The seventh annual Liberty County Hall of Fame induction ceremony was filled with honor, laughter and a capacity crowd celebrating five new inductees.
Inductees honored Thursday were Michael Sparks, Ernie Walthour Sr., Jerome Smith Sr., Jerome Standard and Will Pettis.
Hall member Allen Brown welcomed the crowd and Kenneth Howard offered the invocation. Guests dined while Liberty County Athletic Hall of Fame President Craig Stafford introduced former inductees and recognized Bradwell football coach Jeff Miller.
Miller spoke about the development of the BI’s "Cat Walk," where former student athletes have poster-sized pictures on a wall, recognizing their athletic and educational success at the college level.
Back by popular demand was last year’s guest speaker, comedian Wayne Ates. Ates had the crowd in stitches, combining life lessons with humor.
Sparks, who was introduced by radio personality Tommy Palmer, was a member of BI class of 1969. He played football for two years and made the Class A All-State football team in 1968 and 1969.
He also was a part of Bradwell’s run at the Class A state track title in 1969 and placed fifth in the state in the 220-yard run. He went on to become an educator at Southeast Bulloch High School in Brooklet, where he coached track and cross country.
Under Sparks’ guidance the girls won nine region track championships and the boys won a region championship. He led the Bulloch girls to a state championship in 2003 and they were state runners up in 1997. Sparks was named the girls’ region coach track of the year 10 times in his career.
He said he was shocked when Stafford called him about being inducted.
"The first thing I thought of was all the great athletes that have come through Liberty County," he said. "To be considered in that company is an awesome honor and a very humbling experience. That was very heartwarming because the people that were here and that I mentioned were very influential in my career..."
Linda Schumm introduced inductee, Ernie Walthour Sr.
He spent his earlier years as the BI football team manager under coach Clifford Johnson 1979-1985, when he graduated and went on to become the recreation assistant at Youth Services on Fort Stewart until 1996. He coached boys basketball at Youth Services, guiding teams to five straight championship titles. In 1993, Walthour founded the Coastal Crew Rebels AAU program, which has produced 42 college scholarship signings. Walthour became the sports director for the St. James Sports Center in 1996 and continues to work in that capacity.
Walthour was emotional and gave a special thanks to Johnson, Charles Shuman and Jimmy Martin. He recognized Jay Osteen for helping make St. James a viable and visible place for kids in the community.
"It was just the thrill of my life to be inducted into the Liberty County Hall of Fame," Walthour said. "This is the place that I love and plan to stay in for the future..."
Gary Gilliard introduced inductee the late Jerome ‘Dr. J’ Smith, a member of Liberty County’s High School class of 1959. He lettered in basketball three years and in baseball one season. He graduated from Savannah State University and returned to his alma-mater to coach girls basketball. Smith led the girls to four consecutive District II-A titles and runner-up in 1969-70. After eight years at Liberty, Smith coached the girls and boys basketball teams at BI. As the girls coach he took the team to state and coached current Lady Tiger coach Faye Baker at BI.
Smith’s two sons, Jerome ‘Nicky’ Smith Jr., and Shane Smith, accepted the award. Nicky Smith said he was honored and humbled.
"I think he would be extremely proud," Shane Smith said. "He is from Liberty County, this is his home and where he grew up and he knew just about everybody in the county. So this would have been a wonderful evening for him."
Durand Standard introduced his younger brother Jerome Standard, a lifelong resident of Liberty County. He began playing baseball and football at the Liberty County Recreation Department. At BI he lettered all four years in baseball. As a freshman Standard had a .600 batting average. He was named most valuable player his junior and senior years and carried a .450 batting average his junior year.
Standard was credited for many years by the late coach Albert Rogers as having hit the longest homerun in BI history, estimated at 450 feet. He played baseball on a scholarship at junior college powerhouse Middle Georgia and later played at Abraham Baldwin. After graduating, he coached Hinesville Middle School track and led the team to an undefeated season. He then began coaching baseball at Liberty High, where he was head coach six years. He coached nine years of boys golf at LCHS and started girls golf. He became the girls softball coach five years ago, improving their record from six wins per season to 13 and earning a berth to regional playoffs. He continues to coach boys and girls golf and softball at Liberty.
"I was stunned," he said of learning of his induction. "It was a heartfelt moment and it touched me deep in my soul."
The final inductee, Will Pettis, was in Texas and unable to attend. He graduated from BI in 1996. During his junior year the football player accumulated 43.5 tackles. He attended Middle Georgia Junior College and was named to the GJCAA Region 17 All-District team with 54 tackles. He also broke up three passes for a Middle Georgia defense that established a NJCAA record for fewest yards surrendered. He was a starting cornerback for the Houston Cougars as a junior. Pettis made his Arena Football League debut with the Dallas Desperados, earning All-Rookie and Second-Team All-Arena honors. Pettis is a four time member of the AFL’s All-Ironman team, a three time member of the All-Arena team and was the 2007 Ironman of the Year. In 2006, Pettis was named to the All-Arena team for the third time after he recorded 1,256 receiving yards and 26 touchdowns on 93 receptions. His totals for the season helped him to become the all-time leader in all franchise receiving categories and to surpass 9,000 career all-purpose yards.
Accepting the award for him were his parents, Delfina and William Pettis.
"I know what he would say," Delfina said after the ceremony. "He would say ‘Thanks be to God,’ because that is his priority. He puts God first. Then he would have thanked his father."