BRICK BY BRICK

Tommy Hailey spent a quarter of a century building the Newton County Recreation Commission into one of the country’s most respected institutions, showing thousands just how far a little imagination could carry them.

by Nat Harwell

I have a chipped tooth. Right up front, top left. It stands as a permanent reminder of a routine ground ball hit to me as I played second base as a slow-footed 11-year-old on Robinson Field in my hometown of Greensboro. Today, Robinson Field serves as a parking lot for the Greensboro Police Department, but back in 1962, it was the only little league baseball field in town. As one might expect, the infield was basically dirt, peppered with rocks that stubbornly resisted any smoothing a mesh drag might attempt. Yes, it was a routine grounder. I never even had to move. At the last second, it ricocheted off one of those rocks, took a hop and struck me in the upper lip. There went the tooth—and the ball. The runner was safe on an E4. Such was the state of baseball fields in Greene County when I grew up there in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. 

Much has changed since. Today, the Greene County Recreation Department sports state-of-the-art fields and facilities. A great deal of the credit for that renaissance can be attributed to a man who built the Newton County Recreation Commission into what became, in the late 1990s and well into the 21st century, the apple of America’s eye. 

Along with his two brothers, Tommy Hailey was raised by his grandmother and stepmother after his mother died when he was just 5 years old. Tom Aiken, a fine retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Marines, took him under his wing and helped fashion him into a vessel of influence. There were others who shaped Hailey along the way, legendary Newton High School basketball coach Ron Bradley and former New York Yankees farmhand Billy Carl “B.C.” Crowell chief among them. Crowell ran an open gym in Porterdale. 

“He’d open the gym in the morning, tell us to have fun and behave ourselves and come back to lock it up in the evenings,” Hailey said. “We played every kind of game and had the best time kids could have back in that day.” 

Hailey, a 1971 graduate of Newton High School, played baseball—not basketball—under Bradley and was later instrumental in getting the Ronald M. Bradley Gymnasium at Turner Lake Park named for him. An exceptional multi-sport athlete, he went on to a stellar slow-pitch softball career, playing all across the nation before ultimately being enshrined in the United States Specialty Sports Association Hall of Fame. Hailey earned a degree from Gordon College in Barnesville, and in 1985, Truett McConnell University knocked on his door in its search for a coach who could recruit and build. Hailey built the baseball and soccer fields there in Cleveland and coached for years, but one fateful telephone call not only changed his life but made the world better for all slow-footed second basemen in Newton County. 

A Visionary Comes Home
An old Greek proverb reads as follows: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” Hailey is not yet an old man. He still moves with an easy grace and carriage that defines an athlete of any age. However, an incredible 30-plus years ago, the same B.C. Crowell who had run the open gym in Porterdale called and asked Hailey to come home. Newton County needed a world-class recreation commission, and Crowell knew he had the right man for the job. So it was that the Hailey legacy—the planting of those trees—began in Covington when he heeded Crowell’s call on July 3, 1989.

 “Well, wait a minute,” Hailey said assertively, “I could not have done anything without the support of the community and some outstanding individual leadership from some others. I had the full support of then-Covington City Manager Frank Turner and Covington Mayor Bill Dobbs. Mayor Dobbs came to me and said he had seen a Dixie Boys World Series and wanted Covington to host one. He gave me a green light to do what needed to be done; and along the way, we had outstanding support from the recreation board, which included men such as Al Cook, Luther Baker, Johnny Presley and Danny Stone. Other mayors with whom I worked, Allene Burton and Sam Ramsey, were also onboard, as were county commission chairmen Roy Varner, Aaron Varner and Davis Morgan.”

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

Greek proverb

From 1989 through 2013, Hailey labored at transforming Newton County into what became a shining beacon in the world of recreation across the United States. In fact, more Dixie Boys World Series have now been held at City Pond Park than at any other venue in the nation. Newton County hosted teams from across the Sun Belt in 1993, 1997, 2002, 2008 and 2012. Visitors were given first-class accommodations, fed as if they were royalty and hosted by families who made them feel at home. Recreation department directors from across the country came to see and learn from Hailey. He joined the board of directors for Dixie Boys Baseball back in 2004, and in 2012, he was named director of 14-year-old World Series tournaments for the Alabama-based organization. His contributions drew attention from far and wide, and in 2016, Hailey was enshrined in the Dixie Boys Baseball Hall of Fame.

Reflecting on the years of work it took to renovate City Pond Park and build the revolutionary Turner Lake Park complex, Hailey also pointed to the park that was built and named for Georgia state representative and friend Denny Dobbs. In addition, he was quick to affirm his appreciation for the efforts of former City of Covington public works directors Sam Walton, Steve Horton and Billy Bouchillon and local businessman Gary Moseley, along with those put forth by the aforementioned Morgan, former City of Covington Planning Director Randy Vinson and Tifton-based turf whisperer T. Mac Wilder— the three men responsible for planning and grading the softball fields and park at Turner Lake.

“If you’re going to host tournaments, which brought in literally millions of dollars to the county over the years, you can’t have rainouts,” Hailey said. “The work Davis, Randy and Mac put in with planning, drainage and grading was amazing.”

Hailey, 67, remains most grateful to those with whom he worked closest, including top lieutenants Dwayne Mask and Ricky Vaughn and Dixie Boys Baseball Commissioner Sandy Jones. 

“We had truly amazing, hard-working staff members throughout the years,” he said. “They really got it done, day after day, year after year.” 

With Holly—his wife of 48 years—at his side, Hailey has begun to settle into retirement, having hung up his spikes as Greene County recreation director after his decades of service to nearby Newton. Even as he continues to mourn the loss of his son, T.J., to a March 26, 2003 car accident that claimed his life at the age of 22, his 8-year-old daughter, Sophie, keeps him on his toes.

“After T.J.’s death, Sophie has been a wonderful blessing to us all,” Hailey said. “They both love music and sports. It’s amazing the characteristics, traits and, yes, even stubbornness that she inherited from T.J.”

Because of the tireless efforts of a man who planted trees in whose shade he will never sit, the generations to come in Greensboro, Covington and many of their surrounding areas will rarely have to worry about the kind of bad hop that took part of a slow-footed second baseman’s tooth into the abyss some 60 years ago. 

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