Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

June 18, 2014

MARK MAYNARD: That first black glove

ASHLAND — Cincinnati Reds superscout Gene Bennett claims to be one of the first to cast his eyes upon Don Gullett and recognize the big league potential in that left arm.

That was when Gullett was an eighth-grader at Wurtland, whiffing college age players at a tryout camp in Ironton.

Walter Willis, a longtime area educator, may have him been the first to understand the potential that was inside this young boy.

It was Willis who saw when Gullett was in the first grade at Lynn Elementary that this little boy was going to be something extra special one day with the right encouragement.

“I said he’s big league material right now!” Willis recalled.

Not only did he recognize this young southpaw had talent but he also saw the need for a ball glove. So he gave him one, a mostly unused black glove that was made for a southpaw.

Gullett went from snagging grounders barehanded to learning how to use that glove.

Don Gullett hasn’t forgotten that gesture nearly 60 years later. He brought up the glove in an interview about being the honoree for this weekend’s 40th annual Elks Sports Day.

It meant more to Gullett than Walter Willis, who is now retired with wife Joanne in Long Beach, Miss., probably ever knew.

“He was just a natural,” Willis said. “He could do everything and he could do it perfectly.”

The glove was intended for Tom Willis, Walter’s son. However, Tom didn’t show much interest in sports or baseball and told his father he’d rather do other things.

“My brother would have been about Don’s age,” said Lynne Pavur, Walter’s daughter. “My brother never liked sports much.”

Walter was OK with that but he did have this glove that somebody needed. That’s when he ran across little Donnie Gullett.

The 6-year-old was already playing baseball and softball barehanded with boys twice his age on the school ground — and he was holding his own with them.

Willis asked a neighbor of Don’s if he would bring him to the Little League practices with him. The man agreed and Gullett came to the practices even though he was too young to be put on a roster.

“He learned everything,” Willis said. “A neighbor of his (Gullett’s) coached the team so he’d bring Don with him.”

Willis was the principal at Lynn Elementary at the time. It was one of many stops he made on the educational cycle, including when he coached at Greenup High School when Jesse Stuart was principal. Willis finished his 35-year educational career in the Fairview school system.

 Willis’ wife was also an educator, including several years in the Ashland school system as an elementary teacher at Oakview and Poage.

But no matter where he went, Walter Willis never stopped watching Gullett move on up the ranks. It was only a matter of time.

“I followed Don and his brother (Bill). They were both tremendous ballplayers,” Willis said. “I remember him playing football, baseball ... whatever he did he was good at it.”

Willis, who had a natural love of coaching himself, said he showed Don the fundamentals and he could almost immediately do it perfectly.

“Going back for a ball over the right shoulder, you drop your right foot back,” he said. “Don was already doing it. I’d never seen anything like him.”

Twelve years after being given that first black glove, that same Don Gullett who chased down grounders on the Lynn Elementary field was the No. 1 choice of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1969 June Amateur Draft.

Walter Willis wasn’t the least bit surprised.

He knew it all along.

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

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