Sports hall celebrates 10th birthday

The Georgia Sports Hall of Fame’s birthday was actually seven or eight days earlier, depending on what one considers the first official day.

Back on April 23, 1999, the hall welcomed inductees and sports fans for the very first time and inducted the class of 1999 in a ceremony in front of the building. A day later, the facility opened to the public.

So, about a week late, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame observed its 10th birthday Friday evening with the unveiling of two exhibits and the introduction of a research center.

Executive director Jackie Decell was happy and relieved to experience the birthday.

“It really is a milestone,” said Decell, who took over in 2002. “You really don’t realize how much you’ve done until you go back and start looking at the evidence of everything, of all the events, the people that have come and gone.

“It’s been a real poignant time for us.”

The Hall has battled funding cuts from state government as well as constant in-fighting within the Hall’s authority. The staff is about half the size of what opened the building, but the facility itself has remained in excellent condition despite use for meetings and weddings and other functions.

Naturally, e-mail problems in recent weeks hampered the staff’s attempts to attract more board and authority members, as well as hall inductees.

She talked recently with former curator Alan Robison and had noticed more old items while walking around the hall lately.

“I picked up a picture of Erk Russell,” she said of the legendary football coach at Georgia and Georgia Southern who died in September 2006. “Golly, I miss that man so much.”

The ceremony was part of downtown’s First Friday, and included a performance on the front lawn by Mark Brooker and the Soul Proprietors afterward.

The hall was able to honor one of those most responsible for its location in Macon with the opening of the Harley Bowers Archival Research Center.

The room is a trivia buff’s dream, with about 200 videotapes of interviews, games and movies, media guides galore, Major League baseball guides and registers dating back to the 1930s, scrapbooks of the Georgia Women’s Golf Association from the 1920s on, the first Sports Illustrated, Hall of Fame interview transcripts and drawers and boxes of scores of other material.

Bowers was the longtime sports editor and columnist of the Macon Telegraph who was atop the list of those involved in getting the Hall to be located in Macon and then built.

Bowers’ widow Joyce, son Jack and daughter Claire were on hand for the ceremony.

Telegraph columnist and former sportswriter Ed Grisamore worked for years with Bowers and spoke on behalf of his former boss and colleague.

“I’m so glad that we finally got to this day, which was long overdue,” Grisamore said. “He worked for years and years and years to get this Sports Hall of Fame built, for many more years than we’ll ever know. He was very passionate about getting it to here.”

Bowers died in December 2002, nearly three years after the building opened.

“If he was living, we never really needed anything like this,” Grisamore said of the research room. “If you wanted a question answered about anything to do with sports, you could just go to Harley.

“He was sorta like Google.”

The anniversary included two exhibits, one with an item from a member of each class that has been inducted since the building opened. It featured the cleats of former Atlanta Falcons great Jeff Van Note, the jersey and kicking shoe of ex-Georgia kicker Kevin Butler, the jersey and number of Seoul Olympian Antonio McKay, and the tennis racquet and shoes of Macon’s Jaime Kaplan.

The other display contained a timeline as well as photos from the groundbreaking of the hall building through Tour de Georgias and book signings,

The process began in 1956 with the establishment of the Georgia Prep Sports Hall of Fame, and the exhibit noted the 1994 approval by the state’s General Assembly to give $6.5 million to construct the 43,000-square foot building in Macon.

Since then, it has hosted a Georgia Speed Week, a summer meeting of the state’s college football coaches and players with the state’s media, and been part of the Tour de Georgia, to name but a few things.

“Really, 10 years in the life of a museum is not long,” Decell said. “But 10 years of constant use of the building is, and if you look around, you’ll see that it’s been well taken care of. We’re very proud.”