Three pioneering women broke the gender barrier for the Greater Napanee Sports Wall of Fame last Thursday as they were inducted alongside two other well-respected coaches and mentors.
More than 100 people filled the banquet hall at the Strathcona Paper Centre as Karen Mills, Al Whitfield and the late Andy McGarvey, Kay Myers, and Eleanor Ramshaw were the first inductees onto the wall in a decade, joining 22 notable fathers of sport within the community.
Emcee Robert Paul, a 2003 inductee, credited deputy-mayor Marg Isbester for her efforts to re-energize the program this year and noted he was thrilled to see the interest. He shared some history to set the framework for the ceremony about to unfold.
“It started in 1997 and the purpose of the organization that started it was to recognize people who have contributed to sport in our community whether they were good athletes, participants, coaches, managers, volunteers or builders. Over the years, people have raised the question about good athletes who have left our community. The people on this wall are recognized for what they did for sport here in our community,” he said.
Paul continued that the 11-person selection committee was pleased with the process and the candidates brought forward for recognition. He noted each person considered and inducted had “more than 30 years of experience promoting sport and participating in the community.”
In alphabetical order, here are some highlights from each 2017 induction…
McGarvey’s long-time friend Chuck Airhart introduced him. He spoke of how McGarvey helped Softball Napanee develop a sterling reputation across the country, having been an executive member for 29 years and a coach of several teams —guiding a pair of teams to provincial championships. That followed a playing career where he was a catcher on a provincial championship team in 1974.
The discussion quickly turned to hockey where McGarvey had success as a player, coach and — Airhart said — most importantly, a teacher. After playing as a high-level goaltender, McGarvey got into coaching with John Immerseel, working with goalies in 1984. Two years later, he took on head coaching duties with the Napanee juvenile team. Despite being a young coach himself working with a tough age group, he took them to back-to-back provincial championships. The second year, the team went undefeated in league, playoff, and tournament play and captured Napanee’s lone International Silver Stick championship.
After a year off, McGarvey was the first coach of the Junior C Raiders in 1989. Airhart shared a conversation he had with CKWS sports director Doug Jeffries, who’s father Lou was a stalwart at that level of hockey. Jeffries expressed doubt a team from eastern Ontario could win given the population base in the west. In 1992-1993 the team McGarvey built as general manager and assistant coach claimed the Schmalz Cup. Airhart recalled him making a pivotal decision in the final that paid dividends.
“I remember Andy convinced the executive to send the team to Kitchener the day before Game 5 so the team would have a much shorter commute to Hanover. The Raiders were successful in winning Game 5 in Hanover and they won Game 6 at home.”
He continue with a lengthy minor hockey coaching career, both with the Stars and Crunch, which included an OMHA novice championship in 1998. He’d also later return as the Raiders’ head coach.
Airhart added the longtime owner of AM Sports was an instrumental player on the committee that fundraised and advocated for the Strathcona Paper Centre and he also helped found the Richard Dickson and Terry Gray Sports Association of Greater Napanee.
“Andy would be both embarrassed and humbled tonight as he did not do these things for personal recognition, but a love for sports and his community. He’d be very excited to be joining all the great sport folks on the wall of fame, being admitted with Karen, Al, Kay, and Eleanor, but most importantly being there with his father, Chuck.”
McGarvey’s sons Craig and Cal spoke on his behalf. Craig agreed with Airhart’s feelings about why Andy did what he did.
“Chuck touched on the various organizations and committees within our community and each and every one of these meant something dear to him. He recognized our community’s potential and he took pride in our community. He was proud of our community’s long list of accomplishments, not limited to the accomplishments he was part of,” he said. “I think dad was motivated by the notion of giving back to the community he grew up in to hopefully help the sports organizations and committees he was involved in achieve bigger and better things along the way.”
Mills was introduced by her children Erin, Brent, and Scott. They noted she played basketball and volleyball at NDSS and softball in summers through university. Later, Mills wanted to stay involved in sport, so she had a hand in creating the ladies slo-pitch league, the mixed slo-pitch league, and the adult volleyball league, which now includes over 50 teams playing four nights a week.
She didn’t stop being involved after having children. She was a manager and executive with the L&A Guardsmen basketball program. She started a squirt girls team with Softball Napanee to give Erin a place to play and coached that team through until the girls were in post-secondary education. Along the way, they improved to the point where they won PWSA Junior Ladies Grand Championships in 2005 and 2006.
Mills’ involvement in Softball Napanee stretched into executive roles with the organization itself and with the Ontario Amateur Softball Association, where she has served as secretary, co-ordinator, and draw master. She continued after her own children were grown.
“She has become the driving force behind the organization. With players as young as 4 and as old as 20, she has worked to provide opportunities for hundreds to compete in sport. She was instrumental in bringing three major championship tournaments to Napanee and is relied upon by so many in the summer. I wouldn’t doubt if mom has put more time into softball than many people put into their careers,” Brent Mills said. “We’re really not sure how she managed to keep it all together. It never seemed she was overworked even though she was constantly working. She taught us what it really means to give back to our community and the organizations that made us who we are today.”
Accepting her nomination, Mills said she’s always had a love for sports from a very young age and fortunately, her mother encouraged her. She shared stories of how sports had helped her in life.
“As a kid and as a teenager I was a very shy person — not today, of course — but in sports, I found courage. For some reason, when it came to sports, I never let that shyness interfere with what I wanted to do or what I wanted done.”
Mills shared a story of when she was in Grade 7 and noticed there was no organized ball for girls. She called the town’s recreation director and convinced him to start a league. Just four years later, she worked up the courage at school to approach another student she had never talked to before. She’d seen him at the ball park and thought he’d be a good coach for her juvenile team. Later, they went on a date. Now Karen’s husband, Roger Mills has been her co-coach and supporter for many of the endeavours in sport.
“That’s my way of saying if you want something done, you have to get out and get involved,” she said.
As a parent, Mills said her involvement in sport benefited her family.
“Volunteering has always been a huge part of our lives, Roger’s and mine and now our three kids. Erin, Brent, and Scott have coached volleyball, basketball, soccer, hockey, and rugby. I look at them as adults and I know I needn’t worry that the time I spent involved in the organization of sports took too much time away from them.
They made many lifelong friends while travelling the province.”
Mills thanked some of her own mentors, like wall of fame members Richard Dickson and Robert Paul and those who worked alongside her over the years — people she said she respected greatly and had a lot of fun with. As for her own involvement, Mills said she has no plans to stop volunteering.
“I’m not ready to be done yet,” she said. “I love doing it. I love to organize, make schedules, plan tournaments, and see it through to the end. Schedules are my hobby, like deciphering a puzzle. I’m looking forward to being on the host committee for next year’s Under-19 Junior Men’s Fastball Championship. It’s not a chore, it’s a passion.”
Myers’ brother Leo Kent discussed his sister’s love for the game and passion in his introduction.
“My oldest sister Kathleen was very strong and willing to do any kind of sport to be done,” he said.
Kent talked about Myers’ love for basketball and baseball and shared stories about how she played in Belleville when her husband was in the Air Force during the Second World War. He remembered she could hit the ball a long distance. Women’s leagues became quite popular during the war and Myers actually was paid to play professionally for a time.
Following the war, bowling was one of her passions. Despite poor eyesight, she loved to play the five-pin game. Kent noted in the 1960s she was a key player in developing a junior league at the old bowling alley where the Lions Hall stands today. She was the president and treasurer of that league.
An avid hockey fan, she also became involved in house league hockey when there was a shortage of coaches in the 1960s.
“Kay was the first female hockey coach in the boys’ league. Often, she got excited coaching her team,” Kent said, adding it didn’t seem right to his sister that there was uneven playing time in a house league. She always gave equal time and defended her decisions to other coaches.
At one time, she became involved in the Special Olympics and told her brother that escorting a team to Winnipeg was “one of the most satisfying things she ever did.” Myers also was involved in Greater Napanee Golf and Country Club, where she became a life member in 2000.
Her son, Gary Coathup, accepted the nomination on her behalf. He said his mom, who passed away in March at age 95, was a “determined person who knew how to get what she wanted.”
Coathup shared how he thought she might have responded.
“Mom would acknowledge this was a great reward, but I can hear her saying it was nothing like the honour of getting to do what you love. She also said her greatest reward was the simple opportunity to help others have fun and achieve. This is what mother would have said: “It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.”
Ramshaw’s longtime friend Sally Lambert shared stories of her involvement with the Napanee and District Curling Club and the Napanee Figure Skating Club.
“It was suggested to make this short and sweet. Sweet is not a problem, but short, speaking about Eleanor Ramshaw and her commitment to community sports, skating, curling, and butter tarts? Not possible,” Lambert remarked.
Almost immediately when Ramshaw’s family transferred to the area in 1977, she took an active interest in the figure skating club where her daughters Sara, Heather, and Christine skated. Unlike parents who simply dropped their girls off for lessons, she got involved organizing the club’s annual year-end carnival and getting other mothers to help with costumes. For 13 years, she was actively involved with the organization’s also running the sound booth at the old York Street arena and operating a skating boutique.
Curling was her passion, however. She was part of Ontario zone winning rinks in 1979, 1983, and 2005 — the latter on the ice with two of her daughters. She extended that work to the operations of the club. She was involved in starting a junior member league in 1980, she organized a junior bonspiel in 1986 and coached the club’s elementary school curling team from 1992 to 1996. To minimize expenses, she refurbished trophies for participants. She also started a lunch for a men’s morning league to help with finances to host the 1992 elementary school provincial curling championship. She was made an honorary lifetime member at the club in 2007.
Lambert shared a letter from teacher Cathy Cuthill who saw Ramshaw encourage students at H.H. Langford in curling and other sports.
“Eleanor was committed to working with students providing academic, social, emotional and physical support. She was a strong advocate for not only individual students she worked with but all students,” Cuthill wrote. “She was first in line to offer assistance, enthusiasm, and encouragement… She made sure no student was excluded because of their ability or inability.”
Through her involvement in curling, Ramshaw also became adept at feeding athletes. In addition to many bonspiels and events, her crew provided homemade food for the 2008 Under-18 National Women’s Hockey Championship, the 2010 Ontario Tankard, and the 2012 Canadian Junior Curling Championships at the SPC. At the Tankard, Lambert said her committee used more than 300 loaves of bread.
She was also well known for cooking excellent butter tarts and supplying them to many organizations — in sports or not — in the community for fundraising activities.
Lambert summed up her nomination simply.
“She participated to her fullest, volunteered enthusiastically, was a wonderful friend, a great curler and an all-around terrific person. She was very humble.”
Ramshaw’s daughter Sara spoke on her behalf with her sisters by her side.
“We’re extremely honoured to accept this award on behalf of our late mother who continues to impress, inspire, and make us immensely proud even in death,” she said. “We actually think that her biggest contribution to local sport came from her tireless volunteer work behind the scenes at both the Napanee and District Curling Club and the Napanee Figure Skating Club.”
While she said there was much more to be said about her mother’s “selfless and persistent determination, her achievements, and her investment in both local curling and local figure skating for 35 years,” Sara Ramshaw offered thanks to the committee and a salutation to the other inductees. She underscored the milestone reached Thursday.
“We would like to congratulate the other inductees and celebrate the fact there are now, as of tonight, three women on the wall of fame.”
Rick Revelle, who coached Whitfield and later coached with him offered a moving tribute, painting him as a team-first competitor.
“Whether it was in hockey or softball, Al always looked after his teammates and players. They came first. He would serve time in the penalty box to protect a player. If a player in ball started to argue a call, Al pushed him aside to preserve his place on the ball field. Teammates and players alike trusted and respected him for his dedication to them.”
Whitfield played for Revelle’s 1976 Odessa A’s team that won a provincial championship. He played every position except pitcher and Revelle noted his friend never questioned his place in the lineup, he just grabbed his glove and went out on the field. That unselfishness set a tone for his younger teammates. He always put his all into the game, too.
“Whether it was on a frozen winter surface or a dusty summer playing field, Al Whitfield always came to compete as a player or a coach. He touched many lives with his competitiveness and desire,” Revelle said. “What he lacked in talent, he made up in tenacity and a constant drive to improve himself and everyone around him.”
That’s not to say Whitfield wasn’t a talented player. He played intermediate hockey in Tamworth and in Picton and playing in the old Ernestown District Hockey League, he helped his team to three league championships while being a top-three scorer three of the five years he played.
Coaching was where he really shined, however. Whitfield was a mentor in hockey, baseball and softball from age 23 to age 66. He coached ball teams to eight Ontario championships between 1976 and 1983. He also had a 10-year stint as the Queen’s Golden Gaels women’s softball coach.
“Al taught his players the little things in softball on offence — how to bunt, how to take second base from home after a walk, and how to slap hit. On defence, he showed his players how to defend against first and third situations with less than two outs, how to hit the cut-off man and most of all, he taught them how to think,” Revelle said.
Whitfield also extended his involvement in softball to time spent as a Level 2 umpire, an OASA executive member and convener. Revelle said it was a big part of his life.
“Al Whitfield is among the last breed of men and women who gave every day of their lives to give a place for young men and women to play softball. He taught them how to win and take losses as a learning experience. Most of all, he taught these players the importance of team play and what it means and felt like to win as a team. Al coached as he played — straight ahead, play hard, and shake hands at the end of the game,” he said. “He deserves to be there with all the other people that have made Napanee the small-town sports championship community of Canada.”
He also noted that Whitfield was able to pursue excellence in another sporting field, receiving his black belt in karate at age 51.
Whitfield was brief in his acceptance remarks.
“It’s nice to see everybody out tonight. I see a lot of players here who played with me and against me and they know how I really feel when it comes to softball. It’s in my heart, I love it, and that’s all there is to say about it,” he said. “I want to thank the wall of fame committee, Robert Paul and the rest of the inductees, especially Andy McGarvey. He was a good friend.”
Whitfield talked about other wall of famers like Chuck McGarvey, Bruce McPherson, and Jack Dale who always made sure there was sponsorship for teams to compete.
“It was a great feeling to have those people behind you. They were all really great,” he said.
Whitfield joked about how he always told co-workers at the SPC he’d keep an eye on them after he left — now, he said, they’ll notice his face regularly.
He concluded his speech by thanking the Napanee community, noting “It’s one hell of a place to live.”