Hundreds of people made their way inside the St. James Sports Center on Saturday to pay tribute to the man who practically built the facility and dedicated his life to the children who went there for sports and after-school programs.
With the building filled to capacity, Ernie Walthour Sr.’s friends and family members laughed, cried and honored the community pillar who they said devoted his whole life helping others.
Walthour reportedly was shot to death during an attempted armed robbery early July 1 near Midway, according to Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes.
Walthour’s friend, Linda Schumm, said she knew Walthour always could be counted on in times of need.
“Just call my name, and I’ll be there,” she said, repeating the chorus of the Jackson 5’s classic song.
“And he would be … he was always there and giving to others. He loved the kids. He loved this community. He loved this place, and he loved his family and his mama,” Schumm said.
Walthour made a name for himself as the director of the St. James Sports Center, where he developed traveling basketball teams known as the Coastal Crew Rebels. He also started an after-school program at St. James, offering tutoring and mentoring for the children in the Holmestown community. Before he was hired at St. James, Walthour worked as a recreation assistant at youth services on Fort Stewart and launched a basketball program for the Youth ChalleNGe Academy. He owned an bail-bondsman company and, for the past two years, was the head boys’ basketball coach at First Presbyterian Christian Academy.
“I walk into this gym today and I look around and, you know, this gym is where it all started and for Ernie. It’s a fitting place for it to end,” Walthour’s longtime friend and business associate Jay Osteen said. Osteen was the one who hired Walthour at St. James because, he said, he knew that Walthour would do everything in his power to build a place for children. Osteen, who serves on FPCA’s board, said Walthour always lent a helping hand to the private school, offering full use of the facilities and helping to build the athletic programs at FPCA years before he was hired as the basketball coach.
“If you look around this gym, it is a testament in many ways to the life that Ernie lived,” Osteen said, pointing to the FPCA banners and photos of successful basketball players that line the gymnasium’s walls. “There wasn’t an administrator, board member or student at FPCA that didn’t love Ernie.”
Walthour was the sole organizer of the annual Summer Slam festival, which features local musical acts, a car and motorcycle show, family carnival and sporting venues. The event was to take place July 5-7, but Walthour’s death forced the cancellation of Summer Slam for the first time in its 22 years.
“You know, he did Summer Slam every year, and everyone thought that money all went to him, but all that money went to the Rebels so they could go to national. He used it for the kids,” said David Linderman, who met Walthour when he was young but really got to know his mentor during the past 10 years. He said Walthour was the glue who held everything together when it came to running the Rebels’ organization and working with youth.
“Every day of his life, he did everything for the kids,” Linderman said. “There is nothing he wouldn’t do for them. … A lot of people depended on him, and he was an excellent man. He would go out of his way to make sure everyone was happy. People often wondered, ‘What does he get out of all of this?’ but it was just in his heart to do it. He used to tell me that this is what God told him to do.”
Linderman said he is upset that a suspect has not been arrested.
“It’s sad. … We have questions that need to be answered. Why would anyone do this?” he asked. “Robbery is one thing, but to kill him is something totally different. He would have given them the money if they would have asked. They didn’t even have to have a gun … and for them to be walking around with their freedom … it’s just unfair.”
Mike Brown, another one of Walthour’s longtime friends, serves as the vice president of the Rebels’ organization. He vowed to continue the work Walthour started.
“We need to continue to help the kids who are coming up,” Brown said. “He was about helping the kids. We got former players in just about every state, and not only did they learn how to play basketball, they learned to live life the right way. That is what Ernie was most proud of. He was more proud of kids taking the right steps in life and making the right decisions in life … we don’t need to stop the things he was doing. We need to keep doing what Ernie started.”
“We are going to do our best to fill his shoes, even though we know we will never be able to,” Linderman added. “We will try and go forward. We have a lot of support in the community, and a lot of people who want to see what he started go on.”