It was a huge crowd Monday at the St. James Sports Center, the size one normally could expect for a basketball game there.
But the setting was a somber reality check, as hundreds of mourn-
ers streamed in for a spontaneous candlelight vigil, held roughly 20 hours after a suspected crime took Ernie Walthour Sr.’s life.
News spread quickly Monday that Walthour — beloved center director, Coastal Crew Rebels’ founder and First Presbyterian Christian Academy boys’ basketball coach — had been shot and killed in what authorities believe was an attempted robbery early Monday outside a Lewis Frasier Road residence.
In a statement released Monday, FPCA administrators expressed stunned sadness.
“Ernie was not only a devoted and committed friend of FPCA for over 10 years, but for the entire Liberty County community. The good Ernie has done throughout the years for the children in this community cannot be measured. The FPCA family is in deep mourning and shock over the loss of Ernie Walthour. Our prayers and sympathy go out to his family his friends and the countless young people whose lives he has influenced throughout the years.”
Those sentiments were echoed by friends and colleagues on social media.
“Last night I went to sleep and my world was normal. I was awakened in the middle of the night to find my world was changed forever,” FPCA junior varsity and Rebels’ Elite coach David Linderman posted on his Facebook timeline.
Linderman, who has spent the past few years under Walthour’s guidance, admired his mentor, saying he was much like a father to him.
“I keep expecting him to call just like he’s done every other day,” Linderman posted. “The person responsible for this stole more than money from a kind-hearted man; they stole a life from his family and friends. I lost my mentor and my friend … He took me in, taught me to coach, but more importantly taught me about life and taught me to treat people right no matter what.”
Walthour was renowned for helping others, especially children in Liberty County. He worked as a recreation assistant at Youth Services on Fort Stewart before being hired by board member Jay Osteen as the St. James center director in 1998. Osteen said he hired Walthour to invigorate the center and encourage the children to become active in sports and church.
Walthour quickly formed a youth basketball team called the St. James Coastal Crew Rebels. Under the umbrella of the Amateur Athletic Association, the team traveled within Coastal Georgia and South Carolina to compete in tournaments. The program has grown by leaps and bounds. Last year, the Rebels received an invitation to a tournament in New York; this year, they went to Las Vegas.
For Walthour, however, it was about more than competition.
“I met Ernie years ago when I retired from the military in 2002,” Rebels Vice President Mike Brown said. “We’ve been everywhere playing basketball. But it never was just about basketball with Ernie. He was very concerned about every child that came into this gym. He touched the lives of every one of the kids that played for him. I’ve never seen anybody with more compassion for people than Ernie.”
With the success of the program came recognition, earning many of his players opportunities — college scholarships and higher education.
“Ernie and the Rebels organization helped put 67 kids in college,” Brown said. “And every one we put in college, we still hear from … And he didn’t care what time it was; you could always call him for advice. For 11 years, I saw him do things he didn’t have to do to help the kids.” “The truth is, we will never replace Ernie Walthour … there is no one else who could fill his shoes, and it would be an insult to even say that there is. He was not only a great basketball coach, he was also your greatest advocate,” Osteen said as he addressed the Rebels on Monday night. “He fought for you with your teachers. He fought for you whenever you made mistakes … and he was always willing to give you as many chances as it took … he loved you all.
“When that bullet came out of that gun last night, it not only took Ernie’s life. It took a good man from our presence, and it took a lot of opportunities that he wanted to offer you kids and others for years to come.”
In addition to forming the Rebels, Walthour helped Osteen develop the St. James after-school program which offered tutoring, mentorship, activities and meals for children in the Holmestown community.
Walthour also was instrumental in upgrading the gym, including a new floor and weight-training equipment.
A second basketball court was in development and a baseball field and soccer field were completed across the street.
“He was my friend … we started this program back in 1998 … and everything you see in here, from the new floor and gym to the sports fields across the streets, Ernie helped build,” Osteen said. “This reminds me that we are not in control of this life … there is a higher power ... we don’t always understand … this is something I am going to have to ask our Father when I get to heaven, because I don’t understand it. But Ernie would want every one of you all to move forward, be successful and play basketball and get a scholarship and make him proud. He will be up in heaven looking down at every one of you.”
Walthour in 2010 was inducted into the Liberty County Athletic Hall of Fame for his community accomplishments with the Rebels and Youth ChalleNGe Academy.
Linderman said he knew Walthour would do anything for him if needed.
“He was the best of all of us,” he said. “Our loss is heaven’s gain. I know that I am a better man for having him in my life the past 10 years. It didn’t matter if you only met him once, he considered you a friend … there are a lot of people lost today.”
As the stream of people flocked into the gym Monday, it was evident that Walthour touched the lives of many.
“Ernie was a light, a bright light in our lives … love needs to come into our hearts and into our minds … Ernie loved you,” Walthour’s friend Linda Schumm told the Rebels players, who were seated in the center of the gym. “He loved Liberty County, and he loved his family and mother and the community you see here today. I’ve known Ernie for over 20 years, and he was always shining.”
Players, coaches, family members and friends cried, laughed and shared stories about Walthour.
“This is devastating. Our community was really rocked today,” former Rebels player Dana King Jr. said, choking back tears. “It hit me real hard. This was a family man. He was a son, father, uncle, brother, coach, mentor. He was our friend and he loved everybody and everybody loved Ernie and I just can’t believe this.”
King stepped outside where another crowd was forming and the folks inside began to light candles.
“I knew Ernie for about seven years,” Rebels coach Reginalde Castille told the crowd. “He gave me my first coaching job … It wasn’t easy. The first two years, I went 0-15 two years in a row. I went up to him and said, ‘Coach, are you sure you have the right person for this job? Because obviously I am not the right one.’ And Ernie turned to me and said, ‘You are the right one because you show compassion to the kids. It’s not always about winning games. It’s how you teach these kids to be better, how you inspire kids and help them keep their grades up.’ “That is what we teach. We don’t teach winning and losing … We as coaches need to step up … We need to keep this going for these kids … We need to carry on Ernie’s work.”
Castille and Linderman plan to finish the Rebels’ AAU season, taking the teams to the Super Showcase and National Tournament at the end of the month. They said it would be what Walthour wanted.
The news of Walthour’s death shook people outside Liberty County as well.
Former Bradwell Institute and FPCA basketball coach David Jones said the news traveled to his home in Atlanta and hit him like a ton of bricks.
“When I got the call from David Linderman, I had only had about three hours sleep … And I couldn’t go back to sleep for the rest of the day … I was just walking around in disbelief,” Jones said. “We had a friendship that was different than most … He was loyal, and his word was good. If he told you he was going to do something, he would absolutely do it. Ernie truly cared for the kids … And what he did for the community … I don’t know if that void could ever be filled by someone else. I don’t know anybody in their right mind who could find anything negative to say about Ernie. We love him and he will truly be missed. The players that have played for him through the years … they know they can truly appreciate what he did for them.”
Liberty County Sheriff Steve Sikes said he has his entire staff investigating the crime.
“I lost a friend today, and it was certainly uncalled for,” Sikes said from his office Monday morning. “I think the community has lost a huge asset. He’s been such a blessing to many young men that have come through the St. James program … He is going to be missed.”
Sikes said he knew Walthour his entire life and watched him mature into a respectable, hardworking man who gave back to the community. In addition to coaching, Walthour owned and operated Liberty Bonding Company.
“I know that somebody out there knows something, and it takes each and every one of us to police ourselves,” Sikes said. “I really want somebody to come forward and give us some information. We don’t need someone capable of doing this running around our community.”
Anyone with information can call 876-4555 or report online at libertyso.com/anonymous-tip.