A fond farewell to Coach Jimmy
- Published: August 23, 2021
Summer after summer after summer, villagers have seen him out on the T-ball diamond at Gaunt Park every Friday night: baseball hat perched on his head, hair tied back in a ponytail, a big grin spreading across his face, surrounded by laughing, shouting kids.
On Friday, July 30, Jimmy Chesire was out there once again, leading village kids in a final game of Perry League T-ball before retiring after 35 years. More than 50 kids showed up for Chesire’s final game, and Mayor Pam Conine, having already honored him with a proclamation in 2019, honored him again with what she called the “first-ever Letter of Appreciation and Love.” At the customary end-of-season potluck/picnic, kids and adults ate together beneath a banner reading, “We Love You, Coach Jimmy,” reminiscing and bidding Chesire farewell.
The following Wednesday morning, wearing his Perry League baseball hat, Jimmy Chesire sat down at Young’s Dairy with this reporter — who had, she sheepishly admits, never previously spoken with him in person anywhere but the baseball diamond. This is not uncommon for a certain subset of villagers, who primarily know Chesire, if not from experience as a T-ball player or parent, then from his weekly summer write-ups of T-ball games in the YS News.
As a writer — not only for the YS News, but also as a novelist and former longtime writing professor at Wright State — Chesire said he’s made a lifetime effort of studying people.
“I’m interested in people, and how they become whatever they are,” said Chesire between bites, as both interviewer and interviewee spoke over cheeseburgers. “A lot of times people say, ‘Well, it was just an accident — I didn’t plan to do this.’”
Chesire paused, considering his next words.
“I was hoping for an ‘accident’ in my life — and I think that’s what T-ball was,” he said.
But life, of course, doesn’t always start where these happy accidents occur — and, in Chesire’s case, it was his early life that would, in many ways, shape his approach to both his writing and his love of T-ball.
From Boys Town to Cornell
Chesire grew up in a suburb of Omaha, Neb. — specifically, in Boys Town. Founded in 1917 by Catholic priest Father Edward Flanagan, Boys Town, located in a village in Douglas County of the same name, was originally an orphanage; an eponymous 1938 film about the school famously featured Spencer Tracy as Flanagan.
By the time Chesire entered the institution, Boys Town had expanded its purpose to become a “home for underprivileged and neglected boys,” as Chesire put it. The sprawling complex, which still operates today, included dormitories and an on-site school. Chesire succinctly summed up his early life at Boys Town:
“In many ways, it was really wonderful. In other ways, it was monstrous,” he said. “Corporal punishment was the rule in those days.”
After graduating from high school, Chesire was one of three Boys Town graduates to receive a full-ride scholarship to Cornell University. The scholarships, Chesire said, had been provided by a wealthy Texas oil magnate who had provided the scholarship fund after being persuaded to take a tour of Boys Town’s campus by its then-executive director, Monsignor Nicholas Wegner.
“He was a priest, but he was also a world-class fundraiser,” he said.
Chesire moved to Ithaca, N.Y., to begin his freshman year at Cornell in 1963. The transition to college brought him new freedom and perspective: he was exposed to ways of thinking not available to him during his Catholic education at Boys Town — and the legal drinking age in New York at that time was 18.
Nevertheless, his first year was difficult, he said. He struggled to maintain his grades during the fall semester, and he felt isolated from his fellow students.
“The education at Boys Town was a C-plus at best — I got through my first semester [at Cornell] by the skin of my teeth,” he said. “And I went from being an orphan to being around really privileged kids. I was really lonely, and it took me a long time to make friends and figure out how to relate to these people from different worlds.”
Eventually, though, he settled into life at Cornell — he joined a fraternity and began taking a creative writing class led by professor and author Dan McCall. It was McCall, Chesire said, who helped inspire his love of writing.
“I really liked the guy — really wanted to impress him,” Chesire said. “I started writing right away, and he liked what I was doing. He gave me all these books to read and told me what I needed to do to get better.”
“He had me reading Freud,” he added with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Who reads Freud?’”
Chesire said McCall continued to mentor him for years after he graduated. McCall went on to read early drafts of Chesire’s novel, “Home Boy,” and got it into the hands of his own literary agent. The book was published by New American Library, an imprint of Penguin, in 1989, and follows a young boy growing up in an orphanage — a setting with which Chesire was intimately familiar.
“I was angry for a long time about Boys Town — a really long, deep, deep anger,” Chesire said.
“But when I think about this part of my life, in many ways, it all happened because of Boys Town. I wouldn’t have been to Cornell, I wouldn’t have met [McCall]. I don’t know how things would have been.”
A thousand strikes
By the time “Home Boy” was published, Chesire had started a family and settled in Yellow Springs; he had been with his wife, Robin Suits, for more than a decade. When they first met, he was a master’s student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and both were attending a conference in Chicago.
“At the time, I was studying a type of psychology called transactional analysis, and part of [the theory] was the idea that everyone operates out of three ego states — Parent, Adult and Child,” he said. “At this conference, we had to introduce ourselves according to our ego states — I introduced myself: James, Jim, Jimmy.”
“I looked across the room, and there she was, with these really colorful socks,” he continued. “And she introduced herself: ‘Robin, Robin, Robin.’”
Later, at a wine and cheese mixer, Chesire said he approached Suits and told her he’d like to be her friend.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be friends — but you can sit down,’” he said. “So we began our wonderful romance.”
The two were married in 1977, and their daughter, Adrienne Chesire, was born the next year. The young family had been living in Dayton for several years when they decided to make the move to Yellow Springs. Suits put an ad in the YS News describing the family’s ideal home, and before too long, the three of them were installed on West South College Street.
“We liked the town for a lot of reasons — its beauty and its diversity,” Chesire said. “But we didn’t really know anybody, and there weren’t really any kids on our block.”
“Then,” he said, “somebody told us about T-ball.”
That summer of 1986, Chesire took Adrienne to her first Perry League game. Perry League was so-named in 1970 after Donald Perry, who founded the village’s first Little League after graduating from Bryan High School in the 1950s. Perry, who had long been dedicated to recreational sports for village youth, died in 1967 when he was in his 30s. So synonymous was Perry with youth sports — he “was the Little League,” former YSHS Principal John Malone told the Dayton Daily News after his death — that it adopted his name.
The name “Perry League” stuck with the village’s T-ball program after the Little League separated into the Major and Minor leagues. As the story goes, the first night Chesire and Adrienne showed up to play was also the night that the league’s then-organizer and coach, Harry Calvert, decided to step down.
“He said that if any of the adults wanted the program to continue, we should come out on the field with him,” Chesire said. “I was sitting next to the high school principal, so when he went out, I followed him.”
“That night, I took the equipment home,” he said.
He continued to take the equipment home for the rest of the season — and, eventually, every season for the next 35 years. But on the final night of T-ball that first summer in 1986, there were only a dozen or so kids on the field.
“I was pretty disappointed,” Chesire said. “But my wife did marketing and editing over at Wright State, and she said, ‘Why don’t you put something in the paper?’”
So Chesire sent in a short write-up about the program for the YS News’ long-standing page three column, “In and Around Yellow Springs.” He continued to do this for the next several years, growing the league — and the length of his narratives, describing the league’s approach as it developed under his leadership: a league “for all kids … regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity, spiritual inclination or practice, ability or disability,” where everybody gets a trophy and “a thousand strikes.”
Eventually, Chesire was asked by the News to officially contribute his work as a sports page columnist. After nearly 20 years of writing, Chesire collaborated with local photographer Irwin Inman, who had been capturing Perry League games on film for years, to put together a book of select photos and columns. The book was published in 2004 by villager Jane Baker’s Wild Goose Press. By that time, Chesire had developed a distinct narrative voice, describing kids at bat with generous onomatopoeia and patently unconventional adjectives.
“I remember once, I was writing about the way a little boy addressed the ball and swung his bat — I called it ‘delicious,’” Chesire said, laughing. “One of the previous editors [of the News] didn’t like that and cut out the word — I understood that, but to me, it fit the emotional dynamics of what I was trying to do.”
Those emotional dynamics, Chesire said, have always been at the heart of his approach to both T-ball and his writing about it. He’s long been lauded by parents for remembering hundreds of T-ball player’s names over the years — “People like seeing their name in the paper,” he said — but he said paying attention to each child’s personality was the crux of his work.
“I always tried to notice the kids as individuals — sometimes adults don’t remember that they had strong feelings when they were kids,” Chesire said. “I thought about my childhood a lot. When I was young, I was told, ‘Oh, you’re so sensitive, you shouldn’t be feeling so much.’ Not sure what I was supposed to do about that!”
Chesire said that although this view of children — as small people with distinct personalities and complex emotions — wasn’t generally modeled by adults in his own young life, it was reflected on the diamond every summer weekend at Perry League.
“I always had this idea about how children should be treated: with love and respect in an equal measure,” he said. “Growing up at Boys Town, that was considered crazy — I was considered off my rocker for expecting that.”
“But at T-ball,” he added, “[adults] had that same idea, that they really love their kids. They like their kids. They respect them. I was delighted by that.”
As Chesire’s time at the tee comes to an end, he said he’s not worried about folks stepping up to the proverbial plate to keep Perry League going. There have always been a wealth of volunteers, he remarked, and they’ve taken over for him once already — in early July of 2013, a fall at Ellis Pond resulted in a head injury that kept him hospitalized and then recovering for the rest of the summer. Volunteers stepped up to run the program and to keep writing for the News in his absence.
As he passes the torch — or, if this reporter might editorialize, torches, as it will probably take more than one person to fill the Coach-Jimmy-sized hole — Chesire said it’s only natural that the program change and grow under new leadership, just as it did under his own.
“I always took suggestions, but the way [Perry League] is now is part and parcel of the way I am,” he said. “My style and goals influenced the programming.”
“I sure learned a lot at T-ball.”