Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 9, 2012

MARK MAYNARD: It’s just now beginning

Mark Maynard
The Independent

ASHLAND — Putnam Stadium will always be Putnam Stadium to Greg Jackson no matter what changes come. He loves the place and defends it like he did as a player on the famed 1975 Ashland JAWS team.

Jackson chairs an 11-member Putnam Stadium Restoration committee that has a heart for all things maroon.

The news that the Ashland school board was approving $1.5 million for the renovation of the 75-year-old stadium was met with glee from Jackson and his committee.

But it’s only the beginning.

Five years ago, the committee was formed to look over Putnam Stadium and maybe give it a facelift. it has turned into a lot more when more and more safety concerns emerged from the stadium that has been here since 1937.

As a matter of fact, it was exactly a year ago today, that the stadium was dedicated before a game with Louisville Male. The Tomcats had already played once in their new house, a 20-0 victory over Ceredo Kenova in the first game ever played there.

Ashland was 2-0-1 before losing that first game ever in the stadium 6-0 to the Male Bulldogs. The Tomcats went on to have an odd 3-3-3 season.

But the tradition had started in a place that became known for great football.

The stadium has been home to some grand moments in Ashland and not all of them involved football. There were Fourth of July fireworks, revivals, high school graduations, a concert by the Judds and an autograph session by the Negro League baseball players, among other events.

It has been a good friend of the community, and even has a place on the state registry, but it is in decline on the inside, even though its beauty was still showing on the outside.

Jackson’s committee has met diligently over the past five years and developed a $5.4 million plan that would keep Putnam Stadium among the elite facilities in the state. Fundraising was difficult in these economic times but they stayed the course. Many doubters wondered if there would ever be any restoration.

“It’s been a slow process and the economy didn’t help in that process,” Jackson said. “But at the end of the day, it’s Putnam Stadium and there’s nothing like it. It’s one of the most unique stadiums anywhere in the state. Everywhere you go, people know the name Putnam Stadium.”

The first phase of the project will include taking out the aging concrete that is cracked and weathered. If you look underneath the stadium, it’s even worse. Signs of old age have taken over the stadium that has housed some of the best Friday nights in the area.

The restoration committee has three original members — Jackson, Blake Holbrook and Steve Conley.

“Steve’s right there with me through thick and thin and so is Blake,” Jackson said.

Donna Suttle, the only woman on the committee, has been Putnam Stadium’s biggest cheerleader since anyone can remember. She remains that way today, constantly keeping the stadium’s needs in front of the public. She organized the Putnam Stadium Home Tour this fall that was a huge success not only in fundraising but public perception.

Few are more involved with the stadium project than Suttle, whose late brother Doug Childers cared for the stadium grounds for three decades.

“That Home Tour she put together was a huge boost to us not just financially but getting people aware of the project,” Jackson said. “I love having Donna on the committee. She adds a lot of spark to what we’ve been trying to do. Nobody cares about Putnam Stadium anymore than she does.”

You can’t talk with Donna without Putnam Stadium coming up in the conversation. She makes sure of it.

Tomcat football coach Leon Hart isn’t on the committee but he comes to every meeting, Jackson said. “He never misses. I appreciate him so much.”

Tomcat Booster president David Payne is another active member. Superintendent Steve Gilmore is on the committee along with finance director Tim Walters. Others on the committee are Matt Anderson, Mark Swift, Mike Baldridge and Frank DeMartino.

Jackson said the fundraising isn’t over just because the first phase appears to be under way. They are still a long way toward reaching the goal of $5.4 million that it will take to complete the project, complete with all the frills.

“Things are coming together,” he said. “We’ve got brochures in place, all our social media and the timing is right. It took a while to get there, but I think we are there. This stadium has meant a lot to so many in this community. We’re going to keep asking for help.”

Ashland High School 1957 grad John Koskinen has been one of the cornerstone donors to the project despite living most of his life far away from Kentucky. He comes back for his high school reunion every year and has kept a keen interest in the stadium project almost from the beginning.

Koskinen played for the Tomcats when he was in high school, a senior on a team that included a sophomore named Herb Conley.

Most of the best memories from Putnam Stadium have come on Friday nights. The Tomcats have won state semifinal games in the stadium in 1967, 1972 and 1990. Those were some of the biggest crowds in stadium history.

“It’s an atmosphere you can’t find anywhere else,” Jackson said. “That was our task. How do you keep that same atmosphere? Well, I think we did. It’s not going to change. You’re still coming into the top and walking down (to your seat). It’ll be almost all enclosed once we get the banked end zone. The place is going to roar.”

Flag poles will be positioned around the stadium with state championship seasons denoted with one pole left empty for the next champion.

“When visiting teams walk out of the lockerroom, we want them to say, ‘Wow! Would you look at this place?’’’ Jackson said.

Ashland doesn’t have any home regular-season games remaining but can clinch at least one more home game with a win over Greenup County on Friday. The Tomcats will likely play for the district championship the following week at Johnson Central. A win would give Ashland the chance to play even more at home in the postseason.

But whenever that last home game is played, the stadium walls and bleachers are coming down.

Don’t be sad. It’s not the end of an era.

It’s maybe only the beginning.

“The key is the community,” Jackson said. “This is their Friday night lights.”

MARK MAYNARD can be reached at mmaynard@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2648.