Editor's note: This column first appeared in KyForward.com.
Uncle Donnie would have been “bustin’ his buttons” proud this past week watching his two grandsons play basketball for the Campbell County Camels in the 2019 Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys’ Sweet Sixteen. He’d love the fact that his alma mater’s team had “gone to state” and his daughter Tracey’s twins, Grant and Reid Jolly, were important cogs in its success. He would have been equally proud knowing that the boys’ older sister, Taylor, played for the Camels in the girls’ state tournament a few years back and now plays for Thomas More College.
I wrote about Donnie Flairty, my dad’s brother, in an earlier Kentucky by Heart column. Back in 1974, Uncle Donnie collapsed and later died of a brain aneurysm. He was installing a telephone in a customer’s home as an employee of Cincinnati Bell. In the article, I told of talking to him several days before the tragedy and apologizing for not following through on a commitment I had made to him. Thankfully, our little tif turned out “all good” before he passed, and I’ll be eternally joyful for reaching out to him. One never knows when a loved one may leave us; it behooves us to put aside pettiness and do what it takes to build harmony.
At my uncle’s death, he and his wife, Marlene, had two small children: a girl, Tracey, 3, and a boy, Darin, less than a year-old.
Here’s where the Camel caravan gets moving. Tracey grew up to marry Gary Jolly, a former Camel hoops player; Tracey had been a Camel cheerleader. (I’m not sure if they found each other on a sandy desert.)
Tracey and Gary would become the proud parents of Taylor, Grant, and Reid who, as mentioned, all became Camel hoopsters (Grant and Reid played football, also).
This brings me back to Uncle Donnie, the grandfather the three Jolly kids never met.
Young Donnie often visited my family in Claryville in his single days in the 1960s before he joined the US Army, one of six Flairty brothers to serve in the military. He served a two-year stint and was stationed in South Korea.
On his wintertime visits, you knew he would bring up the subject of the Campbell County Camels and how their hoops season was going or had gone. In those days, the teams were almost always respectable but seldom progressed very far in the post-season tournaments.
He was the eternal Camel optimist. My mother often remarked, grinning, about how Donnie liked to say, “Just wait until next year…Campbell County is really going to be good.”
He said that year after year, and Mom would grin, year after year.
I guess Uncle Donnie was, in part, right. He just had the timeline incorrect. In truth, it took nearly a half-century to see the state tournaments come for Campbell County High School basketball…and now it’s with a bit of regularity. Both the boys’ and girls’ teams have tasted that honor recently. They could well continue.
Last week, the Camels won their first two games in the state tournament. The first win broke John Hardin High School’s 35-game winning streak and the second win, against Walton-Verona, avenged an earlier loss during the season. But on Saturday night, we Camel faithful saw our hearts crushed as our valiant, never-quitting boys went down to defeat in a nail-biting semi-final squeaker, 42-40, to the eventual state champion, the Trinity Shamrocks.
Throughout the tournament week, I kept thinking about Uncle Donnie and how it would be if he were still alive and following the exploits of his Camels–especially seeing his grandsons Grant and Reid playing basketball before thousands of screaming fans in the basketball mecca of basketball, Rupp Arena.
Watching the two twins on the court, I sometimes noticed a faint resemblance to Donnie in their physical features and movements…and the twins’ competitive nature was right out of his playbook—or, may I say…pedigree?
After the tough loss and after the Jolly family had a little time to settle their emotions, I walked over to where they standing on the arena concourse and reintroduced myself, with the help of Tracey, to Grant and Reid. Being a couple hours distance away and with too few family reunions, it had been years since I had seen and talked with the two, and at that time they were young children.
I told them about the grandfather they never met—one who loved the Camels dearly. I told them about how proud Grandpa Donnie would have been about their accomplishments and how proud I was.
Within a few moments, I could see by the respectful way they conducted themselves in such difficult moments, as two gracious gentlemen, that Grandpa Donnie would be most proud of their character and the kind of young men they are becoming.
That would be a true cause for bustin’ buttons, and the Camel connection would make it even better.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”