ANDERSON, Ind. —
Ken Strawn came all the way from Texas.
He stood in the lobby of The Anderson Center for the Arts, tall and humble and handsome. I had never met him before, but I recognized him from the photo that accompanied his profile in our coffee-table book, “Madison County’s 100 Greatest Athletes.”
That photo was about 50 years old, but the face was unmistakably the one grinning back at me.
“Have you seen Barrett?” I asked, feeling like I was talking to an old friend.
Ken shook his head.
No, he had not seen Barrett Bates, his basketball teammate at Anderson College in the 1960s and my coach when I played basketball at the school back in the 1980s. Ken had just come in on a flight from Texas and was staying with a relative in Connersville. He wouldn’t have much time in town.
We knew Ken was coming a long way for the event — a reception and book signing for athletes featured in our book. As a token of our appreciation for his long journey, we sat him next to Dodgers pitching great Carl Erskine at the book signing tables.
Whenever I glanced over at their table during the evening, it looked like Carl and Ken were becoming friends as they greeted autograph seekers. It’s hard to sit next to Carl for more than a few minutes and not feel wonderful about yourself.
An hour or two into the evening, I saw a familiar-looking gentleman walk into the lobby. Through the crowd, I could see that it was Coach Bates. He had recently had some health problems, but he looked great.
When I asked him how he was feeling, he looked surprised and responded by inquiring after my health. That’s Coach Bates, never one to draw attention to himself.
“Come with me, Coach,” I said, leading him through the crowd, back toward the book-signing tables. “There’s someone I want you to see.”
When he saw Ken Strawn, Coach Bates’ eyes lit up. They greeted each other as brothers and teammates. Together, they had led the Ravens to the quarterfinals of the national tournament in 1961.
I watched them for several minutes and then looked around the room. The same warmth and affability that shone on Ken and Barrett’s faces were reflected everywhere else.
Brothers Gene and Johnny Wilson, whose athletic exploits are the stuff of local legend, sat next to each other greeting fans with their customary easy manner.
Gene Yates, the great Anderson and Ohio State half-miler, joked with autograph seekers, his wit still sharp at about 90 years of age. Sitting by his side was Ashlee Davis, the nonpareil Highland tennis star, who exudes a quiet dignity that somehow tells you she has accomplished great things despite not yet reaching her 30th birthday.
About 20 other athletes attended, along with about 80 other folks. Everyone left as friends. It had been an extraordinary evening at a beautiful facility.
I’ll never forget it.
Editor Scott Underwood’s column appears Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 640-4845.