Decell set for her final day at Sports Hall of Fame

By the time Jackie Decell walks out of the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame today for the final time as its executive director, 92 days will have passed since she announced her retirement.

And like the preceding 40,000 days, things haven’t been smooth.

“We haven’t had peace in a long time,” she said. “You live on the edge all the time.”

And she’ll be worried about those who work at the Hall. Near the end of a 35-minute conversation, the emotions of 11 roller-coaster years were catching up with her.

“The hardest thing is I really have to stay away for awhile,” said Decell, who has four children, six step-children, 10 grandchildren and four step-grandchildren. “It’s been hitting me all week. I’ve been crying all week.”

Decell, a Wrightsville native, has been with the Hall since 1999, initially as director of operations after a career in Macon and Milledgeville in assorted downtown-development positions, including with NewTown Macon.

Decell spent her penultimate day on the edge of her office chair, awaiting word from Atlanta and the Legislature about the latest suspense regarding funding.

On Tuesday, the day of a farewell reception for Decell at the Hall, the state Senate restored most of the funding for the sports and music halls.

But the halls’ funding had to sweat through Wednesday as well as Thursday, scheduled to be the final day of this fiscally difficult legislative session and thus a final vote on the state budget.

Just before lunch Thursday, Decell had heard unofficially that the recommendation would be for about $312,000 in funding, compared to an expected total closer to $400,000.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do right now,” she said before calling Authority members with the latest. “It’s going to be struggle, struggle, struggle.”

And so Decell’s final days at the Hall have been much like her entire career there: awaiting some sort of financial ax.

“I guess when you’re in the middle of it and not looking in, you’re involved in it, you don’t know you’re in so much pain,” Decell said. “It hasn’t stopped long enough for me to know how it feels.”

Less than two years after the building opened, finances became an issue when a state audit noted that the sports and music halls had received about $900,000 each in state funding.

Decell has twice been the interim executive director, replacing Alice Knierim and John Shafer.

Every year since the building’s opening in late April of 1999, Decell and her predecessors have had fires to put out.

There have been yearly battles on financing. The Hall has never had the staff it was budgeted for, and that has been cut to less than half of the original plan.

There was a mild controversy on the racial makeup of Hall members and a lack of diversity and regular struggles with a faction of the Authority regarding the location of the induction ceremony as well as finances and funding.

A few years ago, murmurs became public about the possibility of moving both the sports and music halls from Macon, followed by the very real possibility of losing all state funding, years before the state mandated that halls become self-sufficient.

“It really has been hard,” Decell said. “There’s never been time to breathe.”

The Hall’s 18-member Authority has been fractured for years, with a clear dividing line of metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.

“All of the folks individually were great people to work with, but as a group, they just haven’t jelled,” she said. “I think part of it is because you joined an old board and a new authority.”

And the new blood and old blood regularly clashed.

Ben Sapp will take over as interim director. He has been with the Hall since June 2004 and is currently director of education and public information. The Hall has received inquiries about the full-time job, but its unsteady financial status has the interview process on hold.

Decell’s final major undertaking, the induction ceremony in late February, was a success, with a broad-based class covering races, sexes, sports and geography.

As if it were impossible for a smooth final few months, Decell has been hobbled. Right after the induction ceremony, she had to have reconstructive foot surgery because of an arthritic condition. One night, she arrived home to discover a pool of blood on the floor of her car. There was a blockage, and she was back in the hospital with a blood pressure of 60 over 30.

“I was in a mess, so to speak,” she said.

Decell returned from a doctor’s appointment Wednesday in a cast for three weeks.

Decell has only second-guessed the timing of her decision but also knows that there is no indication that the next year or two will be another smoother than the past year or two.

“I know I need to go on and do some other things I’ve been saying I was going to do one day,” she said. “And ‘one day’ is here. But I’m real sorry about the timing. That’s bothering me a lot.”

Decell will increase the time she spends with her family, and once she’s back to full health will resume working with the Hall on a volunteer basis.

Today, she’ll hobble around and try to pack up more than a decade of work at the Hall that covers a lifetime of memories.

“Ohhh, it will always be my baby,” she said, recalling her road from NewTown Macon to the Hall. “I was destined to be with this organization, one way or the other.”