The crack of the bat sent a tall popup skyward behind home plate. I was the catcher and staggered beneath that mile-high ball as it rushed earthward. I thrust my mitt up and made a lucky catch, the ball wedging itself between my mitt and my bare hand.
That catch wrapped up the city title in a game played at a major league park, an incredible field of dreams for a rag-tag bunch of 15-year-old boys in Ohio in the year 1954. But we were boys evolving into young men — under the guidance of our coach, Tom Evans, a World War II veteran and executive at a local steel company.
Tom was one of many role models I had in my life — a father, a big brother, a minister, several key coaches, and even actors such as Gary Cooper as Sgt. York and Audie Murphy playing himself as a World War II hero.
As I look back, I see that these male mentors kept me on a path toward a successful and productive life. This appears to be less so the case today, many boys lacking strong fathers and father-figures to help mold them into young men. The void is often filled with temptations and rotten role models leading boys astray — if not to jail.
My father liked hunting, fishing, and things mechanical — he ran a small motor-repair shop and had a Harley. None of those things appealed to me, my life being one of books and ballgames.
But Dad was always there — there at Crosley Field, home of the Reds, when we won the city title, and on through high school football and basketball games galore. The important words are “He was there.”
Tom Evans was a role model for the male volunteer who steps into a young boy’s life as his coach, his scout leader, Sunday School teacher, or advisor at school or elsewhere. He’s the one you looked up to, listened to, and who injected rules, regulations, and discipline into your life.
I realize that the world has moved on since the 1950s of my coming of age. Dusty ball fields replaced by digital devices. Apple pie by fast food, uppers and downers. Watching a game in person by play station and movies on demand.
But boys are still led, they follow examples and role models wherever they find them.
Tom Evans died a few weeks ago at age 91. My father went at age 90 years ago, and my basketball coach — a huge influence on my life — is also no longer with us. This is a clarion call for men to step up and replace such father figures in the lives of young boys who may be lost in life or soon will be if not helped.
Besides a few thousand Tom Evans, I’d also like to see a score or more of new Billy Grahams, other strong moral leaders, and more admirable political leaders. America and manhood are both very fragile at present. It’s time to fill the void.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida. He was born in Cincinnati and grew up near Coney Island. His cousins, the Varneys, had a farm just outside Wilmington where the family reunions were held.