCC team that went to the College World Series. That team was loaded with good talent like Chuck Martin, Trent Horton, Nathan Lingle, Jason Potter and Josh Cox.
In his time at SCC, Vernon coached eight All-Americans, including Casey Wilmoth, who was a Surry County native. The team also had four Academic All-Americans, and all four of them came from this county.
In his time as coach, Vernon has helped 18 players who would move on to the professional level.
As for making the Surry County Sports Hall of Fame, Vernon said he was really surprised and humbled by this because he has just been someone content to work in the background and never seek out attention.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692 and on Twitter @SportsDudeJeff.